A striking feature of Aaron Burr’s life is the paucity of written material he left behind. For a man who spent 20 years in public life during the nation’s founding, the material left is slim indeed. The Political Correspondence and Papers of Aaron Burr were published in 1983 and constitute only two volumes. By way of comparison, the projects to publish papers of other founders have produced much more:
- James Madison — 30 volumes and still working
- Thomas Jefferson — 35 volumes and still working
- Alexander Hamilton — 26 volumes (and done!)
The small yield for Burr is partly due to some very bad luck. After his acquittal on treason charges in 1807, Burr left many of his papers with his daughter, Theodosia Burr Alston, for safekeeping while he traveled in Europe. She brought those papers with her when she boarded a ship for New York in late 1812 to meet Burr on his return to America. The ship, Theodosia, and Burr’s papers were lost at sea.
Then Burr left his remaining papers in the care of Matthew Livingston Davis, a longtime acolyte. It was a mistake. Davis took it upon himself (perhaps at Burr’s direction) to burn large chunks of the papers, particularly those relating to Burr’s voluminous correspondence with various paramours. Davis chopped up other letters, printing only fragments, and made a hash of the whole enterprise.
Davis’ most astonishing act of literary violence was the publication of The Private Journal of Aaron Burr, which Burr had compiled during almost four years of wandering in Europe. Davis took it upon himself to change Burr’s journal wherever he wished, making thousands of changes, again removing many of the salacious (that is, interesting) bits.
Fortunately, a railroad tycoon at the turn of the last century (William Bixby) financed a scholarly effort at Washington University of St. Louis to print Burr’s actual journal, and brought out 250 copies in a private printing. Through the magic of the Internet, this full version is now available online.
Yet there is a more basic reason why Burr’s literary harvest is so paltry. As remembered by Charles Burr Todd, presumed to have been Burr’s illegitimate son and manager of Burr’s law practice in his old age, Burr always “had a special regard for the maxim that ‘things written remain,’ and was very careful as to what he wrote.”
And so he wrote down rather little, to the frustration of those, such as I, who attempt to account for his actions many years later.