The First Biography of Governor Jonathan Belcher

[The following is from Aaron Burr (1715/16-1757), President of the College of New Jersey (Princeton College), A Servant of God: Jonathan Belcher, Governor of His Majesty’s Province of New Jersey. A Servant of God was the first biography written about Governor Jonathan Belcher, and it was written by a good friend of his, a man who knew him very well. Another outstanding feature about this biography: Aaron Burr thought so much of his friend that he literally risked his life to read this biographical portrait to the public--and in fact, Burr did die, twenty days later, at the age of circa 42, as a result of a fever worsened by his courageous efforts to bring this biography to fruition. Burr testified to the truth of his words with his life. Incidentally, he left behind him a small son and namesake who later became Vice-President of the United States.]



Governor of His Majesty’s Province of New Jersey


by Aaron Burr, A. M., President of the College of New Jersey

[later called Princeton University]


(New York: Hugh Gaine, Printer, 1757)



[Phrases from the Author’s Note by Aaron Burr]

    [T]o pass over in silence, true merit, when rendered conspicuous by the honors and dignities of this world, would be injustice to the living, as such characters, when set in a fair light, attract the esteem and engage the imitation of others.


...I am persuaded what I shall say will be allowed by all to be within the bounds of modesty and truth.


[Jonathan Belcher’s Family, Early Life, and Travels in Europe]

    He [Governor Jonathan Belcher] was descended from one of the most honorable families in this country [America]. His father was the famous ANDREW BELCHER, Esq., one of His Majesty’s Council in the Province of Massachusetts Bay, justly esteemed the ornament and blessing to his country. He [Andrew Belcher] took peculiar [special] care about the education of so promising a son, upon whom he hopes of his family were fixed.

    He [Jonathan Belcher] was early instructed in the learned languages and liberal arts and sciences, in which he made good proficiency. While at [Harvard] College, by his open, free, and pleasant conversation, joined with a manly and generous conduct, he rendered himself agreeable to all his acquaintance. .He remarkably distinguished himself from too many of the young gentry of the present age [the eighteenth century], (who return from their travels replenished with corrupt principles, and [are] proficients in the scandalous vices and debauched practices of the places they have visited), as he [Jonathan Belcher] preserved his morals unsullied and kept himself free from those pollutions which so much abound in, whereby inexperienced youth are often betrayed into ruin. And [he, Jonathan Belcher] even maintained a sacred regard to that holy religion [Christianity] which he made an early profession of.

    These excellent endowments of the mind were set off by a peculiar beauty and gracefulness of person, in which he was excelled by no man in his day.... . There was a certain dignity in his mein [appearance] and deportment which commanded respect. This, joined with the frank, open, and generous manner in which he treated his friends, his polite and easy behavior towards strangers, rendered him the delight of the one, and the admiration of the other. The scholar, the accomplished gentleman, and the true Christian, were seldom ever more happily and thoroughly united, than in him, which could not fail of procuring his esteem at home and abroad. He was received and treated in the most obliging, respectful manner by the Princess Sophia [of Hanover], on whom the hopes of the British nation were then fixed for the preservation of the Protestant succession. At his departure, he was presented with a golden medal as a token of her peculiar regard [high esteem]. There he first became acquainted with her worthy son, the late excellent King GEORGE I [later King of England], which laid the foundation he [Jonathan Belcher] afterwards had in his [King George’s] royal favor.

[Governor of Massachusetts and New Hampshire]

    After his [Jonathan Belcher’s] return from his travels, he lived for some time at Boston in the character of a merchant with great reputation, was chosen one of His Majesty’s Council, and thought by the General Assembly there the fittest person to represent the Province [of Massachusetts Bay] in their difficulties at the British court. Soon after, His Majesty King George II was pleased to appoint him to the governments of Massachusetts Bay and New Hampshire, over which he [Jonathan Belcher] presided, with much honor and great acceptance, for many years. While he maintained a religious regard to his oath and the instructions of his royal master on the one hand, he showed a tender regard to the liberties of the people on the other.


His [Jonathan Belcher’s] unshaken integrity and uprightness in all his conduct, his zeal for justice and care to have it equally distributed, have rendered him the admiration of the present, as they will of future generations. The prospect of worldly interest, earnest solicitations of friends, or fear of loss, seem to have had no influence to move him from what appeared to be his duty.


