Sorting out the Livingston family to find the Robert who ruled the Clermont estate at the time of the American Revolution is like sorting out the pieces of a puzzle. It is a puzzle that confused generations of historians due to the frequency with which the name Robert was chosen for Livingston sons. Four different Robert Livingstons owned Clermont, between 1728 and 1843. Two other Roberts were the 1st and 3rd lords of Livingston Manor.
The first Robert Livingston, the founder of the Livingston family in America, arrived in Albany during the winter of 1673/74. It was to this gentleman, the son of a Scots minister, that the King of England gave a grant of 160,000 acres in 1686 that was known as Livingston Manor. This landholding stretched for 9 1/2 miles along the east shore of the Hudson River and extended inland to the ill-defined boundary with Massachusetts. Although Robert Livingston built his Manor House around 1699 on the mouth of the Roeloff Jansens Kill, where it flows into the Hudson, growth on the Manor came slowly. The settlement of 2,000 German Palatine refugees on land sold to the British Crown by Robert Livingston, in 1710, was a boon to settlement on the Manor. Although an attempt to establish a naval stores industry on this land – now Germantown – failed, many Palatine families took up leases to farm on Livingston’s land.
The First Lord of Livingston Manor and his wife, Alida Schuyler Van Renneselaer Livingston, had six children. When the Manor proprietor died in 1728 his eldest surviving son, Philip, inherited most of the Manor and the title “Lord of the Manor”. A younger son, Robert Livingston (1688-1775), inherited 13,000 acres south of Roeloff Jansens Kill that became the Clermont estate. Despite a family tradition that Robert was awarded this land for saving his father from a conspiracy of Indians (some say slaves), recent scholarship has shown that the First Lord planned to award this son the Clermont lands soon after the child’s birth.
This second Robert Livingston, known today as Robert of Clermont, built his fine stone and brick Georgian house about 1730. It was an imposing residence, but it was never a “Manor House”, nor was Clermont a manor, although the estate was often called the “Lower Manor” during the 18th century. Robert of Clermont and his descendants could never call themselves “Lords of the Manor” as could Robert’s brother Philip and, later, his eldest son.
The house built by Robert of Clermont was not always called “Clermont”. Family tradition holds that Robert wanted to call his new estate “Callendar”, harkening back to the family’s noble roots in Scotland, but that his brother, the Second Lord of the Manor, thought that too grandiose a name for a younger son.
It is known, from the accounts of a Maryland traveller named Alexander Hamilton, that the house was called “Ancram” as late as the 1740s. Sometime soon after Hamilton’s visit to the Hudson Valley, Robert renamed his house and estate “Clare Mount”. The name, meaning clear mountain, evokes the majestic Catskills that rise across the river from the front door of the house. It is probably no coincidence that Robert renamed his estate at a time when he was speculating heavily in Catskill Mountain land – he would eventually own nearly 500,000 acres! It is interesting to note that the Livingstons spelled the name of their estate in the English Manor until their house and farm buildings were put to the torch by the King’s troops in October 1777. By the 1780s Chancellor Robert R. Livingston was spelling the name “Clermont” in letters written from the estate.
Robert of Clermont lived to the ripe old age of 87. An ardent defender of colonists’ rights, it is said that he became so agitated by the news of the battles of Lexington and Concord that he suffered a fatal heart attack. Upon his death the “Lower Manor” became the property of his only child: another Robert Livingston. Robert R. Livingston (1718-1775), or Judge Livingston as he was known in Provincial New York, shared his father’s concerns about Colonial rights. As a member of the Stamp Act Congress he is said to have written the letter of protest sent to King George. He was cool toward the idea of Independence, however, as might be expected from one of New York’s largest landholders. Judge Livingston had married, in 1742, Margaret Beekman of Rhinebeck, the sole heir to vast landholdings in Dutchess and Ulster counties. This land would later be inherited by Judge and Margaret Beekman Livingston’s children. Eleven children were born of that union: ten survived to adulthood.
