Theodosia Burr

Theodosia Burr, Mrs. Joseph Alston

Theodosia Burr
Theodosia Burr
(Mrs. Joseph Alston)
By Charles B. J. F. Saint Memin

Theodosia Burr was, as has been said of the daughter of another eminent statesman with whom Aaron Burr was closely identified, “the soul of her father’s soul.” If we would know the better part of a man who was one of the most remarkable characters of his age, we must know Theodosia, through whom, perhaps, his name, which all the subtlety of his soul was bent on immortalizing, may live to a better fame in the centuries to come than has attended it through the years of that in which he lived. Under the inspiration of her presence both her father and husband rose to lofty pinnacles in the political arena of their country. Her father on the eve of her marriage stood at the very portals of the Chief Magistracy. In less than ten years of political life he had so progressed that the election of 1800 resulted in a tie vote for the Presidency between Aaron Burr and Thomas Jefferson.

In 1801, while the festivities attending Theodosia’s marriage at Albany were at their height, the House of Representatives at Washington entered upon that long session of seven days which terminated in declaring Thomas Jefferson President of the United States and Aaron Burr Vice-President.

From the moment Theodosia linked her life with another’s, and thus in a measure ceased to be part of his, the retrogressive period of Aaron Burr’s life began.

To her husband she carried that same inspiring influence which she had wielded over her father. She gave an impetus to his luxuriant and aimless existence, and at the time of the tragedy which ended her twenty-nine years of life he was occupying the gubernatorial chair of his State. Her life was closely allied not only with the private interests, but with the political ambitions of both. Her father rarely dined, either among friends or strangers, that her health was not drunk. He made her known to everybody and during his travels in Europe so interested Jeremy Bentham and other writers in her that they sent her sets of their books.

At a time when woman was regarded rather as the companion of a man’s heart than as his intellectual mate, “the soft green of the soul on which we rest our eyes that are fatigued with beholding more glaring objects,” Theodosia Burr’s mental faculties were so developed and trained as to fit her for the most complete and sympathetic union with father, husband, and son.

It is but a negative tribute to say that she was by far the best educated woman of her time and country. In the beauty of her mind and person she realized her father’s ideal of a perfect woman, and amply satisfied his pride and vanity. On the eve of his duel with Hamilton he wrote to her,” I am indebted to you, my dearest Theodosia, for a very great portion of the happiness which I have enjoyed in this life. You have completely satisfied all that my heart and affections had hoped for or ever wished.”

Theodosia was the only child of Burr’s marriage with the widow of a British army officer who had lost his life in the West Indies.

Fresh from the battlefields of the Revolution, where he had won honors of which he was ever more tenacious than of those achieved elsewhere, and but recently admitted to the bar after a brief period of study, his marriage to a woman ten years his senior and the mother of two well grown boys was a source of genuine wonderment to Burr’s friends in New York. Young, of fascinating manner and appearance, some means, and good family, he might readily have aspired to an alliance with any one of those families which were a power in the State, the Livingstons, the Van Rcisselaers, or the Clintons. But before he quitted the army, Burr had discovered the charms of the society at the “Hermitage,” presided over by Mrs. De Visme and her two daughters, one of whom was the widow of Colonel Prevost.

There he met the most distinguished men of his country, through whose influence this family had been spared the inconvenience of moving within the British lines at the outbreak of hostilities. In the library, there, he discovered a treasure house of French literature, to which he was ever partial, and in the interchange of thought which followed his reading, Aaron Burr and Mrs. Prevost became constantly more imbued with a sense of the beauty and attraction of each other’s minds. Through her he gleaned his first reverence for the intellectual power of woman, and to her he owed the happiest days of his life.

“The mother of my Theo,” he said, speaking of her towards the close of his life, “was the best woman and the finest lady I have ever known.” In her finished manner, her fine bearing, and her exquisite mind there was a delicate harmony that soothed and satisfied Burr’s artistic soul. His marriage to her in July, 1782, put an end to the rumor that he was paying his addresses to Miss De Visme, to which his frequent visits to the “Hermitage” had given rise.

