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Livingston, Robert R. (1746–1813), politician in the United States of America, was born on 27 November 1746 in Manhattan, New York city, the eldest son of eleven children of , lawyer and political leader, and his wife, Margaret (1724–1800), daughter of Colonel Henry Beekman. Livingston graduated from King's College (later Columbia) in 1765 and then studied law with William Livingston and William Smith jun. In 1768 he began practising law in New York. In 1770 Livingston married Mary (1752–1814), the daughter of John Stevens, a wealthy New Jersey landowner, with whom he had two daughters. In 1775–6 the deaths of his father, grandfather, and father-in-law made him a great landowner in his own right, as he inherited Clermont, a 13,000 acre family seat in Dutchess county, in addition to nearly 1 million acres scattered throughout New Jersey and New York.

Although Livingston was the royally appointed recorder of the city of New York from 1773 until 1775, he was increasingly drawn into revolutionary politics, serving as Dutchess county's representative in New York's provincial congress and as a delegate to both the first and second continental congresses. A cautious revolutionary, Livingston sought to postpone congress's vote on independence in July 1776. Appointed to the committee charged with drafting a declaration of independence, he did not participate in its work and, having left congress to attend New York's state constitutional convention, he never signed the finished document.

Accepting the need for independence, Livingston worked at both the state and continental levels to minimize its destabilizing effects. He helped shape New York's first state constitution, which combined modest democratic reforms with checks on popular influence, including a council of revision composed of the governor, chancellor, and supreme court justices, who were collectively empowered to veto legislation. As the state's first chancellor, Livingston sat on the council of revision, where he opposed taxes and other measures that adversely affected the economic and political interests of the landed élite. Between 1779 and 1781 he also returned to the continental congress and was its secretary of foreign affairs from 1781 until 1783. Concluding that a stronger central government might secure American diplomatic interests and counteract the democracy of the states, Livingston was a forceful advocate for the federal constitution, using his impressive oratorical skills at the New York convention in 1788 to promote ratification.

Livingston's subsequent exclusion from federal patronage, his opposition to federalist fiscal policies, and early support for the French Revolution soon led him into the ranks of Thomas Jefferson's Republican Party. When Jefferson became president in 1801, Livingston shared the fruits of victory, turning down the post of navy secretary but accepting that of minister to France. In 1803 he was the chief negotiator of the Louisiana purchase, which doubled the size of the United States.

In 1804 Livingston returned to New York where, since at least 1793 when he was co-founder and president of the state Society for the Promotion of Agriculture, Manufactures, and Useful Arts, he had been an influential proponent of experimental farming and other practical scientific projects. His best-known endeavours were experimentation with Merino sheep culture—which led to the publication of an Essay on Sheep in 1809—and his partnership with Robert Fulton in the steamboat business. The partners, who began regular service between New York and Albany in 1807, held a monopoly on steamboating on the Hudson and Mississippi rivers. Challenges to their monopoly, however, resulted in expensive litigation that was resolved in the partners' favour less than one year before Livingston's death. He died on 25 February 1813 at Clermont, where on 28 February he was buried in the family vault.

A republican aristocrat with wide-ranging accomplishments and interests, Livingston shared the achievements and limitations of American élites during a crucial transitional era. Unwilling to accept either democracy or full-blown capitalism, they none the less launched and strengthened a republic that came to epitomize both.

Cynthia A. Kierner

Sources  

G. Dangerfield, Chancellor Robert R. Livingston of New York, 1746–1813 (1960) · C. A. Kierner, Traders and gentlefolk: the Livingstons of New York, 1675–1790 (1992) · A. F. Young, The democratic-republicans of New York: the origins, 1763–1797 (1967) · E. Countryman, A people in revolution: the American revolution and political society in New York, 1760–1790 (1981) · L. G. DePauw, The eleventh pillar: New York state and the federal convention (1966) · C. L. Becker, The history of political parties in the province of New York, 1760–1776 (1909) · S. B. Kim, Landlord and tenant in colonial New York: manorial society, 1664–1775 (1978) · D. M. Ellis, Landlords and farmers in the Hudson-Mohawk region, 1790–1850 (1946) · J. M. Banner, ‘Livingston, Robert R.’, ANB

Archives  

New York Historical Society, Clermont account book · New York Historical Society, MSS


Likenesses  

C. W. Peale, oils, 1783, Independence National Historical Park, Philadelphia · J. Wright, oils, 1790, Harvard U., law school · G. Stuart, oils, c.1794, Clermont State Historic Site, Germantown, New York