Pelham Resident Recorded His Impressions of Meeting Aaron Burr
On August 23, 1784, New York State's Commissioners of Forfeiture sold a 146-acre farm in Pelham on which sat the mansion known as "The Shrubbery" to Isaac Guion for 988 pounds. See Abstracts of Sales of Confiscated Loyalist Estates by the Commissioners of Forfeiture in the Southern District of New York (available in the collections of the New-York Historical Society). The tract had been confiscated after the Revolutionary War from Joshua Pell [Junior] who served as a British officer in upstate New York during the War. See Pell, Howland, The Pell Manor: An Address Prepared for the New York Branch of the Order of Colonial Lords of Manors in America (Baltimore, MD: 1917).
The will of Joshua Pell [Senior] entitled his children to receive monetary legacies when his farm (the one of which Aaron Burr eventually bought a portion) was divided in half and devised to two of his older sons: Joshua Pell [Junior] who was entitled to receive the northern half of the farm, and Edward Pell who was entitled to receive the southern half of the farm.
Joshua Pell [Junior] and his brother, Edward Pell, eventually filed a lawsuit alleging that the the forfeiture proceedings involved a wrongful taking of the property. Significantly, the Pell brothers were represented in the matter by Aaron Burr. As a consequence of the lawsuit, in 1789 the New York State Treasurer paid Joshua Pell [Junior] 988 pounds in compensation for "wrongful taking" and paid Isaac Guion 125 pounds for his expenses. See Yoshpe, Harry B., Disposition of Loyalist Estates in the Southern District of New York, pp. 104-06 (NY, NY: 1939).
Significantly, on February 26, 1790, Aaron Burr bought one of the farms at issue in the lawsuit. He bought the northern half -- the Joshua Pell [Junior] tract -- from Nicholas and William Wright "subject nevertheless to the right of dower of Phoebe Pell the widow of [Joshua Pell Sr.] deceased to the payment of all such pecuniary legacies as are charged upon the said premise by the will of [Joshua Pell Senior]." See Deed from Nicholas Wright and William Wright to Aaron Burr, Westchester County Archives, Elmsford, NY, Register of Deeds, Liber L, 363-66.
Burr soon sold the tract to his step-son, Augustine J. F. Prevost. At least one author who has studied that sale has concluded that it was part of a scheme by Aaron Burr to hide his involvement with the tract. In his book Cipher / Code of Dishonor, Dr. Alan J. Clark analyzed the sale and concluded that during the 1790s, Burr was involved in a secret scheme to move the Boston Post Road (which, at that time followed today's Colonial Avenue in Pelham) to its present location which passes near where The Shrubbery once stood. At the same time (and as part of the same scheme), Burr sought to form a toll road leading from Manhattan through the West Farms area of what was then southern Westchester County. This, it seems, was all part of a land speculation scheme in which Burr sought to profit by acquiring the lands of poor farmers who found it difficult to sustain large farms in the area in the aftermath of the devastation wrought by the predations of two armies in the so-called "Neutral Ground" between New York City and upper Westchester County during the Revolutionary War. By moving the Boston Post Road so that it passed next to his newly-acquired farm in Pelham and by placing a toll road in the West Farms area near the Burr Family's ancestral home to shorten the travel time from New York City, Burr hoped to increase the value of those properties and, before the scheme became known, perhaps acquire other properties in the area that likewise would increase in value.
In his fascinating book, Dr. Clark describes the scheme as follows:
"[I]n 1790 Aaron Burr purchased as a summer residence 'The Shrubbery', manor house of the Pell family since 1740 on the Boston Post Road in Pelham, New York for his bride, Theodosia Prevost married in 1782. Burr conveyed the home to his stepson Augustine Frederick Prevost in 1794.
