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Theodosia (Burr) Alston 1784 ~ 1813


Theodosia Burr Alston

Someone has said of this daughter of Aaron Burr: "With a great deal of wit, spirit and talent, and a face strikingly beautiful she inherited all that a daughter could inherit of a father's courage, she was a realization of her father's idea of a woman." And it is his love for this daughter, so tender and touching, that makes an appeal to our sympathy, however strong condemnation of his public acts may have been.

At the time of her birth in 1784, Burr was a successful young lawyer. Hand-some, fascinating, of good family and considerable fortune, he might have aspired to the hand of a Clinton, a Livingston or a Van Rensselaer, but instead he had married a woman ten years his senior, neither rich nor pretty, and a widow with two sons. "The mother of my Theo," he was heard to say in the days when she of whom he spoke had been long dead, "was the best woman and finest lady I have ever known." It was, however, the general opinion that the coming of Theodosia, their only child, was the explanation of the success of the inexplicable marriage. It became Aaron Burr's great ambition to make of this daughter an intelligent and noble woman. One evening a volume entitled "A Vindication of the Rights of Woman," by Mary Wollstonecraft, chanced to come under his notice and he sat up reading it until late in the night. In the spirit of that book he undertook the education of his daughter. He went on the principle that Theodosia was as clever and capable as a boy, and he gave her the same advantages as he would have given a son. This was an unusual principle in the days when Theodosia Burr was a girl, and in her education she may be said to be the first exponent of the college woman in America. Her father himself superintended her education even to the smallest details. From Philadelphia, where he was stationed as United States senator, he sent her fond letters of advice and criticism and at his request she sent him every week a journal of her doings and of her progress in learning.

These are charming pictures we have of Aaron Burr waiting about in the government building for the arrival of the post that should bring the letter or diary directed in his daughter's girlish handwriting; and again seated at his desk in the noisy senate chamber writing a reply to his "Dear Little Daughter," in time to catch the return mail to New York.

While she was still a child in years Theodosia Burr assumed charge of her father's house, and the distinguished men who gathered there were charmed with the little hostess, her playful wit, her self-poise and dignity of manner. In those days, when she was mistress of "Richmond Hill" after her mother's death, she was more than ever the object of her father's thought and love. He continued to superintend her education, and no social duties, no business or pleasure of any sort were allowed to interfere with her advancement of learning. At sixteen she was still a schoolgirl, though her companions of the same age had relinquished all study books and were giving their entire attention to gowns, parties and beaux. And in later years, in spite of her beauty and talents and her high position as the daughter of Aaron Burr, she was delightfully simple and unaffected. Such was the result of sensible education and her own sweet nature. She also had many admirers. We have a hint of them in one of the jovial Edward Livingston's puns that have come down to us. He was Mayor of New York when Miss Burr was one of the ruling belles. One day he took the young lady aboard a French frigate lying in the harbor. "You must bring none of your sparks on board," he warned her in merry raillery, "for we have a magazine here and we shall all be blown up." However, Miss Burr's "sparks" were not long allowed to remain in evidence for there came impetuous young Joseph Alston from South Carolina, who straightway routed his rivals and captured her.

Through all the period of wifehood and motherhood, as in those earlier days when she was his little daughter, his pupil and mistress of his home, she remained the dearest thing in the world to her distinguished father. On the night before his duel with Hamilton his last thoughts before going to the field were of his daughter. To her he wrote: "I am indebted to you for a very great portion of the happiness which I have enjoyed in this life. You have completely satisfied all that my heart had hoped."

News of the duel reached his daughter in her far-away home. Its shadow fell on her with awful blackness. Her father was a fugitive from justice with an indictment of murder hanging over him. Her days of gladness were over, and her days of anxiety and sorrow had begun. She did not see her father for almost a year, but when he did come to her, blackened through many miles of travel in an open canoe, ruined in fortune and repute, he was as welcome as ever he had been in days of his prosperity.

His disgrace had saddened his daughter. It had not lessened her love for him nor her belief in him. Her love and her belief were yet to undergo their trial. The duel with Hamilton was but the beginning of Burros downfall. The Mexican scheme soon followed. In it Theodosia and her husband became involved. When Burr was to be King of Mexico, she was to be chief lady of the court and her husband chief minister and her little son, Aaron Burr Alston, was to be heir presumptive to the throne. But while they talked of a visionary dynasty the President issued his proclamation, and Burr was summoned to appear before the tribunal at Richmond to answer to the charge of high treason.

Throughout the trial Mrs. Alston was at Richmond. Her presence there was a great help to Burr's cause. She was universally admired for her beauty, her ability and her blind faith in her father. Many believed in Aaron Burr because she believed in him. Luther Martin, her father's counsel, had the keenest admiration for the daughter of his client. "I find" wrote one statesman of this time "that Luther Martin's idolatrous admiration of Mrs. Alston is as excessive as my own, as it is the medium of his blind attachment to her father."

Burr was acquitted, but popular feeling was so strong against him that he was forced to leave America. In the spring of 1808, the year after his trial, he sailed from New York, and his daughter, sick, sorrowful, but as true as ever, left her Carolina home and journeyed north to see him once more before he went, and to bid him good-bye. The night before his departure she spent with him at the house of a loyal friend.

Father and daughter were both brave, and in the morning he parted from her and sailed away in the ship that was carrying him from all that he held most dear. The years of Burr's exile were sad years for his daughter. She realized with keen distress the bitterness of his position, and indeed she herself was made to feel some of the odium that was directed against hint. She longed earnestly for his return and pleaded eloquently and pathetically with those in authority that her father might be allowed to come back to America.

But when in the year 1812 he did come back to New York and his daughter started to join him there, the ship on which she had taken passage went down off Cape Hatteras and not a soul on board was saved. The father and husband waited in agonized expectancy, but at length came the news of her tragic fate. Thus Burr was left alone, but he did not complain. He was silent through his great sorrow. But there were those who remembered him in his last days, a solitary old man walking along the Battery and looking wistfully toward the horizon for ships. The look was a habit he had acquired while waiting for the ship which never brought his daughter.

Women of America

Source: The Part Taken by Women in American History, By Mrs. John A. Logan, Published by The Perry-Nalle Publishing Company, Wilmington, Delaware, 1912.


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