Aaron Burr, Down (But Not Out) in Paris and London---


March 11, 2011 (2d Rev.)


        The year is 1811, two centuries ago now, and Aaron Burr--our nation’s “most romanticized and vilified historical character” according to historian Gordon Wood--is sitting comfortably ensconced in his cabin on the vessel off the coast of Holland that is to take him back to America after years of self-exile in Europe.  Burr is writing the latest entry in the journal which details all the vicissitudes of his stays in Britain, Sweden, Germany and France.


        Burr is, in 1811, at the end of a highly tumultuous decade in his life, beginning with the voting in the House of Representatives in February 1801, 36 ballots needed to finally break the Jefferson-Burr tie in presidential Electoral College voting.


        As Jefferson’s vice-president 1801-1805, Burr had little power or influence.  Deciding that his political future lay in New York, Burr ran unsuccessfully for governor in 1804.  In the course of that election, Alexander Hamilton, Burr’s political opponent for many years, disparaged Burr’s personal character one too many times, and Burr was the survivor of their duel fought on the banks of the Hudson in July 1804. 


        A month later, and while still vice president, Burr was in touch with the British minister plenipotentiary in Washington, who wrote to London of Burr’s offer to assist His Majesty’s Government “to effect a separation of the Western part of the United States from that which lies between the Atlantic and the Appalachian mountains.”


        In early 1805--just after presiding as president of the Senate over the impeachment trial of Justice Chase--Burr wrote his son in law that “in New York I am to be disfranchised and in New Jersey hanged.  Having substantial objections to both, I shall not, for the present, hazard either, but shall seek another country.”


        The most recent historical verdict on Burr’s subsequent adventures in the West is that “No one will ever know what Burr was really up to”; the jury in Burr’s 1807 trial in Richmond, Virginia for another capital offense, treason, acquitted him, despite Jefferson’s best efforts to see Burr hang.


        Burr laid low for several months after the Richmond treason trial, dodging both creditors and a lesser criminal charge in Ohio, before setting sail for Britain under an assumed name in June 1808.  It would be four years before he returned to American soil.


        As the “most romanticized and vilified” characterization of Burr might suggest, there is debate continuing to the present day between Burr partisans and Burr detractors concerning the character of Burr’s conduct in the 1801 election deadlock, the 1804 duel, and the 1806-1807 Western venture, namely: was Burr actually angling to be President, did he fire first or second in the duel, was he actually trying to dismember the Union, was he a debaucher of women (as charged in the 1804 New York election)?


        But how to judge Burr’s character, when Burr himself was generally so secretive?  (As Gordon Wood notes, Burr’s correspondence is full of “ ‘Burn this letter.’  You never find Thomas Jefferson saying, ‘Burn this letter.’ “)


        In the past dozen years alone, there have appeared three books on the treason trial, two books on the duel, two on the 1800 election, and the first biography of Burr by an academic historian.  Also in these years, Roger G. Kennedy, director emeritus of the National Museum of American History, devoted a book to proving that Burr’s character was superior to the characters of  Jefferson and Hamilton.


        Kennedy argues that while Jefferson was obsessed with leaving a huge collection of self-serving writings to shore up his character for posterity, “the wonder is how little Burr had to say for himself. ...  If he wished posterity to think well of him, it would have been better had he thought well enough of it to engage it in a conversation.”


        What we propose is that Burr did engage posterity in a conversation--through his journal of his four years in Europe, and in particular the years 1810-1812, when he was down financially, but not out psychologically, in Paris and London.  The journal was not written for posterity, it was written for Burr’s beloved only child Theodosia, in contemplation of a reunion which never happened.


        However, Burr did choose to leave the journal behind for posterity, when, having survived Theodosia, he could easily have destroyed it--as Kennedy, turned off by Burr’s multitudinous “accountant’s notations of sexual encounters for pay,” clearly wishes Burr had done.


        By quoting here extensively--for the first time any authors have done so--from Burr’s journal, we hope to give the reader some further basis for an assessment of the character issue, and, at the least, can promise these excerpts, a sort of Burr “greatest hits”, will be not only entertaining but also enlightening concerning a hitherto obscure period in Burr’s life.  As an added dividend, the reader may learn something from Burr’s success in standing up to adversity.