Next he entered on a scheme to move the New York to Boston road (now the Boston Post Road) and form a toll road in the West Farms area of southern Westchester County and Connecticut near his Burr family ancestral home. Dr. Joseph Browne married Catherine (Caty) De Visme, Theodosia's half sister, in a joint wedding with the Burrs at the Hermitage. He owned some of the land on which the road was to be built. Dr. Brown had acquired it from the estate of John Embree in 1785. Road commissioners, engineered into the legislation for absolute control by Burr himself, were Dr. Joseph Browne, George Embree (the family of the city of Embree deeded to Trinity Church during the war and back to Effingham Embree on May 6, 1795) and John Bartow, Jr. Bartow was a brother of Theodosia Bartow Prevost Burr. The Lewis Morris family took all of the tolls from the new bridge over the Harlem River at their Manor of Morrisania.
Burr began speculating in land of Rebels caught in the no man's land between the armies in Westchester County. These poor farmers had been unable to sustain a living on their land because of constant predation by both sides during the War of Independence and after the war were unable to sustain the vast land holdings without slave labor. They were forced to sell their land at bargain prices. Burr was only too glad to oblige. With the new road Burr and Browne would have convenient access to their newly acquired lands from Manhattan making them more valuable to break up into smaller farms for new immigrants. The enterprise was unpopular with the local population because it required taking thir land for the new road. Since Burr had been appointed Attorney General of the State of New York by Governor Clinton in March, 1790, he was forced to sell the Shrubbery Manor house, situated on the toll road, to his stepson Augustine Prevost, to prevent discovery of his connection to the tolls."
Source: Clark, Alan J., Cipher / Code of Dishonor - Aaron Burr, an American Enigma -- Trinity The Burrs Versus Alexander Hamilton and the United States of America, p. 48 (Bloomington, IN: AuthorHouse 2005).
Aaron Burr's connections to Pelham arose in part from his marriage to Theodosia Bartow Prevost who was born in Pelham Manor and maintained close family connections to residents of Pelham and New York City her entire life. According to their marriage certificate, on July 6, 1782, Aaron Burr married Theodosia Bartow Prevost. There is evidence, however, that the couple actually married on July 2, 1782.
Burr bought a farm in Pelham on February 26, 1790. See Deed from Nicholas Wright and William Wright to Aaron Burr, Westchester County Archives, Elmsford, NY, Register of Deeds, Liber L, 363-66.
Today's posting to the Historic Pelham Blog transcribes the text of a lengthy essay written by Rev. William Hague who was born in Pelham in 1808. Hague read the essay at a meeting of the New York Genealogical and Biographical Society on March 25, 1881. Hague knew Aaron Burr when Hague was a young student. His impressions of Burr, though delivered in flowery Victorian prose, offer an interesting glimpse of Burr through the eyes of a long-time Pelham Manor resident who knew Burr personally.
"A YOUNG STUDENT'S IMPRESSIONS OF COLONEL AARON BURR.*
[Footnote * reads as follows: '* Read before the New York Genealogical and Biographical Society, March 25, 1881.']
NOT many months ago, during the latter half of January, 1881, while sojourning in Washington and occasionally visiting the Capitol, particularly the Senate-chamber, in company with a few friends, the historical associations pertaining to our surroundings called forth, in the free flow of talk, allusions to the early days of the American Congress -- the Presidency of Thomas Jefferson, the Vice-Presidency of Colonel Aaron Burr. In connection with the mention of the latter name several facts were touched upon, quoted from Mr. James Parton's biography of the man, illustrating his power of address, the ease with which he could put himself in communication with people of every class, from the highest to the lowest, from the most cultured to the rudest, old and young alike, instinctively quick to adjust himself, as to thought, tone, and manner, to any personal presence whatsoever, confident in his ability to win responsive feeling and realize the aim or even the whim that may have impelled him at the time.
