Theodosia Burr Alston’s Letters on Behalf of Burr in Exile
Aaron 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:
Madam 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 THEO. BURR ALSTON.
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.