Theodosia Prevost and Aaron Burr Dialogue  

as presented at The Hermitage September 18, 2004

 

 N - After the Battle of Monmouth on June 28, 1778, the Continental army marched north toward the Hudson Highlands.  General Washington decided to encamp for four days in the Paramus/Hopperstown area.  Theodosia saw this as an opportunity for further good relations with leading Patriot officers. James McHenry, Washington's aide-de-camp wrote:
 
Male - After leaving the falls of the Passaic, we passed through fertile country to a place called Paramus.  We stopped at a Mrs. Watkins', whose house was marked for headquarters.  But the General, receiving a note of invitation from a Mrs. Provost to make her hermitage, as it was called, the seat of his stay while at Paramus, we only dined with Mrs Watkins and her two charming daughters, who sang us several pretty songs in a very agreeable manner."
 
 
N -      The invitation that Theodosia sent to Washington on July 11th read:
 
T -  Mrs. Prevost Presents her best respects to his Excellency Gen'l Washington.  Requests the Honour of his Company as she flatters herself the accommodations will more Commodious than those to be procured in the Neighborhood.  Mrs. Prevost will be particularly happy to make her House Agreeable to His Excellency , and family —
 
 N - McHenry gives us an insight into the activities of the Continental officers when at rest between battles and long marches.  He wrote from Haverstraw:
 
 Male - At Mrs. Prevost's we found some fair refugees from New York who were on a visit to the lady of the Hermitage.  With them we talked and walked and laughed and danced and gallanted away the leisure hours of four days and four nights, and would have gallanted and danced and laughed and talked and walked with them till now had not the general given orders for our departure."
 

 N - James Monroe, an aide-de-camp to General William Alexander was among the young officers who visited the Hermitage in July 1788.  In a letter he wrote some months later he described Mrs. Prevost as
 

Male - a lady full of affection, of tenderness, and sensibility, separated from her husband, for a series of time, by the cruelty of the war—her uncertainty respecting his health; the pain and anxiety which must naturally arise from it.  I (observed) fortitude under distress; cheerfulness, life, and gayety, in the midst of affliction.
 
 N -       In the same letter Monroe relates his efforts, mostly thwarted, in behalf of Theodosia's endangered home and property.
 
Male - I was unfortunate in not being able to meet with the governor.  He was neither at Elizabethtown, B. Ridge, Princeton, nor Trenton.  I have consulted with several members of Congress on the occasion.  They own the injustice, but cannot interfere.  The laws of each state must govern itself.  They cannot conceive the possibility of its taking place.  General Lee says it must not take place; and if he was an absolute monarch, he would issue an order to prevent it.
 
 N - Lt. Col. Aaron Burr and Theodosia who had met in September 1777 again crossed paths in summer 1778.  Then, when due to battle fatigue, Aaron took a leave from the arm in fall 1778  he spent part of his time recuperating at the  Hermitage.  On November 5, he wrote a letter to his sister Sally from the Hermitage in which he referred to Theodosia as
 
 B -      "Our lovely sister....Believe me, Sally, she has an honest and affectionate heart.  We talk of you very often, her highest happiness will be to see and love you." 
 

 N -       On March 10, Burr wrote Washington that the poor health of which he informed the Commander the past September stilled existed. 
 

 B -       "At the instance of General M'Dougall, I accepted the command of these (Westchester) posts; but I find my health unequal to the undertaking....Thus I propose to leave this command and the army."  
 
N -       Washington replied,
 
 Male - "in giving permission to your retiring from the army, I am not only to regret the loss of a good officer, but the cause which makes his resignation necessary."
 

