Livingston was born in Albany in the Province of New York on November 30, 1723. He was the son of Philip Livingston (1686–1749), the 2nd Lord of Livingston Manor, and Catherine Van Brugh, the only child of Albany mayor Pieter Van Brugh. His older siblings included Robert Livingston (1708–1790), 3rd Lord of Livingston Manor, Peter Van Brugh Livingston (1710–1792), New York State Treasurer, and Philip Livingston (1716–1778), a member of the New York State Senate.
Livingston received his early education from local schools and tutors. At age 13, he was sent to live for a year and prepare for college with the Anglican missionary catechist and Yale College graduate Henry Barclay who lived among the Iroquois in the Mohawk Valley at Fort Hunter. Livingston enrolled at Yale in 1737 and graduated in 1741. He went on to New York City, where he studied law and became a law clerk for the eminent lawyer James Alexander. He left Alexander's office in the spring of 1746 before finishing his apprenticeship because of a disagreement and joined the office of William Smith, Sr.
He became a lawyer in 1748 and began his practice in New York City. In 1752, he founded a weekly journal, the Independent Reflector, along with fellow Presbyterian lawyers William Smith, Jr., the son of his law teacher, and John Morin Scott. The three were called by contemporaries "The Triumvirate". The Reflector was New York's first serial non-newspaper publication and the only one being published in British North America at the time. It was used as a platform by the political upstate Presbyterian land-owning "country faction" led by Livingston for challenging the powerful downstate Anglican and Dutch Reformed merchant or "popular faction" led by Chief Justice James De Lancey. Most notably the Triumvirate attacked the founding of King's College as a conspiracy by Anglicans to install a bishop in America, including his former tutor Rev. Henry Barclay, rector of Trinity Church, and his former law teacher James Alexander.
Publication of the Reflector ceased with the fifty-second issue in late 1753 after political pressure was brought to bear upon its printer, James Parker, but Livingston and his allies continued to attack the college over the next year with columns in newspapers. By raising divisive issues, he managed to divert half the funds raised by a state lottery for the college to fund the construction of a new jail and a detention house for sailors from diseased ships. King's College was defiantly opened despite Livingston's efforts by President Rev. Samuel Johnson in July 1754 and granted a charter by the king on October 31, 1754. Though he failed to close the college, no bishop arrived as predicted.
Livingston remained politically active and was elected to the American Philosophical Society in 1768 and served one term in the New York General Assembly until his political allies lost power in 1769 and was replaced by his nephew, Peter Robert Livingston, the eldest surviving son of his brother Robert.
In 1772, he moved to Elizabethtown (today Elizabeth, New Jersey), where he rented a house in town. A young Alexander Hamilton lived with Livingston for at least the winter while he attended Francis Barber's grammar school. Livingston started construction of a large country home to house his growing family. The house, known as Liberty Hall, still stands. After attaining considerable influence amongst the local patriots, Livingston was elected to serve as one of New Jersey's delegates to the Continental Congress. He served from July 1774 to June 1776. The state's Provincial Congress declined to reappoint him to the Continental Congress as he did not favor independence. Instead, they offered him command of the state's militia, an offer he declined. He returned to New Jersey and relied on his previous commission (of October 1775) as a brigadier general of the New Jersey Militia.
In August 1776, he was elected Governor of New Jersey. For much of the time between 1776 and 1779, the family was located in Parsippany for safety. Liberty Hall was frequently visited by British troops or naval forces since there was a substantial reward for Livingston's capture. One attempt to kidnap him took place in mid-June 1779. False information about Livingston visiting his second home in Parsippany resulted in a raid by Loyalists and their subsequent capture. The Loyalist mayor of New York City (and a distant cousin through the Schuyler family), David Mathews, was suspected by being behind the attempted capture of Livingston. The family returned to Liberty Hall in 1779 to begin restoring their looted home. He was elected a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1782.
Livingston joined the New Jersey Delegation to the 1787 Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia and was one of the signers of the U.S. Constitution. He was appointed United States Minister to the Netherlands in 1788 by U.S. Congress but turned down the proposition. He continued to be reelected governor of New Jersey each year