The conversation having taken this turn, evidently, as it went on, awakened fress interest in the study of a distinguished character that had seemed to some mysterious and almost mythical. One lady there present, certainly well read in general history, was disposed to criticise [sic] the style of those statements as exaggerated; quite ready to admit the exceptional greatness of the man as a born ruler of men, exemplified especially in his last address as presiding officer of the Senate, whereof there were many witnesses, yet questioning the affirmations she had heard as to the extent of his regal sway, his capability of universal conquest, despite distinctions of age and class, wheresoever the way was open for his genius to assert itself as 'a living presence.' Then another added, with an emphasis of expression, 'Why, the style of talk about Burr that I have heard from some old southern gentlemen sounds like a boy's romancing, rather than a man's plain story of what he has seen and known in the matter-of-fact world we live in.'
Thus I was led when alone at night, thinking of the driftings of that day's talk, recalling my own personal memories of Colonel Burr, to muse upon the curious combination or fusion of incongruous influences that have free scope in 'the make-up' of every particular individuality of the human race. One's own experience may vivify this thought to his own consciousness if he chance to follow it out in reflective or retrospective moods of mind. How few, comparatively, have apprehended, much less comprehended, the workings of all the conflicting elements in constant play throughout the changing phases of inner life, yet all unified at last under the dominant sway of one supreme idea or ruling principle! Such is the general observation then recorded in my diary, to me very real indeed, as if I were writing it in the real presence of two contemporary contrasted characters, called up at my mind's bidding from 'the vasty deep,' both at once reappearing, not seeing each other, but both greeting me, as of old, in contrasted tone and manner, with the cheer of friendly recognition.
The intervening half-century is as one day; for, as I now look back to the early years of my academic life in New York, where I was in the way of seeing Colonel Burr, for successive years, twice or thrice every week, at the house of an aged relative where he occupied the lower front room as a law-office, it seems to myself quite noteworthy that I, so young, should have been so thoroughly captivated as by the spell of his genius for winning social sympathy, admiring him as the realization of an heroic ideal, and at the same time, on the other hand, conscious of an attracting force put forth by one of the plainest, most simple-minded, and most honest-hearted of Christian men, Richard Cunningham, Esq., an elder of the Brick Presbyterian Church, under the ministry of the Rev. Dr. Spring, while that distinguished minister, who kept his place of eminence for more than a half-century, was yet in his prime. The elder, a good and lovable man, could not have endured the companionship of Colonel Burr for a single hour without a keen sense of nervous uneasiness, so little had they in common, particularly after the public feeling had turned so mightily against the slayer of General Hamilton. At that period my father, who commanded a ship in the India trade, disliked the mere presence of Colonel Burr; and it happened once that when Mr. Bartow, a relative of my mother and also of the Colonel, called in company with him at our house, my father, as soon as the name was announced, managed to take himself out of the way, and thus refused to see the late Vice-President of the United States [Page 525 / Page 526] freely speaking of him as an enemy of his country and a social demoralizer whom good society should disown. And yet, even at that time, enjoying week by week the freedom of opportunity for observation allowed to a schoolboy in a recognized family relationship, the charm of Burr's manner and conversation, incidentally in the law office or in the parlor, was felt intensely as a power of extraordinary attraction.
Now, I may safely say that if Richard Cunningham, Esq., whose wife and my mother had grown up at Pelham as neighbors in a relation like that of sisterhood, at whose city home, therefore, I was a frequent visitor, had been aware of the fact that I have here recorded, and had inquired of me what I had found that was so interesting in the presence of the ex-Vice-President who had 'lost caste,' as Dr. Spring expressed it, I could not have explained the matter so that either he or his minister could have understood it at all. Nevertheless, viewing it retrospectively, it is easy enough here to set if forth so that any one may discern the secret of personal power, or, as some have called it, 'magnetism,' and see the Colonel from a young student's point of observation.
