Burr, Aaron, Sr.

Burr, Aaron, Sr. (1715/6-1757) was Princeton's second president, but because his predecessor, Jonathan Dickinson, died the year he took office, it was Burr who did most of the work of organizing the College and making it a reality. Burr's work was also cut short by death, but during the ten years he served, the curriculum was devised, the student body enlarged tenfold, new friends made for the College, substantial gifts obtained, and a permanent home found in Princeton.

Burr was born in Fairfield, Connecticut, and graduated from Yale at the head of his class in 1735. After studying divinity at New Haven, he was called to the Presbyterian Church in Newark, New Jersey, where he conducted a classical school similar to Dickinson's at Elizabethtown. He was associated with Dickinson in the founding of the College and was the youngest clergyman among its original trustees. On Dickinson's death in October 1747, he was induced to take the embryonic college under his care in Newark and a year later was formally elected president.

Ezra Stiles, then tutor and afterwards president of Yale and an intimate acquaintance of Burr's, noted in his diary that Burr was a ``small man as to body, but of great and well improved mind. . . . A hard student. A good classical scholar in the 3 learned Tongues [Hebrew, Greek, Latin] . . . well studied in Logic, Rhetoric, Natural and Moral Philosophy, the belles Lettres, History, Divinity, and Politics. He was an excellent Divine and Preacher pious and agreeable, facetious and sociable; the eminent Christian and every way the worthy man.''

These talents Burr applied to the College with diligence and devotion, beginning with his inauguration at the first Commencement on November 9, 1748, when he delivered, from memory, a forty-five minute oration in Latin, and conferred an honorary degree on the College's leading patron and benefactor, Governor Jonathan Belcher. He carried on the instruction of the students with the assistance of one tutor and later, as enrollment grew, of two. The students boarded out in town and attended classes in the parsonage and later in the county courtrooms above the county jail, which was not far from the Presbyterisn Church.

Burr was a bachelor when he assumed the presidency. Some four years later, on June 29, 1752, he married Esther Edwards, third daughter of the celebrated divine, Jonathan Edwards of Stockbridge, Massachusetts. The wedding took place in Newark and the senior class gave a piece of silver as a wedding present. Joseph Shippen, Jr., a member of the junior class, wrote his father that President Burr had ``made a visit of but three days . . . at Stockbridge, in which short time, though he had not . . . seen the lady these six years, I suppose he accomplished the whole design.'' The bride was fifteen years younger than her husband, who was then thirty-six. Young Shippen admired her beauty and thought her ``rather too young for the president.'' As he came to know her better he discovered that she possessed qualities not unsuitable for a president's wife: ``I think her a woman of very good sense,'' he wrote, ``of a genteel and virtuous education, amiable in her person, of great affability and agreeableness in conversation and a very excellent economist.''

Burr served for three years without salary, and filled both the offices of pastor and president until 1755 when, at the request of the trustees, he was relieved of his pastoral duties to devote full time to the College. He drew up the first entrance requirements, the first course of study, the first set of rules and regulations, and supervised the erection of the first building, Nassau Hall, to which he, his two tutors, and seventy students moved in November 1756.

President Burr did not have long to enjoy the fruits of his endeavors. Soon after the removal to Princeton, the illness of one of the tutors obliged Burr to perform his duties as well as his own.

The growing needs of the College also required him to make frequent trips through the colonies in search of funds. It was on returning from one such arduous trip that he learned the news of the death of his close friend and ally, Governor Belcher. He sat down at once in spite of exhaustion and a high fever to write the funeral sermon. Two days later he rode his horse to Elizabethtown, where he delivered the sermon, although ``it was seen that he was fitter for his bed than the pulpit.'' He returned to Princeton grievously ill and died several weeks later at the age of forty-one. He was buried in the Princeton Cemetery -- the first in the President's Lot -- after a service conducted, as he had requested in his will, ``in the plainest manner consistent with decency,'' and the money thus saved applied to charitable uses.

In Benjamin Franklin's Pennsylvania Gazette Burr's death was reported as follows:

``September 29, 1757. Last Saturday died the Rev. Aaron Burr, President of the New Jersey College, a gentleman and a Christian, as universally beloved as known; an agreeable companion, a faithful friend, a tender and affectionate husband, and a good father; remarkable for his industry, integrity, strict honesty, and pure, undissembled piety; his benevolence as disinterested as unconfined, an excellent preacher, a great scholar, and a very great man.''

Esther Burr survived her husband by less than a year; she died of smallpox at the age of twenty-six, leaving their two children, four-year-old Sarah and two-year-old Aaron, Jr. Sarah married Tapping Reeve 1763, who was to be Chief Justice of Connecticut. Aaron, Jr., who graduated from Princeton in 1772, became the third vice-president of the United States.


From Alexander Leitch, A Princeton Companion, copyright Princeton University Press (1978).

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