Aaron Burr as a Father
June 15, 2013 in general history
People do not usually remember Aaron Burr as a father. They remember perhaps that he was the third vice president of the United States. They remember, if anything, that he killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel. They remember that he was later tried for treason, though most have forgotten that he was acquitted.. But he was also a father, and in that day and age, an exemplary parent of an unusually well educated daughter.
On July 2, 1782 Aaron Burr married Theodosia Bartow Prevost, a widow and the mother of five children by her previous husband, Major Jacques Prevost. Burr took on a paternal role toward all of his wife’s children, and their only surviving joint child, Theodosia, was born on June 21, 1873.
In letters to his wife, among various and sundry other communications, an interest in and an affection toward each of the children was manifest. For instance, in May of 1785, at the end of his letter home, he wrote:
Tell one of the boys to send me some supreme court seals; about six. I forgot them. Write me what calls are made at the office for me. Distribute my love. Let each of the children write me what they do. You may certainly find some opportunity. Adieu.
Though he was often away from home, he took an active interest in the education of his daughter. In a letter dated October 30th, 1791, he writes to his wife:
Theodosia must not attempt music in the way she was taught last spring. For the present, let it be wholly omitted. Neither would I have her renew her dancing till the family are arranged. She can proceed in her French, and get some teacher to attend her in the house for writing and arithmetic. She has made no progress in the latter, and is even ignorant of the rudiments. She was hurried through different rules without having been able to do a single sum with accuracy. I would wish her to be also taught geography if a proper master can be found; but suspend this till the arrival of the major.
Burr was a classics scholar as well as an attorney, a soldier and a statesman. He had very particular ideas about how his daughter was to be taught, and while he was not often there to do it himself, he left detailed instructions. The following quote is from a letter dated February 8th, 1793.
You may recollect that I left a memorandum of what Theo. was to learn. I hope it has been strictly attended to. Desire Gurney not to attempt to teach her any thing about the concords. I will show him how I choose that should be done when I return, which, I thank God, is but three weeks distant.
While he admitted that he had not met that many women of genius, apart from his own wife, Burr believed that the reason for this was the way girls were educated, and he wanted to make sure that his own daughter was given the best possible opportunity to excel and make the most of her native intelligence. This letter from Feb.15th, 1793 gives us such a perfect example of how Burr managed to mix his work and home life that it bears reproducing here in full:
I received with joy and astonishment, on entering the Senate this minute, your two elegant and affectionate letters. The mail closes in a few minutes, and will scarce allow me to acknowledge your goodness. The roads and ferries have been for some days almost impassable, so that till now no post has arrived since Monday.
It was a knowledge of your mind which first inspired me with a respect for that of your sex, and with some regret, I confess, that the ideas which you have often heard me express in favour of female intellectual powers are founded on what I have imagined, more than what I have seen, except in you. I have endeavoured to trace the causes of this rare display of genius in women, and find them in the errors of education, of prejudice, and of habit. I admit that men are equally, nay more, much more to blame than women. Boys and girls are generally educated much in the same way till they are eight or nine years of age, and it is admitted that girls make at least equal progress with the boys; generally, indeed, they make better. Why, then, has it never been thought worth the attempt to discover, by fair experiment, the particular age at which the male superiority becomes so evident? But this is not in answer to your letter; neither is it possible now to answer it. Some parts of it I shall never answer. Your allusions to departed angels I think in bad taste.
I do not like Theo.’s indolence, or the apologies which are made for it. Have my directions been pursued with regard to her Latin and geography?
Your plan and embellishment of my mode of life are fanciful, are flattering, and inviting. We will endeavour to realize some of it. Pray continue to write, if you can do it with impunity. I bless Sir J., who, with the assistance of Heaven, has thus far restored you.
In the course of this scrawl I have been several times called to vote, which must apologize to you for its incoherence. Adieu.
The evening after he wrote this letter, Burr read Mary Wollstonecroft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman. He liked it so much that he read it all that night and the next day, here is what he wrote to his wife:
You have heard me speak of a Miss Woolstonecraft, who has written something on the French revolution; she has also written a book entitled Vindication of the rights of Woman. I had heard it spoken of with a coldness little calculated to excite attention; but as I read with avidity and prepossession every thing written by a lady, I made haste to procure it, and spent the last night, almost the whole of it, in reading it. Be assured that your sex has in her an able advocate. It is, in my opinion, a work of genius. She has successfully adopted the style of Rousseau’s Emilius; and her comment on that work, especially what relates to female education, contains more good sense than all the other criticisms upon him which I have seen put together. I promise myself much pleasure in reading it to you.
Is it owing to ignorance or prejudice that I have not yet met a single person who had discovered or would allow the merit of this work?