The first year of their married life was spent in Albany, where he was engaged in the practice of law, and where Theodosia was born on the 23d of June, 1783. In the fall of that year her parents removed to the city of New York, where they had leased a house in Maiden Lane, at a rental of two hundred pounds per year, to commence from the time the British troops left New York, which they did on November 23, 1783.

So prosperous were Burr’s financial affairs that he early in his married life acquired also the possession of a country seat, Richmond Hill; then two miles from the city. The house, a stately frame building with a lofty portico supported by Ionic columns, stood on a noble hill, several hundred feet in height, overlooking the river and the Jersey shore. It was surrounded by a lawn shaded by oaks, lindens, and cedars, on the out skirts of which on all sides stretched woods of more than a hundred acres. Within the enclosure was a pond known for many years after the property had passed from Burr’s possession as Burr’s Pond. On it Theodosia learned the graceful art of skating when still quite a little girl.

The house, built about the middle of the last century, was Washington’s head-quarters in 1776, and Burr, who was there with him, conceived his first desire to become its possessor. It was occupied by John Adams during his tenure of the Vice-Presidency, when New York was the capital, and Burr’s long possession of it culminated in the elegant hospitality of which it was the scene during his term as Vice-President. He returned there from Washington at the close of the sessions of Congress, and entertained with a lavishness that eventually bankrupted him.

His library, which bespoke the critical taste of the scholar, and which he had begun to collect as a boy, was a feature of the house, recalled in after years by men who had been his guests as vividly as the brilliant dinner parties given beneath the same roof by the distinguished Adams and his wife. He had his London bookseller, through whom he made constant additions to his collection, for Burr was ever a lover of books, and he recorded in his journal in his days of exile and want with what pangs he had been obliged to part with some odd volumes he had with him upon discovering that he was again under the necessity of dining.

His passion for books he imparted to his daughter, urging upon her at all times the necessity for study and improvement, and never relinquishing his endeavors to carry her mind to a high order of cultivation. In the communication he addressed to his son-in-law on the night before his duel with Hamilton, he asked as a last favor that he would urge Theodosia to continue to study. In all his letters to her his efforts to stimulate this habit were uppermost. “The longer I live,” she wrote to him after her marriage, “the more frequently the truth of your advice evinces itself, that occupation is necessary to give us command over ourselves.”

In the development of her mind and character he pursued a clearly-defined and well-directed course. When she was ten years old he wrote to his wife from Philadelphia, where he was at the time occupying a seat in the Senate, reminding her that he had left a memorandum of what Theodosia was to learn during his absence. While his public duties were such that he was not able always to personally superintend her studies, he gave minute instructions to the tutors to whom he entrusted her, and constituted himself their vigilant and inexorable critic. “If your young teacher,” he wrote to her when she was in her sixteenth year, ” after a week’s trial should not suit you, dismiss him on any pretence, without wounding his pride, and take the old Scotchman. Resolve to succeed and you cannot fail.”

Mary Wollstonecraft’s book, “A Vindication of the Rights of Women,” in which Burr became so absorbed that he sat up all night reading it, so affected him that its influence told on all Theodosia’s life. On the principles it inculcated were based both her mental and moral development. ” If I could foresee,” he wrote to his wife, “that Theodosia would become a mere fashionable woman with all the attendant frivolity and vacuity of mind, adorned with whatever grace and allurement, I would earnestly pray God to take her forthwith hence. But I yet hope by her to convince the world what neither sex appears to believe, that women have souls.”

“And do you regret,” he wrote to Theodosia herself, when she was a little more than sixteen, “you are not also a woman.” That you are not numbered in that galaxy of beauty which adorns an assembly room? Coquetting for admiration and attracting flattery? No. I answer with confidence. You feel that you are maturing for solid friendship. The friends you gain you will never lose; and no one, I think, will dare to insult your understanding by such compliments as are most graciously received by too many of your sex.”

Burr was himself an ornament to many a drawing room, and no man ever had better opportunities for estimating the deficiencies in the system of educating the women of his day. Theodosia he brought up like a young Spartan, with few or none of the feminine affectations then in vogue. Courage and fortitude were his darling virtues, and so instilled into her from her infancy that they formed almost the groundwork of her character. “No apologies or explanations. I hate them,” he said, reproving her for some fault of omission when she was a little child. “I beg and expect it of you,” he wrote to her from Richmond, where he was awaiting trial for treason, and whither she was hastening to him, “that you will conduct yourself as becomes my daughter, and that you manifest no signs of weakness or alarm.”

