Aaron Burr: More than Just a Disgraced Duelist
Historians may argue whether or not Aaron Burr qualifies as a local hero, but he is indeed local – a Jersey boy through and through. He was born in Newark, and his father served as the second president of the College of New Jersey, which became Princeton University. Burr, who was raised after his parents died by relatives in Elizabeth, graduated from the College of New Jersey at age 16.
With the buzz of ancient gossip surrounding this year’s 200th anniversary observances of the July 11 duel in which Burr fatally shot Alexander Hamilton, Burr’s name has surfaced more than usual – and he has his defenders. Certainly there was more to Burr’s life story than the duel: he served as an officer in George Washington’s army, as a senator from New York State, as vice president of the United States under Thomas Jefferson, and he was active in New York politics.
The duel itself was the culmination of a political conflict with personal overtones. Afterwards, warrants for Burr’s arrest were issued in New York and New Jersey. Burr fled to Philadelphia, where he plotted an invasion of Mexico. Arrested as he tried to reach Spanish territory, he was tried for treason but acquitted. Burr then lived abroad for several years, returned to the United States in 1812 and practiced law for more than 20 years. His daughter was lost at sea on her way to be reunited with him, and his second marriage ended in divorce on the day he died.
Given Burr’s New Jersey background, The New Jersey Historical Society has a number of items with Burr connections. This summer, NJHS is prominently displaying Burr’s portrait, attributed to Gilbert Stuart, in the entrance hall of its headquarters at 52 Park Place, Newark.
[caption: Portrait of Aaron Burr, attributed to Gilbert Stuart. Oil on canvas, c. 1792-1794. NJHS# 1854.1. Gift of David A. Hayes, Esq. for John Chetwood, Esq.]
The portrait itself has a history that seems fitting in light of Burr’s own fragmented and ultimately tragic life. The following comes verbatim from the Proceedings of The New Jersey Historical Society, first series, (volume 10, 1865-1866, pp. 170-172).
PORTRAIT OF AARON BURR.
communication from DAVID A. HAYES, ESQ., respecting the Original Portrait of Aaron Burr, in the possession of the Society.
The portrait of Aaron Burr presented to this Society by John Chetwood, Esq., was found in Milburn in this County.
The relatives of Aaron Burr, Senior, President of Princeton College knew that his son, prior to his breaking up his house in New York city, had a portrait of his father and mother, but they had disappeared, and although much sought for could not be found. It was reported, however, that Aaron Burr had entrusted them, with other family effects, to the care of a man by the name of Keaser, who for some years had been his body servant.
Judge Ogden Edwards, of the city of New York, who was a relative of Aaron Burr on his mother’s side, had for many years made diligent enquiries for this Keaser, but could get no trace of him.
He had consequently given up the hope of obtaining any clue to the lost portraits, and ceased his efforts, when, in 1847, passing through Pearl street in the city of New York, he heard a person call to a drayman “Keaser come here with your cart and take these boxes.” The Judge’s curiosity was excited and he immediately turned to the drayman as he drove up to the store and enquired if his name was Keaser. He said it was. The Judge then informed him that for some time he had been trying to find a man by the name of Keaser, who was in the employ of Aaron Burr at the time he lived in New York. The drayman replied that his father did for some years live with Aaron Burr, but he had no recollection of it, as it was before he was born, but he had heard his father often speak of Aaron Burr and of his living with him, and that his father had been dead for some years. The Judge asked him if his father had any portraits of Aaron Burr. The drayman said he never knew of any, but his sister who was much older than he, and who was a girl at the time his father lived with Aaron Burr, might give him some information on the subject, and stated where his sister lived.
The Judge immediately started in pursuit of the sister and found her in a small room in one of the many alleys inhabited by the poor in the crowded streets and alleys of the city; and was informed by her that her father had been in the employ of Aaron Burr, and when Burr fled from the city he left a great many things with her father, and that she remembered seeing some portraits, but what her father had done with them she could not tell, and referred the Judge to an older sister who was married and lived in the “Short Hills of New Jersey.”
