3. The Livingstons

Alida Schuyler Livingston
Robert Livingston married the wealthy widow, Alida Schuyler, uniting two of New York's wealthiest families.

The depth of the connections of King’s families with slavery can be appreciated by looking at a few prominent examples. The wealth of the Livingston family dated back to the seventeenth century, when Robert Livingston married a wealthy widow, Alida Schuyler, and proceeded to acquire a grant of 160,000 acres of land near the village of Hudson from New York’s governor. Livingston invested heavily in the fur trade as well as mercantile voyages between Africa, the Caribbean, and North America involving sugar, tobacco, and slaves. After his death in 1728, his six children expanded the family’s landholdings (which at their peak reached one million acres) and its involvement in the slave trade. Five of his sons became merchants; one, Philip, sent three of his own sons to live in the West Indies for a time to manage the family’s affairs there. Philip Livingston became one of New York’s most active slave traders. He invested in at least fifteen slaving voyages, either alone or in partnership with one or two brothers or other merchants. Some involved heavy losses of life at sea. The Wolf, owned by Philip Livingston and two of his sons, spent fourteen months along the coast of West Africa in 1749 and 1750, eventually sailing west with 135 slaves. When it docked in New York City in May 1751, only 66 remained – the rest had either perished from disease, been killed in an abortive uprising onboard, or been sold at previous stops. Philip Livingston also advertised in the local press seeking the return of runaway slaves; for example, in 1752, a “Negro Man lately imported from Africa.... Cannot speak a word of English, or Dutch, or any other language but that of his native country.” Since the Livingston family displayed a remarkable lack of invention in naming its sons, with the same names recurring from generation to generation, it is sometimes difficult to tell which Livingston owned individual ships. But no fewer than seventeen voyages brought slaves into New York City between 1730 and 1763 on vessels owned in whole or part by members of the Livingston family.[i]

Philip Livingston Runaway Ad
Philip Livingston's ad for a runaway slave, 1752
Robert R. Livingston
Robert R. Livingston

The extended Livingston clan included major political figures such as Philip Livingston, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and Robert R. Livingston, Chancellor of New York State (a major judicial post) after the Revolution. It was closely tied to King’s and, later, Columbia. Six Livingstons attended King’s before the Revolution (although only three remained long enough to graduate) and 32 attended Columbia and P and S before the Civil War. Three served as governors, including John Livingston, Philip’s son, a donor to and active fund-raiser for the college and a borrower of money from its endowment. He imported slaves and West Indian produce into New York City and other colonies and placed dozens of advertisements in newspapers in New York and elsewhere for their sale. One such ad, in a Virginia newspaper, offered for sale “to the highest bidder… three prime young Negro Fellows, namely, a Bricklayer, a Tailor, and a Field Negro.” He also advertised for the return of runaway slaves. Brockholst Livingston, who owned four slaves in 1790 and one in 1800, was treasurer of Columbia from 1784 to 1823 and a trustee (as governors were called at Columbia) for almost all that time. Five other Livingstons at one time or another were trustees. They included Rev. John Henry Livingston, a co-owner of the Friendship plantation in Jamaica, which at its sale in 1784 was home to 207 slaves, and Walter Livingston, part owner of the Aleppo plantation in Jamaica and owner of 20 slaves in New York in 1790, when he was a trustee of Columbia College.[ii]

John Livingston Slave Sale Advertisement
One of the numerous advertisements for the sale of slaves posted by John Livingston.

When the first federal census was taken in 1790, the various branches of the Livingston family owned 170 slaves. Robert R. Livingston, who had graduated from King’s in 1765, and his mother, Margaret Beekman Livingston, each owned 15. Robert R. Livingston, however, had more enlightened views regarding African-Americans than many of his white contemporaries. As a member of the state’s Council of Revision in 1785, he helped to veto a bill passed by the legislature that provided for gradual abolition but barred blacks from voting and holding office. Freed slaves, he wrote, could not “be deprived of those essential rights without shocking the principle of equal liberty” fundamental to the New York’s new constitution. “Rendering power permanent and hereditary in the hands of persons who deduce their origins from white ancestors only,” he proclaimed, would lay the foundation for a “malignant… aristocracy.”[iii]

Margaret Beekman Livingston
Margaret Beekman Livingston

Nonetheless, Robert R. Livingston continued to use slave labor on his vast estate, Clermont, located on the Hudson River a little over one hundred miles north of New York City. William Strickland, an English visitor who recorded his impressions of the place in 1794, was waited on for breakfast by “four negro boys, the oldest about 11 or 12, barefoot but dressed in livery,” and at dinner was attended by three uniformed adult male slaves. In his will, dated September 1796, Livingston provided for the freedom of all his slaves age thirty or above, or younger “as may be convenient to my dear wife.” He lived until 1813. As late as 1810, the census reported five slaves at Claremont.[iv] In addition, Robert R. Livingston and his brother John owned a number of brothels in lower Manhattan in the early nineteenth century, at some of which black women resided, working as either domestic servants or prostitutes.[v]

[i]. Cynthia A., Kierner, Traders and Gentlefolk: The Livingstons of New York, 1675-1790 (Ithaca, 1992), 22, 39-41, 71-73; Sharon Liao, “‘A Merchants’ College’: King’s College(1754-1784) and Slavery,” Seminar Paper, Columbia and Slavery, Spring 2015, 3-6, 26-29; Wilder, Ebony and Ivy, 52-53; Darold D. Wax, Wax, Darold D., “A Philadelphia Surgeon on a Slaving Voyage to Africa, 1749-1751,” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, 92 (October 1968), 465-93.

[ii]. Liao, “Merchants’ College,” 9-17; Marilyn H. Pettit, “Slavery, Abolition, and Columbia University,” Journal of Archival Organization, 1 (November 2002), 88n.; Kierner, Livingstons, 163; Subscription List; Assignment of Mortgage, July 6, 1784, Misc. Jamaica, West Indies, New-York Historical Society.

[iii]. Moseley, Thomas R., “A History of the New York Manumission Society, 1785-1849" (PhD diss., New York University, 1963), 11; George Dangerfield, Chancellor Robert Livingston of New York 1746-1813 (New York, 1960), 451n.

[iv]. Sir William Strickland, “Journal of a Tour in the United States of America, 1794-95,” October 11-12, 1794, New-York Historical Society; Dangerfield, Livingston, 451n.

[v]. Maya Zundel, “Erased: Columbia University and Patterns of Abuse of Black Women,” Seminar Paper, Columbia and Slavery, Spring 2016, 8-10.