        So let us return to the 1811 scene on the ship which Burr (mistakenly) believes is about to transport him back home to his daughter Theodosia:


        My baggage is all embarked.  I have been on board the Vigilant, the ship which is to bear me to thee. ... I feel as if I were already on the way to see you and my heart beats with joy.  Yet, alas! that country which I am so anxious to re-visit will perhaps reject me with horror. There seems to be no obstacle between us, and I almost fancy I see you and Gampy [Theodosia’s son, Burr’s grandson], with the sheep about the door, and he “driving the great ram with a little stick.”  I forgot that the little island of Great Britain lies between us, and what is worse, their ships; there are now four of them in full sight not two leagues off.  But, as we have neither merchandise nor Frenchmen on board, I think they will let us go on.  [Burr is wrong about this].


        After his ship is in fact intercepted and impounded by the British, Burr has time in London to write further in his journal--all addressed to Theodosia--describing his cabin on the Vigilant:


        My headache prevented me from telling you with what regret I took leave of my little cabin, where I had passed eighteen days with so much comfort.  You know that I was on board eight days before the ship sailed, lying at anchor off Helder.  “How should I know anything about it, for you never wrote me a word all that period?”  Now, however, you do know it, hussy; so don’t interrupt me, but let me go on with my story.  That eight days, I say, were employed fitting up my cabin.  I bought boards and nails.  We had two carpenters and a joiner on board.  I had shelves for my books, so that about 300 volumes were put up; a table to be let down at pleasure; places for candlesticks, for my breakfast apparatus (as I always took breakfast in my own room), for bottles, &c.  In short, for everything.  We had rough weather, and were much tossed and rolled; not an article in my cabin was shaken from its place, though in every other all went topsyturvy.  My little room was the envy of the whole.  It was a great privilege for any lady or gentleman to be permitted to enter.  Ma bonne petite Julie had always that privilege.  [Throughout his life, women found Burr attractive--a few pages earlier, he writes:]  La V. spelt hard for an invitation to my cabin; but J. had possession, and she shall maintain her privilege whoever else may pretend.  She has just now gone to her berth.


        Stuck in London, and with his hopes of a speedy return to Theodosia dashed, Burr soon experiences another of his many reversals in fortune in Paris and London, where he is as down and out, financially and (briefly) psychologically, as George Orwell ever was in the same two cities in the 1920s.


        Like Orwell, Burr frequently resorts to pawning his possessions to raise funds for food and lodging.  In London, having just bought some food, and having all but exhausted his cash, Burr writes:


        Without a penny, I can keep the animal machine agoing for eight days. ... 

Of the five pieces of cambric which I bought for you in Flanders, and should have presented you if our voyage had not been interrupted, four have already been sold and mange’d; the fifth, the last, and most beautiful, was handed yesterday to D.M. Randolph [more on this character below] to sell, and I am now, this morning, waiting at home his return.  In the meantime I have been rummaging among Gampillo’s treasures to see what might be convertible into money.  Found, and have taken possession of, a Napoleon and a Dutch ducat of King Louis; both new and brilliant.  If D.M.R. does not come before 12, they must go.  Poor dear souls! if I should remain here six weeks longer, you will neither of you have a single evidence that you were thought of in any of the countries in which I have been.  You see, mes enfants, that I have now no reliance but my vinegar [a scheme described below], and to plunder you both of all your remaining bagatelles. ...  Have left in cash 2 halfpence, which is much better than one penny, because they jingle, and thus one may refresh one’s self with the music.


        Again and again, scenes like the following are repeated:


        Tried, on my way home, at several places, to pawn your picture-watch, which ought to be worth 50 guineas; but they would not give more than 3 pounds, which refused.  As I approached my home, ruminated how to get dinner and supper (coffee), for I had neither bread, butter, cheese, nor sugar.


        But through many expedients, enough small sums do come to hand to maintain Burr in shelter and nourishment.