Burr was a loving father, but his fondness for his daughter did not blind him to her faults, and he used a combination of severity and praise to motivate Theodosia the younger in her studies. In this letter to his daughter from January 4th, 1794, Burr is intermittently critical and yet full of praise. He does not allow Theodosia off the hook for mistakes, but he takes every opportunity to let her know how proud he is of her accomplishments.
At the moment of closing the mail yesterday, I received your letter enclosing the pills. I cannot refer to it by date, as it has none. Tell me truly, did you write it without assistance? Is the language and spelling your own? If so, it does you much honour. The subject of it obliged me to show it to Dr. Rush, which I did with great pride. He inquired your age half a dozen times, and paid some handsome compliments to the handwriting, the style, and the correctness of your letter.
The account of your mamma’s health distresses me extremely. If she does not get better soon, I will quit Congress altogether and go home. Doctor Rush says that the pills contain two grains each of pure and fresh extract of hemlock; that the dose is not too large if the stomach and head can bear it; that he has known twenty grains given at a dose with good effect. To determine, however, whether this medicine has any agency in causing the sick stomach, he thinks it would be well to take an occasion of omitting it for a day or two, if Doctor Bard should approve of such an experiment, and entertains any doubts about the effects of the pills on the stomach. Some further conversation which I have had with Doctor Rush will be contained in a letter which I shall write by this post to Doctor Bard.
My last letter to you was almost an angry one, at which you cannot be much surprised when you recollect the length of time of your silence, and that you are my only correspondent respecting the concerns of the family. I expect, on Monday or Tuesday next, to receive the continuation of your journal for the fortnight past.
Mr. Leshlie will tell you that I have given directions for your commencing Greek. One half hour faithfully applied by yourself at study, and another at recitation with Mr. Leshlie, will suffice to advance you rapidly.
While Aaron Burr started out as a married father, sharing his parental responsibilities with his wife, when their daughter was eleven, the mother died (May 18, 1794) , and Aaron Burr became a single father. He never remarried during his daughter’s lifetime, and he took full responsibility for her care and education. As a single father, Burr took an interest in his daughter’s diet, manners and education and he required her to keep a journal detailing events day by day, so that he could know about the minutiae of her life, even when he could not be there. This excerpt is from a letter addressed to “My dear Theo” from August 4th, 1794.
On my arrival here I was delighted to receive your letter of the 30th, with the journal of that and the preceding days. Your history of those three days is very full and satisfactory, and has induced me, by way of return, to enlarge on the particulars of my journey. I am quite gratified that you have secured Mrs. Penn’s (observe how it is spelled) good opinion, and content with your reasons for not saying the civil things you intended. In case you should dine in company with her, I will apprize you of one circumstance, by a trifling attention to which you may elevate yourself in her esteem. She is a great advocate for a very plain, rather abstemious diet in children, as you may see by her conduct with Miss Elizabeth. Be careful, therefore, to eat of but one dish; that a plain roast or boiled: little or no gravy or butter, and very sparingly of dessert or fruit: not more than half a glass of wine; and if more of any thing to eat or drink is offered, decline it. If they ask a reason–Papa thinks it not good for me, is the best that can be given.
It was with great pain and reluctance that I made this journey without you. But your manners are not yet quite sufficiently formed to enable you to do justice to your own character, and the expectations which are formed of you, or to my wishes. Improve, therefore, to the utmost the present opportunity; inquire of every point of behaviour about which you are embarrassed; imitate as much as you can the manners of Madame De S., and observe also every thing which Mrs. Penn says and does.
You should direct your own breakfast. Send Cesar every morning for a pint of milk for you; and, to save trouble to Madame De S., let her know that you eat at breakfast only bread and butter.
I wish you would read over your letters after you have written them; for so many words are omitted, that in some places I cannot make out the sense, if any they contain. Make your figures or ciphers in your letters, but write out the numbers at length, except dates. Adieu,
While Aaron Burr was not by any stretch of the imagination a “stay-at-home dad”, as he was always involved in practicing law and in politics, his duties as a father were always on his mind, and he corrected Theodosia’s compositions and wrote her long letters of instruction while serving in congress, putting her own letters on an equal footing with those of people who wielded political power.
When Theodosia grew up and married, Aaron Burr still took his parental duties seriously, and he was an active participant in her life as well as that of her son. As a grown woman, Theodosia served Aaron Burr as a friend and confidante, and he shared with her his joys and his sorrows, not withholding embarrassing details. She was the person to whom he wrote the greatest number of letters, and when she disappeared on board The Patriot on December 31, 1812, she was on her way to see her father, following the death of her son. Burr never got over the loss. Long after all hope had flown, he still went to the docks every day, to see if her ship would come in.
Aaron Burr was many thing: a hero of the Revolutionary War, a supporter of women’s rights before that was fashionable, a believer in the equality of the races and the sexes, a devoted husband, and a dedicated father. This Father’s Day, when you think of exemplary fathers from the past, think of Aaron Burr.