From their early days on the North American continent, the Livingston family were a prominent sex-trade family. In a nutshell, they were landlords to brothel-operators from at least as early as the 1810s.
New York State Chancellor Robert R. Livingston, who reluctantly joined the patriot side of the American Revolution in 1776. Chancellor Robert was one of many Livingstons who profited from the sex trade in the aftermath of the unrest.
Beyond his business ventures, modern readers will be interested in Chancellor Robert’s politics: he was a slave-owner who disliked black slavery but profited from the sexual enslavement of white women and was inimical to the interests of the majority of white voters (from whom he drew his labor force). From The Gotham Center for New York City History’s “Robert Livingston Papers” page:
“But Livingston’s attitudes toward race and slavery were complex. When he served on New York’s Council of Revision, he helped veto legislation that provided for the gradual abolition of slavery but prohibited Blacks from holding public office and voting. Of emancipated slaves, Livingston wrote they could not ‘be deprived of those essential rights without shocking the principle of equal liberty,’ adding, ‘Rendering power permanent and hereditary in the hands of persons who deduce their origins from white ancestors only’ would establish a ‘malignant … aristocracy.’ Despite this somewhat enlightened statement, Livingston used enslaved labor at Clermont. In his September 1796 will he stipulated that all slaves over thirty years old would be freed and those who were younger could be freed under certain circumstances. By 1810 he owned at least five slaves. In addition, the Chancellor owned several brothels in lower Manhattan, which made [sic] have been homes for Black servants, or prostitutes.”
American citizens who could count themselves among the “malignant…aristocracy” would have accounted for over 95% of the population in subsequent generations. Slave holders accounted for less than 1% of the population.
Race-politics and “equality” of the Livingston stripe have always had a strange synergy with the sex trade. According to Timothy J. Gilfoyle’s City of Eros (W.W. Norton, revised 1994):
“On occasion, outrageous exhibitions by black prostitutes even stimulated social unrest and political turmoil. With the ascendancy of the antislavery movement after 1830, leading abolitionists and defenders of black civil rights were accused of advocating ‘racial amalgamation,’ a contributing factor to riots in the 1830s… Sexuality was thus politicized in antebellum New York. Over time, intercourse between black and white heterosexuals was less a private matter of personal choice and more an issue of public intervention. Anxiety over economic competition from blacks induced some whites to play on fears of interracial sex in order to attack the civil rights goals of the antislavery movement.”
Abolitionism freed black labor in the South and made them available to Northern employers who wished to depress wages in their own states. Historically, wherever free black labor settled in Northern territories, prostitution flourished.
Robert R. Livingston’s ideas with respect to African Americans were not the Livingstons’ only foray into race-politics. In fact, his great-grandfather Robert Livingston‘s (1688–1775, known as “Robert of Clermont”) relationship with the Haudenosaunee was important for re-establishing his family’s relationship with the Restored British Crown.
The Livingstons were not in the New World by desire, but because of a decline in the family fortunes beginning with the English Civil War. As the Livingstons slid down the social hierarchy following Oliver Cromwell’s ouster of the Stuart dynasty, some turned to religion and embraced Radical Protestant ideology which alienated them from power-networks in Scotland (Presbyterianism). Robert of Clermont’s father was forced to flee to Dutch Rotterdam.
The Netherlands’ port cities at this time were hotbeds of piracy and radical Protestant thinkers. Leaving Rotterdam for the New World as a teen, Robert of Clermont pursued land- and sea-piracy and initiated the Livingston clan’s climb back to prominence.
For example, Robert of Clermont, great-grandfather of Chancellor Robert R. Livingston, was a business partner of the William Kidd. Both Livingston and Kidd enjoyed patronage from their contemporary Lords of Trade and Lords of the Treasury in London: these pirate-entrepreneurs were a politically connected crew in the imperial city.
Not only was Robert of Clermont an ally of Captain Kidd, but he collaborated with a number of Irish and English noblemen in a bid to dominate privateering (piracy) in North American waters. According to The Livingstons of Livingston Manor (1910) by Edwin Brockholst Livingston:
“Among the courtiers at St. James’s was an Irish nobleman [Bellomont] who took a great deal of interest in New York affairs, and knew some thing about them, having been a member of the Parliamentary Committee appointed to inquire into the petition of Leisler’s family for the reversal of the attainder. This gentleman was Richard Coote, Earl of Bellomont and Baron of Coloony, and treasurer to Queen Mary . He had many conversations with Livingston on colonial matters, and the subject of the best method for suppressing the curse of piracy was naturally the one most discussed. The king could spare no man – of-war, and Parliament would grant no supplies for this purpose , so the only alternative was to try and suppress it by private enterprise.
