A Catskill Catalog: May 5, 2010
Trivia quiz. Category: American History.
1. When George Washington took the oath of office as our first president, who swore him in?
2. The 1776 Continental Congress in Philadelphia appointed a Committee of Five to draw up the Declaration of Independence. John Adams represented Massachusetts; Ben Franklin, Pennsylvania; Roger Sherman, Connecticut and Thomas Jefferson, Virginia. Who was the member representing the Province of New York?
3. Who was America’s first Secretary of Foreign Affairs, serving under the Articles of Confederation, the weak union that preceded our U.S. Constitution?
4. Who, along with first state governor George Clinton and third U.S. Vice President Aaron Burr, founded the Democratic-Republican Party in New York State, in opposition to Alexander Hamilton’s aristocrat-favoring Federalists?
5. Who negotiated the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, doubling the size of the U.S. in one diplomatic business deal?
If you answered Robert Livingston to each of these questions you would be correct on all five. And if you own a piece of land in the Catskills, or live on one, you are sitting on a piece of land that once belonged to Robert Livingston.
Robert Livingston has to be the least recognized, least well-known, least celebrated founder of America. And Robert Livingston was clearly a capital F - Founder of America, on par with Jefferson and Madison and Hamilton and Adams, and the others who created the beginning of this country, under the comforting and stabilizing shadow of George Washington.
Robert Livingston was Chancellor of New York from the state’s inception in 1777 until he left the job in 1801 to become President Thomas Jefferson’s Minister to Napoleon’s France. As chancellor, he held the highest judicial position in the state, a chief of judiciary co-equal with the chief of the state’s executive branch, the governor. It was as chancellor that he swore in President Washington, in 1789, in New York’s Federal Hall.
Chancellor Livingston is big time. And he is ours.
Born November 27, 1746 at the family estate on the Hudson River, Robert Livingston was fourth in a line of Robert Livingstons that started with the 1674 arrival, in New York Harbor from Scotland, of his great-grandfather, Robert Livingston the founder. This Robert made a special bequest, in 1728, to his second son and namesake: 13,000 acres of east-bank-of-the-Hudson land just south of the hereditary manor which passed, by law and custom, to his older son Phillip.
Second son Robert called his estate Clermont. In 1740, Robert of Clermont explored the Catskills with his son, another Robert. He soon owned most all of it. Robert of Clermont bought the Hardenbergh Patent in 1742. He now owned the Catskills.
His son, Robert “the Judge” is so-called because he was New York’s highest-ranking colonial jurist. The judge married Margaret Beekman of Rhinebeck, who brought into their marriage something like 150,000 additional acres.
The chancellor was their eldest son. Like his father, Robert Livingston studied law, attending King’s College in Manhattan, the oldest college, today, in New York State, now Columbia University. He made a proper marriage in 1770, marrying Mary Stevens, the daughter of John Stevens of New Jersey, an associate of his politically-active father.
Young Robert built his wife a proper estate, a manse called Belvedere, not far from his father’s Clermont. In 1775, both his father and grandfather died. Two years later, Livingston, having committed early to the revolution, saw his Belvedere, his mother’s Clermont, and the city of Kingston all burned by the British.
Perhaps, that experience was what made the chancellor such a seemingly empathetic and nice guy. He gave his burned-out neighbors from Kingston any 5,000 unsettled Catskill Mountain acres of their choice. A ride over Margaretville Mountain demonstrates why they chose New Kingston.
Or maybe he was influenced by the experience of being arrested, at the age of 12, for stealing a loaf of bread. His hard-lessons father would have let him sweat that one out alone. Maybe that kept him a little humble.
Robert Livingston’s politics were invariably in the interests of the little guy. He risked his considerable wealth in the cause of independence. He was a leading advocate for the Constitution, and led the fight for New York’s ratification of the document. He stood for religious freedom for all faiths when Governor John Jay and the Federalists imposed a religious test for New York State officeholders.
He was the richest guy in the state, but helped found the political party that opposed Federalist emphasis on government by the rich and well born. His wealth was based on extensive land-holdings, yet he engineered the Louisiana Purchase; which immediately inflated the amount of available land, inevitably leading to a decrease in the value of his.
Chancellor Robert Livingston died on February 26, 1813 in Tivoli on the Hudson. He was 66 years old. For the last dozen years of his life, the chancellor had been the chief financial patron of Robert Fulton, whose 1807 Hudson River steamboat, Clermont, ushered in the next big thing: the 19th-century age of steam.