Theodosia’s affection for her father was the absorbing passion of her life. “You appear to me so superior, so elevated above other men,” she once wrote to him, ” I contemplate you with such a strange mixture of humility, admiration, reverence, love, and pride, that very little superstition would be necessary to make me worship you as a superior being; such enthusiasm does your character excite in me. When I afterwards revert to myself, how insignificant do my best qualities appear. My vanity would be greater if I had not been placed so near you; and yet my pride is our relationship. I had rather not live than not be the daughter of such a man.”

He sent his love to ” the smiling little girl,” in a letter he wrote his wife when Theodosia was two years old, not knowing that with his going she had not only ceased to smile, but that she wept bitterly and heart-brokenly whenever his name was mentioned, and that it required the combined efforts of her mother and nurse to divert her thoughts from the painful fact of his absence. As her mother said, the attachment which thus early manifested itself in so marked a manner was not of a common nature. Theodosia’s life is an evidence of how exalted it was, when, with all the world against him, she was yet proud to be his daughter.

Burr exercised an almost hypnotic influence over both men and women, and there are extant innumerable anecdotes of the conquests he continually made over those who had gone forth to apprehend him as a villain. In his intercourse with Theodosia he brought into play all those delicate attributes of his mind which captivated so many women. She was constantly in his thoughts. “The ideas of which you are the object, that daily pass through my mind,” he wrote to her in 1799, from Albany, where the Legislature was in session, “would, if committed to writing, fill an octavo volume. . . . Indeed, my dear Theodosia, I have many, many moments of solicitude about you.”

He exacted much of her even as a child, among other things that she should keep a journal in his absence, to be sent to him at regular intervals, and that she should answer his letters minutely and promptly. Writing to her when she was eleven years old, he said,

“Yesterday I received your letter and journal to the 13th inclusive. On the 13th you say you got nine pages in Lucian. It was, to be sure, a most surprising lesson. I suspect it must have been the second time going over, and even then it would have been great, and, at the same rate, you will be through a second time before my month is up. I should be delighted to find it so. I have not told you directly that I should stay longer than a month but I was angry enough with you to stay three months when you neglected to write to me for two successive posts.”

“I beg, Miss Prissy,” he wrote to her from Philadelphia during the same year, ” that you will name a single ”unsuccessful effort’ which you have made to please me. As to the letters and journal which you did write, surely you have reason abundant to believe that they gave me pleasure; and how the deuce I am to be pleased with those you did not write, and how an omission to write can be called an effort, remains for your ingenuity to disclose.”

In his next letter to her, he referred again to “the unsuccessful effort.”

“Your letter of the 9th, my dear Theo, was a most agreeable surprise to me. I had not dared even to hope for one until tomorrow. In one instance, at least, an attempt to please me has not been ‘ unsuccessful” You see, I do not forget that piece of impudence.”

He was mindful, too, of her health, and in one of his letters begged her to carry herself erect. He had himself a remarkably erect and graceful carriage, which lent a majesty to his bearing and gave the impression of much greater height than he possessed.

While his letters to her were full of advice and suggestions for her improvement, they were by no means lacking in commendation. As she grew to woman hood this was more marked, as was also his tendency to confide in her. Her father’s frequent and prolonged absences from home, her mother’s long illness, attended with much suffering and terminating in death when Theodosia was but eleven years old, had necessitated an early assumption of those responsibilities which mature and strengthen character. To a suggestion contained in a letter written by her father shortly before her mother’s death, that he would leave Congress that he might have more time to devote to his wife, Theodosia replied with a quaintness that was characteristic of her: “Ma begs that you omit the thought of leaving Congress.”

From her close association with her mother under such circumstances her receptive mind became imbued with the beauties of the Christian philosophy, which her father, though a grandson of Jonathan Edwards and a son of the Rev. Aaron Burr, founder and first president of Princeton College, had not included in the course of studies so exactingly marked out for her. She was at this time studying Latin, Greek, French, and music, and learning to dance and to skate.