To this end let the reader picture to his thought old New York, as it was more than a half-century ago, and imagine that about six o'clock P. M., of a November day, about 1821, being a schoolboy of thirteen, having delivered my mother's message to her aunt, Mrs. Bartow, an aged lady of seventy-five (a relative by marriage to Colonel Burr's first wife, nee Theodosia Bartow), I was protracting my stay in the parlor of her dwelling in Vesey Street, with the expectation that the Colonel would come in very soon, as was his wont, to take his tea, in company with Mr. Bernabue Bartow, and his excellent mother (nee Ann Pell), whom Colonel Burr could not but venerate, and upon whose sympathetic kindness he recognized a degree of dependence. Imagine him entering the parlor, as I recall him, at a moment when it happened that I was lingering there alone. His physique, air, style of movement, realize a boy's highest ideal of the soldier and gentleman, while his keen glance and sunny smile, expressive of a personal interest as real as if I had been a senator, awaken a feeling quickly responsive to the tone of cheer in his greeting: 'Well, Will, I'm glad to see you. Have they left you alone here?'
'Hardly, Colonel. Aunt and Cousin Bernie were called out just now; they will be in soon.'
Approaching the sofa where I had been reclining, and taking up a school-book that lay there, he notices the title-page and the edition, asking, 'Is it your way to be carrying Caesar's Commentaries' about with you?'
'No, sir, but I have evening lessons; and, as I have not been home since school, I have kept Caesar with me.'
'How far have you read?'
'Up to the Bridge.'
From this incident, as a starting-point, the reader may trace in thought, as far as fancy can serve him, a lively talk about Julius Caesar; stories of his youth, his personal appearance, his manner and habits of life, his characteristics as a Roman citizen, a soldier, a writer, etc., all of which the Colonel could render as interesting to a boy as Sir Walter Scott's word-pictures of Queen Elizabeth or of the Duke of Buckingham in 'Kenilworth' -- a book that occurs to memory in this connection, because it happened to be the freshest of the Waverleys, that everybody was reading or talking about just then.
Here, in reminiscences pertaining to schooldays (taking within their scope two men notably contrasted, constantly within view, and present to my thought, often meeting in old New York, but never interchanging a word or look of recognition), I trace in personal experience two currents of educational influence incessantly active, distinct, and different, yet coalescing like the two contrasted streams of Hebrew and Greek thought in the education of youth throughout England and America. A similar fusion of influences in the early domestic and academic life of the only son of the second President of Princeton College, and grandson of the third President, Jonathan Edwards, may be traced in the life-course of Aaron Burr, who, when Vice-President of the United States, could so readily carry with him the sympathies of the national Senate by the power of eloquent address, and could ever move with equal ease and gracefulness of bearing, in the social circle, in the festive hall, in the reunions of scholars, writers, and scientists, in courts of law, upon the arena of political conflict, upon the chosen ground of the duelist, in the camp, or upon the battle-field. In the interior life of Colonel Burr, the Greek or 'Gentile' element dominated, ultimately shaped his conceptions and ideals; so much so that, even in those early academic days to which memory now reverts, while reading parts of Rollin's 'History,' the thought would suggest itself that we saw in him actually the ancient Stoic and the primitive Epicurean fused into a live unity. Never could I conceive of an ancient Stoic, in the palmiest days of that philosophy, more fully 'possessing himself,' and persistently imperturbable, than was Aaron Burr. He surpassed Zeno himself. His perfect poise, his equanimity, his power of endurance, his apparent superiority to all changes of condition, even from affluence to a poverty that he could dignify like Diogenes, who stood [Page 526 / Page 527] up in the sunshine so royally as the peer of Alexander, were exceptionally wonderful, seeming almost superhuman; and now, while the memory of those fine qualities revives the sympathetic admiration ever called forth by his personal presence, we can not resist the saddening thought that, if they had but been subordinated to a worthy life-aim of sufficient 'pith and moment' to enkindle the enthusiasm of which his gifted nature was capable, the world would have recognized a style of heroism that it would gratefully commemorate, and would have assigned to him a place in history upon the highest plane of 'representative men.'