The Judge made many inquiries of the woman, but she evidently was unwilling to give him any information as to what had been left by Aaron Burr with her father, or what he had done with the property entrusted to him. She however stated that her father had been poor for some time before his death, and the Judge concluded that he had deposed of it for his support.
As the Judge had never heard of the “Short Hills of New Jersey,” he enquired of the woman where the Short Hills of New Jersey were, and she being really ignorant or not willing to give the information, said she did not know—that all she knew about them was, that her sister and her husband several years before came into New York to see her, and stated that they lived in the Short Hills of New Jersey.
As no further information could be obtained from her, the Judge determined to find these Hills, and soon after came over to Newark and called on John Chetwood, Esq., who was then practicing law in this city to learn their location. On being told that they were but about eight miles from Newark, he informed Mr. Chetwood of his object and proposed taking a ride thither in pursuit of the lost portraits. Mr. Chetwood accepted the invitation, and they rode out to Springfield and were directed to the Hills on the west of the village, and after many enquiries they found the residence of the elder sister of Keaser, which was a small building with a lean-to, having but one room and an unfurnished low garret.
On entering the house the Judge recognized two portraits which hung on the wall as those of Aaron Burr and of Theodosia, his daughter, who married Governor Ashton of South Carolina. The only persons in the house were the sister of Keaser they were seeking, and several small children. They evidently were very poor. After some conversation with the woman the Judge offered the woman $5 for the pictures. She at once accepted it. The Judge asked her if she had any more, she said she had not, when a little boy said to his mother there were two in the garret that ‘baby used to play with.’ The woman said yes, but they were good for nothing. But at the request of the Judge she sent the boy up to get them, telling him one was in the window where the glass was broken out.
The boy went up a ladder which led to the garret and brought down two pieces of canvas which had been in oval frames. On spreading them out the Judge at once recognized them as the lost portraits of President Burr and his wife. The portrait of President Burr was much defaced, one of the eyes was gone, the paint having evidently been picked off the canvas in several places, and in other places broken off by folding. These two portraits the Judge also purchased.
The only information the woman could or would give, was, that they were pictures her father had given to her and she had kept them for some time, and the Judge left with the prizes he had for years been seeking.
On brushing off the dust they were found to be very fine paintings. Several artists have judged them to have been painted by Stewart. The portrait of President Burr is the only one known to have been taken. The portrait of Theodosia was a most beautiful painting, representing a woman just budding into life in full freshness of perfect beauty.
The Judge had the portrait of President Burr carefully cleaned and repaired, and from it was engraved the only likeness we now have of President Burr.
As the Judge had a portrait of Aaron Burr, the son, he presented the one they found to Mr. Chetwood, who, in 1849, on leaving for California left it with me, to be presented in his name to the Society, and as his gift it has been an interesting ornament to our room.
I have given these statements as they were related to me by Mr. Chetwood at the time the portraits were found.
[Cradle, wood, c. 1750-1800. NJHS# 1952.140. Gift of Mrs. Ronald Theodore Lyman. 21.5"H x 27.5"W x 44"L]
NJHS also has a cradle, which its donor believes was used by Aaron Burr when he was an infant (he was born in 1756). For many years, the cradle was in the old Harrison House, called “Mountain Foot,” in West Orange. Aaron Burr was a great friend of the Harrison family and visited Mountain Foot often. The donor was a descendent of the Harrison family of West Orange.
Another Burr object in the NJHS collection, one that shows how little we have changed over the centuries, is the fragment of veneer inscribed “A piece of veneer taken from Aaron Burr’s desk on which he wrote the challenge to Alexander Hamilton in the Year 1804.” As the man who killed Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr became infamous. Curiosity seekers sought souvenirs, including this fragment.
For research on Aaron Burr and the times in which he lived, or to learn more about these items and others in NJHS collections, visit the NJHS library reference desk.
The New Jersey Historical Society