Appletons' Cyclopædia of American Biography/Burr, Aaron

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BURR, Aaron, clergyman, b. in Fairfield, Conn., 4 Jan., 1716; d. 24 Sept., 1757. He belonged to a Puritan family that for three generations had given to church and state men of eminence. He was graduated at Yale in his nineteenth year, having gained one of the three Berkely scholarships, which entitled him to maintenance at the college for two years after graduating. While pursuing his post-graduate studies he was converted, and at once turned his attention to theology. At the age of twenty-two he became pastor of the Presbyterian church in Newark, N. J., where he soon acquired a commanding reputation as a pulpit orator. Here he also established a school for boys, which proved highly successful. He prepared for his pupils a Latin grammar known as the “Newark Grammar” (1752), which was long in use at Princeton. In later years he published a small work on the “Supreme Deity of Our Lord Jesus Christ” (new ed., 1791), with an occasional sermon. In 1748, at the age of thirty-two, he became president of the College of New Jersey, but without interrupting his pastoral service. In the summer of 1752 he married Esther, daughter of Jonathan Edwards, of Stockbridge, Mass. In the autumn of 1756 he resigned his charge at Newark and removed to Princeton, where he died from overwork. He left two children, Sarah, b. 3 May, 1754, and Aaron. As scholar, preacher, author, and educator, President Burr was one of the foremost men of his time. To his more solid qualities were added a certain grace and distinguished style of manner, which re-appeared in his son. Though nominally the second president of Princeton, he was practically the first, since the former, Jonathan Dickinson, only served for a few months. He was in a true sense its founder, and the college may be said to be his monument. Six of its presidents are buried in Princeton by his side. —

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His son, Aaron, statesman, b. in Newark, N. J., 6 Feb., 1756; d. on Staten Island, N. Y., 14 Sept., 1836. His mother was Esther Edwards, the flower of the remarkable family to which she belonged, celebrated for her beauty as well as for her superior intellect and devout piety. In the truest sense, Aaron Burr was well born. Jonathan Edwards, his grandfather, illustrious as divine and metaphysician, had been elected to succeed his son-in-law as president of Princeton, but died of a fever, resulting from inoculation for small-pox, before he had fairly entered upon his work, Mrs. Burr, his daughter, died of a similar disease sixteen days later. The infant Aaron and his sister Sarah, left doubly orphaned, were placed in charge of their uncle, the Rev. Timothy Edwards, of Elizabethtown (now Elizabeth), N. J. A handsome fortune having been bequeathed to them by their father, their education was conducted in a liberal manner; a private tutor was provided, Tapping Reeve, who afterward married his pupil, Sarah Burr, and became judge of the supreme court of Connecticut. A bright, mischievous boy, and difficult to control, Aaron was still sufficiently studious to be prepared to enter Princeton at the age of eleven, though he was not admitted on account of his extreme youth. He was very small, but strikingly handsome, with fine black eyes and the engaging ways that became a fascination in his maturer life. In 1769 he was allowed as a favor to enter the sophomore class, though only in his thirteenth year. He was a fairly diligent student and an extensive reader, and was graduated with distinction in September, 1772. Stories of wild dissipation during his college course are probably exaggerations. Just before his graduation the college was profoundly stirred by religious excitement, and young Burr, who confessed that he was moved by the revival, resorted to Dr. Witherspoon, the president, for advice. The doctor quieted his anxiety by telling him that the excitement was fanatical. Not entirely satisfied, he went in the autumn of the next year to live for a while in the family of the famous theologian, Dr. Bellamy, of Bethlehem, Conn., with the ostensible purpose of settling his mind with regard to the claims of Christianity. The result was a great surprise to his friends, if not to himself; he deliberately rejected the gospel and adopted the infidelity then so rife in Europe and America. The form of unbelief accepted by him was that of Lord Chesterfield, along with his lordship's peculiar views of morality. Here is probably the key to a comprehension of Burr's entire life. He resolved to be a “perfect man of the world,” according to the Chesterfieldian code. Most of the next year (1774) he passed in Litchfield, Conn., where he began the study of the