Article - Summer 2019

Aaron Burr in Exile

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Surviving against all odds, his journal tells the story of one of the most maligned figures in American history

By Penelope Rowlands | June 3, 2019
Though separated from Theodosia by an ocean, Burr used his journal as a means of recording a one-way conversation with his beloved daughter. (Alamy)
Though separated from Theodosia by an ocean, Burr used his journal as a means of recording a one-way conversation with his beloved daughter. (Alamy)

In June 1808, as he left North America for the one and only time in his life, Aaron Burr recorded the briefest of notes for his adored daughter, Theodosia. “Fair winds,” the founding father and former vice president wrote before clambering aboard a packet, the Clarissa Ann, in New York Harbor. Traveling under the assumed name of H. E. Edwards, Burr was headed across the Atlantic, the Furies at his heels. It wasn’t the first time he’d fled. In 1804, after killing Alexander Hamilton in their famous duel, he had escaped southward. This time he was facing even more severe consequences. Charged with treason after allegedly organizing a conspiracy to roust the Spaniards from their colonies in Mexico and the Southwest Territory, Burr was acquitted in September 1807, after a sensational trial in Richmond, Virginia. His enemies—and they were legion—were incensed by the verdict. Slanderous rumors about him continued to swirl. According to one, Burr was plotting to assassinate President Jefferson. An army of creditors was also in pursuit. Escape was the only option.

Burr would be on the run, and short of cash, for most of the next four years. Hounded by his enemies, he zigzagged across Great Britain, Scandinavia, and the European continent, living what he called “a spider’s life.” He traveled with a political goal, too, hoping to enlist European partners, up to and including Emperor Napoleon himself, in the liberation of the New World’s Spanish colonies. Desperate to return to his daughter, he was constantly thwarted, passing like Odysseus through a series of daunting challenges, one right after the next.

During this dramatic time of exile, Burr kept a diary that grew to fill five notebooks and a thousand pages, completing it just days after his return to the United States. He was done with his journal at that point, yet it seemed to take on a life of its own as it passed through the hands of subsequent generations. Today, it tells many tales, beyond the story of just one man.

From the beginning, Burr’s diary was more than a record of his time abroad. He conceived it as a conversation with “my Minerva,” one of the many endearments he had for Theodosia, who was living in South Carolina at the time, married to Joseph Alston, who would later become the state’s governor. “And again and again, I pray you to recollect that this is not a journal to read, but mere notes from which to talk or to speak, like a lawyer,” Burr wrote to her from Sweden. “It is my brief, from which I shall make you … many a speech.” The journal served as a protracted one-way conversation, one that Burr could step away from, then return to at will. His tone is playful and warm. In her correspondence, Theodosia matched her father for constancy: “You are always in my thoughts.”

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