This remarkable power of self-possession, an endowment of nature -- improved, even in his college-days, by a regulated self-discipline -- was incidentally, now and then, a topic of home-talk; and in this connection it was a familiar observation that Colonel Burr was never, throughout all his life, in the least disconcerted, 'except once.' Well do I remember the day when I asked of my mother an explanation of this saying, 'It was during his sojourn in Parks,' she answered, 'where, for a time, he felt himself liable to arrest. There, while walking alone, quite willing to remain unnoticed, he was surprised by the quick,, sharp exclamation of a stranger, 'That's the man!' The Colonel told the story himself, frankly confessing his exceptional experience of a nerve-tremor and a heart-beat. It turned out that the stranger had seen the portrait of Colonel Burr, drawn by his celebrated protege, Vanderlyn; and his quick recognition of the likeness startled him into a mood of admiration that could not but express itself aloud to the honor of the artist.
At the time here noted, Colonel Burr, sojourning as an exile in the French capital, to which his party in Congress had once unanimously agreed that he should be sent to reside as United States Minister, must have felt himself keenly alive to the falseness of his position, out of all normal relations to society; and any European who might have made his acquaintance just then would have seen him not 'at his best,' but his worst, thus failing to get a just impression of that combination of qualities that had for years called forth from all orders of people the most curious questionings as to the possibilities of his career. Nevertheless, every feature of his physique and manner indicated the complete self-control which is always sure to win the mastery of others. Thus it had been from first to last. At the outbreak of the Revolutionary War, nearly a year before the Declaration of Independence, at the age of nineteen, enlisted as a volunteer under General Arnold, in the campaign against Quebec, he had won the military prestige that a veteran might have envied; then, after the war, while we behold him a self-trained student and practitioner, acquiring preeminence at the bar, and, yet in early manhood called forth and idolized as a political leader by the best young men of the nation, we feel assured that we have before us, as a study, not merely a personality richly gifted by nature, but severely self-disciplined for the realization of a well-defined ideal, ever present to his thought as an impelling and uplifting power. His conception of the type and style of character to be realized seems not to have been given by 'heredity,' but formed by the agency of moral causes, a strong will putting forth choices of its own, as if consciously a creative genius, with faith in the maxim that 'a man makes for himself the world that he lives in.' In rendering his conception of manhood actual, he was as minutely particular as Lord Chesterfield (in his view a typal character), in laying down rules of gentlemanly living, not disdaining in his intercourse with law-students to emphasize the smallest things pertaining to conduct, as for instance by the reminder, 'Remember, sir, no gentleman will be seen smoking in the streets.'
That reminder, which in those days was occasionally quoted in my hearing, is associated with memories of the whole aggregate of impressions made upon my mind during the period of my school-life in New York, by Colonel Burr, 'as a living presence,' realizing to my youthful conception the highest type of cultured manhood, awakening an intense desire to appropriate and assimilate the elements of manly power of which he was ever before me as the most complete exponent. The possibility of my exemplifying the qualities that I so keenly appreciated was often a matter of serious questioning. Under his care at that time was a Spanish lad, Columbus, occupied as an office-boy, whom I was always glad to meet. One day, while talking with him in front of the house in Vesey Street, the Colonel stepped out to the hall doorway, in order to give the boy an errand, and some particular directions as to the manner of doing it. As soon as he had left us and closed the office-door, I was impelled to exclaim: 'O Columb, isn't he great? A perfect gentleman! You could tell he was a born soldier if you had never seen him before -- couldn't you?' To this Columb assented.
The incident is here recalled as illustrating the impression of the moment. That and like impressions were enduring. I can truly affirm that, as a matter of personal experience, throughout the half-century that followed, seldom, if ever, have I found myself tempted to give way to impatience, to anger, to peevishness, to the [Page 527 / Page 528] abandonment of self-control, but that the image of Colonel Burr has risen before me as a mentor, rebuking the weakness and quickening manly resolution. Even now, in similar circumstances, under the spell of such a temptation that early experience would be renewed, and the soliloquizing question put: 'Shall I, with all the added aid of a Christian's faith, fall below the standard of self-mastery attained by one whose only recognized sense of inspiration was a 'common-sense philosophy' -- the strength of a gifted and cultivated nature? What a miserable and pitiable failure that would be!'