  N -      In the summer of 1779 Theodosia continued to be concerned that the Bergen County Commissioners for Forfeited Estates would take action against the Hermitage holdings.  William Paterson, Patriot Attorney General for New Jersey wrote to his friend Aarom Burr:
 
Male - I cannot tell you what has become of Mrs. Prevost's affairs.  About two months ago I received a very polite letter from her.  She was apprehensive that the commissioners would proceed.  It seems they threatened to go on.  I wrote them on the subject, but I have not heard the event.  If possible, I shall wait on the good gentlewomen.  At Bergen, I shall inquire into the state of the matter.  It will, indeed, turn up of course.  You shall hear from me again. Adieu.
 
N - In November 1780 Theodosia was informed that
 
 Male - "there are Inquisitions found and returned in the Court of Common Pleas...against the following persons, to wit, James Marcus Prevost..... Final judgement was to be rendered in January."
 
 N - Theodosia still had the support of many friends.  One of these was Col. Robert Troup a friend of Burr and of New Jersey Governor William Livingston and other well placed Patriot officials, wrote on behalf of Theodosia:
 
Male - I feel irresistibly impelled by a perfect confidence in the intimacy subsisting between us to recommend to your kindest attention one of my female friends in distress,  I mean Mrs. Prevost, who has been justly esteemed for her honor, virtue and accomplishments....I am not ashamed to confess that I feel an anxiety for her welfare....Without the least deviation from truth, I can affirm that Mrs. Prevost is a sincere and cordial well wisher to the success of our army, which will be an additional reason with you for showing her all the civilities in your power.
 
 N -       After this time the threats against the Hermitage properties cease.  Theodosia's gaining of the support of influential patriots proved successful.
 
 Meanwhile Burr was studying law, first under Titus Hosmer in Conn., then William Paterson in New Jersey and finally Thomas Smith in Haverstraw.  The correspondence between Aaron and Theodosia indicated a deepening friendship which led to criticism
 and censure among many in their social circle and beyond. In May 1781 Theodosia wrote:
 
T - Our being the subject of much inquiry, conjecture, and calumny, is no more than we ought to expect.  My attention to you was ever pointed enough to attract the observation of those who visited the house.  Your esteem more than compensated for the worst they could say.  When I am sensible I can make you and myself happy, will readily join you to suppress their malice.  But, till I am confident of this, I cannot think of our union.  Till then I shall take shelter under the roof of my dear mother, where by joining stock, we shall have sufficient to stem the torrent of adversity.
 
 N - In September Theodosia wrote about being lonely in rural Sharon, Connecticut.  She told Burr that she looked forward to the pleasure of a visit from him to her cottage. 
 
T -       "You will find it a la rustique chez votre amie."
 
N -       Burr wrote frequently from Albany in December
 
 B - I am surprised I forgot to advise you to get a Franklin fireplace. They have not the inconvenience of stoves, are warm, save wood, and never smoke....I am in doubt whether it will be best to have it in the common room or one of the back rooms.  The latter will have many advantages.  You may then have a place sacred to love, reflection, and books.  This, however, as you find best....It is of the first importance that you suffer as little as possible the present winter.  It may, in a great measure, determine your health ever after.  I confess I have still some transient distrusts that you set too little value on your own life and comfort.  Remember, it is not yours alone
 
 The Springs are but twenty eight miles from Albany; I will meet you there.
 
 Your idea about the water was most delightful.  It kept me awake a whole night, and led to a train of thoughts and sensations which cannot be described.  Indeed, the whole of your letter was marked with a degree of confidence and reliance which augurs every thing that is good.  The French letter was truly elegant....
 
N - In December 1781 Theodosia's half-sister, Caty, wrote Burr from the Hermitage:
 
 Female - "If you have not seen the York Gazette, the following account will be news to you; ‘We hear from Jamaica that Lieutenant Col. Prevost, Major of the 60th foot, died at that place in October last.'"
 
 N - In January 1782  Burr's passed an examination and obtained his licence as an attorney.  He then immediately began his study for the next and highest rank in the profession, counselor-at-law.  Burr attained this goal on April 17 when the court judged that he had
 
male -  "on examination been found of competent ability and learning." 
 
 N - Burr was now was ready to set up his own law office.  He decided to do so in Albany, since New York City was still occupied by the British. 
 