After her mother’s death. Burr, who had a profound admiration for the language, literature, and people of France, consigned her to a French governess. She acquired a complete mastery of that tongue, and the fluency with which she spoke it added much to the grace with which she presided over her father’s home, for Burr frequently entertained Frenchmen. Louis Philippe, Jerome Bonaparte, Talleyrand, and Volney were all at various times his guests at Richmond Hill.

When Theodosia was fourteen she took her place at the head of her father’s household and became his inseparable companion, her playful wit illuminating his hours of relaxation, her steadfast courage, her strength, her very presence, constituting his most powerful defense in the darkest hours of his life.

She had much of her mother’s self-poise and elegance of manner, together with her father’s dignity and wit. When she reached maturity, though short in stature like her father’s family, she carried herself with a noble dignity which, with a certain lofty benevolence of countenance, the refinement of her features, the frank intelligence of her brow, the healthful bloom of her complexion, made her singularly beautiful. So absolute was her father’s confidence in her that he wrote when she was but seventeen, “Many are surprised that I could repose in you so great a trust as that of yourself, but I knew you were equal to it, and I am not deceived.”

He sent Brant, the Indian chief, to her from Philadelphia with a letter of introduction, she was but fourteen at the time and mistress of Richmond Hill, where she entertained him with an ease which gave her father much gratification. She gave a dinner in his honor, inviting to meet him some of her father’s friends, among them Volney, Bishop Moore, Dr. Bard, and Dr. Hosack. She was already a belle, with many admirers ever in her wake, when Edward Livingston, then mayor of New York, taking her aboard a French frigate lying in the harbor of the city, thus warned her: ” You must bring none of your sparks on board, Theodosia. We have a magazine here, and we shall all be blown up.”

Her life was full of happiness at this time, with Hamilton’s wife and daughters among her friends, her father one of the Presidential possibilities, and she enjoying much of his society, accompanying him frequently to Albany on horseback and visiting in the neighborhood while he transacted his business at the capital.

In February, 1801, a few months before she was eighteen, Theodosia was married to Joseph Alston, of South Carolina. He also was young, being but twenty-two, and wealthy, possessing extensive rice plantations, talented and ambitious, though as yet without a specific object on which to expend these qualities. He had studied law and been admitted to the bar, though he had not begun to practice. Upon Burr’s suggestion he entered upon a political career, rising eventually to the governorship of his State.

Theodosia argued for a deferment of the marriage, quoting Aristotle that a man should not marry till he was thirty-six. With convincing eloquence and ardor, Alston replied, winning his suit, notwithstanding Aristotle and other equally eminent authorities.

On February 7, 1801, the New York Commercial Advertiser announced the marriage, which had taken place on the 2d, at Albany, where the Legislature, of which Burr was then a member, was in session. It was a period of intense excitement throughout the country, and the names of Jefferson and Burr were in all mouths. The people of the country had cast a tie vote, which threw the election into the House of Representatives. Party spirit manifested itself for the first time in the young republic, and the strength of the constitution was early put to a severe test.

Theodosia, on her way to her new home in the South, stopped in Washington, where, on the 4th of March, she saw her father inducted into the Vice-Presidency.

Her marriage and her father’s new honors inaugurated for her three years of absolute happiness. Though her husband’s home and her father’s were a journey of twenty days apart, she went frequently back and forth, and though she wrote to her husband during one of her early visits to her old home, ” Where you are, there is my country, and in you are centered all my wishes,” she was undoubtedly in better health and spirits when in her northern home. Her winters were passed in Charleston, where she was well received and much beloved, and where she became an important factor in her husband’s political success.

Her father missed her sadly. “For what else, for whom else, do I live?” he had written to her shortly before her marriage. When she was no longer at Richmond Hill he returned there with painful reluctance. Theodosia urged him to marry again, and from the tone of a letter he wrote to her about this time there seems to have been some probability of his accepting her suggestion. If he were really in earnest, however, he at least did not conduct the affair with his usual sapiency, and though Theodosia from afar threw light on the young woman’s vagaries, it was to no purpose.

