Fire Victim Benjamin Botts: a Virginian of Distinction

Benjamin Botts from

I have just updated the list of victims with more information about the fascinating Botts family. Benjamin Botts, who perished in the fire with his wife Jane, was a prominent member of the Richmond bar and served as the defense for Aaron Burr in his 1807 treason trial, which was held in Richmond before Chief Justice John Marshall. Botts’s lengthy obituary from the Richmond Enquirer is below. (They certainly don’t write ’em like they used to!)

Richmond Enquirer, Jan. 4, 1812 [my transcription]: “When he died, he was in the 36 or 37th year of his life. He was the father of four sons, and one daughter, who, at the same moment, were deprived of both their parents. Their mother and their father perished together. From a short sketch of his life young men may learn a valuable lesson: from the manner in which he was deprived of it, all of us are admonished that “in the midst of life we are in death,” and to act accordingly. Benjamin Botts was born in obscurity—Poor and friendless, he had not the advantage of a liberal education. His grand-father had taught him to read and to write.—Fortunately for himself, and for his family, he wrote well. Chance brought this talent, within the view of a merchant, who wanted at that moment the services of a youth like him. He was taken into a store, where he performed his duty with a firmness of fidelity, which strange as it may seem, obliged his merchant to dismiss him. But, altho’ dismissed, he carried with him the confidence and approbation of his employer Conscious of his own energies, he turned his attention to the law, and found an asylum in the family of Gert. Minor. Under the patronage and direction of this most worthy and benevolent man, he prosecuted his studies, and about the year 1794 commenced the practice. His integrity, his industry, & his talents soon became conspicuous; and in a few years. He was ranked among the most respectable members of his profession. In the year 1809, he removed from Fredericksburg to this City, and here he resided until his death, prosperous in his affairs, happy in his family, beloved by many, and respected by all. Possessed of health, preserved by undeviating temperance, of unexampled equanimity, acquired and preserved by unceasing watchfulness over his feelings, and of independence obtained by his own individual exertions, he had reason to expect and his friends to anticipate for him, and long and complete enjoyment of every blessing that could arise from causes like these, and from the daily exercise and indulgence of the best and tenderest affections of the human heart. If the friends of Mr. Botts have cause to lament his untimely death, how much more reason have his relatives and connections to deplore it forever! He was their friend, their benefactor. An aged mother, a widowed sister, with many helpless children looked to him only for protection and support. As a son, he was most dutiful, as a brother affectionate, as a kinsman most friendly and liberal. Let it be remembered too that his delicacy was equal to his generosity. But for the event of the 26th of Dec. his friends, here at least, would never have known, the extent of his benevolence, and the number of those who depended upon it, for the principal comfort of their lives. Benjamin Botts was eminently distinguished for his firmness and self possession. He would not suffer himself to be excited. An incident, which took place while he was yet very young, had taught him the wisdom of self-control and it was one great object of his temperament. By unwearied labor & attention he did acquire it. This unmitigated effort had stamped upon his features a gravity which belonged not to his period of life, the real state of his feelings, or his own condition, domestic, professional, or social. Always [?] deliberate, and attentive, his estimate of men and things, was almost inevitably correct….No man of his age was a better adviser. Tho [?] of society, and always disposed to participate in conversation, his composure and gravity were seldom laid aside. When he spoke, he seemed always to communicate the result of previous reflection. This circumstance gave him great advantage in colloquial debate. He appeared to be convinced that he was in the right: and so imposing was his manner, that those who were not informed upon the point under discussion, generally took it for granted that he was so. Steadfast and persevering in the support of his opinions, he encountered with equal composure, the strength of argument and the dexterity of wit. Mr. Botts was a man of sound judgment and a good lawyer. Indefatigable in his pursuits, he had acquired great knowledge in his profession, and was particularly distinguished for his skill in the management of a cause preparatory to its final decision. He was not an orator. He had not the advantage of figure, of gesture or of voice. His stature was low, his action slow and feeble, his voice shrill, solemn, monotonous. In addition to this, his style, peculiar to himself, was not happily constructed. His sentences were sometimes long, involved, and therefore somewhat embarrassing to all but an attentive auditor. Yet he was always heard with respect by the Court, and with interest by the bar. The cause is obvious. He seldom if ever failed to investigate with diligence the subject which he proposed to discuss: and having the benefit of a tenacious memory, his understanding naturally acute, and rendered still more so by perpetual exercise, enabled him to proceed with ease to himself, and pleasure to his hearers, through all the mazes of the most subtle and intricate discussion. The above is an outline of the character private and professional of Benjamin Botts. It is roughly but faithfully drawn. At least it was intended to be so. In speaking of the dead, we commonly consult our feelings more than our understanding, and say what we wish to be believed, rather than what we know to be true. Thus the faults of old friends are generally buried in the same grave with themselves. This species of moral interment is, perhaps, what charity requires, & it is not clear that justice forbids it. But the fault, if this be one, does…stop here. Seduced by tenderness for the dead, or sympathy for their surviving relatives, we too often ascribe to them talents which they never possessed, and virtue which they seldom practised [sic]. However common this error may be, this writer thinks that he at least has kept himself beyond its reach… Let it be believed, then, that the writer though he may be partial, is at least, unconscious of being so, and that in the duty which he has just performed, he has felt and spoken as if giving testimony, before the world.”

You can learn more about Burr’s trial here.