Aaron Burr and Goethe — 200 years ago
On January 4, 1810, Aaron Burr met with the poet Johan Goethe in Weimar, Germany. They were rough contemporaries: Goethe was 60; Burr 53. But they were at very different stages in their lives.
Goethe was a literary giant in 1810, renowned for The Sorrows of Young Werther, and still producing great poetry as he worked on his enduring masterpiece, Faust.
Burr was an impoverished exile. He won permanent notoriety when he killed Alexander Hamilton in their 1804 duel, while vice president of the United States. After leaving office in early 1805, Burr attempted to lead an invasion of Mexico, or an insurrection of America’s Western territories, or an ambitious settlement of Western lands — depending on who you believe.
Tried for treason in 1807 and acquitted, Burr traveled through Europe from 1808 to 1812, vainly trying to find a sponsor to underwrite an invasion and liberation of South America. While in Europe, he met with many great figures of the time, striking up an intimate friendship with British philosopher Jeremy Bentham.
During his European peregrinations, Burr took in all the sights. Two days before his encounter with the great German poet, he viewed the houses where the Emperor Napoleon and Tsar Alexander I of Russia had stayed during 1806 negotiations.
Of his visit with Goethe, Burr wrote excitedly in his private journal, “This day would make two hundred pages if written out.” Alas, he never did write it out.
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