Why you should care
Because Hamilton is not only trendy but also represents an important part of American history.
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In the opening song of the Broadway show Hamilton, Aaron Burr, the third vice president of the U.S., sings, “And me? I’m the damn fool that shot him.” He’s referring to the fatal shot he fired at Alexander Hamilton, one of the Founding Fathers and the first secretary of the Treasury, during a duel in Weehawken, New Jersey, on July 11, 1804. Hamilton died the next day.
Just a few blocks from the Richard Rodgers Theatre, where Hamilton is performed and the cast nod to this pivotal moment in history, is the headquarters of JPMorgan Chase — where the set of dueling pistols used by the real Burr and Hamilton are on display. Why? Because Aaron Burr wasn’t just a Founding Father of this country but also a founding father of one of its leading banks — JPMorgan Chase’s predecessor bank, the Manhattan Company. Originally chartered to provide fresh water to the city, the Manhattan Company also saw help from Hamilton, founder of the original (and now-defunct) Bank of New York. Unbeknownst to Hamilton, Burr had maneuvered a provision within the water company’s charter that would allow the Manhattan Company to be involved in banking operations.
The establishment of the Bank of the Manhattan Company represented the end of Hamilton’s banking monopoly in New York City and was a serious blow both to his business and his political interests. This marked the beginning of the rivalry that led to one of the most famous personal conflicts in American history.
Burr was “highly ambitious, as was Hamilton,” says Joanne Freeman, a professor of history at Yale University and author of Affairs of Honor: National Politics in the New Republic. “As the new republic came to life in the 1790s and a prestigious national stage came to the fore, both men were jostling for political advantage in New York City.”
At that time in history, the Constitution stipulated that each of the 138 members of the Electoral College cast two votes for president, which allowed electors to cast one vote for a favorite son and a second for a candidate who stood a more practical chance of winning. Thus the parties — the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans — each nominated two candidates for the presidency.
The Democratic-Republicans chose Thomas Jefferson and Burr as their candidates. The two men earned so many Electoral College votes each that they knocked out both Federalist candidates, incumbent John Adams and South Carolina’s Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, from the running. However, Burr and Jefferson each received the same amount of electoral votes, so members of the House of Representatives were left to determine the winner. “Ultimately, they ended up on opposite sides of the period’s main political divide, with Burr siding with Jeffersonian Republicans and Hamilton a die-hard Federalist,” Freeman says.
The Constitution stipulated that if the candidates tied, or none received a majority of electoral votes, the House of Representatives would vote to decide the presidency. The candidate with the most electoral votes would become president and the runner-up candidate would become vice president.
The Federalists, summarily defeated, had to decide which Democratic-Republican candidate to support. Some urged the party to throw its support to Burr, believing that, as a native of mercantile New York City, he would be friendlier than Jefferson to the Federalist economic program. Others insisted that the party should support Jefferson, as he was clearly the popular choice. However, Burr’s rival, Hamilton, vocalized his support for Jefferson and his disapproval of Burr. In the end, Jefferson secured the presidency and Burr became vice president. Burr was incensed, convinced that Hamilton had manipulated the vote in Jefferson’s favor.
Hamilton made it his ‘religious duty’ — as he put it — to oppose Burr’s career.
Joanne Freeman, history professor, Yale University
Hamilton saw Burr as “pure ambition and nothing else, and thus, as someone who was dangerous to the new nation,” Freeman says. In fact, “Hamilton made it his ‘religious duty’ — as he put it — to oppose Burr’s career.”
Hamilton would again help thwart Burr’s political aspirations during his 1804 gubernatorial campaign in New York. Hamilton perpetrated a slander campaign that cost Burr the governorship. Soon after, Burr challenged Hamilton to a duel. Hamilton’s shot missed Burr, and Burr wounded Hamilton fatally.
Did Burr intend to kill Hamilton? “Probably not,” Freeman says. “Generally speaking, duels were about proving that you were willing to die for your honor and reputation, not about killing.” Most duels ended without a fatality, and ultimately, Freeman says, “it was both his and Hamilton’s bad luck that there was bloodshed.”
“Aaron Burr has come down through history as a villain, but he’s more complex than that,” Freeman argues. “Of course, he did do some highly problematic things during his lifetime, but he was a skilled and creative politician, as well as — something rare in early America — someone with an interest in women’s rights.” She also points to Burr’s presiding over the Senate during his vice presidency.
Burr passed away on Staten Island, in 1836, just two years after a debilitating stroke left him immobile.
In 1955, Burr’s the Manhattan Company merged with Chase National Bank to form the Chase Manhattan Bank, making it the earliest of the predecessor institutions that currently form JPMorgan Chase. More than six decades later, the dueling pistols on display at JPMorgan Chase’s headquarters continue to symbolize one of the most famous personal duels in American history.