By Richard N. Côté
Theodosia Burr Alston was a brilliant, independent, highly-educated and freethinking woman in an age which valued none of those traits in females. She was born June 21, 1783 in Albany, New York, the daughter of prominent attorney Aaron Burr (1756-1836) and his wife, the former Mrs. Theodosia Prevost (d. 1794), a widow. Young Theodosia spent most of her unmarried life in New York City with her charismatic, influential father, who had distinguished himself as an officer in the Revolutionary War. There he served under Col. Benedict Arnold and became a member of General George Washington's inner circle. After her mother died when Theodosia was eleven, she became her father's closest confidante and the mistress of Richmond Hill, his New York country estate. A child prodigy whose education was designed by her adoring and demanding father, Theodosia spoke Latin, French, German, and read Greek by the age of twelve.
WHAT IS THE BOOK ABOUT?
For Aaron Burr, providing his little girl with an extraordinary education was a lifelong obsession. But Burr's desire to rear a superior woman-child went far beyond mere education. By the time she could walk, Burr had envisioned an incredible goal for her and crafted a master plan to achieve it. Every moment of her day was directed by her father to shape Theodosia into something new, radical, and monumental. He was not interested in turning out just a smart, pretty girl; a father's pride; or a husband's delight. Burr was no petty theorist. He was a passionate, egotistical visionary on scale that made the gods cringe. With his vision and his daughter's talent, Burr intended to push the envelope of mortal achievement to its absolute limit. Burr's goal was to sculpt Theodosia into a model for the woman of the future: a female Aaron Burr. She was not trained to serve hearth, home, or plantation. From her first breath of life, she was groomed and educated to take her intended station in life: nothing less than president, queen... or empress. From her birth into New York's high society, her childhood among the leaders of the new nation, her marriage to Joseph Alston, a Southern slaveholding aristocrat, to her mysterious death at sea at the age of twenty-nine, this is the true story of Theodosia Burr Alston. From the letters she exchanged with her father, Aaron Burr, and her husband, Joseph Alston, and from the accounts of those who knew her personally, emerges a powerful portrait of a true American prodigy.
ENTER JOSEPH ALSTON...
On the evening of February 2, 1801, at the age of seventeen, Theodosia married Joseph Alston (1779-1816), a wealthy and cultured South Carolina rice planter. They honeymooned briefly at Burr's Richmond Hill mansion, and then traveled to Washington, where they watched Aaron Burr inaugurated as Vice President of the United States on March 4, 1801. Joseph and Theodosia then continued south to The Oaks, Alston's ancestral home on the Waccamaw River near Georgetown, S.C. That summer they returned to upstate New York and became the first known newlywed couple to visit Niagara Falls. Despite substantial cultural differences between the New York socialite and the slave-owning Southern planter, the marriage thrived. Nevertheless, Theodosia's time and loyalties were always divided between the two men she loved. All were overjoyed when her son, Aaron Burr Alston, was born in Charleston in 1802.
THEODOSIA'S CHARISMATIC FATHER...
President Woodrow Wilson said that Burr had "genius enough to have made him immortal, and unschooled passion enough to have made him infamous." In the presidential election of 1800, Burr and Thomas Jefferson received the same number of electoral votes. To Burr's great chagrin, Congress voted to make him Vice President. In 1804, Theodosia's father mortally wounded his political arch-rival, Alexander Hamilton, in their infamous duel. The fatal duel -- which either could have called off -- elevated Hamilton to a national hero and destroyed Burr's reputation and career.
In 1805 and 1806, Burr formulated a grandiose, illicit plan designed to encourage the Southwest states to secede from the Union and attach themselves to Mexico, of which Burr would become Emperor and Theodosia, Empress. Both Theodosia and her husband, Joseph Alston, one of the chief financiers of the "Mexican Conspiracy" and later a governor of South Carolina (1812-1814) had intimate knowledge of the plan. Word of Burr's activities reached President Jefferson. Burr was denounced as a traitor, tried for treason, and was acquitted. Nevertheless his reputation was destroyed. Burr quickly fled to Europe, where he spent four years in self-imposed exile, drifting into poverty while still attempting to fulminate exotic plots.
HER TRAGIC FATE...
The birth of her only child had resulted in debilitating medical problems untreatable in her time, leaving Theodosia to live out the rest of her her married life infertile and battling recurring bouts of physical agony. By the summer of 1805, she thought herself at death's doorway, and wrote a final goodbye to her husband. However, she cheated the Grim Reaper for seven more years. In May 1812, when she was twenty-nine, she rejoiced when her father returned to New York from his European exile. A month later, she was devastated by the death of her only son from malaria. Emotionally and physically exhausted, she yearned for a reunion for her father, despite the fact that the War of 1812 was ravaging the East coast, and that hostile British warships patrolled the sea lanes between South Carolina and New York. Her husband, Joseph, could not accompany her on the voyage, as he had just been elected governor of South Carolina, and as head of the state militia, could not leave the state in time of war. Ignoring her debilitated condition and the threat of naval attack, Theodosia, her physician, and one or more servants boarded the Patriot, a pilot boat and former privateer, in Georgetown, S.C. on Thursday, December 31, 1812 and set set sail for New York. Neither she nor her ship were ever seen again. Both her husband and father were inconsolable in their grief. Joseph Alston outlived his wife by less than four years. Aaron Burr died in 1836 in nearly penniless obscurity.
THE MYTHS AND LEGENDS...
