Aaron Burr's life has always tangled itself in controversy. From killing the first Secretary of the Treasury and key figure in the Federalist Party, Alexander Hamilton, to being the defendant of the United States' first treason case, Aaron Burr was well known for a lot of questionable decisions and bad luck. However, none of his decisions were as objectively manipulative, callous, and greedy as purposefully letting New York City suffer with tainted water for the sake of building a bank. Haley Booker-Lauridson explains.

An early 19th century painting of Aaron Burr.

An early 19th century painting of Aaron Burr.

The New York Water System

Back when New York was New Amsterdam, the water sources were from nearby ponds, streams, and wells, and continued that way for many years. Without a waterworks system, the city's waste ran into the same water it drank from, and distributing drinking water to various areas of the city proved difficult. This troubled Christopher Colles, an Irish engineer and inventor who emigrated to Philadelphia in 1771, just four short years before the Revolution.

In 1775, he began organizing a project he proposed, constructing a water distribution system in the heart of New York. This system used a steam engine pump to extract water from various wells into a reservoir, which would then distribute the water throughout the city in pipes. However, the Revolutionary War came to the city a year later and the project had to be put on hold, and the British soldiers soon destroyed what was left of the fledgling water system.

Though he made several attempts at creating various waterways and different systems in the newly formed United States, none of his projects came to fruition. The water in New York was left in a state of rapid pollution. Without a way to draw clean water, the citizens of New York City drank water steeped in animal, human, and industrial waste. Water distribution was another problem; fires could not consistently be quelled without a distribution system that could quickly get the water to the flames.

With a population of 60,515 people in the city, the waters became increasingly dangerous. By 1798, up to 2,000 people died of yellow fever, which doctors attributed to the filthy water people were drinking. By that time, New Yorkers desperately needed a plan to bring clean water to the city.


"Pure and Wholesome Water"

Nearly 24 years after Colles proposed a water distribution system, a bill to secure water from the Bronx River was drafted and sent to the New York State Assembly in 1799.

Aaron Burr, State Assemblyman and Democratic-Republican, worked to convince the Assembly to let the city and state use a private company for their water. While Democratic-Republicans were the main supporters of the bill, they received help from an unlikely ally, Alexander Hamilton.

Hamilton campaigned for the Federalist Assemblymen to reach across the aisle. As New York had become his home when he emigrated to America in 1772, it is easy to see why he might want to turn the water bill into a bipartisan decision. The water was terribly polluted and toxic, and Aaron Burr had partnered with him on several occasions, including working as defense attorneys in the first murder trial in the United States. Having trusted Burr and having believed in the cause for a waterworks system, Hamilton convinced his fellow Federalists to back the creation of the Manhattan Water Company.

What Hamilton, and many Assemblymen, did not know was that Burr, just before submitting the bill for its final approval, slipped in a clause allowing the company to use "surplus capital" however it chose, as long as it followed state and federal law. The bill passed through with this clause on April 2, 1799, and the Manhattan Company was created to supply New York with "pure and wholesome water."

This small, unassuming clause transformed what was intended to be a water system for New York into a bank. Burr intended to establish a bank all along. He and other Democratic-Republicans inherently distrusted the First Bank of the United States and its branch in New York, as it was linked with Federalist politics. They feared discrimination in receiving credit and loans, and also desired the power to control campaign finance with their own bank. They wanted to establish a bank manned by their own political party, and schemed to use the city's water crisis to manufacture one right under the Federalists' noses.


The Manhattan Water Company's Legacy

By September 1, 1799, the Bank of the Manhattan Company opened, eventually becoming the oldest branch of JP Morgan Chase, and remains a financial institution today.

While the Manhattan Water Company was ostensibly a front for a bank, it did provide the city's first waterworks system. Shoddily put together, it constructed a cheap, crude network of wooden water mains throughout the city, by coring out yellow pine logs for pipes and fastening them together with iron bands.

The system was sub-par at best. It froze during the winter and the tree roots easily pierced through the log pipes, causing terrible back-ups. Even when the system worked, the people suffered through pitifully low water pressure. And, despite having permission to get clean water that ran down the Bronx River, Burr chose to source water from the polluted sources the city tried to get away from.

