The Founder of Chase Bank? Our Country’s Least Favorite Founding Father

Is rabid partisanship and campaign money dominating national politics today? It’s mild compared to the pistol duels and banking rivalries of our founding fathers.

The history of Chase Bank goes back to 1799 with the founding of its earliest predecessor, the Bank of Manhattan Company, by a U.S. Senator and future Vice-President. He established this bank to compete against the bank that had been founded by a political rival. And then killed him five years later in a pistol duel!

Yes, the founder of the predecessor to Chase Bank was Aaron Burr, who killed Alexander Hamilton in their infamous duel in 1804. At the time Burr was Vice-President under Thomas Jefferson, but was dropped from the ticket in that year’s election. Burr and Hamilton were fierce political rivals, but business rivals as well.

Back in 1782 Alexander Hamilton had founded the first corporate bank, the Bank of New York. According to its current successor Bank of New York Mellon’s own history, Hamilton personally wrote the company’s constitution and, during the early years, remained the individual most actively involved in the organization. Hamilton’s economic vision and firm grasp of financial principles served the company well. Hamilton went on to become the first U.S. Secretary of the Treasury and a member of George Washington’s first cabinet.

The Bank of New York was the only major commercial bank in the new country until, according to Chase Bank’s own history

Aaron Burr, a U.S. Senator and future vice president . . .  founded The Bank of The Manhattan Co. [, which] had an unusual beginning. Burr led a group of New Yorkers, including Hamilton, in obtaining a state charter for a company to supply fresh water to the residents of Lower Manhattan. At Burr’s initiative, [and in opposition to Hamilton, who then withdrew from the deal], the charter included a provision allowing the company to employ its excess capital in any activity “not inconsistent with the Constitution and laws of the United States.” Burr then used that provision to start a bank.

And the reason for their duel? Hamilton allegedly made disparaging remarks about Burr that were published in a newspaper, and which had apparently come after many similar such statements over the course of many years. When Burr demanded that Hamilton deny or recant these statements Hamilton felt he could not do so without further harming his own reputation, which had been deeply damaged earlier because of a sex scandal!

In the early 1790s Hamilton had had an affair with a married woman, and paid the woman’s husband to be allowed to continue it. He subsequently admitted the affair in confidence to the future President, James Monroe, in the midst of a Congressional investigation against governmental corruption, in order to be exonerated of possible corruption charges. Monroe later passed this information, and evidence in the form of love letters between Hamilton and his lover, to Monroe’s close friend, Thomas Jefferson, a political adversary of Hamilton. Jefferson used the information to spread damaging rumors about him. In 1797, Hamilton’s incriminating love letters were published.

Then in 1804, as Burr was leaving the Vice-Presidency (because President Jefferson opposed him for a second term), he lost an election to be governor of New York State. He lost in part because of the political opposition of Hamilton, and a statement alleged to have been made by Hamilton that Burr was “a dangerous man, and one who ought not be trusted with the reins of government.” Burr demanded that Hamilton deny or recant that remark, and other similar statements allegedly made over the course of many years. Hamilton refused to do so because of his own very delicate reputation. So Burr challenged Hamilton to a duel, which Hamilton accepted. Hamilton’s shot missed; Burr’s did not, and Hamilton died from the wound the next day.

Burr was charged with murder in New York, and in New Jersey where the duel had taken place. He escaped to South Carolina, eventually came back to Washington, while avoiding New York and New Jersey, to finish his term as Vice-President. He was never prosecuted, but lived on for more than thirty years thereafter until reaching the advanced age (for that era) of 80.

And that’s how the original founder of Chase Bank murdered the original founder of the Bank of New York Mellon.


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