Tuesday, July 17, 2012

That "Witty Boy": Robert Livingston, the Builder of Clermont


I have posted little regarding the Builder of Clermont--one of many Livingstons named Robert--on this blog, but it is largely because I've had few opportunities to study him.  Since no portrait survives of him, probably having been burnt in the 1777 fire, we do not even have a face to put with his name.  Nevertheless, he lent his own interesting personality to Clermont's story.  This blog entry is edited from a larger work on Clermont's proprietors written by Bruce Naramore, Clermont's former director of some 27 years. 

Robert (of Clermont) was the third son and fourth child of Alida and Robert (the 1st Lord).  He was born in Albany on on 24 July 1688.  Robert was raised in Albany and  New York City, as well as at the home built in the late 1690s at the confluence of the Roeliff Jansen Kill and Hudson River on the Manor of Livingston. In 1699 11-year old Robert sailed aboard the Caledonia from New York to Glasgow, eventually winding up with his uncle William Livingston. Between 1700 and 1705 he attended the Latin School in Leith and the High School in Edinburgh. 


The young Robert Livingston was an interesting character, described at this time by his aunt, Barbara Miller, as "a well disposed and witty boy...he loves to be fine and to have his things genteel." But nevertheless surviving correspondence indicates that Robert was also something of  an indifferent scholar. Even so, in 1705 he moved to London to attend college, where he took up the study of the law at the Middle Temple, Courts of Inn. In 1711 he returned to America, along with "a quantity of law books" although without a degree, intent to establish a law practice in Albany. Alida Livingston wrote to her husband at this time, "…...please do set Robbert [up] that he will be in a good position to earn his living. I would love to hear it and tell him that I am concerned about it. let him eat at Mrs. Syepert and let him spend his time well to make gains for himself for idleness does not get one a thing" 

Alida Livingston's concerns were well placed, and by 1713 Robert Livingston, Jr. had moved to New York where his penchant for "things genteel" could be better indulged. Robert Livingston, Sr. wrote his wife on 4 April 1713 that "Robert has no customers, but [has] wasted a lot of money on clothes, board, room-rent, etc. It may last till June, then he'll have to come to the plantation." Several days later he wrote Alida again to tell her that their son would soon be on his way to the Manor to recuperate from a groin injury. Robert, Sr. lamented, "Our son has cost a lot here, but [has] accomplished little or nothing. A 7 lb. wig in these times is unbearable. He does not consider it, however" 

Although documentation is spotty, it would appear that Robert Livingston, Jr. spent the next four years working for his father. Livingston Manor had entered a period of sustained growth, including the temporary addition of 342 Palatine families on a 6,000 acre tract on the east side of the Hudson River. The scheme to have these families produce naval stores turned out to be a failure however, and within several years many of the Palatine families had left the Hudson Valley. Several hundred Palatines did remain behind to cultivate freehold farms in the Germantown settlement or to lease land on the Manor of Livingston.

The tenants of Livingston Manor supplied the proprietors with several days labor each year for road-building and other projects essential to the development of the Livingston landholdings. In addition, they paid an annual rent consisting of wheat, other grains and fowl. The Livingstons also profited from the grains retained by the tenants, which had to be ground at the Manor's gristmills, as well as by the sale of finished goods at the Manor's store. It was the operation of these varied commercial interests that occupied the younger Robert Livingston during the period 1713 to 1717.

 By the Spring of 1717 Robert, Jr. had apparently had his fill of the merchant's life. Alida Livingston noted her son's return to New York City in a letter to her husband dated 22 April 1717: "I hope that Mr. Robbert now minds his business to get a job in the law and that we may hear joy from him." The Lord of Livingston Manor noted a change in his third son when he observed several days later that "Our son Robert is reading lustily and [I] hope will behave well now." Robert's new-found ambition coincided with his meeting a young woman, Margaret Howarden (Hawarden), the daughter of an English merchant, then residing with her widowed mother; by September they were discussing marriage. Correspondence between Robert Sr. and Alida Livingston suggests a fair degree of uncertainty over the wisdom of this marriage on the part of both the intended groom and his parents. Alida Livingston confessed to her husband, "I don't know what to counsel Robbert. he has to do as he pleases if it so happens he will have to move in with the mother and follow his profession as a lawyer. perhaps she will be a good wife. it is difficult to advise correctly. if that is how it is he should not break it off again." He did not. Robert Livingston, Jr. and Margaret Howarden were married in New York City on 11 November 1717. Alida Livingston did not attend the wedding.

