Burr, Ogden and Dayton: The Original Jersey Boys

Known as much for their troubles as their successes, these childhood friends left their mark on early American history

Aaron Ogden, Aaron Burr and Jonathan Dayton, three men from Elizabethtown, New Jersey, were hell-bent on winning power and wealth. (The Granger Collection, New York)

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The system foundered in 1800, when the Republicans tagged Jefferson for president and Burr for vice president. To elect both men, all Republican electors should have cast a vote for Jefferson, while all but one should have cast their second vote for Burr. That would have placed Jefferson first and Burr second. But the balloting was bungled, leaving Jefferson and Burr in a tie. The election shifted to the House of Representatives in March 1801.

Federalist congressmen supported Burr for president as the lesser of two evils. Though he continued to support Jefferson’s candidacy, Burr said he would accept the office if the House chose him. Emboldened, Federalists backed Burr through 35 deadlocked votes in the House, until he instructed them not to. Two ballots later, Jefferson prevailed.

The ordeal irretrievably soured feelings between Burr and the new president, a wound only partially assuaged in 1803, when Dayton and Aaron Ogden served in the Senate over which Burr presided. Jefferson froze Burr out of both patronage and governing, then dropped him from the Republican ticket for 1804. That spring, trying to repair his fortunes, Burr ran for governor of New York against another Republican. He lost.

Caught in a downward spiral, Burr moved decisively to accelerate it. He learned that Alexander Hamilton, the former secretary of the Treasury, had referred to him as “despicable.” Burr demanded a retraction or satisfaction on the field of honor. Hamilton chose the field of honor. They met on July 11, 1804, in Weehawken, New Jersey, just 15 miles from Elizabethtown. Both men lost: Hamilton his life, Burr his political future.

Within days, Vice President Burr was in flight from New York. Within weeks, he had been indicted for murder in both New York and New Jersey.


In this desperate situation, Burr turned to his boyhood friends. He retained Aaron Ogden to defend him in the New Jersey murder case. And for the most audacious adventure of his life, Burr turned to Dayton.

Burr’s new plan ripened after he left the vice presidency in March 1805. In eight months of journeying through the American West, he began scheming with Gen. James Wilkinson, the traitorous head of the U.S. Army. With American troops, or with private adventurers, Burr proposed to invade Spanish Florida, Texas and Mexico. Simultaneously, he believed, the French-speaking residents of New Orleans and the recent Louisiana Purchase would revolt against American rule. Once in control of New Orleans, Burr expected the West to join a new empire that would girdle the Gulf of Mexico from the Florida Keys to Central America.

Dayton was Burr’s chief aide. He introduced Burr to friends through the West. He met with British and Spanish diplomats to offer Burr’s assistance in leading the secession of western lands. Neither did Burr forget the two sons of his old friend Matthias Ogden: George Ogden became the scheme’s banker; in late 1806, Peter Ogden carried critical instructions from Burr and Dayton to the army chief.

When Wilkinson betrayed Burr, the plan swiftly unraveled. Although Burr intended to lead more than 1,000 adventurers down the Mississippi River, only 100 materialized. He was arrested above Natchez and hauled to Richmond to stand trial for treason. A separate indictment, handed up in the summer of 1807, accused Dayton, too.


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