The Story Of Aaron Burr
There will come a time when the name of Aaron Burr will be cleared from
the prejudice which now surrounds it, when he will stand in the public
estimation side by side with Alexander Hamilton, whom he shot in a duel
in 1804, but whom in many respects he curiously resembled. When the
white light of history shall have searched them both they will appear as
two remarkable men, each having his own undoubted faults and at the same
time his equally undoubted virtues.
Burr and Hamilton were born within a year of each other--Burr being
a grandson of Jonathan Edwards, and Alexander Hamilton being the
illegitimate son of a Scottish merchant in the West Indies. Each of them
was short in stature, keen of intellect, of great physical endurance,
courage, and impressive personality. Each as a young man served on
the staff of Washington during the Revolutionary War, and each of them
quarreled with him, though in a different way.
On one occasion Burr was quite unjustly suspected by Washington of
looking over the latter's shoulder while he was writing. "Washington
leaped to his feet with the exclamation:
"How dare you, Colonel Burr?"
Burr's eyes flashed fire at the question, and he retorted, haughtily:
"Colonel Burr DARE do anything."
This, however, was the end of their altercation The cause of Hamilton's
difference with his chief is not known, but it was a much more serious
quarrel; so that the young officer left his staff position in a fury and
took no part in the war until the end, when he was present at the battle
Burr, on the other hand, helped Montgomery to storm the heights of
Quebec, and nearly reached the upper citadel when his commander was
shot dead and the Americans retreated. In all this confusion Burr showed
himself a man of mettle. The slain Montgomery was six feet high, but
Burr carried his body away with wonderful strength amid a shower of
musket-balls and grape-shot.
Hamilton had no belief in the American Constitution, which he called "a
shattered, feeble thing." He could never obtain an elective office,
and he would have preferred to see the United States transformed into
a kingdom. Washington's magnanimity and clear-sightedness made Hamilton
Secretary of the Treasury. Burr, on the other hand, continued his
military service until the war was ended, routing the enemy at
Hackensack, enduring the horrors of Valley Forge, commanding a brigade
at the battle of Monmouth, and heading the defense of the city of New
Haven. He was also attorney-general of New York, was elected to the
United States Senate, was tied with Jefferson for the Presidency, and
then became Vice-President.
Both Hamilton and Burr were effective speakers; but, while Hamilton was
wordy and diffuse, Burr spoke always to the point, with clear and cogent
reasoning. Both were lavish spenders of money, and both were engaged
in duels before the fatal one in which Hamilton fell. Both believed in
dueling as the only way of settling an affair of honor. Neither of them
was averse to love affairs, though it may be said that Hamilton sought
women, while Burr was rather sought by women. When Secretary of the
Treasury, Hamilton was obliged to confess an adulterous amour in order
to save himself from the charge of corrupt practices in public office.
So long as Burr's wife lived he was a devoted, faithful husband to
her. Hamilton was obliged to confess his illicit acts while his wife,
formerly Miss Elizabeth Schuyler, was living. She spent her later years
in buying and destroying the compromising documents which her husband
had published for his countrymen to read.
The most extraordinary thing about Aaron Burr was the magnetic quality
that was felt by every one who approached him. The roots of this
penetrated down into a deep vitality. He was always young, always alert,
polished in manner, courageous with that sort of courage which does not
even recognize the presence of danger, charming in conversation, and
able to adapt it to men or women of any age whatever. His hair was still
dark in his eightieth year. His step was still elastic, his motions were
still as spontaneous and energetic, as those of a youth.
So it was that every one who knew him experienced his fascination. The
rough troops whom he led through the Canadian swamps felt the iron hand
of his discipline; yet they were devoted to him, since he shared all
their toils, faced all their dangers, and ate with them the scraps of
hide which they gnawed to keep the breath of life in their shrunken
Burr's discipline was indeed very strict, so that at first raw recruits
rebelled against it. On one occasion the men of an untrained company
resented it so bitterly that they decided to shoot Colonel Burr as he
paraded them for roll-call that evening. Burr somehow got word of it and
contrived to have all the cartridges drawn from their muskets. When the
time for the roll-call came one of the malcontents leaped from the front
line and leveled his weapon at Burr.
