AN AMERICAN ARISTOCRACY: The Livingstons by Clare Brandt

AN AMERICAN ARISTOCRACY: The Livingstons

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KIRKUS REVIEW

A surprising, spritely history of a venerable dynasty that loomed large in America's early days but whose baronial traditions have about as much relevance today as the dinosaur. Founding father Robert Livingston arrived in Albany, New York, in 1674 with a loan from a Boston fur trader and a burning ambition to get rich quick by persuading the Iroquois to provide him with beaver pelts. Before long he was secretary to the Board of Indian Commissioners, secretary to the town of Albany and to Rensselaerwyck--the 700,000-acre Hudson River empire granted by the Dutch West India Company to the Van Rensselaers of Amsterdam. After the death of Nicholas Van Rensselaer, young Livingston married his widow and claimed ownership of the vast holdings. Years of litigation ensued, during which the lands lay neglected. Finally, New York's English governor awarded Robert 157,000 acres of his own. He was now Lord of Livingston Manor--a swath of wilder. ness some miles south of Albany, but on the opposite side of the Hudson. The time-consuming process of establishing indentured farmers (virtually vassals) on his lands had to wait until his fortune was secure. He continued to live in Albany (with frequent sojourns in New York) trading in beaver pelts, lard and flour; and picking up other incomes as opportunity arose. At one point he financed his friend William Kidd on a privateering expedition to loot pirates. Unfortunately, Captain Kidd turned pirate himself and was hanged in London. Livingston survived the resulting financial debacle, disgrace and near-brush with the hangman. When he died in 1728, he was rich in honors and gold, and Livingston Manor not only had a manor house, but also many tenants raising profitable crops. In later years, it was a Livingston who administered the oath of office to George Washington; another was cosigner of the Louisiana Purchase; another was an early governor of New Jersey. Other Livingstons added to their holdings through acquisition and through marriage to the Beekmans, Roosevelts, Delanos, and Astors. One built the ""model"" Hudson River town of Tivoli. Another financed Robert Fulton's first US steamship service. But in the late 19th century, Robert's descendants developed a distaste for public life and commerce. They settled into their huge manor houses and lived as landed gentry, disdaining others of lesser pedigree. Today, only seven of the great houses have owners who can trace back to the first Lord of Livingston manor. The glory days of the Hudson River gentry has passed into history; but, as Brandt says, they are ""what passes for an aristocracy--as close to one as our culture will ever get.

Pub Date: April 18th, 1986
Publisher: Doubleday