aaron burr, seducer -- 3/23/16

Today's selection -- from The First Presidential Contest by Jeffrey L. Pasley. Aaron Burr was the grandson of legendary New England preacher Jonathan Edwards. He served as both the third Vice President of the United States and Senator from New York. He famously killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel. And he openly consorted with prostitutes -- something that was legal in New York during his day:

"[Thomas] Jefferson later claimed he had never trusted [Aaron] Burr, and there is good evidence that the Virginians were extremely wary of him from the be­ginning. From Paris, James Monroe wrote that he considered Burr 'a man to be shunned ... an unprincipled adventurer ... whom it is better to get rid of at once.' ...

"The true origin of the antipathy to Burr, or at least a possible ex­planation of its intensity, seems to be his private life. For many of his colleagues, Burr's willingness to transgress customary limits in his po­litical activities dovetailed a little too well with what they knew or heard about his personal behavior. Simply put, Burr was a seducer, not only of the audiences he swayed with his speeches and the impressionable young politicians who became his followers, but also of women, appar­ently of all ages and conditions. He also probably paid a considerable number of women for their sexual services, a quite common and legal practice in this era, especially in New York City, where prostitutes made themselves openly available in the balconies of theaters and leading citizens invested in or rented property to brothels. However, Burr was characteristically more open about it than most men of his station. His second wife was 'the leading prostitute in post-Revolutionary America,' Eliza Bowen Jumel. (Jumel and Burr got together decades later; he was a recent widower during the 1796 campaign.) Of course, slave-owning men did not require the services of prostitutes, so it would have been hypocritical of the Virginians to be shocked by Burr's behavior, but there were plenty of northerners who seemed to feel the same way.

"Burr began his lifelong campaign of womanizing early and kept it up throughout a very long life, amassing and carefully preserving a col­lection of trophy letters from his conquests. The habit may or may not have been suspended during his seemingly happy marriage to Theodo­sia Bartow Prevost from 1782 to 1794, but even there Burr transgressed. Prevost was an attractive widow ten years his senior whose previous marriage Burr had invaded before her absent British officer husband's timely death. Modern historians have tended to skirt this aspect of Burr's life, perhaps because so much of the concrete evidence was deliberately destroyed, but a reputation for sexual libertinism seems to be one likely explanation for the veiled references that detractors commonly made to his private morality, often as the crowning argument against trusting Burr. It was over an (unrecorded) comment of this type that Burr would duel and kill Alexander Hamilton in 1804.

"The person who destroyed the evidence was more frank about this 'strong and revolting trait' in Burr's character. Having proudly burned the love letter collection to save the reputations of several prominent families who had contacted him, the former vice president's long-time crony and literary executor Matthew Livingston Davis devoted two pages of his otherwise admiring book to a scathing if maddeningly vague de­nunciation of Burr's relations with the opposite sex: 'For more than half a century,' seducing women 'seemed to absorb his whole thoughts. His intrigues were without number. His conduct most licentious. The sacred bonds of friendship were unhesitatingly violated when they operated as barriers to the indulgence of his passions.' Davis did link his hero to the ruination of one specific woman, the fourteen-year-old daughter of a British officer, Major Moncrief, because she later had published her own story. In Davis's account, Burr comes off like the rake character in an early sentimental novel."


Jeffrey L. Pasley


The First Presidential Contest: 1796 and the Founding of American Democracy (American Presidential Elections)


University Press of Kansas


2013 by the University Press of Kansas


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