In connection, however, with this grateful acknowledgement of indebtedness to Colonel Burr for influences so helpful and uplifting, there comes the unwelcome reflection that his life, regarded as a whole, even in relation to his own cherished ideal, was a disastrous failure. His philosophy proved utterly inadequate to meet his need of self-regulating power at the culminating point of his brilliant career. At the opening of this century, in his manly prime, he had captivated the nation. He had won its heart; thrilled it with the delight of a hero-worship that seemed but a generous enthusiasm. Then came to him what comes to all in a degree, the crucial trial of the grounds of character, the one great temptation that becomes a turning-point of history. He seems like a man standing upon a pinnacle, 'observed of all observers,' beyond the reach of harm from any one except himself; listening to the subtle tempter whispering, 'Cast thyself down,' and whispering, too, the false promise of power to lift himself up in bedazzling triumph over his enemies, above all law, human or divine. Instead of bidding away the angel-like fiend that assumed to speak as the champion of Honor, he yielded to the say of 'the hour and power of darkness.' In his latest retrospect of life he must have caught a glimpse of 'the situation' as we see it now, when, having been sympathetically moved one afternoon, by hearing readings from Sterne, among them the story of 'Uncle Toby and the Fly,' he was heard to say pathetically, 'Had I read Voltaire less and Sterne more, I might have thought the world wide enough for Hamilton and me!'
How suggestive was that expression of a sad heart-story, never fully told, but just hinted! While we all regret his great mistake, we may trace it back to its source, chronologically beyond the period when Voltaire overshadowed Sterne, to the day of his student-life at Princeton, when he sought an interview with the fourth president of the college as to the proper manner of treating the extraordinary religious interest in progress just then among all classes of the undergraduates. To the good Doctor, thoroughly familiar with the set habitudes of a Scotch university, molded by the traditional forms of the state Church, this spontaneous movement, on the part of the young men, of an earnest spirit of inquiry not comprised within the prescribed educational cirriculum, was of a sort somewhat new and strange. He spoke of it disparagingly; treated it as an outbreak of fanaticism. The young inquirer acknowledged his sense of relief from anxiety, and resolved to ignore the movement or resist its appeals. This hostile attitude was unhealthful; issued in a set antipathy that modified his tastes, his choice of books, or favorite readings, his associations, his decisions, and the trend of his life-course. If the fourth President of Princeton had been as well qualified to 'understand his times' as have been his successors, especially the eminent Christian philosopher of our own time, who also crossed the Atlantic to take the same presidential chair, he would surely have emphasized, in some way, the sentiment sounded forth by Thomas Carlyle in interpreting the story of young Oliver Cromwell at the like crisis of his inner life, heart-trouble, and deliverance thus: 'Certainly a grand epoch for a man -- properly the one epoch, the turning-point which guides upward or guides downward him and his activity for evermore. Wilt thou join the dragons? Wilt thou join the gods? Of thee, too, the question is asked, whether by a man in Genevan gown, by a man of four surplices at All-Hallowtide, with words very imperfect, or by no man, and no words, but only by the silences, by the eternities, by the life everlasting, the death everlasting.' Would that some such Carlylean oracle had been whispered in the ear of the President of Princeton in time for the critical hour of his pupil's exigency, and imparted the fitting tone of response to the call of an inquiring spirit!