“Bellomont actually interested the king himself in the project, who expressed his willingness at one time to invest the sum of £3000 in the adventure. Some of the leading Whig politicians, including Somers, the Lord Chancellor; Admiral Russell, Earl of Orford, the victor of La Hogue; and the Duke of Shrewsbury, one of the Secretaries of State, were also willing to provide funds for such a laudable, as well as what was hoped to be lucrative undertaking…
“Bellomont not knowing of a suitable person to command the privateer, Livingston introduced to him the Captain William Kidd already mentioned as having borne witness to Governor Fletcher’s misgovernment in New York [political enemy of Livingston], and spoke highly as to his respectability and fitness for the post. This merchant captain is first mentioned in New York annals during the Leislerian troubles, when this “ blasphemous privateer , ” as he has been called by a recent American writer, brought his vessel up to the town to assist Ingoldsby in his attack on the fort, for which service he afterwards obtained a grant of £ 150 from the New York Assembly. He was considered to be a man of fair means, and had a wife and child residing in New York [under Livingston control], so that it is not surprising Livingston should have recommended Kidd as a responsible person , and one to be trusted in such a command…
“Accordingly , in the month of October, 1695, Livingston drew up with his own hand the Articles of Agreement, by which Lord Bellomont on the one side, on behalf of himself and fellow -subscribers, and Livingston and Captain Kidd on the other , settled the conditions on which the Adventure Galley, as the vessel was to be called , afterwards to become so notorious in the annals of piracy, was to be fitted out.”
This little business deal ended well for neither Kidd nor the British, but Robert of Clermont came out fine and it is from his fortune that subsequent Livingston land ownership derived. Readers may like to know that the “Red Sea Men,” like Captain Thomas Tew, who Kidd was commissioned to “out-pirate,” were the allies of Livingston’s political adversary in the city of New York, one Colonel Fletcher. At this time piracy was simply another tool in colonial politicians’ political arsenal.
Radical Protestants of the 1600s were somewhat preoccupied with being the “New Jews”— i.e. having a special relationship with God which marked them out from their European peers and made them righteous. In order for their interpretations of Old Testament (Jewish) religious writings to hold water, there can be no people outside of ancient Jewish concepts of the origin of humanity.
Therefore, North American Indigenous People had to be one of the lost Tribes of Israel in order for these radicals’ grandiose perceptions of themselves to be true. Readers interested in this self-serving quasi-deification of American Indians might like to read Dan Vogel’s Indian Origins of the Book of Mormon (Signatiure Books, 1986) for background to this wider Radical Protestant world-view.
Having left Rotterdam as a teen, Robert of Clermont spent at least a year living with the Indigenous People in what is now New York State and acted as a gatekeeper between them and New York’s administrators, Quaker Pennsylvania’s administrators, and Virginia’s administrators. Robert of Clermont was the British side’s point-man for combating New France’s use of the Native People against European settlers. By the late 1690s Robert of Clermont was drawing in over 100 British pounds sterling a year as “Secretary for Indian Affairs” to the New York colony.
Edwin Brockholst Livingston provides detail on the relationship between Livingston and Native People:
“At a meeting of the Albany Common Council held on the 14th of September, 1686, Livingston’s salary was advanced five pounds, raising it to the sum of twenty pounds per annum, “ in consideration of the diverse services ” which he performed as clerk. In 1693, one of his appointments, that of collector, was worth fifty pounds per annum, while that of secretary for Indian Affairs subsequently brought him in a further hundred. This last salary, however, was only granted to him in 1695 , he having performed the duties of that office for the long period of twenty years without any remuneration whatever. Mr. Livingston’s official duties at Albany brought him into frequent communication with the Indians, and the knowledge he thus obtained was of great assistance in after years to the various colonial governors. The exposed position of Albany as a frontier town, and its close proximity to the hunting grounds of that powerful Indian confederation — the Iroquois or the Five Nations which at this period was composed of the tribes of the Mohawks, Oneidas, Onondagas, Cayugas, and Senecas, and was later on to become known as the Six Nations on the addition of the Tuscaroras, required that all Indian questions should be treated with the greatest care, as the French governors of Canada were always actively intriguing to gain these fierce warriors over to their side. In consequence of the mutual jealousies of the French and English colonists aggravated by the bigotry of opposing religions — constant outbreaks of the Indians had to be continually guarded against, while at the same time every inducement was held out to them, by the English governors of the colonies exposed to their destructive raids, to prevail on these savages to “bury the hatchet,” and to keep “the Covenant chain” unbroken.”
Robert of Clermont was particularly involved with the question of Native American action in Quaker-controlled territory.