        Burr’s journal includes a number of vivid character sketches.  Here’s one of Burr’s frequent companion D.M. Randolph--like Burr, down on his luck in London:


        But, first, let me make you better acquainted with the said D.M.R.  He is about 60 years of age, very healthy and active; has good sound sense, little education, or little acquirement.  He came to England about six months before me, with commercial views, having got through his fortune in Virginia.  He had very good letters, being universally acknowledged an honest and an honorable man.  At the moment that he supposed himself in the high road to success and fortune, came on [Jefferson’s] embargo, which put an end to all commerce, and annihilated his proposals.  He then got from the United States Bedford’s patent for making shoes, and took out a patent for it here; but, for more than a year, he could get no moneyed men to set up the business in that way.  At length W. Gilpin, army clothier, agreed to try it, and advanced D.M.R. 500 pounds for the patent rights and half the profits.  This was a very seasonable relief, for he was quite run out.  He now thought he would invent something himself, and turned his mind to improvements in wheel-carriages.  He worked day and night for some months; at length, thinking he had hit it, and for fear some one should steal it from him, he hastened to take out a patent, and then wrote a pamphlet; but no mortal took any notice of either.  Being now project mad and one Adams having come from the United States with a new project for impelling boats by steam, D.M.R. associated himself with this man; bought half the invention for 200 pounds, and at this moment Adams dies, and the steamboat and the wheel-carriages sleep quietly together; but D.M.R. had now got rid of his last farthing.  His head, however, runs more on wheel-carriages than on all other subjects.  At least twenty times since my return to this island he has told me of his having explained “his principles” to Mr. Such-a-one, who was “delighted;” and scarce a week passes but he meets some one who is thus “delighted;” but of all these delighted people not one is disposed to advance a penny to make an experiment of “his principles.”  Whenever he gets on his “wheel-carriages,” away he goes, and the devil can’t stop him.  He can hardly pass a cart or a carriage in the street without stopping you or calling your attention to the amazing stupidity and obstinacy which prevents people from adopting his improvements.  “Only see how those horses labor for nothing; whereas if that axle-tree was so and so, and the height of the wheels so, and the pole fixed so, one horse would draw more than those four; and the thing is so demonstrable,” &c., &c.  [Some weeks later:]  I completed the draft of a power of attorney for D.M. Randolph, to be sent off by this packet.  I wished to have written you by the same opportunity, but the 4 shillings and 6 pence requisite for postage is a fatal objection.  D.M.R. having four three shilling-pieces, lent me two of them; but one proved a counterfeit.  He was in good spirits, having met one of his country acquaintance some time ago who was “delighted with his principles on wheel carriages.”  This is certainly very nearly allied to insanity.


        Burr encounters a similar dreamer in Paris, a Colonel Swan, for whom Burr draws a will.  Swan is housed in the Ste. Pelagie debtor’s prison, and Burr visits him there often.  Swan’s obsession is Merino sheep:


        Then on to Pelagie, where dined with Swan.  The important concern is about Merino sheep.  No doubt there is a great deal of money to be made by it, but it is out of my line.  [A week later:]  I passed an hour with Swan, talking principally of sheep.  [The next day:]  A note also from Swan.  Still sheep!


        The story of Colonel Swan, although not told by Burr, is fascinating and worth recounting here.  Swan was a year younger than Burr, and, like Burr, a Revolutionary War hero, having participated in the Boston Tea Party and being twice wounded in the Battle of Bunker Hill. In 1784, Swan purchased and named Swan’s Island in Maine; in 1898, a resident of that island, Dr. H.W. Small, wrote an island history, including the story, quoted below, of how Swan landed in the Paris debtor’s prison:


        After the Revolution, Colonel Swan went deeply in debt, due to land speculations that turned out badly.  To retrieve his fortune, he left for Paris in 1787, and made a new fortune through contracts to supply the French armies.  Unfortunately, Swan again came to grief when “it was claimed he had contracted a debt of 2,000,000 francs.  This indebtedness he denied, and refused to pay.  He was caused to be arrested by the French government, and confined for twenty-two years in Ste. Pelagie, the debtors’ prison, from the year 1808 to 1830.  Swan proposed to remain a prisoner rather than secure his liberty on an unjust plea.  He proposed by a life-long captivity, if necessary, to protest against his pretended creditor’s injustice.  He gave up his wife, children, friends, and the comforts of his Parisian and New England homes for a principle.”