 While Burr was busy establishing his law office and practice in Albany  he got news that Theodosia' half-sister Caty and her fiancé, Dr. Joseph Browne had set July 2 as the date for their wedding at the Hermitage.  Burr arrived there some time before the event.  With very little preparation, Aaron and Theodosia decided it was an appropriate time for them to make a like decision and to act on it almost immediately.  It was agreed that the July 2 event would be a double wedding.
 
N - From Albany Theodosia wrote to Sally Reeves to tell her about the events of the marriage day.
 
 T - You had indeed, my dear Sally, reason to complain of my last scrawl.  It was neither what you had a right to expect or what I wished...You asked Carlos the particulars of our wedding.  They may be related in a few words.   It was attended with two singular circumstances.  The first is that it cost us nothing.  Brown and Catty provided abundantly and we improved the opportunity.  The fates led Burr on in his old coat.  It was proper my gown should be of suitable gauze.  Ribbons, gloves, etc. were favors from Caty.  The second circumstance was that the parson's fee took the only half joe Burr was master of.  We partook of the good things as long as they lasted and then set out for Albany where the want of money is our only grievance.  You know how far this affects me."
 
N - In another letter to Sally, Theodosia  wrote
 
 T - "Our house is roomy but convenient.  I have not yet been able to procure a good servant, though Burr has taken all imaginable pains, but we have one in prospect....Yes, my sister, I realize my joy fully."
 
 N - In March 1783, Theodosia, pregnant with her first child with Burr, wrote to her husband absent on business. 
 
 T - "My extreme anxiety operated severely upon my health.  I have not had so ill a turn in some months....My spirits need, my heart grows impatient for your return."
 
 N - In June  Theodosia, then 37,  gave birth to a baby girl, the Burr's first child together.  She was christened Theodosia Bartow. The mother wrote to her brother-in-law:
 
 T -  "Would you believe me, Reeve, when I tell you the dear little girl has the eyes of your Sally....Burr is half-crazy, pride of having a daughter."
 
N - Two months later, with Burr again away, Theodosia wrote:
 
T - Our sweet infant was taken ill, very ill.  My mind and spirits have been on the rack from that moment to this.  When she sleeps, I watch anxiously; when she wakes, anxious fears accompany every motion.  I talked of my love towards her, but I knew it not till put to this unhappy test.  I know not whether to give her medicine or withhold it; doubt and terror are the only sensations of which I am sensible.  She has slept better last night, and appears more lively this morning....Some kind spirit will whisper to my Aaron how much his tender attention is wanted to support his Theo
 
 N - The Burrs moved to New York City in the late fall 1783 after the British departure. The correspondence between Aaron away on law business trips and Theodosia in New York City expresses their feeling toward each other.
 
 T - "Heaven protect my Aaron; preserve him, restore him to his adoring mistress....Love in all its delirium hovers about me; like opium, it lulls me to soft repose!" 
 
N - Burr from Albany
 
 B -  "The return to joy and Theo. cannot be till Thursday or Friday.... I read your memorandum ten times a day, and observed it as religiously as ever monk did his devotion."  
 
N - Burr from Philadelphia
B - "I have been to twenty places to find something to please you."
 
 T  -      "I persuade myself....that Tuesday morning you will breakfast with those who pass the tedious hours regretting your absence, and counting the time till you return.  Even little Theo. gives up her place on mamma's lap to tell dear papa – ‘come home.  The boys and the servants all await the return of their much-loved lord; but all faintly when compared to thy Theo.... "Pense avec tendresse de la votre."
 
N - Burr in the midst of a court case, wrote
 
B -    "I desert a moment to tell you that I am wholly yours." 
 

 T -      "Your dear little Theo. grows the most engaging child you ever saw.  She frequently talks of, and calls on, her dear papa.  It is impossible to see her with indifference.
 