It would appear that marriage did little to change Robert Livingston, Jr.'s nature after all. His law practice never got off the ground and he once again entered the world of commerce. Here, too, he exhibited an indolence and carelessness that forced his exasperated father to declare in 1722 "...our son Robert is not willing to pay a single skivver for house-rent, so that I am at odds everywhere. He is very ungrateful and wants to extort everything from me, but his hopes will be deceived and it will not be to his profit." Despite the strain that existed between parents and child, Robert Livingston, Jr. eventually did profit. The first Lord of Livingston Manor died on 1 October 1728; Alida Livingston died five months later. Robert and Alida's eldest son, John, had died in 1720, and so the bulk of the Manor, approximately 141,000 acres, was inherited by their second son, Philip (1686-1749). Robert, Jr. was not forgotten in his father's will. He inherited nearly 13,000 acres of Manor land south and west of the Roeliff Jansen Kill. This tract later came to be called Clermont.

Robert Livingston, Jr. did not immediately take up residence on his country estate. He continued to engage in commerce, perhaps with more diligence now that he no longer had his father's fortune to fall back on. By the 1740s, now well into middle age, he decided to retire to his country seat. Now that he had the security of a regular income from his upstate landholdings, or at least the promise of a regular income, he began to make a series of purchases on the "Great Hardenburgh” Patent, which embraced much of present day Greene, Ulster, Delaware and Sullivan Counties. He eventually acquired nearly 500,000 acres in the wild and mountainous terrain west of the Hudson River. Livingston's speculation in Catskill Mountain lands across the river from the house he began to construct circa 1750 probably inspired the name he chose for his estate.

Livingston family tradition holds that Robert first proposed to name his estate "Callendar", after a Livingston estate in Scotland (shown at left), but was dissuaded from doing so by his brother Philip, who thought the notion presumptuous. It is documented that Robert's 13,000 acre estate was called "Ancram" by the early l740's, the same name Philip Livingston chose for his iron- manufacturing settlement on the Manor.  Sometime between 1745 and 1755 Robert settled on the name "Clare Mount," or "clear mountain." The name was later shortened to "Claremont" and, after the outbreak of war with England, some family members begin to spell the estate's name in the French manner: "Clermont."

Margaret Howarden Livingston died in December 1758 and was interred in a burial vault constructed 200 yards north of the Livingston family home at Clermont. After his wife's death Robert of Clermont, as he was now known, settled into a comfortable retirement, surrounded by his books and a growing brood of grandchildren. His granddaughter, Janet, wrote of him many years later, "[He] always rose at five in the morning and read without ceasing until near breakfast. The year before his death he learned the German tongue, and spoke it fluently." A grandson, Edward Livingston, described Robert of Clermont at age 84: “Never was a man better entitled by his manners, his morals, and his education to the appellation of gentleman...He marked the epoch at which he retired from the world by preserving its costume: the flowing well-powdered wig, the bright brown coat, with large cuffs and square skirts, the cut velvet waistcoat, with ample flaps, and the breeches barely covering the knee, rolled over them with embroidered clocks, and shining square toed shoes, fastened near the ankle with small embossed buckles. These were retained in his service, not to affect a singularity, but because he thought it ridiculous, at his time of life, to follow the quick succession of fashion.” 

In his grandchildren's remembrances of the elderly Robert of Clermont, the bright, witty boy who yearned for "things genteel" can still be seen. The patriarch of Clermont was in many ways the spoiled younger son of the self-made man. A failure in the law, in business, and in the eyes of his own parents, he nonetheless entered his final years with the satisfaction that he had not only maintained the estate passed on to him by his father, but had increased it 40-fold through his speculation in Catskill Mountain lands. He could take satisfaction, too, in the success of his only child, Robert R. Livingston, who was as industrious as the father was indolent and who had few equals among the legal profession in the Province of New York.

Robert of Clermont died at his home on 27 June 1775, shortly after hearing of the skirmish between British regulars and American militiamen at Lexington and Concord. He was buried with his wife in the family vault at Clermont.

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