Depending how you count, JPMorgan Chase & Co. is arguably the biggest bank in the U.S.
The bank’s history now straddles four centuries, with its earliest predecessor institution, the Bank of Manhattan Company, founded in 1799.
And the founder of that original company? Aaron Burr, who killed Alexander Hamilton in a pistol duel five years later, while Burr was Vice-President under Thomas Jefferson.
Most people know that Burr and Hamilton were long-time political adversaries. Less known is that they dueled at banking as well.
Alexander Hamilton founded the first corporate bank, chartered in 1782 as the Bank of New York. As stated in the current 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.” That history makes no mention that its founder was killed in a duel with a banking rival.
As JPMorgan Chase’s own history states, Hamilton’s Bank of New York
“. . . had no competition until . . . Aaron Burr, a U.S. Senator and future vice president
. . . founded The Bank of The Manhattan Co. [This second bank] 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.
As for history’s bad rap against Aaron Burr, that Hamilton shot high purposely to miss his rival while Burr shot to kill? Wrong, according to the firearms expert who was in charge of precisely replicating the dueling pistols during the nation’s Bicentennial in 1976. According to his contrary analysis in this article published in the Smithsonian magazine:
The pistols that Hamilton provided had concealed hair triggers – what a modern target shooter would call a single-set trigger. . . . . By using them, Hamilton could surreptitiously set his hair trigger without anyone’s noticing. This would give Hamilton a theoretical advantage by allowing him to shoot very quickly with a tiny, half pound squeeze on the trigger. Burr’s gun had the same trigger, but Burr probably didn’t know it. He would fire with the ordinary 10 or 12 pound pull.
With this pistol, the hair trigger set, Hamilton, I maintain, booby-trapped himself that morning of July 11, in Weehawken. Tensely, the two men faced each other. As Hamilton lowered the gun on its target, he was holding a little too tightly and accidentally fired before he had Burr in his sights. Burr squeezed hard and slow and put an aimed shot into Hamilton. The lead .54 caliber ball found Hamilton’s liver and killed him within 36 hours.
These pistols were in the Hamilton family until the Great Depression, when they were sold to their old rivals, then still called The Bank of Manhattan Company. They continue to reside in the archives of the JPMorgan Chase Co.