Robert R. Livingston Jr. was born into a wealthy and powerful family in New York City on November 27, 1746. When he was 15, he began to study at King's College (now Columbia University). After graduating, he embarked upon a career as a lawyer—practicing for a time with John Jay, his friend and King's College classmate—before getting swept up in the colonial drive for independence.
Robert Livingston served as a representative of the state of New York in the Continental Congress. During the Second Continental Congress, he was one of five committee members—the others being Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams and Roger Sherman—who helped draft the Declaration of Independence in 1776. However, Livingston was called away from the congress before the document was signed.
In 1777, Livingston helped New York draw up its new state constitution; afterward, he became the state's chancellor, making him New York's highest-ranking judicial official. He would remain in the office for 24 years. (The position resulted in Livingston being given his nickname of "the Chancellor"; as he shared the same name as his father, Livingston became known as "the Chancellor" within his family as well.)
Under the Articles of Confederation, Livingston served as the secretary of foreign affairs from 1781 to 1783. Dealing with the weak central government that the articles provided for turned Livingston into an advocate for a stronger federal system for the new nation, and a supporter of the newly drafted U.S. Constitution. While serving as a delegate to New York's constitutional convention in 1788, he worked with Alexander Hamilton to ensure that his home state ratified the document.
When George Washington became the nation's first president, Livingston, in his role as chancellor of New York, administered the oath of office on April 30, 1789. In the 1790s, Livingston shifted his political allegiance away from the Federalist party. Running as an anti-Federalist, he faced off with his old friend and law partner Jay in the New York governor's race of 1798, but was defeated.
When Jefferson ran for the presidency, Livingston was one of his supporters. Under Jefferson, Livingston then became the minister plenipotentiary to France from 1801 to 1804. It was during this period that he joined with James Monroe to work out the terms of the Louisiana Purchase from Napoleon Bonaparte's regime.
His time in France had another bonus for Livingston: He met Robert Fulton, who was trying to develop a steamboat. Livingston, who also worked with his brother-in-law, inventor John Stevens, on steam experiments, offered Fulton his financial support. Fulton reciprocated by naming his first successful commercial steamboat the Clermont, after Livingston's familial estate.
As he had obtained a monopoly on steam navigation in New York, Livingston benefited greatly from his work with Fulton. A founder of the Society for the Promotion of Agriculture, Arts and Manufactures, Livingston also spent time in his later years on experiments in agriculture and raising sheep. On February 26, 1813, he died at the age of 66 in Clermont, New York.
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