This post was written by Mariam Touba, Reference Librarian for Printed Collections.
Popular culture now makes it known how much Aaron Burr believed in the education of women, endorsing “with avidity and prepossession” what he would read in Mary Wollstonecraft’s 1792 A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. He applied these principles to the upbringing of Theodosia, his only daughter to survive beyond early childhood. Theodosia’s curiosity, development, and sense of mischief can be seen in this handful of letters, written as a preteen to her half-brother, John Bartow Prevost, who was a full seventeen years her senior. Here in 1794, she is anxiously awaiting more books of the Latin classics and takes no shame when John teasingly calls Virgil, Terence, and Plautus her “friends.”
At the close of the letter, Theodosia is eager to practice her French, and, despite the fact that she was being tutored by an émigré escaping the French Revolution, the Revolution seeps approvingly into the final sendoff. She notes in the postscript that “Citoyen Alexis” sends his compliments and seeks news of John.
“Citizen” had become the appropriate manner of address in Revolutionary France, meant to confer equality on all people when titles of nobility were abolished. An irony arises here, since “Citizen Alexis” was an enslaved servant of the Burr family.
The French Revolution would figure most directly in the life of her correspondent, the half-brother who was leaving for Paris to serve as secretary to the United States minister, James Monroe, as the Revolution was emerging from the Reign of Terror.
One may catch a sense of her loneliness, as 11-year old Theodosia’s mother died just months earlier, and politics often kept her father, a United States Senator, away.
She fills her missives with news of the African-American servants and on who may be marrying and bearing children. Alexis wants a love letter written for him to a mulatto sweetheart in Virginia: Could John oblige? Alexis was eager to learn to read and write from young Theodosia, but we know from Aaron Burr’s letters that French was Alexis’s preferred language, and the letter needed to be in English.
The end result is satisfactory, “warm, languishing, & passionate,” Theodosia imparts in her next letter, so much so, she adds, that Matt would like one for Polly, as well.
Theodosia reports in another 1794 letter that she went to see President George Washington–garbed “in a complete suit of black velvet”–address Congress, where she “heard very little and understood less.” She writes with greater enthusiasm about the drama arising from a couple of unsavory guests at her Philadelphia inn making a dubious claim they had been robbed: “Oh, how I love a riot. They talked about constables and gaols and what not but not a word did they say to papa.” But she seems to understand the inevitable result of such an accusation, as eyes turn to the black men among them, “Everybody seem[s] to unite against poor Thomas and Alexis; the latter defends himself with great gravity and Eloquence,” while Thomas, although innocent, was a bit of a “rascal.”
Aaron Burr once described Alexis as “a faithful, good boy,” and he would continue to serve as Burr’s personal attendant, possibly delivering letters leading up to his fateful duel with Alexander Hamilton in 1804. By then, however, it was Peter Yates who was Burr’s favorite valet, “the most intelligent and best-disposed black I have ever known.”
John Bartow Prevost went on to have a career serving judicial offices in the Louisiana Territory and diplomatic roles in Spanish South America. And the lively and brilliant Theodosia was married to Joseph Alston, governor of South Carolina, when she met her tragic end, lost at sea while traveling to New York at the end of 1812, just months after her only son succumbed to illness.