B -       "Thank our dear children for their kind letters
 
 T -       "Thou art the constant subject of love, hope, and fear....O, my Aaron, how impatient I am to welcome thy return." 
 
 B -  "I am impatient for evening; for the receipt of your dear letter; for those delightful sensations which your expressions of tenderness alone can excite." 
 
 T -   "Surely, thy Theo. needed no proof of thy goodness.  Heaven preserve the patron of my flock; preserve the husband of my heart; teach me to cherish his love, and to deserve the boon."
 
N - In June 1785 Burr, writing to Barnard Gratz, stated:
 
B -      "Yesterday Mrs. Burr presented me another Daughter, and is as well as can be expected." 
 
N - She was named Sally for Burr's sister.  Theodosia who continued to have bouts of  illness               had pregnancies in 1787 and 1788, when she was 41 and 42.  Both were still-born.                Theodosia wrote to her brother-in-law  in August 1788 that on the
 
 T - I had a most unfortunate lying-in, in every particular resembling the one in February 87; another lovely, beautiful boy expired 7 hours before its birth.  Its mother had nearly shared its fate, but Heaven in pity to her helpless family, to her daughter's tears has deigned to restore her to them.  During her illness she received every token of affection and anxiety from those she loved.  This is the only alleviation we can possibly have to our sufferings...I am recovering beyond expectation, I wish I may have as favorable account of my Sally, Theo's health is remarkably good.
 
 N - In November Theodosia wrote Burr that Sally continued to be ill.  Then in February 1789 Sally died.  Theodosia again wrote to her brothr-in-law
 
 T -       "Variegated have been my scenes of anguish, but this exceeds them all ----- a tender, affectionate friend just opening into life...and flushed with health till the sly viper stole upon her vitals, there preyed unperceived...till too late, All aid proved vain – she passed gently from me to the region of bliss...yes, my Sally, she is ...gone."  
 
N - Burr in a letter to his relative Jonathan Edwards:
 
 B -        "Mrs. Burr and my family are gone to spend some Weeks in the Country – I am very much obliged by your kind expression of Sympathy.
 
 N -       While attending to family needs and sorrows, Theodosia was active in the running of Burr's law office when he was on his frequent business trips.
 
N -       Matthew Davis wrote that when Burr was on the road 
 
 Male - "all his instructions in relation to lawsuits in which he was employed as counsel, or papers connected therewith, were communicated to the attorney or clerk in his office through Mrs. Burr.  She appeared to be held responsible for the punctual and prompt performance of any duty required of them....She...was counselled with, and intimately associated in, all his business transactions." 
 
 N - Some of Burr's expectations of his wife in regard to the business are seen in his letters when away.  He wrote:
 
B -        "Remind Frederick of the business with Platt."
 
  "Mr. Colt will inform you about everything.  Unfortunately, a gentleman with whom part of our business is has left town"
 
   "Write me whether any thing calls particularly for my return."
 
 N - Theodosia's domestic work also grew with the success of Burr's legal practice.  As he purchased a succession of homes in lower Manhattan, Theodosia would supervise improvements.  In 1790 Aaron wrote Theodosia:
 
B -        "I fear I left you an immensity of trouble, which I fear has not promoted your health." 
 
N - In the following year Theodosia wrote
 
 T -      "The walls are still too damp to admit of either paint or paper...The garden wall is begun. I fear the front pavement will not answer your intention....Fream at work on the roof."
 
 N - In 1791 the New York legislature appointed Burr to the United States Senate.  Theodosia wrote:
 
 T - "It is, indeed, of serious consequence to you, to establish your health before you commence politician; when once you get engaged, your industry will exceed your strength; your pride cause you to forget yourself. But remember, you are not your own; there are those who have stronger claims than ambition ought to have, or the public can have."
 
