OGDEN, AARON. (1756–1839). Continental officer, governor of New Jersey, steamboat pioneer. New Jersey. Brother of Matthias Ogden, Aaron Ogden was born in Elizabethtown, New Jersey, on 3 December 1756. He graduated from Princeton in 1773 in the same class as Harry ("Light Horse") Lee and a year behind Aaron Burr, who was a childhood companion. After teaching school for three years he became paymaster of a militia regiment on 8 December 1775. His first military exploit was to assist in the capture of the Blue Mountain Valley in January 1776. On 26 November 1776 he was commissioned as a first lieutenant in the First New Jersey Continental Regiment, his brother's unit. He became regimental paymaster on 1 February 1777, fought at the Brandywine, was made brigade major of William Maxwell's light infantry brigade on 7 March 1778. In the Monmouth campaign he served in the advance element under General Charles Lee. During this campaign he also served as assistant aide-de-camp to General William Alexander, having been promoted to captain of the First New Jersey Regiment on 2 February 1779.
During the next year, Ogden was Maxwell's aide-decamp during John Sullivan's expedition against the Iroquois, and in 1780 he took part in the delaying action of Maxwell's brigade against Wilhelm Knyphausen's raid against Springfield, Connecticut. When Maxwell resigned, Ogden joined the light infantry corps of the Marquis de Lafayette. In the fruitless exchange of correspondence between Sir Henry Clinton and Commander in Chief George Washington that preceded John André's execution as a spy for his role in Benedict Arnold's treason, Captain Ogden served as a courier between British and American headquarters. His part in the dubious matter of proposing the exchange of André for Benedict Arnold seems to have been nothing more than the delivery of the letter written in a disguised hand by Alexander Hamilton. Ogden was wounded during the Yorktown campaign, during the storming of Redoubt Ten on 14 October 1781.
After the war he studied law with his brother Robert and became one of the leading lawyers in New Jersey. When war with France threatened the new nation, he became lieutenant colonel of the Eleventh United States Infantry on 8 January 1799 and deputy quartermaster general of the army, being discharged on 15 June 1800. In 1812 he was elected governor of New Jersey on a peace ticket but defeated the next year. President James Madison nominated him to the rank of major general in 1813, apparently with the intention of giving him a command in Canada, but Ogden declined in order to retain command of the state militia.
During the War of 1812 Ogden turned from the law to participate in a steamboat venture that was his undoing. Having built the Sea Horse in 1811, he proposed to operate a line between Elizabethtown Point (New Jersey) and New York City, but in 1813 the monopoly of James Fulton and Robert R. Livingston was upheld, and his boat was barred from New York waters. He then got into a long, expensive monopoly fight with another line, that of Thomas Gibbons. Ogden won his case in the New York courts, but lost the Supreme Court appeal in Gibbons v. Ogden, 1824. In 1829 Congress created the post of customs collector at Jersey City for Ogden. Despite this assistance, the impoverished Ogden was soon imprisoned for debt, but the New York legislature—apparently at the instigation of Burr—released him by passing a quick bill prohibiting the imprisonment of Revolutionary War veterans for debt. He died in Jersey City, New Jersey, on 19 April 1839.
Ogden, Aaron. Autobiography of Colonel Aaron Ogden, of Elizabethtown. Paterson, N.J.: Press Printing, 1893.
revised by Michael Bellesiles