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Aaron Burr: Did He Renounce Atheism on His Deathbed?

Published: January 28, 2016

Aaron Burr was no stranger to scandal. We remember him principally as the man who, while still vice president, shot and killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel in Weehawken, New Jersey. Hamilton had arguably started the feud when he viciously insulted Burr in a letter, calling him, among other things, “a profligate, a voluptuary in the extreme.” In fact, according to some sources, it was comments like these that had caused then-president Jefferson to drop Burr as his running mate for the upcoming 1804 election. Burr was arrested and indicted for murder after the duel, but he was later acquitted of the charge. A few years later in 1807, Burr was arrested for treason and dragged to Washington in chains on charges that he attempted to set up his own, independent republic in the Texas territory, then under Spanish rule. He got off that time, too.

But, for all the other scandals, and there were plenty, the question that dogged Burr all his life was: Did he believe in God?

Burr was unusual in his day for being a freethinker willing to publicly question the existence of a higher power. But the following article “Aaron Burr — His Death Bed,” from the Post archives, dated January 18, 1868, is an eyewitness account by his friend, the minister Dr. Van Pelt, alleging that he changed his tune and accepted God in his very last moments.

But was this true or just an attempt by Burr’s friend to patch up his tattered reputation for posterity? In a 1937 book Aaron Burr: The Proud Pretender‎ (1937), writer Holmes Moss Alexander challenges Van Pelt’s story and claims Burr remained an atheist to the bitter end. In Alexander’s version of the story, when Van Pelt asked Burr, on his deathbed, if he had good hope the Lord would graciously pardon his sins Burr replied, “On that subject I am coy.”

That’s not the way this article tells it. On the occasion of the 260th anniversary of Burr’s birth in February 6, 1756, we’ll leave it to you to judge for yourself whether Van Pelt’s story is convincing.

Aaron Burr — His Death Bed

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By William E. Barton Collection of Lincolniana. Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library. Digital image from American Memory, Library of Congress. (http://www.learnnc.org/lp/multimedia/4833) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

January 18, 1868There has been an impression that Aaron Burr refused to converse upon the subject of religion during his last illness. But this is an error. The writer has received from the daughter of the late venerable Doctor Van Pelt, the following account of Burr’s death, related by her father, who visited him when dying:—Colonel Burr died at the present Port Richmond Hotel, Staten Mend, where Dr. Van Pelt frequently visited him during his protracted illness. The time spent with him was chiefly employed in religious conversation, concluding with prayer. Asked as to his views of the Holy Scriptures, Colonel Burr replied — “They were the most perfect system of truth the world had ever seen.”Two hours before his death, Dr. Van Pelt informed him that he could not survive much longer, when he replied — “I am aware of it.” Dr. Van Pelt thus describes his last moments: “With his usual cordial concurrence and manifest desire, we kneeled in prayer before the throne of Heavenly Grace, imploring God’s mercy and blessing. He turned in his bed and put himself in an humble, devotional posture, and seemed deeply engaged in the religious service; thanking me, as usual, for the prayer made for him. Calm and composed, I recommended him to the mercy of God and to the Word of His Grace, with a last farewell. At about two o’clock, P. M., without a groan or struggle, he breathed his last. His death was easy and gentle as a taper in its socket, or a summer’s wave that dies upon the shore. Thus died Colonel Aaron Burr.

His last years were spent in comparative obscurity; a few old friends, never deserting him, followed his body to its final resting place, in the cemetery at Princeton, N. J., where they deposited him alongside, or at the foot, of his reverend father’s remains. For years not a stone marked the silent spot; but a plain white marble monument has been placed there, by the same kind hands who ministered to his wants when in retirement, sick and dying.

What a strange history was Aaron Burr’s! At one time carried along on the wave of popular favor, the chief magistracy of the great republic seemed almost within his very grasp, but not securing it, he became the second officer of the Government, the Vice President of the United States. How rapid and lofty his rise, and his fall how sudden and entire! After the fatal duel with General Hamilton, he was indicted for murder by the Grand Jury of New Jersey; by flight sought a refuge in the South, living in obscurity there until the meeting of Congress, when again he appears as President of the United States Senate. His term of office expired, he goes West and becomes the master spirit of an ambitious scheme to invade Mexico. But he is brought hack a prisoner of State to Richmond, charged with high treason, was tried and acquitted. This happened in the year 1808; and only fifty-two years old, his locks were quite silvered, but his form still erect; his eye sparkled with undiminished radiance. His trial was one of the most remarkable in our nation’s history. John Randolph, of Roanoke, the illustrious orator, was the foreman of the Grand Jury, and the eminent John Marshall the presiding judge. Not less than five lawyers, with the prisoner himself, appeared in the defense.

The fifty witnesses were sworn, and their tedious cross-examination disclosed depths of perjury. Still, the Government, after every attempt, failed to obtain a conviction. Aaron Burr, a man of plots and conspiracies, was acquitted, but ruined. From the public indignation, however, he was compelled to leave his native land. Looked upon with suspicion in England, he retired to France, there living in reduced circumstances, and at times not able to procure a meal.

Thus an alien for several years, he obtained from Jeremy Bentham the means to return home, and landing at Boston without a cent, he found himself still an object of distrust to all. Since his departure to Europe he had received no tidings of his beautiful, accomplished, and devoted daughter Theodosia. She had married, in 1800, Governor Allston, of South Carolina, and the first news he now heard was that his grandchild, her only son, in whom his soul delighted, had died, while he was an outcast.

She had been married young, when her father had reached the zenith of his fame. She was not only a lady of rare endowments, but of the most refined feelings, an elegant writer, devoted as a wife and mother, and a most dutiful and affectionate daughter. As the clouds of sorrow and adversity gathered around him, and he was deserted by friends he had formerly cherished, she clung with redoubled affection to her father’s terrible fortunes, while the dark clouds of sorrow and adversity gathered around him.

Upon his arrival, Colonel Burr immediately informed Mrs. Allston of it, when she promised to meet him in New York in a few weeks. She had now become his all on earth — wife, grandchild and friends were all gone, and this precious daughter alone remained to welcome him from his exile and cheer the evening of his checkered and sorrowful life. Days and months passed away without any intelligence from his daughter, when he grew more and more impatient, almost doubting the sincerity of her affection. At last, however, he received a letter from Governor Allston, stating that she had sailed some weeks before for New York in a vessel expressly chartered by him for the purpose. But this vessel never arrived; undoubtedly all on board perished at sea, as no tidings have ever since been heard of her fate.

Now Burr’s last link of life was broken and his cup of sorrow full! The mysterious uncertainty of her death greatly increased the poignancy of his accumulated griefs, and hope; the last refuge of the afflicted and the bereaved, became extinct as years rolled on.

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  • Liz Searcy

    Thank you for this fascinating insight and well-written commentary.

  • Bob McGowan jr.

    What a fascinating, sad, yet ultimately hopeful feature this is on Aaron Burr. I feel the latter part of the first paragraph suggests he did renounce atheism considering most of his time spent with Dr. Van Pelt was mainly religious conversation, concluding with a prayer. His comments about the Holy Scriptures also point to a man who, at least in his last days, had had a change of heart.

    I doubt if he formally denounced atheism in such a manner for the outside world to know of, but did so in the private, quiet manner as written here. There was nothing left, he was leaving this world, and wanted to make peace with the Higher Power, even if he didn’t call that power God.