Theodosia’s only child, a son, she named after her father, to whom he was a source of much pride and affection. To Burr the anniversaries of the day of Theodosia’s birth were ever occasions for rejoicing. Her twenty-first birthday, though she was not with him, he celebrated with a dinner-party at Richmond Hill. He had her portrait placed in a chair at the table, but, as it was a profile and appeared unsociable, he had it hung up again. “We laughed an hour, danced an hour, and drank your health,” he wrote to her.

But already the days of her contentment were drawing to a close. Before this letter telling her of the happiness the day had given him had reached her, the tragedy of Weehawken had been enacted. Its shadow fell forever upon him who survived it, and who doubtless became a potent instrument in Hamilton’s canonization. With awful blackness, too, it fell upon the far-away daughter when she heard that her father was a fugitive with an indictment for murder hanging over him.

From that moment shadows gathered about her with ever increasing somberness till they culminated in that hour of darkness in which her life went out.

In Burr’s Mexican scheme, which he set on foot shortly after the expiration of his term as Vice-President, Theodosia became involved sentimentally, and her husband financially. The President’s proclamation and Burr’s arrest put an end to their visionary dynasty in Mexico. Instead of beholding him upon a throne, they saw him arraigned before the tribunal of justice at Richmond, on a charge of high treason, with Chief Justice Marshall the presiding judge, and John Randolph of Roanoke foreman of the jury. Never, it has been said, did two more wonderful pairs of eyes than those of Marshall and Burr, black, brilliant, and penetrating, look into each other.

In arraigning Burr, there was an element to be reckoned with that is not ordinarily taken into consideration, the marvelous personality of the man. From his appearance, his manners, his voice, his eyes, emanated an influence not to be lightly estimated. In his bearing and presence he was peerless. He spoke without effort, in a full, crisp, rather than powerful, voice, clothing his thoughts in the language best suited to their most accurate expression, terse, epigrammatic and devoid of figures, his mobile features lending themselves to the thought that was severe or scintillating, tender or impressive. With a woman’s tact he combined an adroit intellect equal to any emergency.

He conducted his own defense, supported by the best legal talent in the country. His son-in-law sat beside him every day in court, and Theodosia, the beautiful, noble Theodosia, with sublime faith in her father, inspired a confidence in him in other breasts.

She appealed to the poetic fancy of Washington Irving, then a young barrister, who was sent from New York to report the trial for his brother’s paper, and whose letters evince an unmistakable sympathy for Burr. Luther Martin, one of the foremost geniuses of the Maryland bar, defended him with an eloquence that rendered Martin himself an object of suspicion to Thomas Jefferson.

“I find that Luther Martin’s idolatrous admiration of Mrs. Alston,” wrote Blennerhassett, ” is almost as excessive as my own, but far more beneficial to his interests and injurious to his judgment, as it is the medium of his blind attachment to her father, whose secrets and views, past, present, and to come, he is and wishes to remain ignorant of Nor can he see a speck in the character of Alston, for the best of all reasons with him, namely, that Alston has such a wife.”

Though Burr was acquitted, there was an element of hostility to him in the government, and much distrust of him among the people of the country at large. In the following year, therefore, he went to Europe. Theodosia had gone to New York to be near him. He saw her for the last time on June 7, 1808, the night before he sailed. She spent that summer at Saratoga, and the following winter in New York, where she lived in retirement.

“The world,” she said, in one of her letters to her father about this time, “begins to cool terribly around me. You would be surprised how many I supposed attached to me have abandoned the sorry losing game of disinterested friendship.” She repeatedly urged him to return, promising him that if the worst came to the worst, she would leave everything and suffer with him.

A few months after Madison’s elevation to the Presidency she wrote to Mrs. Madison, whom her father had known when she was a young widow, and to whom he had introduced Mr. Madison. “Ever since the choice of the people was first declared in favor of Mr. Madison, my heart, amid the universal joy, has beat with the hope that I, too, should soon have reason to rejoice,” she wrote. She desired to know if there was danger of any further prosecution of her father in the event of his return. For the same purpose she wrote two years later from the Oaks, her South Carolina home, to Albert Gallatin, then Secretary of the Treasury, and once a friend of her father’s. The letter was calmly logical, yet eloquent with feeling.

