Famous Affinities of History
By Lyndon Orr
Public Domain Books
Marie Antoinette a la Rose (detail)
by Elizabeth Vigee Lebrun
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 of Yorktown.
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 bodies.
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 profligate.
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 seriously.
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 fatally violated!
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 way.
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 not.
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 labor.
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 and heartless.
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 amours.
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 his death.
“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; hut 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 disapproval.
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 mistress.
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 side.
“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 is unusual.
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 itself.