        “Swan seemed happy in braving his creditors.  He allowed his beard to grow, dressed a la mode, and was cheerful to the last day of his confinement.  When the Revolution of 1830 discharged these prisoners from Ste. Pelagie ... his one desire was to embrace his friend, General Lafayette.  This he did on the steps of the Hotel de Ville.  The next morning, Col. Swan was dead.  He was seized with a hemorrhage, and died suddenly on the steps of the Rue d’Echiquier ...” 


        With money sent to Swan from his wife back in Boston, Swan “hired apartments in the Rue de la Clif, opposite Ste. Pelagie, which he caused to be outfitted up at great expense, with dining room, drawing room, stables, coaches and outhouses.  Here he invited his friends and lodged his servants, putting at the disposal of the former his carriages, in which they drove to the promenade, the ball, the theatre, everywhere in his name.  At his Parisian home, he gave great dinners to his guests, at which there was always a place left for the absent one at the table [i.e., Swan himself, imprisoned across the street].”


        Quite a story!  Burr does not mention this establishment, possibly because Burr met Swan at the Ste. Pelagie prison only two years into Swan’s twenty-two year imprisonment there, and perhaps the apartments opposite the prison mentioned in the Swan’s Island history were set up after Burr’s departure from France.


        But after this digression, revenons a nos moutons, as Dr. Pangloss said to Candide, and quite literally to sheep here, because Swan was in fact onto something with the Merino sheep, although neither he nor Burr was in a position to exploit this insight.  Here’s what happened very soon after Swan talked about the Merinos with Burr: 


        The Spanish royal farms at El Escorial “had developed a breed of sheep with some of the longest, most luxuriant fleeces in the world.  The Spanish nobility had long been hoarding the breed to prevent competition.  But during the political upheaval surrounding Napoleon’s invasion of Spain, the American consul in Lisbon, William Jarvis, was able to talk the Spanish royals into selling him a flock of their finest Merinos.  In 1811, he sent 400 of them, along with a Spanish shepherd and ‘noble shepherd dog,’ to his new farm on the Connecticut River.”  J. Albers, Hands on the Land, p.145 (2000).  The Merino sheep industry soon took off, especially in Vermont, where the “sheep of kings became the king of sheep.” 


        While sheep did in fact prove to be ‘the next new thing’, none of Burr’s various dreams of hitting it big panned out.  He does mention having one unusual talent that could have made him some money in Paris, but he must have thought it beneath his dignity to pursue it for financial gain:


        Rose 7.  At 1/2 p. 8 to Madame Fenwick’s [one of Burr’s several lady friends in Paris] in the character of a fumiste [chimney doctor].  Every chimney in the house smokes sometimes, and most of them always.  I was railing against the stupidity of the Parisians, and quoted this among other instances.  She challenged me to cure the evil.  Accepted; and she assigned for trial of my American skill the worst in the house.  It has already been in the hands of several scientific fumistes.  Some applied their remedies to the top, and others to the bottom, but equally without effect.  This morning was assigned for my experiment, and she gave me carte blanche.  At 1/2 p. 8 I found the mason, the brick and the mortar.  We went to work.  She, in the meantime, made me breakfast (cafe blanc and honey) in the adjoining room.  She amused herself at my folly.  Several visitors called and all came in to see what was going forward.  “Ah! c’est trop etroit.  Ca n’a pas assez de profondeur.  La gorge est trop petite.”  I made no sort of reply.  At length, the work was finished at 4.  We made a large fire.  The chimney drew to perfection.  The doors and windows might be open or shut; nothing disturbed the draught.  What added greatly to the merit of the result is, that the day was the most unfavorable, a vehement wind from the quarter that had always filled the house with smoke.  “Monsieur, si vous enoncierez comme fumiste, vous feriez fortune.”