His steadily opposing a corrupt, designing party...who were raising their fortunes on the ruins of the province by bringing in large sums of paper currency, laid the foundation of those false and ill-natured representations which were made against him at the British court and caused his removal from those governments, so that it is hard to say whether his advancement to, or his removal from, them was the greater honor. Providence designed Governor BELCHER for more extensive usefulness in another Province [New Jersey], for as soon as he had it in his power to represent his case to the ministry at home [the British court in England], he was justified in every part of his conduct and promised the first vacant government in the king’s gift--which, happy for us, proved to be this [the colony of New Jersey].

[Governor of New Jersey and Founder of Princeton University]

    When he first arrived, he found the province [of New Jersey] thrown into the utmost confusion by tumults and riotous disorders, which had for some time prevailed; these he labored with his whole power to prevent and suppress. The above confusions, joined to the unhappy controversy between the two branches of the legislature, rendered the first part of his administration peculiarly difficult. But by his steady, wise, and prudent measures, these difficulties have been happily removed.

    Though we have not been favored with the prime and [youthful] flower of Governor BELCHER’s days, when he could have gone through the fatigue and burdens of his station with more sprightliness and activity, yet we have had the advantage of his experience and observations of his riper years, when the virtues which adorned his life shone, though not with a sparkling, yet with a steady and attracting light.

    The interest of the province [of New Jersey] has always lain near His Excellency’s heart, which he steadfastly pursued with unwearied pains and disinterested [impartial] views. His ears were always open to real grievances. The cause of the poor, the widow, and the fatherless, as well as of the rich and great, was by him favorably heard, and the wrongs of all readily and impartially redressed, and I doubt not, the "blessing of many ready to perish, have come upon him." He endeavored to distinguish and promote men of merit and worth without partiality, and indeed, was a minister of God for good unto his people. "A terror to evil doers, and a praise to those that did well."

    Nor should I pass over in silence what will distinguish Governor BELCHER’s administration, not only in the present, but I trust, in all succeeding ages. I mean his being the Founder and Promoter, the chief Patron and Benefactor of the College of New Jersey [later called Princeton University]--an estimation calculated to promote the important interests of religion, liberty, and learning. He lived to see his generous designs of doing good in this respect have something of their desired effect. But how far the college is like to answer the ends of its first institution [its beginning], and what are the advantages derived from it, both to church and commonwealth, I would choose should be said by others, and had rather leave for time to declare.

[A True Christian]

    And if we should now view him in the religious, as we have in the civil life, he will shine with more distinguished brightness. True religion is the more amiable and excellent in persons of high station, not only because it is so rare, but because their examples have a commanding influence, and the world around them are engaged to follow their steps. When the graces of the Christian life are connected with the luster of earthly dignity and power, they constitute a most lovely character, and such persons become ornaments and blessings to the age in which they live.

    This was eminently the case with our worthy departed friend; his distinguishing and unaffected piety spread a glory over all his other endowments and rendered him a peculiar [special] blessing to the world. It was evident, his religion was not a mere nominal, formal thing, which he received from tradition or professed in bare conformity to the country where he lived, but real and genuine, such as commanded his heart and governed his life. He had such clear views of the glorious majesty and holiness of God, the strictness and purity of the Divine Law, his own...unworthiness, as made him disclaim all dependance on his righteousness and lay the whole stress of his salvation on the merits and righteousness of the Lord Jesus Christ, who appeared in his eyes as an all-sufficient, suitable, and glorious Savior, to whom he continually repaired as the "only refuge set before him." He would express in the humblest strain the sense he had of his own [unworthiness] and the high, exalted thoughts he had of the rich, free, and glorious grace offered in the Gospel to sinners. His "faith worked by love" and produced the genuine fruits of universal obedience [to God’s commands], discovered itself in a life of piety and devotion toward God, justice, truth, and kindness toward men, meekness, humility, and chastity in himself. He greatly prized and diligently searched the sacred Oracles [the Bible], felt the truth, saw the excellency and importance of what God had revealed therein. These he made "the man of his counsel," the only unerring rule of doctrine and worship. By his sacred regard to the Lord’s Day, his steady and conscientious attendance on all the public ordinances of His house, he has left a noble example, worthy the imitation of all rulers in a Christian land. He resolved, with that pious governor Nehemiah, that he would not forsake the house of God so long as he lived, and with the Psalmist, "desired one thing of the Lord" which he continued to request, "that he might dwell in the house of God all his days." This practice he continued even when his great weakness of body and growing infirmities would have been thought by everybody a sufficient excuse for his absence.

