Theodosia Burr Alston’s Letters on Behalf of Burr in Exile

June 24, 2013 in American History, general history

ds 866 CAAversion1984.02Aaron Burr went into exile in Europe in 1808 following his acquittal in the trial for treason.  At first he had high hopes of procuring funding for his interrupted Mexican expedition, but those were soon crushed when Spain and England became allies. Burr was forced to leave England, and with this began a lonely journey through Europe with ever diminishing funds. Throughout it all, Burr kept up a correspondence with his daughter Theodosia Burr Alston, whom he did not wish to alarm by his dire circumstances, but who nevertheless served as his closest confidante.

One urgent problem that delayed Burr’s return to the United States was that having given up all hope of successful funding in Europe, he did not have a passport to allow him to reenter his native land. On the 10th of November, 1810 Burr wrote from Paris:

Alas, my dear Theodosia, I have no hope of seeing you this winter. 
It is more than five months since I have been constantly soliciting 
from this government a passport for America. Fair promises and 
civil words have been received, but nothing more. It would be folly 
to hope, yet daily some new occurrence or new promise inspires new 
hope. . . . The only consolation which I can offer you for this dis- 
appointment is that my health continues unimpaired, and I have 
the present means of support. A little addition to those means would 
not be inconvenient. Continue to write to that gentleman on whose 
unpaid notes I relied, and of which not a cent has been received. . . . 
Not a line from you since August, 1809, fifteen months ago. It is 
only by mere accident that I know you were living last July. ... I 
live with a very amiable Genevoise family, of which I am a member. 
Every morning I devote half an hour, sometimes an hour, to you.


. Theodosia, for her part, made every effort that she could to secure help for her father, most notably in her letters to Secretary of the Treasury Gallatin and to the first Lady, Dolley Madison.

Below is a letter to Secretary Gallatin dated March 9, 1811 that Theodosia sent from The Oaks:

Though convinced of your firmness, still with the utmost diffidence 
I venture to address you on a subject which it is almost dangerous to 
mention, and which, in itself, affords me no claim on your attention. 
Yet, trusting that you will not withhold an opinion deeply interesting 
to me, and which your present station enables you to form with 
peculiar correctness, I venture to inquire whether you suppose that 
my father's return to this country would be productive of ill conse- 
quences to him, or draw on him farther prosecution from any branch 
of the government. 

You will the more readily forgive me for taking the liberty to make 
such a request, when you reflect that, retired as I am from the world, 
it is impossible for me to gather the general opinion from my own 
observation. I am, indeed, perfectly aware how unexpected will be 
this demand; that it places you in a situation of some delicacy; and 
that to return a satisfactory answer will be to exert liberality and 
candour; I am aware of all this, and yet do not desist. 

Recollect what are my incitements. Recollect that I have seen my 
father dashed from the high rank he held in the minds of his country- 
men, imprisoned, and forced into exile. Must he ever remain thus 
excommunicated from the participation of domestic enjoyments and 
the privileges of a citizen; aloof from his accustomed sphere, and 
singled, out as a mark for the shafts of calumny ? Why should he be 
thus proscribed and held up in execration ? What benefit to the coun- 
try can possibly accrue from the continuation of this system ? Surely 
it must be evident to the worst enemies of my father, that no man, 
situated as he will be, could obtain any undue influence, even sup- 
posing him desirous of it. 

But pardon me if my feeling has led me astray from my object, 
which was not to enter upon a discussion with you. I seek only to 
solicit an enlightened opinion relative to facts which involve my best 
hopes of happiness. 

Present, if you please, my respects to Mrs. Gallatin, and accept 
the assurances of my high consideration.

To Dolley Madison, Theodosia wrote:

You may perhaps be surprised at receiving a letter from one with 
whom you have had so little intercourse for the last few years. But 
your surprise will cease when you recollect that my father, once your 
friend, is now in exile; and that the President can only restore him to 
me and his country. 

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. Convinced that Mr. 
Madison would neither feel nor judge from the feelings or judgment 
of others, I had no doubt of his hastening to relieve a man whose 
character he had been enabled to appreciate during a confidential 
intercourse of long continuance, and whom (he) must know incapable 
of the designs attributed to him. My anxiety on this subject has, 
however, become too painful to be alleviated by anticipations which 
no events have yet tended to justify; and in this state of intolerable 
suspense I have determined to address myself to you, and request 
that you will, in my name, apply to the President for a removal of the 
prosecution now existing against Aaron Burr. 

