The Livingstons and their Riverfront House

Clermont was the home of seven generations of the Livingston family who occupied the grounds from 1740 until 2000. Those generations included founders, pioneers, innovators and artists who helped to shape the country from its founding.

The Livingston family’s story in America began with Robert Livingston (1654-1728) who had lived in the Netherlands with his exiled Scottish parents from the time he was 8 years old. After his father died Robert tried, briefly, to return to Scotland but found his knowledge of both English and Dutch would serve him better in the recently acquired colony of New York formerly New Netherland. He arrived in 1675. He quickly ingratiated himself with one of the elite families of the colony, the Van Rensselaers. In 1679 he married the young widow of one of his Van Rensselaer patrons, Alida Schuyler Van Rensselaer.

Through a series of land deals and a patent granted by the Royal Governor of New York, Thomas Dongan, Livingston was granted 160,000 and the title “Lord of Livingston Manor” in 1686.  His land stretched nearly 10 miles north and south, from the Hudson River to what would become the border with Massachusetts. By bringing in tenant farmers to work his land, The First Lord became one of the driving forces for settling the Hudson River Valley.

Robert left the land that would become the Clermont estate, 13,000 acres in total, to his second son Robert Livingston (1688-1775) in his will. Upon his death the bulk of his estate and the title of “Lord” went to Robert, the First Lord’s eldest surviving son Philip. Robert Livingston, there after known as Robert of Clermont, constructed his elegant mansion around 1740. He began to acquire other land on his own and soon owned almost 500,000 acres on the west side of the Hudson River, opposite Clermont. When he claimed that looking out his front door he owned everything he could see he was not exaggerating by much.

Robert of Clermont had one son also named Robert Livingston, known as the Judge for his positions on the colonial supreme court and admiralty court. The Judge married Margaret Beekman, bringing in a sizable dowry of land with the marriage and the promise of several thousand more acres of land upon the death of his father-in-law Colonel Henry Beekman, as Margaret would be his only heir.

 

The Judge passed away unexpectedly at the end of 1775 leaving Margaret to fend for herself and several of their ten children during the American Revolution. In 1777 the British army destroyed Clermont and all the other buildings on the estate as retaliation for the family’s support of the revolution. Margaret and her children, still residing at home, had escaped to a relative’s house in Connecticut before the burning. She was soon back at the estate and managed to have the house rebuilt during the war in time to host George and Martha Washington in 1782.

 

The Judge and Margaret’s children truly helped build the young country. Their eldest son, Robert R. Livingston would go down in history as the Chancellor. He was a representative to the Second Continental Congress, drafting the Address to the People of Great Britain in 1775 and helping to draft the Declaration of Independence, along with Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams and Roger Sherman in 1776. In 1777, the Chancellor, John Jay and Gouvernor Morris drafted the New York State Constitution which included the position of Chancellor. The Chancellor was the highest judge in New York State, tasked, when hearing a case, with not necessarily deciding what was legal but what was right.  In 1781 Robert was named the country’s first Secretary of Foreign Affairs when the Articles of Confederation took effect the equivalent of Secretary of State.

After the war Robert gave the oath of office to George Washington in 1789. He served as the minister to France during Thomas Jefferson’s presidency and was the chief negotiator of the Louisiana Purchase.
He went on to co-invent the first practical steamboat with Robert Fulton which revolutionized travel and commerce. His work with Merino sheep changed fabric production in America.

Robert R. Livingston, the Chancellor

Margaret and the Judge’s other sons were equally impressive. Henry commanded the 4th New York Regiment at the Battles of Saratoga and Monmouth and through the hard winter at Valley Forge. John was a merchant and was widely acknowledged king of his trade in New York City. Edward became a senator and served as Andrew Jackson’s Secretary of State.

Of their daughters, Janet married General Richard Montgomery. After he fell at Quebec, Margaret became a successful business woman. Margaret Livingston married Thomas Tillotson, an army surgeon who became New York Secretary of State. Catherine married Freeborn Garretson and helped to bring Methodism to the Hudson River Valley. Gertrude married General Morgan Lewis, one of New York’s early governors. Joanna married Peter Livingston, a successful cousin who held the office of lieutenant governor. Alida married General John Armstrong, a senator and Secretary of War.

The first practical steamboat

The Chancellor’s grandson, Montgomery Livingston was a Hudson River School Artist. Several of his paintings are in Clermont’s collection.

 

The mansion’s final Livingston owners, John Henry and his wife Alice, were very respectful of the house and the family’s important historical role and did a great deal to protect them. When the Chancellor’s second house, Arryl House, burned in 1909 John Henry cried. The ruins are still visible at the south end of the modern visitors’ parking lot. Alice was also responsible for creating many of the landscaped gardens that are continued to this day.

 

Alice turned the mansion and property over to the state in 1962 so that all the people of New York could enjoy the history and bucolic splendor of Clermont, just as the Livingston family had for seven generations.