After the summer of 1824, absence from the city of New York during the period of collegiate and professional studies, and then the establishment of my home in Boston, allowed me but few opportunities of personal interviews with Colonel Burr -- hearing from him occasionally, however, through mutual relatives and friends. Throughout the years of his residence in Vesey Street, which Mr. Parton has not particularized, he enjoyed, to a degree, the sympathies and comforts of family-life; and afterward, death having invaded that home circle, his office was removed, and he lived, for the most part, alone within it. His physical energy was wonderfully sustained until the year 1830, when he was suddenly smitten by paralysis of the right side. As soon as the intelligence reached his cousin, Mrs. Hawes (nee Catharine Bartow), she hastened from her residence in Brooklyn to visit him in his office, [Page 528 / Page 529] then on the corner of Gold and Fulton Streets. His physician and several friends were there, and the experiment of electrical application was going on. He expressed his wish to Mrs. Hawes that he might be removed to her home and be under her care. Mr. Edwards, one of the company, immediately took an opportunity to say to Mrs. Hawes, with a look of anxiety: 'He is not in a fit condition to be removed, and it will excite him too much just now to talk about it. As there is a coach at the door, perhaps you had better avail yourself of it and take leave of hiim for the present.' Mrs. Hawes returned to Brooklyn. But the strong-willed man had his way ere long. On the day following, a coach containing the Colonel and two strong men as attendants, who had managed a mattress and pillows for his support, arrived at the dwelling of Mrs. Hawes, who, hastening in her surprise to greet him, was hailed by his salutation in an exultant, joyous tone, 'Cousin Katie, I told you that you must take care of me now.' It was so. He was cordially welcomed. The sickness did not prove to be as expected, his last. A few weeks assiduous care on the part of Mr. and Mrs. Hawes, encouraging him with their help to rise and, by gentle exercise in the parlor, to learn to walk again, repeating the process at a set hour daily for a month, restored the old warrior, so that he resumed his office business with as keen a zest as ever. Although he had passed 'the borderline of threescore and ten,' his interest in the details of professional work had not flagged, the changes wrought by time had not touched his brain, and the tone of his mind, thus marvelously kept up, rendered his work a kind of rejuvenation. At the same time, despite all faults, sorrows, 'loss of caste,' abandonment by society, he never lost faith in the genuineness of unselfish friendship, or his power to win and keep it; and never, we may safely say, has history shown us the example of a man whose experiences of adversity more fully proved that the love-power is a reality, and that real love is a deathless principle.
Among the reflections suggested by the review of a life-course so marked by contrasted changes and interesting episodes, there comes to us one that is somewhat startling; namely, this: the ethical and aesthetic lessons inculcated by moralists in their analyses, summings up, and final judgments of his career had been anticipated by Aaron Burr himself in the papers that he had written and read as 'compositions' in the years of his college-life at Princeton. Therein he has set forth a high ideal of character and purpose. That fine ideal was, in the main, actually realized in his own family-life as husband, father, educator, and companion. From the day of his marriage to Mrs. Theodosia Prevost (nee Bartow) to the day of her departure from earth, no household of any public man in America that we have any account of, as to its interior relations, could show a more beautiful exemplification of a pure and happy home. To her, though older than himself, he had been attracted by qualities of mind and heart that not only won his love but commanded his admiration. Their correspondence betrays a profound congeniality of sentiment and intellectual kinship of the highest order; so that in her he recognized a woman to whom he could look up as a superior representative of her sex, realizing his own cherished ideal of true womanhood. Trust is the basis of love, and his trust in her was all but boundless. He honored her judgment when it differed from his own, appreciating its frank expression. Writing of her before the time of their marriage, he said she could talk of books, of Voltaire, Rousseau, Chesterfield, 'could appreciate those authors without becoming their disciple.' In accordance with this statement we notice that in one of her letters to him, in 1781, referring to Lord Chesterfield, she says, 'The indulgence you applaud in that author is the only part of his writings that I think reprehensible.' At the same time, referring to the subject of religion in its personal relations, she declared that worlds should not purchase the little she possessed. In all their communications we trace a sense of mutual indebtedness. She admired his type and style of manliness. In 1781 we observe his saying to her in familiar pen-talk, 'That mind is truly great which can bear with equanimity the trifling and unavoidable vexations of life and be affected only by those events which determine our substantial bliss.' They were mutual helpers in their life-battle. Years after her death, while we hear him saying, as was his wont, 'The mother of my Theodosia was the best woman and the finest lady I have ever known,' we feel assured that her loss could not be supplied by any human substitution. He needed not only her companionship, but a kindred religious principle as a regulating force. Had that distinguished woman lived in full possession of her queenly powers a few years longer, and been with him as his 'guardian angel' at the critical point of his life-trial, he might have come forth from it wearing the laurel of moral conquest, and exemplified the ancient saying, 'He that is slow to anger is greater than the mighty, and he that ruleth his spirit than he taketh a city.'