law under Tapping Reeve, who had married his sister. At the beginning of the revolution, in 1775, Burr hastened to join the patriot army near Boston. He had a genuine passion for military life, and was singularly qualified to excel as a soldier. Here, fretted by inaction, he resolved to accompany Col. Benedict Arnold in his expedition to Quebec. Against the expostulations of all his friends and the commands of his uncle, Timothy, he persisted in his determination. Out of the memorable hardships and disasters of that expedition young Burr came back with the rank of major and a brilliant reputation for courage and ability. Soon after his return he became a member of Gen. Washington's family. From some cause the place did not please him, and after about six weeks he withdrew from Washington's table and accepted an appointment as aide to Gen. Putnam. This incident was extremely unfortunate for him. During their brief association Burr contracted prejudices against Washington which grew into deep dislike, and Washington got impressions of Burr that ripened into settled distrust. In July, 1777, Burr was promoted to the rank of lieutenant-colonel, with the command of his regiment, the colonel preferring to remain at home. In September, while occupying the house near Ramapo Pass, of which a representation is here given, he defeated the enemy near Hackensack and drove them back to Paulus Hook. At Monmouth he distinguished himself at the head of a brigade. While Burr's command lay in Orange co., N. Y., he became acquainted with Mrs. Theodosia Prevost, an intelligent and accomplished lady living at Paramus, widow of an English officer who had recently died in the West Indies. She was ten years his senior and had two sons. In March, 1779, after four years of service, he resigned his commission on account of broken health. In the autumn of 1780, his health having improved, Burr resumed the study of law, first with Judge Patterson, of New Jersey, and afterward with Thomas Smith, of Haverstraw, N. Y. On 17 April, 1782, he was admitted to the bar in Albany, the rule that required three years spent in study having been in his case relaxed on account of his service as a soldier. Now, at the age of twenty-six, he took an office in Albany and almost immediately commanded a large practice. Being at last in a condition to warrant this step, he married Mrs. Prevost, 2 July, 1782, and at once began housekeeping in Albany in handsome style. In the first year of his marriage his daughter, Theodosia, was born, the only child of this union.

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In the latter part of the next year, just after the British had evacuated the city, he returned to New York and devoted himself to his profession for eight years, having during that period twice served as a member of the New York legislature. He stood among the leaders of the bar, with no rival but Alexander Hamilton. Obtaining possession of Richmond Hill, a fine New York mansion with ample grounds, he dispensed a liberal hospitality. Talleyrand, Volney, and Louis Philippe were among his guests. In 1788, just after the adoption of the constitution, Burr entered the arena of politics as a candidate of the anti-federal party, though he was not distinctly identified with those who nominated him, and soon afterward he was appointed by Gov. Clinton attorney-general, an office which he held for two years. In 1791 he was elected to the U. S. senate over Gen. Philip Schuyler, to the great surprise of the country and the keen disappointment of Hamilton, Schuyler's son-in-law. The federalists had a majority in the legislature, and Schuyler was one of the pillars of the federal party. The triumph of Burr under these circumstances was mysterious. For six years he served in the senate with conspicuous ability, acting steadily with the republican party. Mrs. Burr died of cancer in 1794. Among the last words he ever spoke was this testimony to the wife of his youth: “The mother of my Theo was the best woman and finest lady I have ever known.” After her death the education of his daughter engrossed a large share of his attention. In 1797 the tables turned, and his defeated antagonist, Gen. Schuyler, was almost unanimously elected to his seat in the senate. Burr was shortly afterward made a member of the New York assembly. Into the presidential contest of 1800 he entered with all his energy. The republicans triumphed; but between the two highest candidates there was a tie, each receiving seventy-three votes, which threw the election into the house of representatives. In connection with this affair, Burr was charged with intriguing to defeat the public will and have himself chosen to the first office, instead of Jefferson. After a fierce struggle of seven days, the house