        Burr’s detractors called him a schemer, but in Paris and London, he was more of a dreamer; at least dreams like the following served to keep Burr’s spirits up:


        Am much stared at here [in Yarmouth].  Think of showing Gamp [Burr’s nickname for himself] for about 2 shillings each person; half price for children.  Have this evening changed my last bill, being one of 10 pounds, to pay my host; voila mes montres deja manges, et encore je dois a ma hotesse a Londres.  But having made more than a million of guineas last night, as you shall know anon, feel quite easy, and give with great liberality to the domestics, &c.  When last in New York, the steamboat had just got into vogue.  Being in company with a man knowing in such things, I suggested (but very slightly, as becomes an ignoramus), how the thing might be simplified and improved.  He thought the hint of no value, and I said no more.  My friend D.M.R., and another, whom I met at Graves’s, both great projectors, have taken patents for inventions on that subject.  I examined their several models, but was not smitten with their value.  My old idea ran now and then in my head, but said nothing.  Ruminating, after going to bed last night, on the state of the treasury, the thing came up again, and engrossed me for at least three hours.  I found it perfect; applied it to sea-vessels, to ships of war; in short, to everything that floats.  Sails and masts and rigging and the whole science of seamanship, are become useless.  My vessels go at the rate of twenty miles an hour, and am in hopes to bring them to thirty.  From Charleston [Theodosia’s home] to New York will be a certain passage of thirty hours; from New York to London of six days; but to tell half I did would fill a quire of paper.  Rose at 9 this morning; the same project in my head, and have thought of nothing else the whole day.  The moment of my arrival in London shall sell all my books; your books, poor little Gampillo; and all my clothes, save two shirts, to put the thing in execution; and so soon as I get this million, Lord! what pretty things will buy for thee and Gampillo.  Laid out, however, a great deal of money last night.  Thought of the faithful in the United States. Bon soir.


        Burr has a similar dream in Paris, in hopes that a Dutch stock speculation will make him rich:


        Now, if I can get a passport to Bremen and Amsterdam, I will send you a million of francs within six months; but one-half of it must be laid out on pretty things.  Oh, what beautiful things I will send you!  Gampillus, too, shall have a beautiful little watch, and at least fifty trumpets of different sorts and sizes.  Home at 10, and have been casting up my millions and spending it.  Lord, how many people have I made happy!


        A couple of Burr’s other European money-making schemes are worth a mention.  The first involved a method of making vinegar from wood which Burr first learned of in Paris.  In the following scene, noteworthy as an example of Burr’s famous ability to charm or ‘get round’ a person in pursuit of his various enterprises, Burr and his friend D.M. Randolph are visiting a factory outside of London:


        Were shown into an office where was Mr. Wilkes, the managing partner, dressed very coarsely, and even dirty, with an old, greasy hat on his head.  Showed him Reeves’s permission.  “Who is this man who writes this note?”  I told him who was Mr. Reeves.  [Reeves was a minor figure in the British Alien Office who obliged Burr on numerous occasions].  “Why, by God, I don’t know the man! ... By God, sir, this is the most extraordinary thing I ever heard in my life!  A fellow I never saw gives a man permission to come and examine my manufactories!”  He was going on, and, doubtless, would have concluded by turning us out of doors; but I interposed; told him that I was, as he saw by the note, an American, and about to leave England in a few days; that I had no desire nor curiosity to see his manufactories, but that I had understood that, in the process, he procured a sort of acid of little value; that, having been lately on the Continent, I had seen that acid employed to important purposes; and, happening to mention it to Mr. Reeves, he thought the discovery of very great value, and that it was totally unknown here; that the sole object of my visit was to get a barrel of that acid; and that, if I could succeed in the process it would render the acid of very great value; that Mr. Reeves had informed me he had understood that Mr. Wilkes was a very polite gentleman, and had no doubt that he (Mr. W.) would take pleasure in gratifying me in a matter so essential to his own interest and to that of the public.  “Now, sir, if you are not disposed to do so, I have only to beg your pardon for the trouble and bid you good-morning.”  The idea of gain softened his muscles; he asked us to sit.  Sent a servant to bring some of the acid for my inspection; ordered a bottle to be washed, and filled, and well corked for me; offered to send a servant with it to my lodgings, to save me the trouble of carrying it; gave me the address of his agent in London, and promised to send, by his own wagon, a barrel of the acid to my friend Allen immediately.  I asked what would be the expense.  “Oh! nothing at all, sir; my teams are going constantly, and it will give me no trouble; you may, if you please, only send an empty barrel to my agent, to replace the one I shall transmit.”  I came off with my bottle of acid, quite content. ...  The moment [the barrel of acid] arrives, friend Allen and I shall go to work, and, if I succeed, most certainly I shall have some hundred guineas of it.


