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.
Much of this history of the Livingstons at Clermont was exerpted from Reed Sparling’s description in the new book “Clermont,” available from the Friends of Clermont.