Robert the Judge died several months after his father in 1775, leaving his wife Margaret and their children to face the trials of the Revolution. Most dramatic was the burning of Clermont and its outbuildings on October 19, 1777 by British troops under the command of General John Vaughan. Aware in advance of the enemy’s approach, Margaret Beekman Livingston had hidden the silver and other valuables in her garden fountain. Other possessions were loaded aboard carts, and it was not until the servants warned that the British had been sighted that Mrs. Livingston, her daughters, and servants fled. Vaughan’s troops proceeded to burn the mansion, barns, and some mills nearby – one in particular that was producing black powder for the muskets of the rebel army.
The British retreated back to New York City soon after burning Clermont, aware by now of General John Burgoyne’s defeat at Saratoga. Margaret Livingston returned a few weeks later from Salisbury, Connecticut, where she fled for safety. The destruction to her home had been great: only the foundation and exterior walls remained. Nevertheless, she energetically went about the task of rebuilding Clermont, upon the original foundation and on the same Georgian plan. In order to get workmen she successfully petitioned Governor George Clinton to exempt skilled tenants – masons, carpenters, plasterers, etc.. – from military service. By 1782 she was able to entertain General and Martha Washington in her new home. It is this structure, considerably enlarged in 1801, 1831, 1874, and 1893, that we can enjoy today at Clermont State Historic Site.
Although Margaret Beekman Livingston had the burden of rebuilding Clermont during the Revolution, ownership of the estate had actually passed to her eldest son after the death of Judge Livingston. His name – you guessed it – was also Robert. Robert R. Livingston, Jr.. born in 1746, is the Town of Clermont’s most famous native son, and he was one of the most accomplished Americans of his generation. To distinguish him from the many other Robert Livingstons, he was called by his contemporaries Chancellor Livingston – Chancellor was a judicial title he was awarded after the new state Constitution was adopted in 1777.
Chancellor Livingston, like his father, was trained in the law. A early law partner was his friend and fellow Kings College (Columbia University) graduate John Jay. After the outbreak of the Revolution, Livingston was elected to serve in the Second Continental Congress. He was one of the five members of the committee chosen by Congress to draft the Declaration of Independence. Later, the Chancellor served as the first Minister of Foreign Affairs, the office that preceded the creation of the office of Secretary of State. In 1788 Livingston was a key member of the Poughkeepsie Constitutional Convention and after the Constitution was adopted he, as Chancellor of New York State, gave the oath of office to George Washington as first President of the United States at Federal Hall in New York City.
When the British burned the mansion at Clermont in 1777 they had also destroyed a small frame farmhouse that had been the country home of Chancellor Livingston and his wife before the war. In 1793 Livingston built a new grand neo-classical mansion, decidedly French in style, about a quarter mile south of his mother’s house, “Old Clermont”. To the everlasting confusion of historians, he named this house “Clermont” also (It was later known as Idele and Arryl House; it was destroyed by a grass fire in 1909 and its ruins are visible just south of the parking lot at Clermont State Historic Site). In this house Livingston held his Court of Chancery and directed operations of his own experimental farm where he raised exotic fruit trees and vegetables and experimented with the use of lime as fertilizer. The Clermont farm later raised one of America’s first herds of Merino sheep, and his spring sheep shearings gained national attention.
Chancellor Livingston also oversaw activity on his tenant farms from his riverside mansion, with the aide of his physician and business manager Dr. William Wilson. In the 1790s Chancellor Livingston had about 100 tenant farmers living on his estate. Many of them were descendants of the Palatines who had come to New York in 1710. The Chancellor was a generous – or inept – landlord, compared to some of New York’s large landholders, including some of his Manor cousins: surviving rent rolls show that tenants were often years in arrears in paying their rent, portions of which were occasionally forgiven. Nonetheless, the tenant farms themselves appear to have been generally well run. An English visitor, William Strickland, wrote in 1796 that the average farm was of about 60 acres. 15 acres were reserved for wheat, 40 acres were planted for silage, and the remainder were used to grow maize, flax, or oats. For stock the tenant farmer had, according to Strickland, 9 horses, 4 cows, 3 oxen, 5 heifers, 3 calves, and 20 sheep. Commenting on one of the Chancellor’s tenant farms he wrote: “[It] is occupied by an industrious family of German descent, as I believe are most of Mr. Livingston’s farms … I have yet seen nothing to equal it in America.”