“Sir Edmund Andros, the first governor of New York after its final cession to England, as well as his successor Colonel Dongan, devoted much of their time to the study of this Indian question; and in the summer of 1684, during the rule of the latter, Lord Howard of Effingham, Governor of Virginia, came to New York for the purpose of personally conferring with Dongan on this all-important subject. These two royal governors proceeded to Albany, where they met in the city hall a deputation from the leading sachems of the Five Nations , and a long speech delivered by Dongan, on the danger of permitting the French to build forts in their territory, or to send priests to their villages, and on the advantages to be gained from an alliance with the English colonies, was listened to with great attention and respect by the assembled Indians; and their orators in reply agreed to accept the protection of the Duke of York, and to put a stop to the raids into Virginia, which had been the cause of Lord Howard’s journey to Albany. During this conference Livingston was of great assistance in rendering into English the Dutch interpreter’s translation of the Indian speeches; and four years later he was of still greater service to Dongan, who being out of funds had to apply to Livingston for pecuniary aid in carrying on the war against the French. This was the cause, ultimately, of the latter’s first visit to England, in 1695; owning to the sums of money advanced by him on this occasion, and for the subsistence of the militia during the subsequent civil commotions, being left unpaid, he was compelled to cross the Atlantic and seek redress in London. [And start his piracy monopoly.]”
Quakers were tolerant of Indigenous raiding as long as it targeted non-Quakers — particularly if such raids happened against Scot-Irish Presbyterian settlers, who were at best fitful subjects to the Quakers’ imperial patron in London. A particularly bloody instance of this double-standard and partiality to their Native American business-partners resulted in the “Paxton Boys” movement and their confrontation of Quaker bigotry. Naturally, the Quakers responded with a flurry of racist pamphlets, however the Paxtons had delivered the opening shot which initiated the end of Quakers’ suzerainty in Pennsylvania.
Robert of Clermont’s piracy fortune was the seed-money which later Livingstons used to become prominent landlords in 1770s in the city of New York. However, Chancellor Robert R. Livingston was not the only arch-pimp in the Livingston family. His brother, John R. Livingston, was one of the leading pimp-landlords in Five Points, the area of New York an area associated with prostitution, immigrant overcrowding, and inter-racial commercial sex. According to City of Eros, besides being a sex-trade don, John R. was a war-time pirate and British partisan:
“One historian of the Livingston family has concluded that John saw the Revolution as a prime opportunity for personal profit. He considered conducting business trips to Great Britain and Holland during the hostilities, only to be dissuaded by his more patriot brother… Those bits of advice, however, did not discourage him from privateering, because of “the big money in it”. As early as 1776, Livingston embarked on secret trade and illegal commerce with England or its allies. For John Livingston, patriotism and loyalty took a backseat to individual profit. “Poverty,” he admitted, “is a curse I can’t bear…[W]ith it a man had better not exist.”
As one might expect, John R. Livingston’s houses of prostitution were at the nexus of the inter-racial tensions brewing in the city of New York. Much like in the Quaker stronghold of Barbados, these brothels were often run by black women or men and “staffed” with white women sold into or groomed into prostitution from a painfully young age. Gilfoyle records contemporaries’ observations of throngs of black laborers crowding around these establishments, and notes:
“Increasingly [leading into the 1820s], large numbers of young girls, some only ten to twelve years of age, resorted to prostitution to sustain themselves and their families… There emerged informal familial and female networks [grooming networks] in which adults and prostitutes encouraged female family members, friends, and acquaintances to prostitute themselves.”
John R. Livingston was well placed to profit from this sex trafficking:
“Behind these scenes of public carnality stood the landlord. The most prolific entrepreneur of Five Points vice came from one of the leading early American families. John R. Livingston, from the famed clan of Claremont, was the brother of Chancellor Robert R. Livingston, one of the nation’s “founding fathers”… To the Livingston’s already significant landholdings in Manhattan, John Livingston added more shortly after the war [i.e. on the profits of privateering for the British], and in 1788 he gained control of property in what later became Five Points. By 1791, Livingston had purchased and leased property just west of Broadway, an area later filled with houses of prostitution. After 1800, Livingston steadily purchased property, some of it from family members, in the area around the Collect Pond, on Orange and Anthony streets… As Five Points emerged as an entrepot of sex, Livingston profited from prostitution, and throughout the 1820s and 1830s [when inter-racial conflicts became heated] he bought and sold land in the heart of the neighborhood. By 1828, Livingston had come to control at least five brothels on Anthony Street near Paradise square…
“Livingston’s control of this property, as well as of other habitats of prostitutes, was substantiated in the annual tax assessment records of the municipality. From 1820 to 1850, Livingston was listed as the owner/occupant of more than thirty documented houses of prostitution…”
Five Points was not the only place where John R. Livingston controlled bordellos, he was active spreading prostitution into other residential areas, but no matter how wide-spread and organized citizen opposition to Livingston’s metastasizing pimp-network was, judges and politicians always found in his favor. Other New York families who invested in the sex trade alongside Livingston at this time were the Lorillards.