"Now is the time, boys!" he shouted.
Like lightning Burr's sword flashed from its scabbard with such a
vigorous stroke as to cut the man's arm completely off and partly to
cleave the musket.
"Take your place in the ranks," said Burr.
The mutineer obeyed, dripping with blood. A month later every man
in that company was devoted to his commander. They had learned that
discipline was the surest source of safety.
But with this high spirit and readiness to fight Burr had a most
pleasing way of meeting every one who came to him. When he was arrested
in the Western forests, charged with high treason, the sound of his
voice won from jury after jury verdicts of acquittal. Often the sheriffs
would not arrest him. One grand jury not merely exonerated him from all
public misdemeanors, but brought in a strong presentment against the
officers of the government for molesting him.
It was the same everywhere. Burr made friends and devoted allies among
all sorts of men. During his stay in France, England, Germany, and
Sweden he interested such men as Charles Lamb, Jeremy Bentham, Sir
Walter Scott, Goethe, and Heeren. They found his mind able to meet
with theirs on equal terms. Burr, indeed, had graduated as a youth
with honors from Princeton, and had continued his studies there after
graduation, which was then a most unusual thing to do. But, of course,
he learned most from his contact with men and women of the world.
Mrs. Harriet Beecher Stowe, in The Minister's Wooing, has given what is
probably an exact likeness of Aaron Burr, with his brilliant gifts and
some of his defects. It is strong testimony to the character of Burr
that Mrs. Stowe set out to paint him as a villain; but before she had
written long she felt his fascination and made her readers, in their
own despite, admirers of this remarkable man. There are many parallels,
indeed, between him and Napoleon--in the quickness of his intellect, the
ready use of his resources, and his power over men, while he was more
than Napoleon in his delightful gift of conversation and the easy play
of his cultured mind.
Those who are full of charm are willing also to be charmed. All his life
Burr was abstemious in food and drink. His tastes were most refined. It
is difficult to believe that such a man could have been an unmitigated
In his twentieth year there seems to have begun the first of the
romances that run through the story of his long career. Perhaps one
ought not to call it the first romance, for at eighteen, while he was
studying law at Litchfield, a girl, whose name has been suppressed, made
an open avowal of love for him. Almost at the same time an heiress with
a large fortune would have married him had he been willing to accept her
hand. But at this period he was only a boy and did not take such things
Two years later, after Burr had seen hard service at Quebec and on
Manhattan Island, his name was associated with that of a very beautiful
girl named Margaret Moncrieffe. She was the daughter of a British major,
but in some way she had been captured while within the American lines.
Her captivity was regarded as little more than a joke; but while she was
thus a prisoner she saw a great deal of Burr. For several months they
were comrades, after which General Putnam sent her with his compliments
to her father.
Margaret Moncrieffe had a most emotional nature. There can be no doubt
that she deeply loved the handsome young American officer, whom she
never saw again. It is doubtful how far their intimacy was carried.
Later she married a Mr. Coghlan. After reaching middle life she wrote
of Burr in a way which shows that neither years nor the obligations of
marriage could make her forget that young soldier, whom she speaks of
as "the conqueror of her soul." In the rather florid style of those days
the once youthful Margaret Moncrieffe expresses herself as follows:
Oh, may these pages one day meet the eye of him who subdued my virgin
heart, whom the immutable, unerring laws of nature had pointed out for
my husband, but whose sacred decree the barbarous customs of society
Commenting on this paragraph, Mr. H. C. Merwin justly remarks that,
whatever may have been Burr's conduct toward Margaret Moncrieffe, the
lady herself, who was the person chiefly concerned, had no complaint
to make of it. It certainly was no very serious affair, since in the
following year Burr met a lady who, while she lived, was the only woman
for whom he ever really cared.
This was Theodosia Prevost, the wife of a major in the British army.
