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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Burr won his freedom in a landmark trial before Chief Justice John Marshall, a victory that cut off the case against Dayton. Aaron Ogden then squelched the New Jersey indictment stemming from the duel with Hamilton, freeing Burr to sail to Europe to seek British support in liberating Spain’s American colonies.

Steamboats and Interstate Commerce

After Burr’s debacles, he and Dayton could hardly run for public office, but Aaron Ogden won a term as New Jersey’s governor in 1812. The three surviving friends turned their attentions to steamboats, the technological wonder of the era.

In 1807, Robert Fulton unveiled the first viable steamboat design and won a legal monopoly from New York State on the lucrative Hudson River trade. Aaron Ogden, who owned a steam engine plant in Elizabethtown, emerged as a determined competitor. He fought the Fulton monopoly for several years, then paid dearly to acquire a share of it in 1815.

Just when matters should have grown easier for Ogden, trouble arose with Thomas Gibbons, an abrasive lawyer and businessman. First, Ogden had Gibbons arrested to collect a debt. Ogden apologized, claiming the arrest resulted from misunderstandings. But when Gibbons’ wife, Ann, sought advice about divorcing her husband, he provided it.

Gibbons sought leverage through Ogden’s oldest friends. He had secretly purchased from Dayton, who was struggling financially, an interest in Ogden’s ferry business. He dispatched Dayton to persuade Ogden to drop Ann Gibbons’ cause. Gibbons then turned to Burr, who was trying to revive his law practice in New York. Burr advised a court attack on Ogden’s monopoly. Gibbons filed the case.

That lawsuit lasted for years, long after Ogden lost his steamboat business to his bank. Marshall’s opinion in Gibbons v. Ogden, delivered in 1824, struck down Ogden’s monopoly, ruling that states cannot limit interstate commerce under the Constitution.

But the Jersey Boys’ friendship survived even that. In that same year, Ogden and Dayton jointly hosted an old comrade, the Marquis de Lafayette. Dayton, 64, died a few weeks later.

When Ogden’s debts landed him in a New York prison, Burr rode to the rescue. He won enactment of a state law providing that no veteran of the Revolutionary War could be jailed for debt. Ogden was released.

In the 1830s, the two Aarons resided for a brief time as neighbors in Jersey City, and each lived past 80. (Burr died in 1836, Odgen in 1839.) Their long histories reflected the adventure of the infant America, where opportunity and disaster lay side by side, where everything seemed possible to those who were–like the original Jersey Boys–bold, talented and not too fussy about what other people thought.


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