 N -       Burr encouraged Theodosia to continue her serious reading.  In 1791 he suggested that she should have
 
 B - the pleasure of reading Gibbon....Purchase also Macbeau's; this...is appropriated to ancient theocracy, fiction, and geography....If you have never read Plutarch's Lives...you will read them with much pleasure....Beloe's Herodotus will amuse you.....You expressed a curiosity to peruse Paeley's Philosophy of Natural History. If you continue your Gibbon, it will find you in employment for some days.  When you are weary of soaring with him, and wish to descend into common life, read the Comedies of Plautus
 
 N - Ahead of their time Theodosia and Aaron were concerned about the rights and education of women.  In July 1791 Theodosia wrote approvingly of the strong rule of Catherine the Great who at the time was on the throne of Russia and saw her actions as a vindication of the wrongs done against women in society. 
 
 T - They talk of a general war in Europe....The Empress of Russia is as successful as I wish her.  What a glorious figure will she make on the historical page!  Can you form an idea of a more happy mortal than she will be when seated on the throne of Constantinople?  How her ambition will be gratified; the opposition and threats of Great Britain, &c. will increase her triumph.  I wish I had wit and importance enough to write her, and consecrate a temple to her praise.  It is a diverting thought, that the mighty Emperor of the Turks should be subdued by a woman.  How enviable that she alone should be the avenger of her sex's wrongs for so many ages past.  She seems to have awakened Justice, who appears to be a sleepy dame in the cause of injured innocence.
 
N - In February 1793 Burr wrote from Philadelphia
 
B - I received with joy and astonishment, on entering the Senate this minute, your two elegant and affectionate letters....
 
 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 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, had 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.
 
N - The next day Burr again took up his pen
 
B - 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, 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 has discovered or would allow the merit of this work?...
 
 N - Influenced by their ideas on women, the Burrs were determined that their daughter Theodosia would be as well educated as any man in the new nation
 
 B -     " I hope, by her, to convince the world what neither sex appear to believe – that women have souls!"
 
 N -       Unfortunately Theodosia's illness which has subsequently been diagnosed as cancer advanced through 1793 into 1794.  Aaron sent details to Dr. Benjamin Rush in Philadelphia in August 1793
 
 B - Mrs. B__ still continues to be weake & low, and to suffer much.... In five or six months past she has been afflicted with an almost constant choke.... At Intervals of three (or) four weeks she has returns of nausea and Vomiting, which have sometimes lasted six & eight Days & with such Violence as to threaten life – when these abate, the Cholic, from which she is never wholly free, returns with greater severity...Prescriptions have at different times been faithfully followed, but in no Instance with any sensible good effect... Perhaps your inventive Mind may seize some Idea that my throw light on her Case.
 
N -        In December Aaron wrote Theodosia
 
B - Since being at this place I have had several conversations with Dr. Rush respecting your distressing illness....He has given me as his advice that you should take hemlock.  He says that you should commence with a dose of one tenth of a grain, and increase as you may find you can bear it; that it has the narcotic powers of opium, superadded to other qualities.  When the dose is too great, it may be discovered by a vertigo or giddiness; and that he has known it to work wonderful cures.... God grant that it may restore your health
 
N - In January Burr wrote his daughter
 
B - 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.
 
N - In response to Burr's willingness to quit the Senate and come home, his daughter wrote
 
Female -  "Ma begs you will omit the thoughts of leaving Congress."
 
 N - Burr did make a number of visits to Theodosia  from Philadelphia, but all the experiments did not bring recovery.  He was in Philadelphia when Theodosia died on May 18, 1794.  
 
 On the 24th Burr wrote to his uncle Pierpont Edwards:
 
 B - You have for two years past heard of the Sufferings of Mrs. Burr during her painful Illness – & Before this you have probably heard of the fatal event of it.  It was announced to me at Philadelphia on Monday last that she had died on Sunday – But one hour before the arrival of this express, I recd. Letters by the post dated the Saturday preceding, advising me that she was easier & apparently better that for some weeks before.  Indeed so sudden & unexpected was her death that no immediate Danger was apprehended untill the Morning that she was relieved from all earthly Cares

 

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