November 27, 1746, marks the birth of Robert R. Livingston, jurist and statesman. Born into a wealthy and influential New York family, Livingston’s great-grandfather had purchased the Native American claims to large tracts of land along the Hudson River, eventually acquiring an estate of some 162,000 acres. Clermont, the family estate, is today a 500-acre historic site.
Livingston graduated from King’s College—now known as Columbia University—in 1765. He next studied law and formed a law partnership with another alumnus, John Jay, future chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1773 he was appointed recorder for New York City and presided over criminal trials but was removed because of his support for independence for the American colonies.
Livingston served in the First (1774) and Second (1775-89) Continental Congresses. In June 1776, Livingston was one of five men—along with Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and Roger Sherman—appointed by the Continental Congress to draft the Declaration of Independence. However, his signature is not on the document as he was in New York at the time of its formal signing. Along with John Jay, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison, Livingston, as chancellor, was instrumental in persuading New York to ratify the federal Constitution.
Livingston was the first chancellor of New York State—from 1777 to 1801—until he was appointed minister to France. After the ratification of the Articles of Confederation in 1781, Livingston was elected and served as secretary of foreign affairs (secretary of state) until 1783. He also administered the first presidential oath of office to George Washington on April 30, 1789.
Livingston served as America’s minister to France under Thomas Jefferson, who instructed him to buy New Orleans and the Floridas from Napoleon. Jefferson subsequently sent James Monroe to Paris with authority to offer the French ten million dollars. When Napoleon unexpectedly offered to sell the entire Louisiana territory for fifteen million dollars, Livingston and Monroe decided that the offer was too good to pass up and signed a treaty, subsequently ratified on October 20, 1803, by the U.S. Senate.
Livingston was one of the founders of the Society for the Promotion of Agriculture, Arts, and Manufactures, a learned society and the first scientific organization in New York State. Livingston’s scientific interests also extended to agricultural experimentation—particularly farming and merino sheep culture. George Washington, owner of the plantation at Mount Vernon, shared Livingston’s interests in agricultural matters and corresponded frequently with him. On February 10, 1793, he wrote to Livingston, “that the prosperity of our Country is closely connected with our improvement in the useful Arts.” Two years later, on February 16, 1795, Washington again wrote to Livingston stating, “Works of this sort are of the most interesting importance to every country…” and he sent Livingston a pamphlet on the cultivation of potatoes.
The inventor John Stevens was Livingston’s brother-in-law, and they were associates in experiments relating to the development of steam navigation. Livingston also supported Robert Fulton, whose steamer Clermont, named for Livingston’s estate in New York, became the first successful steam-propelled vessel. For many years Livingston and Fulton held a hotly contested monopoly in steam navigation in New York State, still unresolved at the time of Livingston’s death at Clermont in 1813.
- Search on Robert Livingston in the George Washington Papers to read correspondence between Washington and Livingston dating from the 1770s through the 1790s.
- Search on Robert Livingston in A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation: U.S. Congressional Documents and Debates, 1774-1875 to read about Livingston’s work with the Continental Congress as recorded in the Journals of the Continental Congress.
- Livingston and Monroe arranged one of the most important land purchases in U.S. history. To learn more about how that purchase shaped U.S. history, search Today in History on Louisiana Purchase.
- To persuade New Yorkers to support the new Constitution, Livingston’s law partner John Jay along with Alexander Hamilton and James Madison wrote The Federalist Papers, a series of articles originally published under the pen name “Publius.”
- Documents from the Continental Congress and the Constitutional Convention, 1774 to 1789 includes items such as extracts of the journals of the Continental Congress, resolutions, proclamations, committee reports, and treaties. There are also links to text versions of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.
- Louisiana: European Explorations and the Louisiana Purchase presents 119 items—including maps and newspapers—that document this historic purchase made during Livingston’s tenure as minister to France.
- Search across the collections on the term steamboat for a wide variety of both images and written documents concerning this mode of transportation so commonly used in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, including John Fitch’s sketch and description of a piston for steamboat propulsion from around 1795.