Every generation decries the changing social norms of the generation that comes after: unless, of course, the older generation does not even survive to see how the younger generation lives. In that case, the younger generation is pretty much left to its own devices.
In the eighteenth century, parents sometimes did not live to watch their children grow up. That was the case with Aaron Burr, Sr. and his wife Esther Edwards Burr. They died when their daughter Sally was three years old and their son Aaron was only two. Sally may have followed in her mother’s footsteps, marrying at seventeen a man who was a great deal older and had served her as a tutor. But Aaron Burr was in almost every particular different in his choices from his father. Where his father was pious, Aaron Burr, Jr. was agnostic. Where his father was loyal to Britain, Aaron Burr joined the Continental Army to fight against the British. Where his father married a seventeen year old girl when he was thirty-six, Aaron Burr, Jr. married a thirty-five year old widow when he was twenty-five.
In some ways the generation of his parents and the generation of Aaron Burr, Jr. lived on opposite divides of a major cultural shift. Founded by Puritans, the American colonies had been filled with pious, self-restrained, hard working loyalists. Suddenly in one generation — the generation that separated the two Aaron Burrs — the most prominent members of society became deists, like Thomas Jefferson, believers in the separation of church and state, like James Madison, and agnostics, like Aaron Burr the younger. They flouted the traditional authority of the state. They looked for new ways to educate their children and they showed a different attitude toward romance. How in one generation had this changed? Where did the ideas come from that allowed such a cataclysmic rift in the very fabric of society?
It was the Enlightenment, many will tell us, the age of reason that set aside tradition in favor of rational thought and scientific experiment. While Esther Edwards Burr was nourished on the Bible and the sermons of her father, Jonathan Edwards, Aaron Burr and his bride, Theodosia Bartow Prevost read and discussed Voltaire and Rousseau.
Aaron Burr, Sr. asked for Esther Edwards Burr’s hand in marriage after first obtaining the consent of her father. When he asked, her response was one she had been trained from childhood to make: “If it please the Lord.”
Aaron Burr, Jr. corresponded with Theodosia Bartow Prevost, a married woman with five children. When the topic of love arose, she cited the superiority of Rousseau over Lord Chesterfield as a reason to practice self-restraint.
Today, if a thirty-six year old president of a university asks a seventeen year old girl to marry him, and if her father’s consent were the thing that induced her to accept, it might be greatly frowned upon. Today, if a twenty-five year old young man who had just taken the bar were to marry a widow ten years his senior, perhaps nobody would remark on it at all.
But in the days of Aaron Burr, Sr., his courtship of Esther Burr was perfectly respectable, perhaps even exemplary in the restraint that both parties showed by not indulging in familiarity prior to marriage. And in the days of Aaron Burr, Jr., it was the knowledge that they loved one another, though without acting on it, prior to the death of her husband, that made people talk.
So it happens that what once was a respectable mode of courtship has fallen into disrepute, whereas what may have seemed questionable is now accepted as normal.
Today, when the right and the left are at each other’s throats, where devotees of the Constitution forget that it was written by followers of the Enlightenment, whereas those who claim they follow the liberal tradition have become authoritarian and dismiss the rights of the individual, it might behoove us to think of the generation gap between the two Aaron Burrs.
Freedom from tyranny goes hand in hand with personal freedom. But each generation has to remake the world to fit its own way of thinking. Which way are we leaning today?