First of all, let me start by saying yes, the Livingstons owned slaves. Slave ownership was common with the well-to-do in all areas of America dating back to the 17th century, including northern regions. In the 1790 census we find that Margaret Beekman Livingston owned 15 enslaved people and that Chancellor Livingston owned 9. This was a fairly large number for a northern slave holder, where grain agriculture did not necissitate the same kind of large labor force that tobacco, cotton, and rice (souther staples) did.
By 1800, Chancellor Livingston owned 12 slaves and Edward P. Livingston (who with the Chancellor's daughter Betsy had moved into Clermont after Margaret Beekman's death) owned 6. Slaves appear for the last time at Clermont in the census of 1810 (1 at Clermont, and 5 in the Chancellor's household).
By 1810, both neighboring households also list "other free persons" in their residents, which could have been paid servants working at Clermont (occupations are not preserved unfortunately) as the available slave population declined. Beginning on July 4, 1799, all children born to slave mothers would be considered free, thus gradually eliminating those legally eligible for slavery. Some authors have also suggested that one the Gradual Manumission law was passed, Northern slave holders were beginning to sell their slaves to Southern owners to protect their financial investment. In 1827, manumission was completed, and all remaining enslaved peoples were legally free. (Read more about New York slavery here)
So what does this mean for the people who lived as Slaves at Clermont? Finding the details of their lives can be difficult, as it can in many places. Not surprisingly, we have nothing written by a slave or former slave at Clermont so our information comes from papers of the Livingston and travel documents.
The kind of work done by slaves is one of the easier things for us to identify. One passage, written by an English traveler in 1794, described four young slave boys, ages 5-12, who accompanied the Chanceller and his wife everywhere when they were at home. Always at hand to run errands and pass commands on to other servants, these children hovered at doorways or on the perimeter of conversations, awaiting their next task. At least on this occassion, they also served breakfast and carried away the dishes. Another source indicated that "the work of the kitchen, the garden, and the farm was done by slaves..."
Clothing can be found sometimes as well. The four young boys described earlier went barefoot, but were dressed in uniform in the Chancellor's green livery with red revers and trim. One Livingston slave woman in 1750 (not from the Clermont households) was described as wearing a blue petticoat (an 18th century term for a skirt) with a "short blue and white homespun gown," a short blue cloak, and a straw bonnet. This list of clothing items describes the basics worn by many other 18th century poor or enslaved people. Did all of the Clermont household slaves wear uniforms or only those who were commonly in the public spaces?
Sleeping and living arrangements are harder to identify in northern regions, where they were rarely provided with the unattached housing more common in the southern part of the country. Instead, slaves more often shared one or two rooms within the house or were tucked into unobtrusive spaces in the house. These were generally places that the house's owners found less desirable for their own living spaces, often attics or basements. However, no record is currently known that describes where the Livingston's slaves slept at the end of the day.
In 1800, some Clermont slaves acheived their freedom when Margaret Beekman Livingston died. Those who wanted it and were 30 were given their freedom, and Robin, Scipio, Marian, and Nan (who were all too old to support themselves if freed) were given the choice of which of Livingston children they preferred to live with. She also provided an allowance of 12 pounds a year be given to the owner of their new home for their care.
Not all of her slaves were so lucky. One boy was freed after he completed an obligation to Jacob Van Ness, and two slaves Mary and Pete, were given as slaves to daughter Joanna "forever."
The irony of the Livingstons' continued ownership of slaves was that Chancellor Livingston belonged to the New York Manumission Society. The organization's goal was the emancipation of enslaved peoples, and several notable elite members were also slave holders, including John Jay.
Livingston participated vocally in the efforts to pass a manumission law in New York State in 1785, but voted down the proposed law for being inadequate; it did not give voting right to free black men, which he feared would create a second-class citizenry and a white aristrocracy.
The Chancellor also waited until his death to free any of his slaves. "I also direct to manumit all my Slaves that may chose it" who were 30 or would be 30 within two years. As soon as it was "convenient" to his wife, she could let any other go that she wanted. Two men and two women were bequeathed to Mistress Chancellor to be maintained until her death and then sold, with the proffits going to the Livingston daughters.
Emancipation in New York was a process that began in 1785 and was finally legally completed by 1827. The social ramifications on the lives of those who had experienced slavery continued for generations to come.
Like many other families in New York and other northen parts of the new nation, the Livingstons owned human property. They sat in the elgant drawing room at Clermont and New Clermont discussing the problems of slavery and the need for its abolition, while they were served tea by the very people who's fates they were discussing. While Chancellor Livingston worked as part of the group that developed the eventual Gradual Manumission Act in New York State, in the time it took complete its plan, the number of people who grew old and died before they could ever experience ownership over their own lives must also be acknowledged.