Chancellor Livingston broke with George Washington and the Federalist Party several years after giving the oath of office to the President. In 1801, with the ascendancy of Thomas Jefferson to the Presidency, Livingston’s national political career was revived. He was appointed United States Minister to France. His most important accomplishment was the negotiation of the Louisiana Purchase. Because James Monroe, who outranked the Chancellor, arrived in Paris just before the deal was signed, Livingston has never received the credit due him. A more satisfying result of Livingston’s tour of duty in France was his partnership with Robert Fulton.
The Chancellor had long been fascinated with the possibilities of steam navigation, and had even built experimental steamboats in nearby Tivoli in the 1790s. He lacked the mechanical genius to make his dream a reality – Fulton supplied that genius. The Chancellor assisted his partner by supplying necessary funds and by pushing through the New York Legislature a bill that granted the Livingston-Fulton partnership a monopoly on steam navigation in State waters. Having observed the success of one of their prototypes on the Seine, Livingston left France for America in 1804. Fulton joined him two years later. On August 17,1807 their invention made her maiden voyage from New York to Albany in 30 hours. The graceful Hudson River sloops of the period could take days to cover the same distance. This event marked a major milestone in American history. The vessel, incidentally, was called simply the “Steam-boat” by Fulton. During its second year on the river it was rechristened the “North River”. Not until many years after the boat was broken up for scrap did anyone call it the “Clermont”.
Chancellor Livingston died at his Clermont home on February 26, 1813 surrounded by his family, household slaves, and his attending physician, William Wilson. Upon his death the estate was broken up for the first time. The 1792 mansion, and several hundred acres of land in Columbia and Dutchess counties, was inherited by Livingston’s younger daughter, Margaret Maria, and her husband Robert L. Livingston. “Old Clermont” and most of the Chancellor’s landholdings in the Town of Clermont were inherited by his elder daughter, Elizabeth Stevens. She, too, had married a Manor cousin, Edward Philip Livingston. Edward P. Livingston was the master of Old Clermont from 1800, when Margaret Beekman Livingston died, until his death in 1843. He was Lt. Governor of New York State, a member of the Board of Regents, and a benefactor of the Clermont Academy. After his death his son, Clermont Livingston, acquired the house and several hundred acres : other children of Edward P. Livingston received riverfront farm lots north of Clermont. “Northwood”, “Southwood”, “Holcroft”, “Midwood”, and “Chiddingstone” are among the country seats built in the 19th century in the Town of Clermont by descendants of Edward P. Livingston.
Around 1876 John Henry Livingston, the only son of Clermont Livingston, took over responsibility for Old Clermont. He was trained in the law, but had retired to the country following the death of his first wife. In 1879 he established a commercial dairy business at Clermont: applying the principles of pasteurization, he shipped milk to Manhattan from the New York Central Railroad station at Tivoli. He also oversaw a commercial orchard on the Clermont farm. In 1898 John Henry Livingston tried to reestablish the family’s fortunes in politics. Running for Congress as a Democrat in a heavily Republican district, he lost by a handful of votes. If not for the support he received from his neighbors in the Town of Clermont the vote would not have been nearly as close.
In 1906 John Henry Livingston married for the third time. His new wife was Alice Delafield Clarkson, from the nearby “Holcroft” estate, who, like her husband was a descendant of Chancellor Robert R. Livingston. This marriage produced two daughters, neither of whom had children. John Henry Livingston died in 1927. His wife, several years before her death in 1964, donated the historic house and many of its contents to the People of the State of New York. An additional 400 acres surrounding the house were purchased by the State. Since 1974 Clermont State Historic Site, as the property is known today, has been restoring the house, outbuildings, formal gardens, and trails for the education and enjoyment of a growing local and national audience. In 1987 over 130,000 people visited Clermont to tour the mansion, enjoy the picnic grounds, participate in workshops or special events, view special exhibits, or hike and cross-country ski the five miles of historic carriage roads and trails.