Burr met her first in 1777, while she was living with her sister in
Westchester County. Burr's command was fifteen miles across the river,
but distance and danger made no difference to him. He used to mount a
swift horse, inspect his sentinels and outposts, and then gallop to the
Hudson, where a barge rowed by six soldiers awaited him. The barge was
well supplied with buffalo-skins, upon which the horse was thrown with
his legs bound, and then half an hour's rowing brought them to the
other side. There Burr resumed his horse, galloped to the house of Mrs.
Prevost, and, after spending a few hours with her, returned in the same
Mrs. Prevost was by no means beautiful, but she had an attractiveness
of her own. She was well educated and possessed charming manners, with
a disposition both gentle and affectionate. Her husband died soon after
the beginning of the war, and then Burr married her. No more ideal
family life could be conceived than his, and the letters which passed
between the two are full of adoration. Thus she wrote to him:
Tell me, why do I grow every day more tenacious of your regard? Is it
because each revolving day proves you more deserving?
And thus Burr answered her:
Continue to multiply your letters to me. They are all my solace. The
last six are constantly within my reach. I read them once a day at
least. Write me all that I have asked, and a hundred things which I have
When it is remembered that these letters were written after nine years
of marriage it is hard to believe all the evil things that have been
said of Burr.
His wife died in 1794, and he then gave a double affection to his
daughter Theodosia, whose beauty and accomplishments were known
throughout the country. Burr took the greatest pains in her education,
and believed that she should be trained, as he had been, to be brave,
industrious, and patient. He himself, who has been described as a
voluptuary, delighted in the endurance of cold and heat and of severe
After his death one of his younger admirers was asked what Burr had done
for him. The reply was characteristic.
"He made me iron," was the answer.
No father ever gave more attention to his daughter's welfare. As to
Theodosia's studies he was very strict, making her read Greek and Latin
every day, with drawing and music and history, in addition to French.
Not long before her marriage to Joseph Allston, of South Carolina, Burr
wrote to her:
I really think, my dear Theo, that you will be very soon beyond all
verbal criticism, and that my whole attention will be presently directed
to the improvement of your style.
Theodosia Burr married into a family of good old English stock, where
riches were abundant, and high character was regarded as the best of
all possessions. Every one has heard of the mysterious tragedy which is
associated with her history. In 1812, when her husband had been elected
Governor of his state, her only child--a sturdy boy of eleven--died, and
Theodosia's health was shattered by her sorrow. In the same year Burr
returned from a sojourn in Europe, and his loving daughter embarked from
Charleston on a schooner, the Patriot, to meet her father in New
York. When Burr arrived he was met by a letter which told him that his
grandson was dead and that Theodosia was coming to him.
Weeks sped by, and no news was heard of the ill-fated Patriot. At last
it became evident that she must have gone down or in some other way have
been lost. Burr and Governor Allston wrote to each other letter after
letter, of which each one seems to surpass the agony of the other. At
last all hope was given up. Governor Allston died soon after of a broken
heart; but Burr, as became a Stoic, acted otherwise.
He concealed everything that reminded him of Theodosia. He never spoke
of his lost daughter. His grief was too deep-seated and too terrible for
speech. Only once did he ever allude to her, and this was in a letter
written to an afflicted friend, which contained the words:
Ever since the event which separated me from mankind I have been able
neither to give nor to receive consolation.
In time the crew of a pirate vessel was captured and sentenced to be
hanged. One of the men, who seemed to be less brutal than the rest,
told how, in 1812, they had captured a schooner, and, after their usual
practice, had compelled the passengers to walk the plank. All hesitated
and showed cowardice, except only one--a beautiful woman whose eyes were
as bright and whose bearing was as unconcerned as if she were safe on
shore. She quickly led the way, and, mounting the plank with a certain
scorn of death, said to the others:
"Come, I will show you how to die."
It has always been supposed that this intrepid girl may have been
Theodosia Allston. If so, she only acted as her father would have done
and in strict accordance with his teachings.