For a century after Theodosia's loss at sea, lurid stories were told of her many alleged fates. Some said she had been captured, molested, and forced to walk the plank by pirates. Another stated that Theodosia, incoherent and deranged, had been found on the beach on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, from whence she suffered various fates and disappeared into the mists of time. By the start of the twentieth century, Theodosia's intrigue-filled, roller-coaster life and tragic death had become fodder for a legion of romantic novelists, whose portrayals of her ranged from earnest speculations to ludicrous distortions of fact. Although the scholarly study of her infamous father had grown into a small industry by the late twentieth century, Theodosia's complex brilliance had long been lost in a soupy fog of romantic novels, pirate tales, and ghost stories. Some were interesting. Most were inaccurate in varying degrees, and a some contained deliberate distortions of well-known fact.
THE NEW BIOGRAPHY...
Theodosia Burr Alston: Portrait of a Prodigy, is being researched and written by Richard N. Côté, author of Mary's World: Love, War, and Family Ties in Nineteenth-Century Charleston, the acclaimed biography of Charleston's Mary Motte Alston Pringle (1803-1884). First published in 1999 and already in its sixth printing, Mary's World was widely praised by scholarly and general readers alike because of its intensive research, insight, and because it was such a pleasure to read. Mary Pringle's eldest brother, Joseph, was Theodosia's husband. Mary was nine years old when Theodosia died, and grew up in a household intimately familiar with her and her experiences.
The true story of Theodosia's life -- untold until now -- is far more fascinating than the myths and novelizations that have distorted and obscured it. This new, heavily-illustrated biography will draw extensively on primary sources, and especially upon original letters between Theodosia, her father, and her husband. It will carefully explore her fascinating life and paint a detailed portrait of the many roles she played, including those of a precocious child, an extraordinarily intelligent and radically progressive young woman, an intensely devoted daughter and confidante to Aaron Burr, loving wife to Joseph Alston, and mother to their son, Aaron Burr Alston. At every opportunity, it will seek to identify and deconstruct the errors and outright distortions of fact which have made their way into print about Theodosia, Joseph Alston, and Aaron Burr. It will then replace the historical fog and literary kudzu which now hides her from view with a powerful, accurate new model of Theodosia's extraordinary life and character based on her own writings, those of her father and husband, and upon eyewitness accounts by those who personally knew her.
These spellbinding Theodosia mysteries -- all of which the book explores -- will fascinate readers:
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The work done by my colleague, James L. Michie, and his team who excavated the physical record of The Oaks plantation in the early and mid-1990s, was invaluable to my writing. In addition, my information exchanges and discussions with Jim were great fun. For those reasons, Theodosia is dedicated as follows: "To James L. Michie, a tireless archaeologist, brilliant scholar, and genial friend, without whose seminal research this story of Theodosia Burr Alston would have been woefully incomplete." This photo shows the author (on left) and Jim Michie discussing the book at a meeting of the Horry County Historical Society in Conway, South Carolina in November 2002.
Good Stock, Deep Roots
her and grew strong.
-- Alexander T. Ormond
Shouts of joy echoed through the house as the first cries of his new baby pierced the door of the bedchamber. Moments later, Col. Aaron Burr's best Madeira flowed like water as toasts were drunk to his wife, Theodosia, and their new daughter. Throughout the pregnancy, both parents had been anxiously counting the days until the birth of their first child. At the age of 37, Theodosia Bartow Prevost Burr was a full decade older than her husband. She had a "delicate constitution," and her health had been precarious for some time. But the Fates had smiled, good luck prevailed, and Aaron and Theodosia's little girl was born healthy and vigorous on June 21, 1783.
Her mother wanted to name her Sally, after her dear friend, Aaron's sister, Sally Reeve. Theodosia wrote Sally's husband, Tapping Reeve, in Litchfield, Connecticut, "Will you believe me, Reeve, when I tell you the dear little girl has the eyes of your Sally?" Aaron was so excited when he wrote to Reeve that he used his business signature, "A. Burr." Theodosia added a postscript, "Burr is half-crazy, pride at having a daughter & pursuit of the law divide his Attention-he mistook you for a client."
Aaron, on the other hand, was determined to carry on the name of his beloved wife. On July 28, 1783, the one-month-old apple of Aaron Burr's eye was baptized in the Albany Dutch Reformed Church and christened Theodosia Bartow Burr. Burr would soon rise quickly to high office - from gentleman volunteer to lieutenant colonel in the American Revolution, to New York state attorney general, U.S. senator from New York, and, ultimately, vice president of the United States. But to read his letters to his wife and daughter is to see Burr in his finest role: that of a proud, doting father and loving husband.
Baby Theodosia - whom Burr soon dubbed "Miss Prissy" or "Our Miss Priss" - had a father who was totally devoted to her. Despite all the crises that would follow, Burr would never regret the affection he had lavished upon his daughter. And he could not possibly have known how critical a part little Miss Priss would play in his soon-to-be notorious life.
Even though he had not yet reached the age of thirty when his daughter was born, Burr was already a rising, prosperous attorney, respected for his patriotism and heroism during the American Revolution. Through both his ancestry and his wartime experiences, Burr was well known and well connected throughout New England and New York.
Young Theodosia's birthright included a wide and admiring network of acquaintances. Her parents had intimate friendships with the most brilliant and talented men and women in the country and a heritage of intelligent, pious, and highly accomplished ancestors. In short, Theodosia came from good stock with deep roots.
Copyright © 2002 by Richard N. Côté. All rights reserved.