elected Jefferson president and Burr vice-president. He was then forty-five years old and at the top of his fortune. His daughter had made a highly satisfactory marriage, and his pecuniary prospects were improved. In 1801, just before entering upon his duties as vice-president, he was a member of a convention of the state of New York for revising its constitution, and was made chairman by unanimous vote. But a great change was at hand. Near the close of his term of office as vice-president, Burr, finding himself under a cloud with his party, sought to recover his popularity by being a candidate for the governorship of New York, but was defeated by Morgan Lewis. In this contest Alexander Hamilton had put forth his utmost energies against Burr. Though the relations of these political leaders had remained outwardly friendly, they had long been rivals, and Hamilton had not hesitated to express in private his distrust of Burr, and to balk several of his ambitious projects. In the gubernatorial canvass Hamilton had written concerning his rival in a very severe manner, and some of his expressions having got into the newspapers, Burr immediately fastened upon them as ground for a challenge. A long correspondence ensued, in which Hamilton vainly sought to avoid extremities. At length the challenge was accepted, and the parties met on the bank of the Hudson, at Weehawken, N. J., at seven o'clock A. M., 7 July, 1804. At the first fire Hamilton fell mortally wounded. But Burr's shot was more fatal to himself than to his foe; he left that “field of honor” a ruined man. The tragedy aroused an unprecedented excitement, before which Burr felt it wise to fly. The coroner's inquest having returned a verdict of murder, he escaped to South Carolina and took refuge in the home of his daughter. Though an indictment for murder was obtained against him, the excitement subsided, and he was left unmolested. After a season he ventured to Washington, and completed his term of service as vice-president. Though his political prospects were now blasted and his name execrated, his bold and resolute spirit did not break. Courage and fortitude were the cardinal virtues of his moral code, and his restless mind was already employed with new and vast projects. Early in 1805 he turned his course toward the great west, then a new world. From Pittsburg he floated in a boat, specially built for him, down to New Orleans, stopping at many points, and often receiving enthusiastic attention. After some time spent in the southwest, he slowly returned to Washington, where he sought from the president an appointment suitable to his dignity. Foiled in this effort, he turned more earnestly to his mysterious western projects. His purpose seems to have been to collect a body of followers and conquer Texas — perhaps Mexico — establishing there a republic of which he should be the head. With this he associated the hope that the western states, ultimately falling away from the union, would cast in their lot with him, making New Orleans the capital of the new nation. As a rendezvous and refuge for his followers, he actually bought a vast tract of land on Washita river, for which the sum of $40,000 was to be paid. It was a wild scheme, and, if not technically treasonable, was so near to it as to make him a public enemy. Events had advanced rapidly, and Burr's plans were nearly ripe for execution, when the president, who had not been ignorant of what was maturing, issued a proclamation, 27 Oct., 1806, denouncing the enterprise and warning the people against it. The project immediately collapsed. On 14 Jan., 1807, Burr was arrested in Mississippi territory, and, having escaped, was again arrested in Alabama, whence he was conveyed to Richmond, Va. Here was held the memorable trial for treason, beginning 22 May, 1807, and lasting, with some interruptions, for six months. In the array of distinguished counsel, William Wirt was pre-eminent for the prosecution and Luther Martin for the defence. Burr himself took an active part in the case. On 1 Sept. the jury returned a verdict of not guilty on the indictment for treason, and some time afterward the prisoner was acquitted, on technical grounds, of the charge of misdemeanor. Though Burr was now free, his good name was not restored by the issue of the trial, and he soon sailed for England, still animated by new schemes and hopes. After various adventures in that country, he was expelled as an “embarrassing” person, and went to Sweden. Having spent some time in Copenhagen and various cities of Germany, he reached Paris in February, 1810. Here, kept under government surveillance, and refused permission to return to the United States, he was reduced to the severest pecuniary straits. Returning again to England, he was obliged to remain