One of the most poignant lyrics in “Hamilton: An American Musical” is sung by Aaron Burr:
Death doesn’t discriminate
Between the sinners
And the saints
It takes and it takes and it takes
And we keep living anyway….1
In the play, Burr is described as an orphan, and is left a widower when his wife Theodosia dies. In reality, that barely begins to describe all the family and close friends that Aaron Burr lost in the course of his long life. True, death could come with more suddenness and violence in 18thc America than now, but even in that context Burr endured a much greater share of grief and loss than most of his generation.
Born in 1756, Aaron Burr very nearly didn’t survive himself. He was born prematurely, and as an infant - the most perilous age for anyone in colonial America - he suffered from a “throat distemper” (diphtheria) that had the attending doctor predicting he would not survive the night. His distraught mother, Esther Edwards Burr, lamented that the illness of her “little son” was “the greatest tryal that ever I meet with in my life.” Yet he recovered, and lived.
Young Aaron’s parents were not as fortunate. In the fall of 1757, his father, Aaron Burr, Sr. died of malaria. Esther’s father, the noted theologian Jonathan Edwards, joined her in New Jersey in the spring of 1758, only to die within weeks of complications from a smallpox inoculation. Esther, who had been inoculated at the same time, developed a fatal fever, and she, too, died in early April, leaving two-year-old Aaron, Jr. and his older sister Sarah, known as Sally, orphans. His now-widowed grandmother, Sarah Edwards, intended to take the two children back to her home in Massachusetts, but she contracted dysentery on her journey, and also died. Aaron and Sally became wards of their twenty-year-old uncle Timothy Edwards.
A precocious student, Aaron received his baccalaureate degree at 16, and began to study the law. The outbreak of the American Revolution made him choose the army instead. As a young officer in 1775, he became the protege of General Richard Montgomery, and served as his aide-de-camp on the doomed expedition to Canada. Aaron was at Montgomery’s side during the Battle of Quebec, when the general was shot and killed; tradition says that he dragged Montgomery’s body back to camp. Aaron continued to serve in the army as commander of Malcolm’s Regiment, a New York-based regiment, and was with them through the bleak winter encampment at Valley Forge in 1777-78. In the summer of 1778, he led his troops at the Battle of Monmouth. Conflicting orders from General Charles Lee and Commander-in-Chief General George Washington placed Aaron and his men in a disastrous situation under direct British fire. Suffering from heatstroke and with his horse shot from beneath him, Aaron watched as the regiment he’d so carefully trained suffered devastating casualties. Disillusioned and in ill health, he finally resigned from the army in 1779.
But during the war he had met and fallen in love with Theodosia Bartow Prevost, the wife a British officer; only Colonel Prevost’s death permitted them to marry. Theodosia, however, had already suffered more losses than the death of her first husband. Her father had died before she’d been born. While she was the mother of two adolescent sons with Colonel Prevost, their two daughters had both died as babies. Tragically, that pattern was to continue with her second husband. Their first daughter, also named Theodosia, was sickly as a baby, but survived. Their second daughter, Sally, died as a young girl. Two sons were stillborn. After a long and painful illness (most likely stomach or uterine cancer), Theodosia herself died in 1794. Now a widower, Aaron became an even more devoted father to his only surviving daughter.
In 1804, Aaron met his political rival Alexander Hamilton in the most famous (and infamous) duel in American history, and the one thing that most people today associate with the name Aaron Burr. Hamilton’s subsequent death forever branded Aaron as a murderer, and effectively ended his political career. In 1801, 18-year-old Theodosia had married wealthy landowner Joseph Alston, and together they had a single son, Aaron Burr Alston, who was the delight as well as the namesake of his grandfather. But in 1812, the boy died of malaria at age ten, leaving both his parents and Aaron heartbroken. Seeking the consolation of her father, Theodosia attempted to sail from Charleston to New York to join him. Her ship was lost at sea, and she is presumed to have perished with it, aged 29. Four years later, her husband Joseph Alston also died, aged 36.
Aaron’s only sibling, his sister Sally, was no more fortunate. Married to lawyer and judge Tapping Reeve, she was chronically ill for most of her life, and died at 42. Their single child, Aaron Burr Reeve, a lawyer like his father and uncle, died at 28 in 1809. His only son, Tapping Burr Reeve, died at 19 in 1829 while a student at Yale.
Aaron Burr outlived them all. Unlike Alexander Hamilton, there were no weeping children, wife, or friends surrounding his deathbed. In 1836, at age eighty, and after two strokes that had left him partially paralyzed and debilitated, Aaron Burr died in a rented room in a boarding house on Staten Island.
1 Excerpt from “Wait for It” from “Hamilton: An American Musical” Copyright 2015 by Lin-Manuel Miranda.
Above: Portrait of Aaron Burr by John Vanderlyn, 1802, New-York Historical Society.
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