This resolute courage, this stern joy in danger, this perfect
equanimity, made Burr especially attractive to women, who love courage,
the more so when it is coupled with gentleness and generosity.
Perhaps no man in our country has been so vehemently accused regarding
his relations with the other sex. The most improbable stories were told
about him, even by his friends. As to his enemies, they took boundless
pains to paint him in the blackest colors. According to them, no woman
was safe from his intrigues. He was a perfect devil in leading them
astray and then casting them aside.
Thus one Matthew L. Davis, in whom Burr had confided as a friend, wrote
of him long afterward a most unjust account--unjust because we have
proofs that it was false in the intensity of its abuse. Davis wrote:
It is truly surprising how any individual could become so eminent as a
soldier, as a statesman, and as a professional man who devoted so much
time to the other sex as was devoted by Colonel Burr. For more than
half a century of his life they seemed to absorb his whole thought.
His intrigues were without number; the sacred bonds of friendship were
unhesitatingly violated when they operated as barriers to the indulgence
of his passions. In this particular Burr appears to have been unfeeling
It is impossible to believe that the Spartan Burr, whose life was one of
incessant labor and whose kindliness toward every one was so well known,
should have deserved a commentary like this. The charge of immorality
is so easily made and so difficult of disproof that it has been flung
promiscuously at all the great men of history, including, in our own
country, Washington and Jefferson as well as Burr. In England, when
Gladstone was more than seventy years of age, he once stopped to ask a
question of a woman in the street. Within twenty-four hours the London
clubs were humming with a sort of demoniac glee over the story that
this aged and austere old gentleman was not above seeking common street
And so with Aaron Burr to a great extent. That he was a man of strict
morality it would be absurd to maintain. That he was a reckless and
licentious profligate would be almost equally untrue. Mr. H. O. Merwin
has very truly said:
Part of Burr's reputation for profligacy was due, no doubt, to that
vanity respecting women of which Davis himself speaks. He never refused
to accept the parentage of a child.
"Why do you allow this woman to saddle you with her child when you KNOW
you are not the father of it?" said a friend to him a few months before
"Sir," he replied, "when a lady does me the honor to name me the father
of her child I trust I shall always be too gallant to show myself
ungrateful for the favor."
There are two curious legends relating to Aaron Burr. They serve to show
that his reputation became such that he could not enjoy the society of a
woman without having her regarded as his mistress.
When he was United States Senator from New York he lived in Philadelphia
at the lodging-house of a Mrs. Payne, whose daughter, Dorothy Todd, was
the very youthful widow of an officer. This young woman was rather
free in her manners, and Burr was very responsive in his. At the time,
however, nothing was thought of it; but presently Burr brought to the
house the serious and somewhat pedantic James Madison and introduced him
to the hoyden.
Madison was then forty-seven years of age, a stranger to society, but
gradually rising to a prominent position in politics--"the great little
Madison," as Burr rather lightly called him. Before very long he had
proposed marriage to the young widow. She hesitated, and some one
referred the matter to President Washington. The Father of his Country
answered in what was perhaps the only opinion that he ever gave on the
subject of matrimony. It is worth preserving because it shows that he
had a sense of humor:
For my own part, I never did nor do I believe I ever shall give advice
to a woman who is setting out on a matrimonial voyage... A woman very
rarely asks an opinion or seeks advice on such an occasion till her
mind is wholly made up, and then it is with the hope and expectation
of obtaining a sanction, and not that she means to be governed by your
Afterward when Dolly Madison with, her yellow turban and kittenish ways
was making a sensation in Washington society some one recalled her old
association with Burr. At once the story sprang to light that Burr had
been her lover and that he had brought about the match with Madison as
an easy way of getting rid of her.