The Manhattan Water Company continued laying wooden pipes in the 1820s, even though other U.S. cities began using iron clad pipes. It remained the only drinking water supplier until 1842, leaving people with unreliable and bad water for over forty years.

As the water system floundered and the bank flourished, Aaron Burr experienced very little but misfortune from then on. Hamilton made it his duty to keep Burr out of influential public offices, famously campaigning against Burr during the 1800 election, and later in New York's gubernatorial race in 1804. Hamilton often negatively featured Burr in his newspaper, the New York Post. He likely would have continued had he not been fatally wounded in a duel with the man in July of 1804. Burr faced political exile that solidified when he was tried for treason in 1807, eventually fleeing to Europe for several years before returning to the U.S. and living as a perpetual debtor until his death in 1836.


What do you think of Aaron Burr? Let us know below.


Beatrice G. Reubens, “Burr, Hamilton and the Manhattan Company. Part I: Gaining the Charter,” Political Science Quarterly, LXXII (December, 1957), 578–607.

Beatrice G. Reubens, “Burr, Hamilton and the Manhattan Company. Part II: Launching a Bank,” Political Science Quarterly, LXXIII (March, 1958), 100–25.

“New York City (NYC) Yellow Fever Epidemic - 1795 to 1804” http://www.baruch.cuny.edu/nycdata/disasters/yellow_fever.html

"The History of the Water Mains in New York City" https://www1.nyc.gov/html/dep/html/drinking_water/wood_water_pipes_history.shtml.

New York Laws, 22nd Sess., Ch. LXXXIV.

History from early 19th century America... Vice President Aaron Burr killed a Founding Father in a duel in a state where duels were illegal. The Vice President was not convicted. Then, he was accused of plotting a scheme to create a new territory on the American continent, resulting in a treason trial. Casey Titus explains.

An illustration of the duel between American Founding Father Alexander Hamilton and then US Vice President Aaron Burr in July 1804.

An illustration of the duel between American Founding Father Alexander Hamilton and then US Vice President Aaron Burr in July 1804.

US Vice President Aaron Burr shot and killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel in 1804. Following that, Burr’s reputation was tarnished permanently. He had lost his chance of becoming president. Dueling was outlawed in the state of New York, the sentence for the conviction being execution. New Jersey had laws against dueling but with less severe consequences. Following Hamilton’s death from Burr’s bullet, Burr was charged with multiple crimes, including murder in both the states of New York and New Jersey - but was never tried.

Reputation ruined and guilt-ridden, Burr fled to South Carolina before returning to Philadelphia and then to Washington to complete his term as Vice President. After completing his term in 1805, Burr was drowning heavily in debt and with no future on the east coast due to his destroyed political career, Burr ventured to what was known at the time as the Western Frontier, the regions west of the Alleghany Mountains and along the Ohio River Valley that eventually reached the acquired lands in the Louisiana Purchase. He contacted the British diplomat Anthony Merry, who was living in Philadelphia at the time, and offered him his services in any efforts by Great Britain to take control over the western regions of the United States. Merry, out of his resentment for the United States, told his Foreign Ministry that while Burr was disreputably reckless, his ambition and spirit of vengeance would prove useful to the British government. Therefore, Merry became an avid advocate of Burr’s schemes.


Burr’s schemes in the west

Today, historians debate about what Burr’s exact aims in this expedition were due to the obvious secrecy on Burr’s part and lack of firm evidence against him. One of Burr’s suspected schemes was to organize a revolution in the West, obtain the Ohio and Mississippi Valleys, and structure them into a separate republic. Another scheme was to establish a republic bordering the United States by seizing Spanish possessions in the Southwest or persuade secession of western states from the Union. Perhaps both were true. Burr viewed war with Spain as inevitable and conspired with General James Wilkinson to establish an independent “Empire of the West” on a Napoleonic model by invading and annexing Mexico to add to their empire with New Orleans as the capital.

To gain further support for his schemes, Burr contacted two people. The first was a lifelong friend, General James Wilkinson, who served as aide to then Colonel Benedict Arnold during the Quebec expedition. Wilkinson was the governor of the Louisiana Territory and had already established a history of shady scheming himself such as being involved in a plot to replace George Washington as Commander-in-Chief with General Horatio Gates. The other co-schemer was Harman Blennerhasset, an Irish immigrant who lived luxuriously on an island in the Ohio River near Parkersburg, West Virginia.