    He was truly exemplary in his family, reading the Scriptures and praying with them as long as his health and strength would possibly admit. And how conscientiously he has maintained [a] devout [relationship] with Heaven in his secret [prayer]. How carefully he has daily redeemed time from the hurries of business and company for the important concerns of another world, and how devoutly he has spent such seasons, will appear when his heavenly Father, who saw him in secret, will reward him openly. In a word, "whatsoever things were true, whatsoever things were honest, whatsoever things were just, whatsoever things were pure, whatsoever things were lovely, whatsoever things were of good report, if there was any virtue, and if there was any praise, he thought on these things" (Philippians 4:8).

    Though he was very far from having any thing affected or ostentatious in his religion, yet he was not ashamed to profess and practice it in the open view of a corrupt and degenerate age, when religion has been treated with great contempt, and a person who had any real regard to it would hazard his reputation, but resolutely maintained a sacred regard to our holy religion in the midst of all the insults and scoffs from infidelity on the one hand and the allurements of the fashionable vices of the times on the other. He was "not ashamed of the Gospel of Christ," which he knew to be the power of God for the salvation of immortal souls. The welfare of Zion lay near his heart, and he longed for the prosperity of Jerusalem. It gave him sensible joy whenever he heard the interest of the Redeemer’s kingdom was advanced.

    In his declining days, he seemed to ripen fast for the heavenly state, had his conversation much in Heaven, and would frequently speak of the things of another world as things that were quite familiar to him. His letters to his Christian friends breathed the same excellent and pious spirit.

    His approaching [death] he kept daily in view [and] lived in continual expectation of it... . It has pleased his blessed Master, the last week (after a tedious illness), to [release] him from his employments, labors, and trials here [on earth] and call him to that "rest which remains for the people of God," for we doubt not, at the end of the days, he will stand before his Judge with exceeding joy and be received with a "Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world" (Matthew 25:34).

[Thoughts on Friendship and Patriotism]

    The subject and solemn occasion would furnish me with various useful reflections, which might properly enough be enlarged upon, but I shall content myself with touching on two or three.

    First, If the servants of God are [released from their work] by Him, none of them die too soon or too late. He that has assigned them their work and employment has fixed the time of their [death]. Indeed, to us, it may appear too soon, for the death of eminently useful men is a great public loss; we may much need their service, their wisdom and fidelity, their zeal for God and their country’s good. But their work is done, their business in life accomplished, and they have finished their course. The time and manner of their departure, infinite wisdom has appointed, "for there is not a sparrow that falls to the ground, but it is by the will of our heavenly Father." And though we may greatly regret, and it is right we should, the removal of such as God has made distinguished, extensive blessings in the world, yet, for our support and encouragement, we should consider that "the Lord’s hand is not shortened." The "residue of the Spirit is with him" who made them useful in their way, and He can raise up others in their room who shall, like them, serve their generation faithfully by the will of God.

    Second, What comfort may we well take in the death of our worthy friends who have been distinguished by faithfulness to God and usefulness to their fellow men! They are released from their burdens and sorrows, delivered from all their bodily infirmities, for all pain is done away at death, and "all tears shall be wiped from their eyes" in Heaven. They are called from the labors and trials of this life to the more noble employments of the heavenly state. This may particularly serve as matter of consolation in regard to the decease of that most worthy person to whose name and memory we have been endeavoring to offer some small tribute of honor. We have reason to bless God, who has continued him so long and lengthened out his usefulness to a good old age, that he has made him so great an ornament and blessing to church and state and crowned even the close of his days with the honor of doing good and being serviceable to the world.

    Yet, all who have the welfare of their country, the cause of virtue, and the interest of religion at heart can’t but be deeply affected at the departure of so great and good a man. May God sanctify this mournful dispensation to the Province in general! And especially may all who are more nearly concerned have grace to make a right improvement of such a grievous stroke.

