In recent years Northern New Jersey has spawned famous groups of friends—the Four Seasons, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, Tony Soprano’s gang—but at the nation’s founding, another posse of boys from North Jersey captured both the bright promise and the grimy underside of the new American republic.
Aaron Burr, Jonathan Dayton and the brothers Aaron and Matthias Ogden grew up together in Elizabethtown (now Elizabeth), then stormed across the nation, hell-bent on winning power and wealth. They found plenty of both, along with their share of troubles.
Their high-water mark came in 1803, when Vice President Burr presided over a U.S. Senate in which Dayton and Aaron Ogden were the members from New Jersey. But they also knew bitter humiliations: Burr was indicted for murder in two states. He and Dayton were charged with treason. In his old age, Aaron Ogden went to prison for debt, while Dayton never escaped rumors that he was a smuggler and swindler. Only Matthias Ogden avoided such calamities. He died at age 36.
They were boys of fortunate birth. Burr arrived in 1756, the same year his father was president of the College of New Jersey (later renamed Princeton). Dayton was born in 1760, the year after his father, a merchant, led New Jersey troops in the British capture of Quebec from France. The Ogdens were born in 1754 (Matthias) and 1756 (Aaron); their father was speaker of the colonial assembly and a delegate to the Stamp Act Congress of 1765.
Yet their privileges were tempered. Burr’s parents died before he was 3. He and his sister were taken in by an uncle and his wife, the former Rhoda Ogden. Their crowded household included Aunt Rhoda’s brothers, Matthias and Aaron Ogden. Dayton, a neighbor and two years younger still, rounded out their group.
They filled their days with sailing, fishing and crabbing. The Ogden brothers were large and powerful, while Dayton grew to a considerable height. Yet Burr, small and slender, was the leader. Independent from the start, he ran away from home twice. At 10, he signed on as cabin boy on a New York merchantman until his uncle retrieved him.
Matthias Ogden and the precocious Burr attended Princeton together. As the Revolutionary War began in 1775, they volunteered to join Benedict Arnold’s daring winter invasion of Canada. Ogden was wounded before the attack on Quebec City that December, while Burr’s courage in the doomed American assault became legendary. After Ogden returned home to recuperate (and married Dayton’s older sister, Hannah), the friends pitched back into war.
Burr’s star rose quickly. As a 21-year-old lieutenant colonel, he commanded a regiment at the sweltering battle of Monmouth in June 1778, where he suffered heatstroke. His health damaged, Burr left the army the following year.
Ogden also became colonel, serving at Monmouth and at Fort Ticonderoga in New York. In 1780, British raiders captured him and Capt. Jonathan Dayton while sleeping at an Elizabethtown tavern, but Matthias was not done with war. After a prisoner exchange, he joined the American forces that cornered Cornwallis at Yorktown in the summer of 1781. But it was his younger brother, Maj. Aaron Ogden, who won glory in the attack on British defenses.