In keeping with his family’s history, race-politics marked-out John R. Livingston’s “Five Points” red-light-district from the city of Ne York’s other vice pockets. From Gilfoyle:
“Indeed, from the end of the Revolution to the 1830s, black New Yorkers enjoyed a wider range of freedom than ever… The vehement racism that appeared after 1830 was less developed or overt. This tolerance probably affected even leisure-time and sexual behavior in the city. For example, as early as 1801, the saloonkeeper Solomon Bell entertained black and white men in his establishment. By midcentury, the best-known dance hall in Five Points, Dickens Place, was operated by Pete Williams, a successful black saloonkeeper.
“For much of the antebellum period, in fact, black-run establishments in Five Points were popular and attracted much attention. While houses of black prostitutes… did business strictly with African-American customers, numerous Five Points saloons and brothels accommodated black and white prostitutes and a similarly mixed clientele. In the 1820s, the black madam Hannah Lewis employed only white women in her Anthony Street brothel… Haunts like the Diving Bell, Swimming Bath, and Arcade on Orange Street, as well as the Yankee Kitchen, and Squeeze Gut Alley nearby, were well known for promoting miscegenational sexual intercourse…
“Some African-American proprietors assumed leading roles in the underground economy of five points. Many managed, George Foster claimed, ‘to become house-keepers and landlords, and in one way or another scrape together a good deal of money. They associate upon at least equal terms with the men and women of the parish, and many of them are regarded as desirable companions and lovers by the ‘girls’.’ Many black proprietors had white wives or mistresses, which frequently caused further consternation. To Foster, “their influence in the community [was] commanding.”
These open, commercial displays of interracial prostitution did not pass without some controversy. Naturally, Five Points residents’ criticisms of the sex trade would have cut into not only saloonkeepers’ profits, but those of John R. Livingston, too. Add into the mix Irish immigrant laborers’ growing impulse to organize to protect their own interests and the situation for families like the Livingstons became explosive.
But from where did these Livingston attitudes come? Was it simply a case of otherwise ethical and law-abiding family letting standards fall in the melting pot of New World society?
It seems that Robert of Clermont and John R. Livingston’s penchant for piracy was something of a family characteristic: the Livingstons have always been political opportunists and adventurers. The family were Scottish aristocrats who were highly favored by the Stuarts — Scotland’s royal family — from at least the time of James II (mid 1400s); the Livingstons on the whole were noted for being loyal to the person of the King.
In addition, the Livingstons were mercenaries at a time when royally-favored Brits were fighting it out with foreign merchants, religious radicals and social upstarts to control state-sponsored trade/piracy (as in “letters of marque”) in the New World, particularly Barbados. Prior to the British Civil War, Barbados had been a safe haven for royalist pirates bringing in money for the Stuart clan. It swapped to Parliamentarian/Foreign/Radical Protestant control a few years into Cromwell’s war, and became a cause for concern for the Stuarts after the Restoration.
To borrow a concept from the Hapsburg sphere: the Livingstons were “patriots for me” with respect to the Stuarts. This put the clan in good favor with James VI and I, the “King James Bible” James, who entrusted his children to the Livingstons for their upbringing. It was James VI and I’s daughter Elisabeth of Bohemia, the “Winter Queen,” who was invited by the protestant Bohemian nobility to rule them in an attempt to stave off Hapsburg persecution: a sort of political “privateering” venture.
Her spirited (aggressive) lobbying helped convince her husband to accept this risky confrontation, which ended with Bohemia’s nobility being wiped out and replaced with a motley crew of Hapsburg hangers-on. The Bohemian people never felt well governed by this new ‘elite’, a situation which set the stage for political unrest that ultimately lead the Hapsburgs into a political partnership with the Galician criminal network and the disintegration of their empire.
This fabulous pile was lost to the family because they were Jacobites during the Hanoverian Succession and supported James II (the “Old Pretender”) during the rising of 1715 — in fairness, the honorable thing to do given their ancestral commitments. However, the family’s prestige had already been bruised by religious and political flip-flopping during the English Civil War (1642–1651) and subsequent turmoil. They were mercenaries in the age of the New Model Army — dinosaurs.
[Editor’s Note: Since publication of this story one historian has raised questions about Robert R. Livingston’s profiting from he sex trade, although his brother John R. Livingston was clearly connected. You can read that analysis here.]
Illustrations, from above: portrait of Robert R. Livingston by Gilbert Stuart; a portrait of William Kidd; the Pirate Flag of Thomas Tew; map of colonies of North America in 1776; and a portrait of John R Livingston.
A. Nolen is an independent historian interested in the history of the film industry in the Midwest and its intersection with East Coast financial dynasties.
A version of this article first appeared at andreanolen.com.
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