Robert Livingston was born in 1654 in the village of Ancrum, near Jedburgh, in the County of Roxburgh, Scotland, one of seven children of the Reverend John Livingston. He and his father were lineal descendants of the fourth William Livingston, 4th Lord Livingston (d. 1518), ancestor of the earls of Linlithgow and Callendar, and a minister of the Church of Scotland.
In 1663, his father, John Livingston, was sent into exile due to his resistance to attempts to turn the Presbyterian national church into an Episcopalian institution. The exiled family settled in Rotterdam, in the Dutch Republic, where English merchants also worked. Robert became fluent in the Dutch language, which helped him greatly in his later career in New York and New Jersey, part of the former Dutch colony of New Netherland.
Following the death of his father in 1673, Robert Livingston returned to Scotland for a time. He sailed for Boston to find his fortune in North America. Livingston's father was well known in Puritan Boston, and a merchant advanced the young son enough stock and credit to undertake a trading venture to Albany, New York. Livingston arrived in Albany in late 1674. With his business and language skills, in August 1675 he became secretary to Nicholas Van Rensselaer, director of Rensselaerswyck, who died a few years later in 1678.
In 1686, he and his brother-in-law, Pieter Schuyler, persuaded Governor Thomas Dongan to grant Albany a municipal charter like that awarded to New York City a few months earlier. Appointed as clerk of the city and county of Albany, Livingston collected a fee for each legal document registered. With Pieter Schuyler, he led the opposition in Albany to Leisler's Rebellion. He served as Secretary for Indian Affairs from 1695 until his death. He was elected repeatedly to the New York provincial assembly, serving from 1709–1711, and 1716–1725; he was elected speaker in 1718.
According to Cynthia Kierner, "Robert Livingston valued public life primarily as a source of private profits. Livingston's generation looked upon politics as a business." In 1696, Livingston backed Captain William Kidd's privateer voyage on the Adventure Galley.