        To make a long story short, Burr did not make a hundred guineas, or indeed any money at all, from his vinegar venture.


        As a last resort to raise funds for his passage back to America, Burr tries to exploit the knowledge of dentistry he had gained in Paris.  After being held up for a full year in Paris for lack of a passport, Burr writes, after one of his final visits to his denture-maker:


        To Fonzi’s, where nearly finished everything.  It is nearly worth the twelve months I have been detained here to have got so well dentified.


        Burr writes of his hope that what he has learned in Paris about dentures may prove valuable in London:


        Reading over Fonzi’s pamphlet, it occurred to me that my knowledge of his art might be turned to good account here.  Went off to see Delmehant, the most celebrated in that line, for the purpose.  He had moved and could not discover the address. …  I was so much with Fonzi at Paris that I became as good a dentist as himself; and, on coming off, he confided to me an assortment, perhaps one thousand, of teeth of his fabrique.  I had intended this for Greenwood; but; but it occurred to me that something might be made of the dents and my science here.  Have called on three of the most celebrated dentists.  The first was engaged, and was not seen; the second was engaged, but I saw him, and made an appointment to call Saturday next.  The third I had a long talk with; he showed me his own fabrique, which I was constrained to acknowledge was fully equal to Fonzi’s; and, indeed, I think, for beauty, superior, but not solid; he, however, held Fonzi’s in contempt, so nothing to be done.  Tomorrow will make further trial.  It is unpleasant and unpromising.


        Once again, nothing comes of this latest attempt to scare up money.


        At this point, one might wonder why Burr, who was, after all, along with Hamilton, among the most successful lawyers in New York City in the 1790’s, cannot earn some money in London, advising on American law.   His answer to that question is that he must bend all his efforts toward reuniting with Theodosia and his grandson (his anxiety concerning the reception he will receive back in the U.S. notwithstanding): 


        If I should think of residing permanently here, I could readily find the means of support.  But I prefer to have my throat cut nearer you. ...  You see I am in earnest.  Yes, I will go; I will see you and Gampillo, if I am hanged for it the next day.  Now I will make a cipher letter of two lines to you to announce the fact. ...  Shall not write you again in London.  Shall be too busy to think of you.  No, that’s a lie.  Shall think of nothing else but you and Gampillo.  It is you that animate and impel me. ...  And now, at 12 midnight, having packed up my little residue of duds into that same unfortunate little sack, and stowed my scattering papers into my writing-case, I repose, smoking my pipe, and contemplating the certainty of escaping from this country, the certainty of seeing you!  Those are my only pleasing anticipations.  For as to my reception in my own country, so far as depends on the government, if I may judge from the conduct of their agents in every part of Europe, I ought to expect all the efforts of the most implacable malice.  This, however, does not give me a moment’s uneasiness.  I feel myself able to meet and repel them.  My private debts are a subject of some little solicitude; but a confidence in my own industry and resources does not permit me to despond, not even to doubt.  If there be nothing better to be done, I shall set about making money in every lawful and honorable way. ...  My great and only real anxiety is for your health.  If your constitution should be ruined, and you become the victim of disease, I shall have no attachment to life or motive to exertion.


        Burr is not exaggerating when he speaks of the “implacable malice” of U.S. officials abroad, stemming from Jefferson’s extreme frustration when Burr wins acquittal of the treason charges in 1807:


        “The event has been what was evidently intended from the beginning of the trial that is to say, not only to clear Burr, but to prevent the evidence from ever going before the world. ...  The criminal is preserved to become the rallying point of all the disaffected and worthless of the United States, and to be the point on which all the intrigues and conspiracies which foreign Governments may wish to disturb us with are to turn.”