In another year Burr was within sight of his home and country. As he neared her shores he wrote in his journal, “A pilot is in sight and within two miles of us. All is bustle and joy except Gamp (the name by which his little grandson called him). Why should he rejoice?”

Of all the misfortunes of his life, the heaviest were to fall upon him that year. A month after her father’s arrival in New York, and while her heart was yet rejoicing that he had been kindly received, the young life of Theodosia’s son, full of beauty and promise, closed. “I will not conceal from you,” wrote Alston to his father-in-law, ” that life is a burden, which, heavy as it is, we shall support, if not with dignity, at least with decency and firmness. Theodosia has endured all that a human being could endure, but her admirable mind will triumph. She supports herself in a manner worthy of your daughter.”

Theodosia longed to see her father. We were at war with England at the time, and her husband, governor of his State and general of militia could not leave his post of duty to accompany her to New York. Her health was so feeble that she could not safely attempt the journey alone. Her father’s old friend Timothy Green offered his services, going from New York to bring her north. Under his care, and accompanied by her maid, Theodosia sailed from Charleston on the “Pilot” on the 30th of December, 1812. Save by her fellow passengers on the ill-fated vessel, she was never seen or heard of again. A violent storm swept the coast on the following day, and it has been supposed that the “Pilot,” with all on board, went down off Cape Hatteras. After weeks and months of despairing silence, father and husband gave her up. Burr during this period of torturing suspense acquired a habit which clung to him to the end of his life, of wistfully scanning the horizon for ships as he walked on the battery, then the popular resort of all New Yorkers.

Two or three years after she had gone from their lives, her husband sent a chest of her belongings, which he had not had the courage to open, to her father. “What a fate, poor thing !” sighed Burr, as he recognized the familiar articles. Among the contents was a letter addressed, ” To my husband. To be delivered after my death and before my burial.” It was dated August 6, 1805, and had been written during an absence of her husband from home, at a time when, being depressed in health and spirits, she feared that death was approaching. After leaving some remembrance to the various members of her husband’s family, and begging her husband to provide for Peggy, an old servant, she says,

“Death is not welcome. I confess it is ever dreaded. You have made me too fond of life. Adieu then, thou kind, thou tender husband. Adieu, friend of my heart. May Heaven prosper you, and may we meet hereafter. Adieu; perhaps we may never see each other again in this world. You are away, I wished to hold you fast, and prevent you from going this morning. But He who is wisdom itself ordains events; we must submit to them. Least of all should I murmur, I, on whom so many blessings have been showered, whose days have been numbered by bounties, who have had such a husband, such a child, such a father. Oh, pardon me, my God, if I regret leaving these. I resign myself Adieu once more, and for the last time, my beloved. Speak of me often to our son. Let him love the memory of his mother, and let him know how he was loved by her.
Your wife, your fond wife,

“Let my father see my son sometimes. Do not be unkind towards him whom I have loved so much, I beseech you. Burn all my papers except my father’s letters, which I beg you to return to him. Adieu, my sweet boy. Love your father, be grateful and affectionate to him while he lives, be the pride of his meridian, the support of his departing days. Be all that he wishes, for he made your mother happy.”

After expressing a wish that she may not he stripped and washed according to the usual custom, being pure enough to return to dust, she concludes: “If it does not appear contradictory or silly, I beg to be kept as long as possible before I am consigned to the earth.”

Alston, who survived her but four years, wrote heart-brokenly to her father: “My boy, my wife, gone both! This, then, is the end of all the hopes we had formed. You may well observe that you feel severed from the human race. She was the last tie that bound us to the species. What have we left? Yet, after all, he is a poor actor who cannot sustain his hour upon the stage, be his part what it may. But the man who has been deemed worthy of the heart of Theodosia Burr, and who has felt what it was to be blessed with such a woman’s love, will never forget his elevation.”

Alston, Burr,


Albany New York,

Peacock, Virginia Tatnal. Famous American Belles of the Nineteenth Century. K. B. Lippincott Company. 1901.

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