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An American Aristocracy: The Livingstons

July 2024
1min read

by Clare Brandt; Doubleday & Co. ; 297 pages; $19.95.

By the time two generations of Livingstons had finished acquiring land in the Hudson Valley—by purchase and by marriage—the family holdings had reached one million acres. Although most of the clan cast their lot with the patriots at the time of the American Revolution, they should not be mistaken for democrats. As Tocqueville pointed out, men’s taste for liberty and their taste for equality are two quite different things. The family reached its peak with Robert R., “the Chancellor,” an architect of the Declaration of Independence and the man who administered the presidential oath to George Washington. He also negotiated the Louisiana Purchase and financed Robert Fulton’s steamboat. Subsequent Livingstons (generation after generation of Roberts and Margarets) eschewed politics when the social implications of political democracy became clear, and the family “drew up and circled its wagons.” Their concern was to perpetuate a pseudo-feudal system of tenants on their vast landholdings. It was almost as though, the author writes, they lived “with one foot in their own century and the other planted firmly in the Middle Ages.”

Over the generations, their insularity, family feuds, and the changes in the world around them have reduced the land-proud family to insignificance. Though there is still a core of family members clustered around the original manor, their rituals now seem anachronistic, their family hauteur absurd. Clare Brandt has written a fine family history, funny without meanness, absorbing and graceful.

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