The Secret Wife of Aaron Burr:
Questions for Discussion for Reading Groups and Book Clubs
Today Aaron Burr is best known as the man who shot Alexander Hamilton in their duel. Because of this, he is usually portrayed as a villain. Did this book change your opinion of him? How?
Through much of her life, Mary is viewed as “different” from the society in which she is living. What are the various ways that make her an outsider?
Mary’s relationship with Burr was similar to that between Sally Heming and Thomas Jefferson, and countless other lesser-known women as well. Enslaved women were particularly vulnerable to men, and sexual violence was too often part of their lives. Discuss their situation, and the realities they – and their children - faced.
At the end of the American Revolution, half of the enslaved people in the colonies worked in small households like Mary did, and slavery was still legal in all thirteen of the new states. How would Mary’s life as a house slave in the North have differed from that of a Southern field slave on a plantation? How would it be the same?
How would you describe the complicated relationship between Burr, his wife Theodosia, and Mary? Do you think Theodosia would ever have confronted her husband about his relationship with Mary? Why, or why not?
Like Aaron Burr, many of the most famous Founding Fathers – including Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, John Jay, Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson, and John Hancock – were slave owners. How do you think they reconciled this with the Declaration of Independence’s promise of “liberty and justice for all”?
Mary was encouraged to learn to read and write because it made her more valuable to her mistress. How did literacy affect her life?
From childhood, Mary’s life is marked by abuse and degradation. What gives Mary the strength to persevere? What were her ways of coping with her enslavement?
Why do you think Mary remains with Burr once she has her freedom?
As a cook, Mary learns to adapt her cooking to please the tastes of each household in which she serves. What does this say about the food we consider “American” today?
The greatest and most lasting love in Mary’s life is the love she feels for her two children, Louisa and John Pierre – children who are the result of her unwilling relationship with Burr. What do you think Mary’s feelings must have been regarding her children?
Burr was a consummate politician, and was one for the first Americans to openly embrace both campaigning and behind-the-scenes deal-making. What aspects of 18th century American politics reminded you of modern politics?
Thousands of black soldiers like Lucas Emmons fought, often heroically, for the Continental Army and in local militias during the American Revolution. Why do you think they risked their lives for a cause that did not appear to include them?
Many enslaved people used the uncertainty and confusion of the Revolution to escape their bondage. Mary did not. In her position, would you have run away? Why, or why not?
Because Burr admired the writings of British feminist Mary Wollstonecraft and because of the education he provided for his daughter Theodosia, he is often regarded as a feminist himself. Based on his relationships with his wife, daughter, and Mary, would you agree? Why, or why not?
Mary is a house slave who earns considerable trust and responsibility. Yet the more skills she acquires, the more valuable she becomes, and the less likely she is to be freed. Discuss the paradox of her situation.
In the years leading up to their fatal duel, Alexander Hamilton came to believe that Burr was a man who was a danger to the nation because of his shifting allegiances and love of power. Do you agree?
As adults, Mary’s children resent their father for his treatment of her, while Mary herself is more forgiving. Do you agree with Mary, or her children?