History from
the Bottom Up

Theodosia and Theodosia

A young Aaron Burr

A young Aaron Burr

Fans of the Broadway show, Hamilton, will be familiar with the beautiful duet, Dear Theodosia, sung by Aaron Burr (Leslie Odom Jr.) and Alexander Hamilton (Lin-Manuel Miranda). It’s an ode to their newborn babies, Theodosia and Philip. (You can listen to it here.)

Earlier in the play, in the Story of Tonight reprise, Burr had confessed to Hamilton that he’d been having an affair with the wife of a British officer. That would be Theodosia’s mother, Theodosia. Let’s investigate the history behind this:

During the war, Aaron Burr was the aide-de-camp to General Israel Putnam, Washington’s second in command. Putnam had been a hero of the July 1775 Battle of Bunker Hill, and was now in charge of Long Island. It was probably while he was stationed in New Jersey, in 1777, that Burr met Theodosia Prevost (pronounced “pree-VOH.” Her husband was of Swiss-German origin). Her husband was off fighting in the southern colonies. But she herself was a patriot, siding with Washington and the Americans. Ten years older than Burr, she had married at seventeen, and had five children. She was also sick, probably with stomach cancer.

The show Hamilton is not kind to Burr, with justification. Among his other flaws, he was certainly a womanizer. But he was also extremely progressive for his time on the subject of a woman’s capacity for genius, and he fell hard for the witty and highly-educated Mrs. Prevost. And she for him. By all accounts, she was a top-notch intellect and charmer. It’s unclear exactly when their love affair began.

In December 1781, she learned that her husband, stationed in Jamaica, had died of yellow fever. She and Burr were free to marry, and did so in July of 1782. In 1783 they had a daughter, who, at Burr’s insistence, they named Theodosia. The war ended in 1783. In 1785 they had a second daughter, Sally, but she died at age three. Theodosia would be the only child of Burr’s who would reach adulthood.

He was a big fan of Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, published in 1792, and he raised his daughter as a thoroughly educated woman of the Enlightenment. As Theodosia, his wife, grew sicker, Burr took over more and more responsibility for his daughter’s education. Theodosia-the-wife died at age 48.

Theodosia Burr Alston

Theodosia Burr Alston

Theodosia-the-daughter married a boring rich guy named Joseph Alston at age seventeen, and they had a son, whom they named Aaron Burr Alston. Sadly, he died at age eleven. A year later, in 1812, the still-grieving Theodosia set out to visit her father. The United States had just declared war against Great Britain, and Theodosia’s husband was in command of a militia in South Carolina, so he couldn’t accompany her. In December of 1812 she left Charleston on a schooner bound for New York, with only her maid and a male escort. There was a violent storm off the coast of the Carolinas, and the ship was lost at sea. She was just thirty years old.

Source: Nancy Isenberg, Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr

Mate and Create

Gray WolfPhoto: Gary Kramer, USFWS, Creative Commons

A classic favorite movie in our house is Napoleon Dynamite, and here’s one of our favorite scenes:his drawing of a “liger.”

But were you aware that ligers really exist?

My friend Laura is one of my go-to scientists. She not only teaches AP Biology, but also POST-AP Biology, for high school seniors who can’t get enough Biology. Kids flock to take her classes. I ask her for help on pretty much all my books. … Read more

That’s Harsh

I try not to discuss politics on this blog, but the widespread criticism of Hillary Clinton’s “annoying” voice begs for some historical context. The criticism tends not to be about what she is saying–it’s about how she’s saying it. You may disagree with her, or with Trump, or with Sanders. But of the three candidates, why is it Hillary’s voice that gets criticized so often?

A lot of commentators and news reporters comment on it. Many complain that she is loud, or shrill, or inauthentic.

Then there’s  … Read more

Knockdown, Drag-Along

It’s been a long time since I was in high school, but I’m still in touch with my favorite teacher—who taught history, naturally—Mr. Heller. (It took me about twenty five more years to call him by his first name, Miles.) Anyway he read my blog from last week about portable writing desks and messaged me:
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In the Am Revolution, they carried huge collapsible furniture, like chests, tables etc. with arms on them so that they could be carried. Sometime, they … Read more

Desk Jobs

I’ve been researching the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and I got curious about writing desks. They’ve evolved quite a bit over the past two hundred years, from this:To this:Yeah, that’s my treadmill desk. Not that my desk represents the most highly evolved of writing desks, but desks have definitely changed a lot.

Robespierre at his desk.

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Read It And Weep

I’m researching colonial America, and just spent the morning reading a book written in 1660, by one Thomas White. The full title doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue, but here it is: A Manual for Parents: Wherein is Set Down Very Particular Directions in Reference to the Baptising, Correcting, Instructing, and Chusing a Calling for Their Children : to which is Added A Little Book for Little Children : Wherein Besides Several Instructions, and Encouragements, Several Examples.

The book was later republished in Boston, in 1702, with the much more succinct title A Little … Read more

Racine and Reason

I have a couple of vivid memories from my high school AP French literature class. Our teacher, Madame Sorrell, was a lovely woman whose bright red hair tumbled in tendrils to her shoulders, and who was all chiffon scarves and jingly jewelry and heady perfume. Once she gave our class a cooking lesson. We watched her douse the baba au rhum with a healthy few glugs of rhum until it was deeply saturated. The cake tasted pretty much like a kitchen sponge soaked in rum, but I think we all thought … Read more

On the Banks of Blumb Creek

I’ve been reading the journals of Lewis and Clark and others from the Corps of Discovery expedition (which began in May, 1804). (You can read them online here.)

It’s compelling, entertaining reading, and not just because of Clark’s hilarious spelling.

During the first two weeks of September, 1804, the expedition was traveling through Knox County Nebraska, heading toward South Dakota. They lugged their pirogues and keelboat up a creek, which, in Clark’s words, “abounds with blumbs of a Delicious flavor.” But fresh fruit was a luxury for the men of the … Read more

Anne Hutchinson, Cheeky Preacher

The road I drive on to get in and out of New York City is called the Hutchinson River Parkway. It was named, of course, for the Hutchinson River. But I wonder how many people know who the Hutchinson River was named after.

Anne Hutchinson, that’s who. If she hadn’t been a woman, she would have been a powerful minister at the level of her contemporaries, John Winthrop, Roger Williams, and John Cotton. But she was a woman, and in 1637 she was banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony and excommunicated by … Read more

Author Visit!

For two days last week, I visited the Hampden Meadows school in Barrington, Rhode Island, to talk to multiple classes of fifth graders. I knew it was going to be a great author visit when this greeted me: And once inside, this:I shared the pink doughnut five ways with my four library helpers, who were there to help me get my presentation technology up and running. Best doughnut I ever spent. They had the slideshow up on the screen in no time. Here … Read more

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