An independent Louisiana?

Burr contacted Merry once again and informed him that Louisiana was ready to secede from the United States followed by the rest of the western frontier. For this to happen, Burr requested that Britain provide a $500,000 loan, assure his protection, and dispatch a British naval squadron to the mouth of the Mississippi River. In exchange, Great Britain would receive Louisiana, a former territory of Britain’s enemy, France. Merry gave Burr $1,500, but no response was received from London. The possibility of Burr’s scheme succeeding reduced when Minister Pitt died and was succeeded by Charles James Fox, a lifelong friend of the United States. Fox described the Merry-Burr discussions as “indiscreet, dangerous, and damnable,” before ordering Merry to England on June 1, 1806.

In 1806, Blennerhasset provided Burr funding for the outfitting of a small fleet while Burr’s personal vessel consisted of necessary commodities. Burr’s expedition down the Ohio River Valley consisted of eighty men made up of frontiersmen, filibusters, adventurers, and planters (among others) carrying basic firearms for hunting.

Upon his arrival in New Orleans, Burr was zealously welcomed by the city because his plan to colonize or conquer Spanish territory appealed to many people.


When Washington heard…

Burr’s collusion with Wilkinson turned out to be a poor and catastrophic choice on his part. As rumors of Burr’s plans reached Washington, the political establishment suspected treason in Burr’s plans. Wilkinson was stationed on the Sabine River on the Spanish border with the United States when he caught word of Washington’s suspicions and decided to turn on Burr to avoid being charged with treason himself.

On November 25, 1806, President Thomas Jefferson received a dispatch from Wilkinson that warned of Burr’s threatening plans. Jefferson ordered not only Burr’s arrest and apprehension near Nachez, Mississippi while Burr was attempting to flee into Spanish territory, but anyone who conspired to attack Spanish territory. After charges were brought against Burr in the Mississippi Territory, Burr escaped into the wilderness but was recaptured on February 19, 1807 and taken back to Virginia to stand trial.

Burr’s trial could very well be considered the “Trial of the Century” in the United States as it contained a notable set of key participants:

Aaron Burr (Founding Father, Vice President, Alexander Hamilton’s murderer) – the defendant

John Marshall (Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court, the most significant justice in U.S. History) – the trial judge

Thomas Jefferson (Founding Father, author of the Declaration of Independence, President of the United States) – force behind the prosecution

Edmund Randolph and Luther Martin (both delegates to the Constitutional Convention, among the most prominent men of the day) – defense attorney

Charles Lee (former Attorney General) – prosecutor

William Wirt (future presidential candidate) – prosecutor


The trial

On March 26, 1807, Burr arrived in Richmond, Virginia at the Eagle Hotel, lodging with a guard. Two months later, Burr was tried for treason in front of U.S. Chief Justice John Marshall. Jefferson prepared an account of Burr’s criminal activities for Congress and wanted to present it to the court. However, Marshall requested that the President instead make an appearance. Interestingly, the President refused which consequently established a precedent for future presidents. Marshall was not on good terms with President Jefferson and thus, found Burr not guilty, citing that Burr committed no overt act of treason. Although free of the charges brought against him, what little was left of Burr’s political career and reputation was permanently destroyed. He died in New York City in 1836. Wilkinson was successful in averting indictment by the Richmond, Virginia grand jury that investigated Burr. Two years before the trial, Wilkinson was appointed governor of the Louisiana Territory by Jefferson. Despite Wilkinson walking free, the governor neglected his duties which resulted in an angry populace rioting against his mismanagement to the extent that troops were deployed to calm the situation.

Though reappointed by Jefferson, Wilkinson’s administration was openly corrupt to the point of President Monroe ordering him court-martialed in 1811. Once again, he was found not guilty and he returned to his career of scheming, once again attempting to swindle the Spanish by traveling to Mexico City to seek a Texas land grant. While the grant was secured, he died in 1825 before the grant’s provisions were fulfilled. Thomas Jefferson died a year later on Independence Day. The sitting president, John Adams’ son, John Quincy, called it “visible and palpable remarks of Divine Favor.”


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AuthorGeorge Levrier-Jones