    Third, How much does it concern us all to take such a wise notice of the public dealings of God, as that we may be excited to a faithful and diligent discharge of the duties of our respective stations, and so be prepared for a [release] from our employments here whenever the Lord shall see fit to give it.

    Too many act as if they thought they were only born for themselves, had a right to employ their whole time merely to serve their own purposes, and were under no obligations to expend any part of it in serving God or their generation. When this is the prevailing spirit, it is a dark symptom on a nation or land, and it is a sad presage of approaching ruin. Oh, let us rouse from our supineness, in what relates to the important interests of God and our country! Let us be fired with a noble ambition of doing something great and worthy in our day! What celebrated instances have been delivered down to us in history of the public-spiritedness of the ancient Greeks and Romans? These renowned worthies thought nothing they could possibly do, too much for the common good, and even vied with one another, who should do most for their country. Should it not shame us, who have much nobler and more exalted principles, taught us in the religion of Jesus, that we fall so far short of those great and generous spirits among the heathen in all the patriot virtues! What have we done that is worthy to be mentioned with the disinterested glorious deeds of many whose names shine with illustrious honor in the records of antiquity! What use have we made of the various talents God has entrusted us with? Has church or commonwealth been much benefitted by the manifold gifts the Lord has bestowed upon us? Oh, let us labor to get rid of a mean, narrow, selfish spirit, and strive to have our views and hearts enlarged in the ways of doing good in the world according to our several callings and opportunities.

    Consider, my friends, how loudly we are called upon for activity and diligence in this day. It is a time of great public calamity and distress; the cloud gathers thick, and darkens over us. The news of our misfortunes, like Job’s messengers, follow at the heels of each other, and what is yet to come, I am sure we have reason to be greatly afraid. Alas! How is our nation and land filled with sin! Our abounding iniquities and heaven-daring abominations do, as it were, challenge the Almighty to vindicate the honor of his affronted Majesty. We are engaged in a war with a politic, bold, and enterprising enemy, who have found means to frustrate our high-raised expectations and to baffle us in our most important undertakings. Our counsels and schemes Heaven seems to have turned into foolishness; our vain boasts have been repeatedly blasted; all our designs against the enemy strangely dashed; shame and confusion have been thrown upon us. We may therefore tremble at what is like to be the final issue of so many disastrous events, especially if matters proceed with us as they have done ever since the commencement of the present war [the Seven Years’ War, also called the French and Indian War].

    Allow me therefore to say at such a season as this, that it greatly concerns us all in public places of power and trust of the civil and sacred order to exert ourselves in bringing about a thorough reformation of those evils which are the procuring cause of our present miseries, and to animate all around us to a vigorous defense of our bleeding country. The displeasure of Heaven has been in numerous instances testified against us, and we have in many ways felt the rebukes of an angry God. We may pretend to find the cause of these calamities in the weakness of one, cowardice of another, and treachery of a third, but the hand of God is overlooked. He is openly and publicly affronted; His Name profaned in the most atheistical manner; His laws violated; His authority despised; the glorious Gospel of Christ slighted, and all the loud calls of His Word and Providence disregarded. Such kind of vice and debaucheries become fashionable and common among us, as not only enkindle the anger of Heaven, but sap the very foundation of civil society. At such a time, we should diligently exert ourselves for a general public reformation. If men of influence and authority would appear in so good a cause, what blessed effects might it have! At the same time we are endeavoring to remove the cause of the Divine displeasure, we should do our utmost to stir up all around us to a vigorous defense of our sinking land. All that is dear to us as Englishmen and Christians not only lies at stake, but seems on the brink of being irrevocably lost. And for us at this time to do as we have done things, by little and little, is a sure way to perish by little and little. If the provinces [American colonies] at last would harmoniously unite and make a thorough, vigorous attempt for repairing our losses and bringing our enemies to honorable terms of peace, and go forth, not in our strength, but in the Name of the Lord of hosts, there is yet ground to hope we might again sit quietly under our vine and fig tree and eat the good of the land. Which may God of His infinite mercy grant through Christ our Lord.



