Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Finding the Old Lady: Margaret Beekman Livingston

I've got Peggy on my mind. One of the quirks of being a historian is that you feel like you get to know people who have been dead for a few hundred years. Margaret Beekman Livingston was Peggy to her close friends and family, and that is how I've come to feel about her. Now that I'm presenting a talk on her at the Great Estates Symposium, we've got to get to know one another a little better.

Stories about the Revolutionary War heroine of the Livingston family abound: she rebuilt the mansion after it was burned by the English army; she picked the first governor of New York State; she died suddenly in the dining room. Some of the stories are myths, and some are exagerations, and some are true. The game now is to pick apart one from the other and find the "Old Lady of Clermont" at the center of it all.

That so many stories exist about Peggy gives some clue to the importance she had in this family. Whether or not they are strictly true, it is Margaret Beekman Livingston that the stories are told about, rather than family other women who lived in the same time period. For instance, we know almost nothing about her daughter-in-law Mary Stevens Livingston or her mother-in-law Margaret Howarden. These two women were part of her daily life at Clermont, and yet we don't even know what year Margaret Howarden died! It was Peggy's powerful familial influence that was passed down from generation to generation.

The story of her early life is one that is not uncommon amongst wealthy 18th century women.

Like many women, she was intially defined by her association with powerful men. She was the daughter of Henry Beekman of the wealthy Rhinebeck Beekmans. She was the wife of Judge Robert R. Livingston (pictured at left). She was the mother of Chancellor Robert R. Livingston.

About her personally, we know that her Livingston mother died shortly after her birth, and she was raised by a maternal aunt in Brooklyn. As an adult, she was an intensly religious woman who kept a diary filled with her sentimental musings on faith. She was married at 18 and shared a very affectionate marriage with the Robert the Judge. "You are the cordial drop with which Heaven has graciously thought fit to sweeten my cup," he wrote in a letter to her once. They spent their winters in a town house in New York City and their summers at Clermont with his parents. She had eleven children in 22 years.

It was in 1775 that Margaret's life changed dramatically. Within seven months her father-in-law, father, and husband all passed away, leaving her as the proprietress of the Beekman patent and Clermont. It is at this point that we start to get the big stories about her, particularly as surround the burning of Clermont:

In october of 1777, English General Howe (at right) sent troops up the Hudson towards Albany. As General Vaughan lead these forces north, he began burning out the homes of rebellious families (the obvious problem here being that technically he was committing acts of violence against his fellow English citizens since the King hadn't recognized us as a seperate country yet).

Several stories have been immortaziled about this event in town histories and family lore. We know that somehow Mrs. Livingston got word ahead of time that Vaughan was commiting these acts and that on October 15, two days before he arrived at Clermont, she left with her youngest children for Salisbury, CT.

One family story puts she, her children, and her slaves wildly packing a broad array of furniture and moveable goods, then hiding silver, china, and mirrors in the surrounding outbuildings and wells before they left. But archeological evidence shows that many fine furnishings and china were burned with the house, meaning that she probably did not have as much time as she would have liked to remove her valuables, and thus many were destroyed with her home.

Two different family stories of her departure have been preserved in local histories or family recordings. One states that since she and her family were housing an English prisoner of war, he offered to speak to Vaughan on her behalf and save the house. According to the story, she insisted that her house be burned like the other patriots. Another puts she and her family actually departing by wagon on the hill above Clermont, when they looked behind them and saw the smoke from the house already curling through the air. Letters between she and her son show however, that she had been clear of the house for two days before Vaughan arrived on the 17th to burn the house.

Yet one more story, recorded in a 1924 history of the region, persists from this era: that Mrs. Livingston selected New York's first governor.

Shortly before the delegates, who declared NY independent, met at Kingston, a number of the most influencial met at Clermont, to consider, among other questions, who should be the first governow. A valid objection to every person was raised until Mrs. Livingston proposed G. Clinton. Her suggestion was received with acclamation..."

But even this story has been soundly abused by the Chancellor's most avid biographer George Dangerfield.

While these stories seek to pay homage to Peggy, they almost obscure her real accomplishments.

When left at the head of the massive estate of Clermont, she decided against remarrying in order to find someone who would manage it. Perhaps it was the idea of letting the Livingston name cease to be lord of Clermont or perhaps she simply felt confident enough in her own skills to do it alone. She had grown up in the Livingston tradition of women who were involved with the family business (Alida Schuyler Livingston pretty much ran the manor while her husband was regularly away) so it was likely that she had not been kept completely out of the loop for the past 33 years of estate management. Nevertheless, managing the large estate and its population of tenants was no small job that many women may have considered easier with a new husband.

Letters and tenant books show that she remained very much in personal control of the estate, using a lawyer (Cockburn) to handle legal proceedings and contracts where the law prevented her from representing herself.