There is another curious story which makes Martin Van Buren, eighth
President of the United States, to have been the illegitimate son of
Aaron Burr. There is no earthly reason for believing this, except that
Burr sometimes stopped overnight at the tavern in Kinderhook which was
kept by Van Buren's putative father, and that Van Buren in later life
showed an astuteness equal to that of Aaron Burr himself, so that he was
called by his opponents "the fox of Kinderhook." But, as Van Buren was
born in December of the same year (1782) in which Burr was married to
Theodosia Prevost, the story is utterly improbable when we remember,
as we must, the ardent affection which Burr showed his wife, not only
before their marriage, but afterward until her death.
Putting aside these purely spurious instances, as well as others cited
by Mr. Parton, the fact remains that Aaron Burr, like Daniel Webster,
found a great attraction in the society of women; that he could please
them and fascinate them to an extraordinary degree; and that during
his later life he must be held quite culpable in this respect. His
love-making was ardent and rapid, as we shall afterward see in the case
of his second marriage.
Many other stories are told of him. For instance, it is said that he
once took a stage-coach from Jersey City to Philadelphia. The only other
occupant was a woman of high standing and one whose family deeply hated
Aaron Burr. Nevertheless, so the story goes, before they had reached
Newark she was absolutely swayed by his charm of manner; and when the
coach made its last stop before Philadelphia she voluntarily became his
It must also be said that, unlike those of Webster and Hamilton, his
intrigues were never carried on with women of the lower sort. This may
be held by some to deepen the charge against him; but more truly does it
exonerate him, since it really means that in many cases these women
of the world threw themselves at him and sought him as a lover, when
otherwise he might never have thought of them.
That he was not heartless and indifferent to those who had loved him
may be shown by the great care which he took to protect their names and
reputations. Thus, on the day before his duel with Hamilton, he made a
will in which he constituted his son-in-law as his executor. At the same
time he wrote a sealed letter to Governor Allston in which he said:
If you can pardon and indulge a folly, I would suggest that Mme. ----,
too well known under the name of Leonora, has claims on my recollection.
She is now with her husband at Santiago, in Cuba.
Another fact has been turned to his discredit. From many women, in the
course of his long life, he had received a great quantity of letters
written by aristocratic hands on scented paper, and these letters he had
never burned. Here again, perhaps, was shown the vanity of the man
who loved love for its own sake. He kept all these papers in a huge
iron-clamped chest, and he instructed Theodosia in case he should die to
burn every letter which might injure any one.
After Theodosia's death Burr gave the same instructions to Matthew L.
Davis, who did, indeed, burn them, though he made their existence a
means of blackening the character of Burr. He should have destroyed them
unopened, and should never have mentioned them in his memoirs of the man
who trusted him as a friend.
Such was Aaron Burr throughout a life which lasted for eighty years. His
last romance, at the age of seventy-eight, is worth narrating because it
has often been misunderstood.
Mme. Jumel was a Rhode Island girl who at seventeen years of age eloped
with an English officer, Colonel Peter Croix. Her first husband
died while she was still quite young, and she then married a French
wine-merchant, Stephen Jumel, some twenty years her senior, but a man of
much vigor and intelligence. M. Jumel made a considerable fortune in New
York, owning a small merchant fleet; and after Napoleon's downfall he
and his wife went to Paris, where she made a great impression in the
salons by her vivacity and wit and by her lavish expenditures.
Losing, however, part of what she and her husband possessed, Mme. Jumel
returned to New York, bringing with her a great amount of furniture and
paintings, with which she decorated the historic house still standing
in the upper part of Manhattan Island--a mansion held by her in her own
right. She managed her estate with much ability; and in 1828 M. Jumel
returned to live with her in what was in those days a splendid villa.
Four years later, however, M. Jumel suffered an accident from which he
died in a few days, leaving his wife still an attractive woman and not
very much past her prime. Soon after she had occasion to seek for legal
advice, and for this purpose visited the law-office of Aaron Burr.
She had known him a good many years before; and, though he was now
seventy-eight years of age, there was no perceptible change in him. He
was still courtly in manner, tactful, and deferential, while physically
he was straight, active, and vigorous.
A little later she invited him to a formal banquet, where he displayed
all his charms and shone to great advantage. When he was about to lead
her in to dinner, he said:
"I give my hand, madam; my heart has long been yours."