        In Paris, Burr indeed hopes--but fails--to interest Napoleon in underwriting his Western schemes, and American consular officials succeed in keeping Burr for a full year in Paris, before the Duc de Bassano at last helps Burr wrest the needed passport authorization from them.


        After innumerable delays and setbacks caused by the American authorities, and various false starts, Burr eventually does find a ship to take him home at last, and he finds money to pay for his passage.  After a harrowing sea voyage, he arrives in Boston in May 1812 using the assumed name of Arnot to avoid creditors and the risk of landing in debtors’ prison.  Burr now needs to pass the U.S. customs collector maintaining his incognito.  The third vice-president of the United States makes an entertaining story of this ‘near run thing’ (to borrow Wellington’s description of his victory over Napoleon at Waterloo three years later):


        Dearborn, the collector, knows me as well as you do, having seen me hundreds of times in public and private; for me to go direct to him to take an oath and demand a permit in the name of Arnot, seemed to be an experiment that promised little success, and, in case of discovery, might expose me to serious inconvenience, as the family of Dearborn have been extremely vindictive against me, and no doubt would, under pretence of searching for goods, have possessed themselves of my papers.  On the other hand, to spend $20 out of $32, which is my whole stock, in going to Newburyport [the next stop for the ship that brought Burr to America] and returning my things by land might disable me from ever getting out of Boston.  I preferred, therefore, the contingent to the certain evil.  Took with me a young man to show me the way to the custom-house, and entered with all possible composure; passed under the nose of Mr. Dearborn into the adjoining room, where the first part of the business was to be done.  The officer to whom it was directed asked me to enumerate my effects. ... I repeated them off as fast as he could write, though they consisted of eighteen different articles; trunks, boxes, portmanteaus, bundles, rolls, &c.  He then bade me sign my name to it, which I did thus: A. Arnot; I think that is very like it.  Then he directed me to take it to the collector, who would sign it; here was the rub.  I told the young man, my conductor, to take the list and get it signed for me, for that I was obliged to run as fast as possible to see after my things, the ship being just about to haul out.  He took it, and I got out as fast as I could, passing again under the nose of Dearborn.  I do assure thee that I felt something lighter when I got down to the street.


        Burr’s next move in Boston is to write to his loyal lieutenant in New York, Sam Swartout, to ask how the land now lies for Burr in New York.  Sam answers with a letter,


        containing a pretty full answer to my queries, with assurance that I have very many and warm friends and no enemies [in New York].  The letter is stamped with that enthusiasm which marks his character.  As regards business, however, things are not propitious.  The two creditors who have judgments against me are inexorable.  Nothing will satisfy them but money or approved security, neither of which are in my power.  The alternative is to be taken on execution and go to the limits [debtor’s prison].  To this I should have no great repugnance in point of pride or feeling, but there are two objections pretty cogent; first, and principally, you.  I fear your little heart would sink to hear that Gamp was on the limits.  To be sure, if you could come here and see how gay he was, be supported by the light of his countenance, and catch inspiration from his lips, you would forget that he was not in paradise.  The second is, that I have a project of entering into the holy state of matrimony.  The charming object is already designated, and love, almighty love!  The fair object is a worthy lady some few years older than myself, with fortune enough, and, I think, good-nature enough to make that appropriation of it.  Now, this fine sentimental project would be utterly defeated by the limits-establishment.  [The next day:]  Have ruminated beaucoup on that limits arrangement.  It has even its advantages.  I should then be more at my ease; should have nothing to apprehend; could pay my debts in the order I pleased; could live better, be exempt from the trouble of paying visits.  On the other hand, there are the weighty objections before stated.  I am sure your pride would suffer to have Gamp in jail for debt, for it would be called being in jail.  You have already suffered too much on my account, and I come now to sacrifice myself in any way and every way; that of marriage is one, and no hope of that while a prisoner; and as to payment of my debts, if I am confined to the mere practice of the law, debarred from all those speculations in which I might engage if at large, it will be the work of many years, and in all that time I could do you little or no good.


