Robert R. Livingston

Robert R. Livingston (1746-1813), American jurist and diplomat, played a key role in negotiating the Louisiana Purchase.

Robert R. Livingston was born in New York City on Nov. 27, 1746, into a family of landed aristocracy. His great-grandfather, Robert Livingston, had married the widow of one of New York's great landowners. By 1746 the Livingstons were related to virtually all their fellow land barons and were, inevitably, deeply involved in the government of the colony. For decades before the American Revolution they had firmly opposed the politics of the royal governor and his colleagues. Livingston's father, a well-known jurist, was a foe of the Stamp Act, but he was also a nervous observer of the popular tumults marking the resistance to it.

Amid the rumblings of rebellion, Robert Livingston graduated from King's College (now Columbia) in 1765. He immediately entered a legal apprenticeship with his father's cousin, and later governor of New Jersey, William Livingston. Admitted to the bar in 1768, Robert acquired a practice befitting his family position, held minor offices, and, in 1770, married Mary Stevens, of a New Jersey landowning family.

Cautious Patriot

As a member of the New York Provincial Convention of 1775 and, a month later, of the Second Continental Congress, Livingston began a steady movement toward supporting American independence but maintained an equally steady resistance to letting radicals control the Revolution in New York. Though appointed to the committee to draft the Declaration of Independence, he neither contributed to the draft nor signed the document. He accepted the declaration, however, and helped arrange for the military defense of New York. With John Jay and Gouverneur Morris, he drafted the New York Constitution of 1777, a conservative but effective document. Livingston's appointment in 1777 as chancellor of the Court of Chancery gave him both a high judicial office and membership on the governor's "Council of Revision." Thus for 24 years, he was a power in the state government despite the dominance of Governor George Clinton, who led a highly successful alliance of yeoman farmers, mechanics, and entrepreneurs deeply hostile to the old, landed gentry.

Nationalist and Francophile

In 1779 Livingston resumed his seat in the Continental Congress. He soon became part of the "nationalist" group, which included Robert Morris, Benjamin Franklin, and, later, James Madison and Alexander Hamilton. Livingston was elected first secretary for foreign affairs in August 1781. During his 2 years of service as secretary he did all he could to strengthen America's alliance with France.

For the next 2 years Livingston indulged his passion for scientific agriculture and efficiently presided over the Court of Chancery. In 1788 he, Hamilton, and John Jay were leading Federalist delegates to the New York constitutional ratifying convention, and in 1789 he administered the oath of office to President George Washington. However, by 1791 Livingston had become a Jeffersonian Republican, in uncomfortable alliance with his old foe Governor Clinton and the energetic newcomer Aaron Burr. At odds with the Jays, Schuylers, Van Rensselaers, and other traditional friends, Livingston began a decade of sometimes lonely, often acrimonious opposition to the Federalists. He fought against Jay's Treaty and maintained strong Francophile sentiments.

Louisiana Purchase

In 1801 President Jefferson appointed Livingston minister to France. Napoleon's acquisition of Louisiana and his plans for a huge Caribbean empire soon placed a grave responsibility on Livingston; possession of New Orleans (and thus control of the Mississippi) by a powerful, expansive France would, in Jefferson's words, "marry the United States to the British fleet" and throttle American dreams of a transcontinental republic. The Americans fretted helplessly in the face of Napoleon's omnipotence until the defeat of one of Napoleon's armies in Santo Domingo and the freeze-up of another in Dutch harbors suddenly changed the prospects. Just as Livingston received instructions to try to purchase New Orleans and, if possible, Florida, Napoleon decided to abandon his American plans. Livingston, meanwhile, had earlier suggested that the United States might be interested in acquiring lands west of the Mississippi. Aided by the arrival of special envoy James Monroe, Livingston held conferences with French ministers who, astonishingly, offered to sell the entire Louisiana Territory. Though lacking instructions to buy the vast territory, the Americans grasped the opportunity and signed the Louisiana Purchase Treaty on May 2, 1803.

Livingston and the Steamboat

Livingston remained 2 more years in Paris, then returned home to devote his last years to an old enterprise— agricultural progress (especially the breeding of Merino sheep)—and to a new one—development of the steamboat. Long interested in steam transportation, he agreed to back the plans of Robert Fulton, at the same time securing a monopoly in New York waters of such navigation. Livingston was aboard Fulton's famous steamboat on the voyage up the Hudson in 1807. However, the monopoly and the operation of the vessels proved contentious and not especially profitable. Livingston died at Clermont, N.Y., on Feb. 26, 1813.

Further Reading on Robert R. Livingston

George Dangerfield, Chancellor Robert R. Livingston of New York, 1746-1813 (1960), is a well-written, thoroughly reliable account. Collateral studies related to Livingston's career are Samuel Flagg Bemis, A Diplomatic History of the United States (1936; 5th ed. 1965); James T. Flexner, Steamboats Come True: American Inventors in Action (1944); David M. Ellis, Landlords and Farmers in the Hudson-Mohawk Region, 1790-1850 (1946); and Alfred F. Young, The Democratic Republicans of New York: The Origins, 1763-1797 (1967).