She also stayed in close contact with her eldest son Robert. Even if she did not advise him in political matters, she certainly had a lot to say about his personal ones (once going on a rather long tangent imploring him not to party to hard while in Philadelphia at the age of 35).

In 1790, as a measure of her considerable wealth, we see that she owned 15 slaves, more than anyone else in Livingston, Clermont, or Germantown, with the exception of her Manor cousin, who owned the surprising sum of 44. Of 139 slaveholders in the area, most owned less than 10, and 3 seemed to be the most common.

On her own, Peggy became synonomous with Clermont, and several historic drawings or letters refer to "Mrs. Livingston's Clermont." While other wives identities were lost behind their husbands', Peggy's was the driving force behind one of the most prominent Hudson Valley Estates.

When she died in 1800, Margaret Beekman Livingston's life was again shrowded with legend. On July 1st, she passed away at the age of 76. An 1894 accoutn by Walter Rutherford states that

The old lady of Clermont took her leave of this world with great eclat. She walked about the garden [at Clermont] and did business all the morning, had several of her friends to dinner of which she amply partook. In taking a glass of wine she found her right hand failing, changed it to her left, soon fell in a fit, and expired without a groan.

And yet another story shows her dieing in Kingston or New York City, though why she wouldn't have left the city for Clermont in the summer (as was her custom), is questionable as well.

It seems only fit that her death be as curious as her life. No matter what the facts, we know that Margaret Beekman Livingston left a strong impression on the people around her, one that has lasted for over 200 years.


  1. I've been researching slavery in the Hudson Valley for a book I am writing and came across this article:

    "On Tuesday, of last week, the 1st of July instant, Mrs. MARGARET LIVINGSTON, the widow of the late much respected and much regretted Judge LIVINGSTON, was about 2 o'clock, P. M. taken with a faintness, in a few minutes she requested assistance to help her to her bed, which was the last she spoke ; before evening her spirit was fled. There have been few professors of the Christian religion, who in so eminent a degree from their lives, practice and conversation, have evidenced the reality of a change wrought in the human heart by its salutary operations.
    This good Lady had on the morning of the day on which she was kindly taken to her Father's house, in a manner for which few examples are to be found, exercised her benevolent christian-like disposition—she had for a number of years supported or relieved a considerable number of indigent persons, among the rest, her former slaves whom she had manumitted, on the 1st day of July annually, these pensioners on her particular bounty, came to receive at her liberal hand the sums or stipends her charity prompted her to bestow, and which their necessities required. After having spent the morning of that day, in this god-like exercise of relieving the wants of the poor, it appears her saviour had no further work for her to do in this world—And like a sovereign who has a right to dispose of all creatures and things in his goodness and wisdom he sees fit, took her from usual health, strength and spirits—without sickness and almost without a groan from this world of probation, to a scene where sin and sorrow never enter."
    The Poughkeepsie Journal July 8, 1800

  2. Thank you for copying all of that over! This would seem to be the most trustworthy of the sources. Many of the family stories have been cherished over the years, finding their way into print sources after years of repetition. Finding documentary evidence from so close to the actual date is invaluable!

  3. It was my pleasure. Newspapers are often neglected because they are nearly impossible to "search" for what you are looking for. But when I came across this I figured it would be significant. If you ever cite this for an article, please mention my name in the footnote: I always wanted to be in a footnote. :)

  4. Do you have any information on Robert G. Livingston that was alive in 1786?

  5. I have very little information sadly. Robert Gilbert Livingston (1713-1789) was the grandson of Robert the 1st Lord. His son was also Robert Gilbert Livingston and lived from 1749-1787. Amusingly Robert (the father) also named one of his sons Gilbert Robert Livingston.

  6. One of John Jay’s best friends up until the end of the American Revolution was Robert R. Livingston; Robert’s mother wrote this note to John Jay
    “Will you permit a friend who loves and honours you to beg of you not to Let your Immortal Soul starve under the weight of cares and business… Your God has blessed you with many talents. Those I trust you improve for His glory and the good of our country. Wisdom is the gift of God, and he has promised additions of it, to those who ask it. For he giveth Liberally and like himself you are ingaged in a Just and Virtuous cause. You know an Holy God befriends it, so that you may come boldly to the throne of Grace for every requisite, to enable you for the duty of your exalted Station. I am persuaded that you believe these truths; nor will the repetition be irksome, although known and practiced by you.”
    Margaret Beekman Livingston to Jay, April 21, 1782

    John Jay Reenactor Phil Webster

  7. Currently researching Gertruyd Van Cortlandt Beekman. Any information on Margaret's relationship with her step-mother or her children's relationship/s with their step-grandmamma?