What can you tell me about Aaron Burr's pets or thoughts about animals? I feel like he was a cat person. Did he ever comment on Jeremy Bentham's animal rights stuff?@Anonymous
Unfortunately not much. There are no records that indicate whether or not he had any animals (at least none that I’ve been able to get my hands on)—Nor are there any that talk about his opinions on Bentham’s animal rights arguments.
Let me also preface this answer by saying that I am woefully inept when it comes to my knowledge of Bentham, so I am simultaneously getting the bare basics from Wikipedia as we speak. Maybe we can muddle through this together. Heigh ho.
“[Bentham] argued that the ability to suffer, not the ability to reason, should be the benchmark, or what he called the ‘insuperable line.’ If reason alone were the criterion by which we judge who ought to have rights, human infants and adults with certain forms of disability might fall short, too…But a full-grown horse or dog, is beyond comparison a more rational, as well as a more conversable animal, than an infant of a day or a week or even a month, old. But suppose the case were otherwise, what would it avail? The question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?”
What makes us living creatures, deserving of pity and respect, is not our reasoning capabilities, but our feelings. I don’t know how Burr would react to this, given that he places a lot of emphasis on reason and how important it was. He extended the concept of reason to both men and women—Burr believed, like Wollstonecraft, that souls were sexless and thus so was reason—and was considered radical for his time. Bentham was also categorized as a radical. To me, it would seem that Burr’s acceptance of Bentham’s animal rights arguments would be a natural extension of his propensity to be a “radical ” thinker. This is only speculation, given the nature of his character.
Needless to say, I bet Burr and Bentham had some very poignant talks about human suffering.
The tragic thing about Burr’s journals, and why I can only conjecture about his opinions, is that time and time again he stresses the fact that it was like a case brief: notations to be expanded upon at a later date, with his daughter. The death of his daughter before he ever gets to see her again obviously rendered this plan impossible. Many of his remaining friends described him as a “subdued light”; half-human. He avoided giving opinions on things like political ideologies (or social ideologies, like animal rights) because he simply didn’t have the energy. Had his daughter lived, and were he able to speak with her about all the things he learned in Europe, he would with out a doubt speak of Bentham and his ideas and we would have a much richer history of Burr and Burr’s beliefs. He never got that opportunity.
For instance, many of the passages in his journal just mention Bentham in passing (“Went to Bentham’s for 2 hours, conversed, dined”…things like that.) Presumably, he would get to a sentence like that while discussing his writing with his daughter and then he would give her the details—which she would then either store away in her memory for posterity or write down somewhere.
Rarely does Burr expand upon things he learned while conversing with Bentham. Interestingly, one of the few times we get a glimpse into their conversations is possibly one about homosexuality. According to Wikipedia (not the greatest source, but again, the only one I have at the moment):
“The essay Offenses Against One’s Self (1785) argued for the liberalisation of laws prohibiting homosexual sex. The essay remained unpublished during his lifetime for fear of offending public morality. It was published for the first time in 1931. While Bentham clearly is not condoning homosexual activities, he does not believe them to be unnatural, describing them as ‘irregularities of the venereal appetite.’ The essay chastises the society of the time for making a disproportionate response to what Bentham appears to consider a largely private offence – public displays or forced acts being dealt with rightly by other laws.”
Twenty-six years later, we get this interesting passage from Burr:
“J. Bentham had asked me to dine, which refused; but while there we had a great dispute about the affair of Sodom and Gomorrah, and the cause for which they were burned; the particulars of which I will relate, but can’t now write. There being no Bible at hand to settle the question, we parted, each with his own opinion. At [William] Godwin’s I consulted him, who, you know, or perhaps do not know, was bred a priest. He turned to the passage, and really there is ground for the strange opinion of JB.”
Though Burr does not expand upon what aspects of Sodom and Gomorrah they discussed, it is pretty safe to assume the topic of conversation turned to sodomy itself. Bentham’s argument, given his inclination to want to decriminalize homosexual acts, probably included a liberal outlook towards this act. Bentham insisted that homosexual acts were private and not the business of government. Burr, skeptical at first but clearly willing to debate the matter, goes to his learned friend Godwin (“bred a priest”) to gain some insight on the matter. Godwin presents Burr within Biblical information that would justify Bentham’s argument, which Burr calls “strange”. Unfortunately, that’s all we get. Was Bentham saying the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah was justified, and Burr thought this was strange? Or was Bentham advocating for the right of individuals to practice sodomy without the interference of a higher power (be it government or God), and that is what Burr thought was strange? Either way, according to Burr, Godwin settled the matter and left an impact on Burr’s opinions about Sodom and Gomorrah, and most likely the concept of sodomy.
The reason I digress so much is to illustrate a point: it’s hard to tell what Burr’s opinions are because of the abbreviated nature of his journal itself. Since Burr was not as close with Bentham before going to Europe, his journals are really all we have to work with. Conjectures like the one I made above are all we can do to try and unravel the inner-workings of his mind.
Some biographers have taken a stab at Burr’s interest in animals. In Charles Burr Todd’s The True Aaron Burr: A Biographical Sketch, he paints a quaint picture of Burr in his later years, as an elderly man:
“He was very fond, when seated at table, of having his favorite cat near him, and it was a pleasant thing to see puss sit on the arm of his chair and keep him company.”
I have never come across any other passage in any other books that mentioned Burr and cats, perhaps because most modern biographers think it immaterial to his life story. This passage is from a biography that is over one hundred years old, and older biographies are fond of cute little anecdotes like this one. Aaron Burr was totally a cat person and no one will ever convince me otherwise.
I will conclude by saying that a person is defined by the company they keep, especially in the social circles of the early 19th century. Burr’s close friendship— I would even venture to call them best friends—with Betham until Bentham’s death in 1832 speaks volumes. The fact that though Bentham held radical views (writing many pamphlets and essays that he could not publish because they were so radical) Burr still stuck by his side, to me, would indicate a great respect for Bentham’s powerful mind and his opinions. Remembering this, one can almost make out with definitive certainty the shadowy realm of Burr’s mind.