        A few pages later, Burr’s thousand-page journal of his 1808-12 self-exile concludes with this entry:


        And here I am, in possession of Sam’s room in Stone street, in the city of New York, on this 8th day of June, anno dom. 1812, just four years since we parted at this very place.


Summing Up.


        Vinegar from wood!  French dentures!  Sheep! Carriage-wheels!  Stock and land speculations!  Marrying a wealthy woman!  Compared with these exciting ideas for riches, “the mere practice of law”, at which Burr actually excelled, seemed less appealing, but it kept him going for the remainder of his life.  Jefferson and his fellow Virginians Madison and Monroe, the Virginia dynasty of Presidents from 1801 to 1825, with their hundreds of slaves, could maintain the lifestyle of the 18th century English landed aristocracy, to which Burr aspired, but which he--like his fellow dreamers Swan and Randolph--could never quite bring off.  Still, Burr did achieve his goal of staying out of debtor’s prison, and did, very late in life, marry a rich woman, the richest in the United States.


        In 1815, three years after his return, Burr wrote Theodosia’s husband, Joseph Alston:


        I have found it so difficult to answer that part of your letter which regards myself and my concerns, that it has been deferred, though often in my mind.  At some other time I may give you, in detail, a sketch of the sad period which has elapsed since my return.  For the present, it will suffice to say that my business affords me a decent support.  If I had not been interrupted in the career which I began, I should before this have paid all my debts and been at ease.

        My old creditors (principally the holders of the Mexican debt) came upon me with vindictive fury.  I was held to bail in large sums, and saw no probability of keeping out of prison for six months.  This danger is still menacing, but not quite so imminent.  I shall neither borrow nor receive from any one, not even from you. I have determined not to begin to pay unless I see a prospect of paying all.


        Of course, Alston already knew of the saddest part of Burr’s “sad period” after returning to America: the death of Alston’s wife, and Burr’s only child, Theodosia--lost at sea on a voyage from Charleston to New York--and the death of Alston’s only child, and Burr’s only grandchild, ‘Gampillo’, referred to by Burr so often in his journal.


        The letter’s “had I not been interrupted in the career which I began” is poignant as well.  How different Burr’s life would have been had he not won the 1800 election for Jefferson, by securing the swing Electoral College votes Jefferson needed in New York to defeat John Adams.  However, Burr lived on for another 21 years, offering a good deal of comfort for young men and women whom he raised as his adopted children, and left his European journal for us to make of it what we will in attempting to put a value on the character of this much contested American figure.


{Endnote or box:  Gordon Wood writes that “Burr certainly sought to live the life of an eighteenth century aristocratic gentleman” but notes in a separate work that Burr and others who “sought to establish their genteel independence by acquiring landed estates could not fulfill their ambitions of emulating the English landed aristocracy [s]ince land in the New World was a far riskier investment than it was in England”, as Burr himself found out.   Nevertheless, the lifestyle of the English landed aristocracy remained highly appealing to the American political elite of Burr’s generation, for the reasons stated by English intellectual historian Basil Willey in this classic account:

        “The first half of the eighteenth century was a period in which the English aristocracy enjoyed about as near an approach to earthly felicity as has ever been known by man.  They had most of the wealth, all the political power and all the social influence in the country.  The monkish and superstitious Middle Ages lay far off in the dark backward and abysm of time; and the conflicts of the seventeenth century, so uncouth and so theological, which had for long interfered with their full enjoyment of the splendid plunder of the Reformation--all these were over and done with.  The Crown had lost its power to strike, and the Church was docile.  The vulgar, not yet indoctrinated with nonsense about the Rights of Man, were content with the lot to which an inscrutable Providence had fortunately assigned them; or, if not, they consoled themselves with gin, or (as advised by the clergy and the more conventional moralists) with thoughts of the future life. ...  At this distance of time we can afford to yield a measure of (not necessarily ironic) admiration to so perfect, if so brief, a phase of civilization.”}





John Endicott                                  Jane Merrill

j.endicott@sbcglobal.net                  janepmerrill@gmail.com