The mission of the Friends of Clermont is to support the improvement and development of Clermont State Historic Site, administered by the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation; To conduct educational programs, services and activities in keeping with the nature of the site and beyond the normal scope of site activities for its members and the public at large; To participate in fund-raising activities; to acquire, either by gift or by purchase, objects, equipment and supplies for the benefit of the site; or to facilitate loans of the same; to acquire, hold and convey interests in real property, either by gift or by purchase, for the benefit of the site; and To otherwise promote, conserve, develop and interpret Clermont for the benefit of the public and posterity.
A Brief History of Clermont
The fan-lighted doorway of Clermont affords one of the Hudson Valley’s most spectacular views, stretching across the Hudson River to the Catskill Mountains. The history of the house itself is equally remarkable.
Clermont was built between 1740 and 1750, by Robert Livingston, Jr., on land acquired in 1686 by his father, just a dozen years after New Netherland finally became British New York. A royal patent secured by Robert Livingston, Sr. granted him the privileges of a manor lord and 160,000 acres, stretching all the way from the Hudson River’s east bank to the border of present day Massachusetts.
In October 1777, the Revolutionary War arrived on Clermont’s doorstep via a British armada sailing upriver from New York City to provide support for General John Burgoyne’s army, whose march from Canada was foundering north of Albany. That same force had already stormed two forts in the Hudson Highlands and burned Kingston, the first capital of the new New York State. The next target was the riverfront seat of the rebel Livingstons.
Learning of the imminent danger, Margaret Beekman Livingston — the wealthy (in her own right) wife of Clermont’s owner — took action, after refusing the offer of protection from a wounded British soldier recuperating at Clermont. (She steadily declined aid from an enemy of her country.)
The British courteously gave her time to vacate, which she did, with most of her prized possessions, before burning the house to the foundations. But she returned, and, calling in favors from the governor who she helped to elect, succeeded in rebuilding her grand house — in the middle of the Revolutionary War!
Margaret’s son, Robert, known as The Chancellor because of a state judicial position he held, is perhaps the most famous Livingston. He administered the oath of office to President George Washington, co-invented the steamboat with Robert Fulton, established the rights of a monopoly that lasted for decades and continued the line of Livingstons which lasted until Honoria (Livingston) McVitty gave the last of the Clermont lands to the state at her death in 2000.
Today the Clemont historic site encompasses 500 acres, down from the 13,000 two centuries ago. In the 1840s Andrew Jackson Dowing observed that Clermont was “the showplace of the last age,” noting that in the layout and practical uses of the grounds it was very much an eighteenth-century property — something succeeding generations showed little interest in changing.
In 1889 Charles Eliot, pioneering conservationist, wrote that although Clermont’s owners were often compelled to be away on business or public duties, “they always returned to Clermont as their one permanent home — so strong was their old English liking for country life and country leisure.”
Today, Clermont and its magnificent grounds are redolent with the marvelous history of the place, now available for all visitors to share.
The Livingstons and their Riverfront House
The main house at Clermont has been home to seven generations of Livingstons who defined and cherished our nation’s past. They settled portions of the American wilderness, took part in the colonists’ revolt, and, for those staying at Clermont, paid dearly when their home was torched by the British. They played significant roles in establishing our democracy and expanding its boundaries. Their partnership with Robert Fulton in creating the first successful steamboat revolutionized transportation and commerce. They tenaciously preserved Clermont and its magnificent grounds.
The first grand house at Clermont was constructed in the mid-18th century by Robert Livingston, Jr. (1688-1775), on land acquired in 1686 by his father, Robert Livingston, Sr. (1654-1728), by authority of King James II. The senior Livingston had learned Dutch, and when he was only 20, had decided to emigrate to America, arriving in Albany in 1674. There, he made himself indispensable to the Dutch, the English and the Iroquois, gaining a foothold in the lucrative fur trade. In 1679, he married the young widow of the province’s leading landowner: Alida Schuyler.
A royal patent he secured granted him the privileges of a manor lord and 160,000 wilderness acres, stretching 10 miles along the Hudson River’s east bank and eastward to what is now the border of Massachusetts.
Robert’s sole heir was his son Robert, also known as “the Judge,” for his service on the Supreme Court and the Admiralty Court. Robert the judge married Margaret Beekman, a woman of considerable wealth after having inherited 100,000 acres from her father, a prominent Dutchess County landowner. Because Robert frequently left home to tend to his business and political affairs, he left his wife in charge of their substantial estate. Her mettle was certainly put to the test during the American Revolution, when the British gave her short notice that they planned to burn her house down — a threat that was soon carried out. Alida was only about a mile away — having directed that the family’s possessions be loaded onto all available carts and silver and other valuables buried — when she looked back and saw smoke billowing above Clermont. Only the house’s brick walls survived the blaze.
Within a year, she was supervising Clermont’s reconstruction on its foundations. Title had passed to her son Robert on the wartime death of her husband, but he was busy helping to unite the 13 colonies. As a member of the Second Continental Congress, he worked with Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and Benjamin Franklin to draft the Declaration of Independence.
It was her son Robert, who history calls “The Chancellor” because of his state judicial offices, who is perhaps the most famous of the Livingstons. He administered the first oath of office to President George Washington on the balcony of Manhattan’s Federal Hall in 1789. As President Jefferson’s minister to France, he is often credited with initiating and negotiating the 1803 Louisiana purchase, which doubled the size of the country.
The Chancellor was a man of vision. While in France, he heard of experiments performed by Robert Fulton to perfect the steamboat. He bankrolled the inventor, helped to develop the vessel and secured a monopoly for their ships on the Hudson River. The first upriver voyage, in 1807, stopped at Clermont, and years later, the craft became popularly named “The Clermont.”
Successive generations continued to cherish the house. Determined that the estate and its treasures would remain intact for all to enjoy, in 1962 the family sold Clermont and most of its surrounding land to the state of New York, simultaneously donating the furnishings. Subsequently, the remainder of the property and a modest endowment were donated by Honoria McVitty (1909-2000), the daughter of John Henry Livingston and Alice the last Livingston to live on the property.
Now, many Livingstons — far-flung and close-by but with enduring regard for Clermont and their family’s heritage — are active in the preservation and enhancement of Clermont. They contribute to the Friends of Clermont, the not-for-profit group established to support the site, and visit, individually or during reunions, which occur every decade or so.
Their attention to the property reflects a love of the land that has become imprinted in Livingston genes across the generations. It is a pervasive ethos that all are now invited to share, and nowhere is it more affecting than at the historically compelling and deeply evocative estate known simply as Clermont.