8 Facts About Theodosia Burr Alston
Those familiar with the name Theodosia are no doubt fans of the musical Hamilton, in which Aaron Burr sings to his daughter in “Dear Theodosia,” "When you smile, you knock me out, I fall apart / And I thought I was so smart." In real life, Theodosia, born on June 21, 1783, got her name from her mother, who died, probably of cancer, in 1794. Aaron gave Theodosia the best possible education, and she went on to have an incredibly interesting life; here are a few things you might not have known about her.
1. SHE WAS CONSIDERED A PRODIGY.
After reading A Vindication of the Rights of Women by Mary Wollstonecraft, Aaron Burr decided to raise his daughter with the best education. (Aaron’s passion for raising Theodosia right is even referenced in Hamilton.) "She was reading Horace and Terence in the original Latin, learning the Greek grammar, speaking French, studying Gibbon, practicing on the piano, taking lessons in dancing, and learning to skate," James Parton said in his biography of Aaron Burr. She also had reportedly read all of Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by the time she was 10. Her education was truly progressive for the time, and according to Charles Felton Pidgin in his 1908 biography of Theodosia, “She was the first woman in America to have what may be called a college education. Her personal charm, her amiability, her moral heroism, and her educational acquirements entitle her to the designation which we have given her THE FIRST GENTLEWOMAN OF HER TIME.”
2. SHE MAY HAVE BEEN CLOSE TO EXPLORER MERIWETHER LEWIS.
The relationship between Theodosia and Lewis has been the subject of tabloid level speculation for over a hundred years. The traditional story is that the two met at a dinner hosted by Thomas Jefferson; discussed the possibility of finding living examples of the mastodon, bones of which were just being found, on Lewis’s upcoming expedition; and went on to have dinners and riding dates together before Theodosia married in 1801 and Lewis embarked on his expedition in 1803.
It’s a nice story, but just that—a story. Quite apart from the fact that mastodons weren’t named as such until 1806, Theodosia married in February 1801, while Lewis was in the Army and still stationed at Detroit. Lewis wouldn’t arrive in Washington until March, a full month after Theodosia married. It’s also unlikely that the two would be talking about an expedition that was still years away. Finally, the two probably never really interacted that much. As Richard Côté points out in Theodora Burr Alston: Portrait of a Prodigy, when Theodosia visited Washington in October 1803, Lewis and Clark were already in Illinois. So while the two may have known each other, reports of a romance have been greatly exaggerated.
3. HER HONEYMOON DESTINATION WAS THE START OF A TREND.
On February 2, 1801, 17-year-old Theodosia married a wealthy southerner named Joseph Alston; shortly after, they went on their honeymoon to Niagara Falls. Now a common location for weddings or honeymoons, at the time, Theodosia and Joseph were the first celebrity couple to make the destination their honeymoon retreat. Today, Niagara Falls is nicknamed “The Honeymoon Capital of the World.”
4. IF THINGS HAD GONE HER FATHER’S WAY, SHE WOULD HAVE BEEN A QUEEN.
In 1805, one year after the famous duel with Hamilton, Aaron Burr hatched a questionable plan: He was hoping to annex part of North America and declare himself the monarch. This would have made Theodosia next in line to become Queen of Mexico; eventually, her son, Aaron Burr Alston, born in 1802, would have inherited the throne. Obviously, Aaron’s plan didn't pan out, and he was later tried for treason.
5. SHE WROTE LETTERS TRYING TO GET HER FATHER OUT OF EXILE.
In 1808, after being found not guilty, Aaron Burr went to Europe in a self-imposed exile to escape creditors and a public that was turning against him. But he soon found that without a passport, he was unable to return to the United States. Theodosia wrote letters to those in power she thought could help, including first lady Dolley Madison and Secretary of Treasury Gallatin. In her letter to Madison, she wrote,
“Why, then, is my father banished from a country for which he has encountered wounds and dangers and fatigue for years? Why is he driven from his friends, from an only child, to pass an unlimited time in exile, and that, too, at an age when others are reaping the harvest of past toils, or ought, at least, to be providing seriously for the comfort of ensuing years ? I do not seek to soften you by this recapitulation. I only wish to remind you of all the injuries which are inflicted on one of the first characters the United States ever produced.”
While Theodosia’s efforts didn’t directly bring her father home, the responses she received showed that the government wouldn’t provide any obstacles to Aaron Burr’s eventual return in 1812. Back in the United States, Burr practiced law in New York City.
6. SHE WAS THE FIRST LADY OF SOUTH CAROLINA.
Her husband Joseph Alston became Governor of South Carolina in December of 1812, making Theodosia the first lady. Unfortunately, she only held the position for 21 days before tragedy struck ...
7. IN 1813, SHE DISAPPEARED FOREVER.
Aaron Burr had experienced some pretty rough years, but they would all pale in comparison to what happened between 1812 and early 1813. In June 1812, just weeks after returning from Europe, his only grandson died of malaria. A few months later, Theodosia boarded the Patriot, which had previously been used in the war of 1812, to go see her father—but the ship never reached New York. The boat disappeared, taking 29-year-old Theodosia Burr Alston with it [PDF].
To this day, the fate of the Patriot remains a mystery, but the most popular theory is that the boat was overtaken by pirates. Despite speculation, the details of Theosodia's death and disappearance are likely to remain unclear. After she disappeared, Aaron Burr was quoted saying he felt “severed from the human race.”
8. SHE CONTINUES TO INSPIRE PEOPLE TODAY.
Hamilton isn’t the only reminder of Theodosia’s legacy. Her name has lived on through many others, including silent film star Theda Bara, whose real name was Theodosia Burr Goodman. She starred in films like A Fool There Was (1915) and Cleopatra (1917). Theodosia was also a subject in Robert Frost’s poem, "Kitty Hawk":
Apropos of sin,
Did I recollect
How the wreckers wrecked
Off this very shore?
'Twas to punish her,
But her father more
We don't know what for:
There was no confession.
In more recent years, Theodosia inspired a corset made by artist and costume designer Camilla Huey for her 2013 exhibit "The Loves of Aaron Burr: Portraits in Corsetry and Binding." With Hamilton bringing her name back into the mainstream, this probably won’t be the last we hear of Theodosia Burr Alston.