Statesmen, I am aware, deem it necessary that sentiments of lib- 
erality, and even justice, should yield to consideration of policy; but 
what policy can require the absence of my father at present ? Even 
had he contemplated the project for which he stands arraigned, evi- 
dently to pursue it any further would now be impossible. There is 
not left one pretext of alarm even to calumny; for bereft of fortune, of 
popular favor, and almost of friends, what could he accomplish? 
And whatever may be the apprehensions or the clamors of the igno- 
rant and the interested, surely the timid, illiberal system which would 
sacrifice a man to a remote and unreasonable possibility that he might 
infringe some law founded on an unjust, unwarrantable suspicion that 
he would desire it, cannot be approved by Mr. Madison, and must 
be unnecessary to a President so loved, so honored. Why, then, is 
my father banished from a country for which he has encountered 
wounds and dangers and fatigue for years ? Why is he driven from 
his friends, from an only child, to pass an unlimited time in exile, and 
that, too, at an age when others are reaping the harvest of past toils, 
or ought, at least, to be providing seriously for the comfort of ensuing 
years ? I do not seek to soften you by this recapitulation. I only 
wish to remind you of all the injuries which are inflicted on one of the 
first characters the United States ever produced. 

Perhaps it may be well to assure you there is no truth in a report, 
lately circulated, that my father intends returning immediately. He 
never will return to conceal himself in a country on which he has 
conferred distinction. 

To whatever fate Mr. Madison may doom this application, I trust 
it will be treated with delicacy. Of this I am the more desirous as 
Mr. Alston is ignorant of the step I have taken in writing to you, 
which, perhaps, nothing could excuse but the warmth of filial affection. 
If it be an error, attribute it to the indiscreet zeal of a daughter whose 
soul sinks at the gloomy prospect of a long and indefinite separation 
from a father almost adored, and who can leave unattempted nothing 
which offers the slightest hope of procuring him redress. What, in- 
deed, would I not risk once more to see him, to hang upon him, to place 
my child on his knee, and again spend my days in the happy occupa- 
tion of endeavoring to anticipate all his wishes ? 

Let me entreat, my dear Madam, that you will have the considera- 
tion and goodness to answer me as speedily as possible; my heart is 
sore with doubt and patient waiting for something definitive. No 
apologies are made for giving you this trouble, which I am sure you 
will not deem irksome to take for a daughter, an affectionate daughter, 
thus situated. Inclose your letter for me to A. J. Frederic Prevost, 
Esq., near New Rochelle, New York. 
That every happiness may attend you, 

Is the sincere wish of 



Following the unfavorable response from Mrs. Madison, Theodosia wrote to her half brother, Frederic Prevost::  

Your letter enclosing that from Washington reached me just before 
I left Springville. The long expected answer from Mrs. Madison 
was such as reason and experience unmixed with hope might have 
led us to suppose it. She expresses great affection for me, calling me 
her "precious friend," pays me compliments badly turned, and regrets 
that Mr. M. finds it impossible to gratify my wishes, &c. You will 
be more pleased to hear that I have received a letter from A. B., dated 
Gottenburg, where he arrived safely but with the loss of all his luggage, 
an accident he laughs at, although he is destitute of the means of 
procuring another supply. To my inexpressible relief he says that 
he has in view some means of support which will rescue him at present 
from this state of dependence. Yet I fear that he may say so merely 
to alleviate my anxiety, for what can he do at Stockholm ?

When Burr did safely arrive in the United States in 1812, after many delays and bureacratic debacles over the coveted passport,  Theodosia was not able to meet with him. First, her son died of malaria, and then she was lost on board The Patriot on her way to a long postponed reunion with her father. But what cannot be denied is that both father and daughter remained loyal and devoted to one another as long as they lived, no matter how far separated in time and space by circumstances outside their control. Theodosia’s letters on Burr’s behalf are a testament to this.



Pidgen, Charles Felton.  (190&)Theodosia, the First gentlewoma of her Time; the Story of her Life, and a History of Persons and Events Connected Therewith.


2 responses to Theodosia Burr Alston’s Letters on Behalf of Burr in Exile

  1. Good to learn more about the correspondence between Theodosia and Burr. This article will help newbies to the subject who are going to read your book.

    • Thanks, Julia. I hope that this will be a good resource for people who want a more in-depth look into the life and personality of Theodosia Burr Alston. This particular article is not so much about the correspondence between Aaron Burr and his daughter as it is about the lengths that she would go to in order to try to help him in his time of trouble. One telling line from her letter to Dolley Madison, to explain how very much she risked in terms of social standing by begging for help for her father is this: “To whatever fate Mr. Madison may doom this application, I trust it will be treated with delicacy. Of this I am the more desirous as Mr. Alston is ignorant of the step I have taken in writing to you, which, perhaps, nothing could excuse but the warmth of filial affection. “

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