The biography of Colonel Burr, by James Parton, has been widely welcomed as a contribution of permanent value, not only to American literature, but to world-history. Its achievement was an important part of his 'mission'; had he [Page 529 / Page 530] passed away without undertaking it, the lack could never have been supplied. Although his readers may differ from him occasionally, as to sentiments incidentally expressed, we recognize throughout the skill of the artist and the fidelity of the conscientious historian. During the closing years of Colonel Burr, to the last day of his life, September 14, 1836, the heroic elements pertaining to his gifted nature were still in lively play, and Mr. Parton's word-pictures are so clear and truthful that the reader who still remembers the subject of the narrative as a living personality is impelled by agreeable surprises to soliloquize aloud like the stranger who had beheld the portrait by Vanderlyn, 'That's the man!'
From different quarters objections have been urged against Mr. Parton's treatment of his subject as a fanciful style of portraiture, investing an essentially defective character with a halo that renders it attractive and even fascinating to youthful minds when it should have been his aim, rather, to dispel its charm and render it repulsive. Such criticisms are quite superficial. A biography is not a novel; in a work of fiction a writer may create his characters, but a writer of history deals with facts. If the biographer had represented Colonel Burr in any other light than as a mightily attractive personality, his book would have been untruthful and morally valueless. A volume was not needed to warn any one against the fatal issues of a life utterly destitute of any element of excellence to love, honor, or admire. But to demonstrate by a great example that a character may be eminent for virtues that command the homage of a nation and yet fell as to the realization of the chief end of life for lack of a supreme moral principle ruling within, at the very center of one's being, is to set forth the one primary lesson that our times call for, and worthy of being issued in new and improved editions for the sake of 'the generation to come.'
Source: Hague, William, A YOUNG STUDENT'S IMPRESSIONS OF COLONEL AARON BURR, Appleton's Journal: A Magazine of General Literature, New Series, No. 60, pp. 525-30 (Jun. 1881).
* * * * *
I have written about Aaron Burr and his connections to Pelham as well as Augustine Prevost and the home known as the "Shrubbery" that stood on Burr's farm on many occasions. For examples, see:
Wed., Jun. 14, 2006: Text of Deed by Which Aaron Burr Acquired Pelham Lands in 1790.
Tue., Jul. 18, 2006: Aaron Burr Tries to Pull a Fast One in the 1790s and Must Sell His Farm in Pelham.
Thu., Jul. 27, 2006: 1799 Notice of Foreclosure Sale of Pelham Manor Lands Owned by Augustus James Frederick Prevost, Stepson of Aaron Burr.
Tue., Jan. 10, 2006: Mrs. Aaron Burr Describes Roads in Pelham in 1791.
Thu., Apr. 14, 2005: The Pelham Home for Children that Once Stood on Split Rock Road.
Mon., Oct. 2, 2006: The Revolutionary War Diary of Loyalist Joshua Pell, Jr. of the Manor of Pelham.
Wed., Jan. 31, 2007: A Large Distillery Once Stood on the Prevost Farm in Pelham During the 1790s.
I also have written about the Reverend William Hague who wrote his impressions of Aaron Burr as quoted above on a number of occasions. For one example, see:
Mon., Jun. 11, 2007: Biography of Rev. William Hague, Born in Pelham in 1808.