These attentions he followed up with several other visits, and
finally proposed that she should marry him. Much fluttered and no less
flattered, she uttered a sort of "No" which was not likely to discourage
a man like Aaron Burr.
"I shall come to you before very long," he said, "accompanied by a
clergyman; and then you will give me your hand because I want it."
This rapid sort of wooing was pleasantly embarrassing. The lady rather
liked it; and so, on an afternoon when the sun was shining and the
leaves were rustling in the breeze, Burr drove up to Mme. Jumel's
mansion accompanied by Dr. Bogart--the very clergyman who had married
him to his first wife fifty years before.
Mme. Jumel was now seriously disturbed, but her refusal was not a strong
one. There were reasons why she should accept the offer. The great
house was lonely. The management of her estate required a man's advice.
Moreover, she was under the spell of Burr's fascination. Therefore she
arrayed herself in one of her most magnificent Paris gowns; the members
of her household and eight servants were called in and the ceremony
was duly performed by Dr. Bogart. A banquet followed. A dozen cobwebbed
bottles of wine were brought up from the cellar, and the marriage feast
went on merrily until after midnight.
This marriage was a singular one from many points of view. It was
strange that a man of seventy-eight should take by storm the affections
of a woman so much younger than he--a woman of wealth and knowledge of
the world. In the second place, it is odd that there was still another
woman--a mere girl--who was so infatuated with Burr that when she was
told of his marriage it nearly broke her heart. Finally, in the early
part of that same year he had been accused of being the father of a
new-born child, and in spite of his age every one believed the charge to
be true. Here is a case that it would be hard to parallel.
The happiness of the newly married pair did not, however, last very
long. They made a wedding journey into Connecticut, of which state
Burr's nephew was then Governor, and there Burr saw a monster bridge
over the Connecticut River, in which his wife had shares, though they
brought her little income. He suggested that she should transfer the
investment, which, after all, was not a very large one, and place it in
a venture in Texas which looked promising. The speculation turned out to
be a loss, however, and this made Mrs. Burr extremely angry, the more
so as she had reason to think that her ever-youthful husband had been
engaged in flirting with the country girls near the Jumel mansion.
She was a woman of high spirit and had at times a violent temper. One
day the post-master at what was then the village of Harlem was surprised
to see Mrs. Burr drive up before the post-office in an open carriage.
He came out to ask what she desired, and was surprised to find her in a
violent temper and with an enormous horse-pistol on each cushion at her
"What do you wish, madam?" said he, rather mildly.
"What do I wish?" she cried. "Let me get at that villain Aaron Burr!"
Presently Burr seems to have succeeded in pacifying her; but in the end
they separated, though she afterward always spoke most kindly of him.
When he died, only about a year later, she is said to have burst into
a flood of tears--another tribute to the fascination which Aaron Burr
exercised through all his checkered life.
It is difficult to come to any fixed opinion regarding the moral
character of Aaron Burr. As a soldier he was brave to the point of
recklessness. As a political leader he was almost the equal of Jefferson
and quite superior to Hamilton. As a man of the world he was highly
accomplished, polished in manner, charming in conversation. He made
friends easily, and he forgave his enemies with a broadmindedness that
On the other hand, in his political career there was a touch of
insincerity, and it can scarcely be denied that he used his charm too
often to the injury of those women who could not resist his insinuating
ways and the caressing notes of his rich voice. But as a husband, in his
youth, he was devoted, affectionate, and loyal; while as a father he was
little less than worshiped by the daughter whom he reared so carefully.
One of his biographers very truly says that no such wretch as Burr has
been declared to be could have won and held the love of such a wife and
such a daughter as Burr had.
When all the other witnesses have been heard, let the two Theodosias
be summoned, and especially that daughter who showed toward him an
affectionate veneration unsurpassed by any recorded in history or
romance. Such an advocate as Theodosia the younger must avail in some
degree, even though the culprit were brought before the bar of Heaven
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