[Some Words about the Circumstances Surrounding the Writing of this Biography,

by Aaron Burr’s friend Caleb Smith]

    It would be a great injustice to the public, as well as an injury to the memory of the worthy and amiable author of this...[foregoing] discourse, not to inform the world of the disadvantages and unusual circumstances which attended both its composition and delivery, and likewise the manner in which all-wise Heaven hath made it necessary it should be sent abroad, if published at all. With this view, it may not be improper or unacceptable to those readers who had the happiness of President BURR’s acquaintance for me to go a little back and give a short historical sketch of that surprising activity with which he closed a most useful life. Being in a low state of health, he traveled a long journey to Stockbridge upon a visit to his father-in-law, the Reverend Mr. [Jonathan] Edwards (this gentleman is chosen his successor in the presidentship of the college), which, though then a hot, sultry season, he dispatched in a few days. Soon after his return home, he came back to Elizabethtown [New Jersey] to wait upon the General Assembly then sitting, to request, I am told, that the students of the college might be exempted from an attendance upon military exercises, which some officers of the county militia were about to oblige them to.


This happened upon the 19th of August; on the 21st of the same month, this pious and good man [Mr. Burr] came to mourn with an unworthy friend upon one of the most moving, heart-affecting instances of mortality. On this sorrowful occasion, he preached extempore (having had no time for preparation) an excellent sermon from these words, "Willing rather to be absent from the body, and to be present with the Lord." He then complained of being much indisposed; however, returned to Princetown [Princeton] and within about a week, rode another journey to Philadelphia to take care of some concerns of the college, upon the welfare of which he was ever intent. While he was on the way, his disorder seemed to put on the form of a slight intermitting fever, but according to his usual engagedness in pressing through difficulties which to others appear insuperable, he came home and immediately was notified of the death of Governor BELCHER, and that it was expected he would improve the solemnity of his Excellency’s internment, and do honor to his memory, by a funeral sermon. This, amidst all his weakness and fatigue, he determined to undertake, contrary to the earnest solicitations of friends and the tender entreaties of an affectionate wife [Esther Edwards Burr, daughter of the famous Jonathan Edwards] "that he would spare himself." I take notice, upon the top of the first page of the written sermon, he dates it September 2, which left him but two days to prepare and make a journey of about 40 miles to attend the funeral at Elizabethtown, which was upon Lord’s Day, September 4. In all this time, he had frequent returns of fever; even when he preached the sermon, it was judged he was fitter for a sick bed than to have been in a pulpit, but his great respect for the deceased [Jonathan Belcher] and his ardent desire to make use of such an opportunity for attempting to do good, when there was a vast assembly convened and many of the principal gentlemen in the province present, bore him on beyond what his health would allow. It grieved his friends to behold the languor of his countenance and observe the failure of his harmonious delivery, not having strength for that clear utterance, or spirit, for that free, lively, and animated address with which he used to entertain and charm an audience. Nothwithstanding, his malady increased, he returned home for the last time, soon grew much worse, until his disorder terminated in a fixed fever...and brought on the inexpressibly lamented dissolution of his much enfeebled frame, September 24. Thus did this excellent man tread the steps of his divine Master in "going about doing good," and willingly spent himself in ways of usefulness. He finished his days, as he had led his life, in a busy scene of most active services for his God, his country, the churches, the college, and his friends.


The attentive reader, I am very sure, cannot fail of remarking when he considers how soon the author [Aaron Burr] was to be [released] from all his own [earthly] employments and discharged from the trials of this life, what an air of premonition respecting his own lot there appears in a variety of expressions throughout the discourse. I have only to assure the public that the most shining of this sort were his own. While he was giving his last and dying testimony for God and religion, in a public manner, to the world, and bewailing the death of the chief magistrate [Governor Belcher],....he seems to have been preaching the funeral sermon of the father of the sons of the prophets and the greatest master in our Israel. If my countrymen hearken to the last solemn warning of this sagacious and faithful watchman, I shall have cause to bless God I have been made an instrument of putting it into their hands. That a divine blessing may attend it upon the heart and life of every reader is the prayer of one who accounts it a favor he lived under the Administration of Governor BELCHER, and was admitted to the friendship of Mr. BURR.

                                                                                CALEB SMITH.

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