there in desperate extremities for a year and a half. At last he got away in the ship “Aurora,” and reached Boston in May, 1812. Disguised under the name of Arnot, as well as with wig, whiskers, and strange garments, the returning exile entered the city in a most humiliating plight. The government prosecutions still hung over his head, and some of his creditors had executions against him, which might throw him into a prison. He ventured to New York, however, reaching that place four years after leaving it. He soon opened an office in Nassau street, old friends rallied around him, and the future began to brighten somewhat, when he was stunned by the information that his only grandchild, Theodosia's son, aged eleven, was dead. A still more crushing blow soon came. The daughter, who was his idol, perished at sea while on a voyage from Charleston to New York in January, 1813. Burr was now fifty-seven years old. Shunned by society, though with a considerable practice, he lived on for twenty-three years. At the age of seventy-eight he married Madame Jumel, widow of a French merchant, who had a considerable fortune. The union soon proved unhappy, owing to Burr's reckless use of his wife's money, and they finally separated, though not divorced. In his last days Burr was dependent on the charity of a Scotch woman, a friend of former years, for a home. He died at Port Richmond, Staten Island, and his remains lie, according to his request, in the cemetery at Princeton, near those of his honored father and grandfather. In person, Burr was small, often being spoken of as “little Burr,” but his appearance and manners were fascinating. In his case the finest gifts of nature and fortune were spoiled by unsound moral principles and the absence of all genuine convictions. His habits were licentious. He was a master of intrigue, though to little purpose. He was a respectable lawyer and speaker, but lacked the qualities of a statesman. Dauntless resolution and cool self-possession never forsook him. On the morning of his duel with Hamilton he was found by a friend in a sound sleep. Though a skeptic, he was not a scoffer. In his last hours he said of the holy Scriptures: “They are the most perfect system of truth the world has ever seen.” —

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His daughter, Theodosia, b. in New York city in 1783; d. at sea in January, 1813, was one of the most highly accomplished and brilliant of American women. Her father, to whom she was an object of pride as well as passionate affection, devoted himself to informing her mind and training her character in accordance with his own ideal of womanhood. In her tenth year she read Horace and Terence in the original Latin, spoke French, and was studying the Greek grammar. He was as careful of her physical as of her mental education, and sought to develop the independence of thought and self-reliance that was universally discouraged at the time in the training of girls. After her mother's death, in 1794, Theodosia became mistress of her father's house and the companion of his leisure hours. On 2 Feb., 1801, she married Joseph Allston, a wealthy and talented young planter of South Carolina, who in after years became governor of his native state. The devotion of Theodosia to her father approached idolatry; through all the disasters of his career she clung to him with unshaken fidelity. She and her husband were cognizant of her father's scheme to become emperor of Mexico, her son was to be the heir to the throne, and when Burr was brought to trial at Richmond his daughter was there, and, by the power of her beauty and intellectual graces, did much to stay the torrent of popular indignation and secure a favorable verdict. Her eloquent letters to Mrs. Madison, Sec. Gallatin, and other old friends of Burr paved the way for his return to New York after four years of exile and poverty. Before his arrival Theodosia's son and only child died, in his eleventh year. In consequence of this blow she was prostrated by a nervous fever; but, eager to see her father once more, she embarked at Charleston for New York, 29 Dec., 1812, on a pilot-boat called the “Patriot.” A storm soon arose, and raged along the coast, in which the “Patriot” probably foundered off Hatteras. Nothing was ever heard of the vessel again. This event completed the tragedy of the Burr family. The accompanying portrait of Theodosia represents her at the age of nineteen. See “Life of Aaron Burr,” by Samuel L. Knapp (New York, 1835); “Memoirs, with Selections from his Correspondence” (2 vols., 1837-'8), and “Private Journal” during his residence abroad, with selections from his correspondence (2 vols., 1838), both edited by Matthew L. Davis; and “Life and Times of Aaron Burr,” by James Parton (New York, 1858).