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Antebellum Banking in the United States

Howard Bodenhorn, Lafayette College

The first legitimate commercial bank in the United States was the Bank of North America founded in 1781. Encouraged by Alexander Hamilton, Robert Morris persuaded the Continental Congress to charter the bank, which loaned to the cash-strapped Revolutionary government as well as private citizens, mostly Philadelphia merchants. The possibilities of commercial banking had been widely recognized by many colonists, but British law forbade the establishment of commercial, limited-liability banks in the colonies. Given that many of the colonists’ grievances against Parliament centered on economic and monetary issues, it is not surprising that one of the earliest acts of the Continental Congress was the establishment of a bank.

The introduction of banking to the U.S. was viewed as an important first step in forming an independent nation because banks supplied a medium of exchange (banknotes1 and deposits) in an economy perpetually strangled by shortages of specie money and credit, because they animated industry, and because they fostered wealth creation and promoted well-being. In the last case, contemporaries typically viewed banks as an integral part of a wider system of government-sponsored commercial infrastructure. Like schools, bridges, road, canals, river clearing and harbor improvements, the benefits of banks were expected to accrue to everyone even if dividends accrued only to shareholders.

Financial Sector Growth

By 1800 each major U.S. port city had at least one commercial bank serving the local mercantile community. As city banks proved themselves, banking spread into smaller cities and towns and expanded their clientele. Although most banks specialized in mercantile lending, others served artisans and farmers. In 1820 there were 327 commercial banks and several mutual savings banks that promoted thrift among the poor. Thus, at the onset of the antebellum period (defined here as the period between 1820 and 1860), urban residents were familiar with the intermediary function of banks and used bank-supplied currencies (deposits and banknotes) for most transactions. Table 1 reports the number of banks and the value of loans outstanding at year end between 1820 and 1860. During the era, the number of banks increased from 327 to 1,562 and total loans increased from just over $55.1 million to $691.9 million. Bank-supplied credit in the U.S. economy increased at a remarkable annual average rate of 6.3 percent. Growth in the financial sector, then outpaced growth in aggregate economic activity. Nominal gross domestic product increased an average annual rate of about 4.3 percent over the same interval. This essay discusses how regional regulatory structures evolved as the banking sector grew and radiated out from northeastern cities to the hinterlands.

Table 1

Number of Banks and Total Loans, 1820-1860

Year Banks Loans ($ millions)
1820 327 55.1
1821 273 71.9
1822 267 56.0
1823 274 75.9
1824 300 73.8
1825 330 88.7
1826 331 104.8
1827 333 90.5
1828 355 100.3
1829 369 103.0
1830 381 115.3
1831 424 149.0
1832 464 152.5
1833 517 222.9
1834 506 324.1
1835 704 365.1
1836 713 457.5
1837 788 525.1
1838 829 485.6
1839 840 492.3
1840 901 462.9
1841 784 386.5
1842 692 324.0
1843 691 254.5
1844 696 264.9
1845 707 288.6
1846 707 312.1
1847 715 310.3
1848 751 344.5
1849 782 332.3
1850 824 364.2
1851 879 413.8
1852 913 429.8
1853 750 408.9
1854 1208 557.4
1855 1307 576.1
1856 1398 634.2
1857 1416 684.5
1858 1422 583.2
1859 1476 657.2
1860 1562 691.9

Sources: Fenstermaker (1965); U.S. Comptroller of the Currency (1931).

Adaptability

As important as early American banks were in the process of capital accumulation, perhaps their most notable feature was their adaptability. Kuznets (1958) argues that one measure of the financial sector’s value is how and to what extent it evolves with changing economic conditions. Put in place to perform certain functions under one set of economic circumstances, how did it alter its behavior and service the needs of borrowers as circumstances changed. One benefit of the federalist U.S. political system was that states were given the freedom to establish systems reflecting local needs and preferences. While the political structure deserves credit in promoting regional adaptations, North (1994) credits the adaptability of America’s formal rules and informal constraints that rewarded adventurism in the economic, as well as the noneconomic, sphere. Differences in geography, climate, crop mix, manufacturing activity, population density and a host of other variables were reflected in different state banking systems. Rhode Island’s banks bore little resemblance to those in far away Louisiana or Missouri, or even those in neighboring Connecticut. Each state’s banks took a different form, but their purpose was the same; namely, to provide the state’s citizens with monetary and intermediary services and to promote the general economic welfare. This section provides a sketch of regional differences. A more detailed discussion can be found in Bodenhorn (2002).

State Banking in New England

New England’s banks most resemble the common conception of the antebellum bank. They were relatively small, unit banks; their stock was closely held; they granted loans to local farmers, merchants and artisans with whom the bank’s managers had more than a passing familiarity; and the state took little direct interest in their daily operations.

Of the banking systems put in place in the antebellum era, New England’s is typically viewed as the most stable and conservative. Friedman and Schwartz (1986) attribute their stability to an Old World concern with business reputations, familial ties, and personal legacies. New England was long settled, its society well established, and its business community mature and respected throughout the Atlantic trading network. Wealthy businessmen and bankers with strong ties to the community — like the Browns of Providence or the Bowdoins of Boston — emphasized stability not just because doing so benefited and reflected well on them, but because they realized that bad banking was bad for everyone’s business.

Besides their reputation for soundness, the two defining characteristics of New England’s early banks were their insider nature and their small size. The typical New England bank was small compared to banks in other regions. Table 2 shows that in 1820 the average Massachusetts country bank was about the same size as a Pennsylvania country bank, but both were only about half the size of a Virginia bank. A Rhode Island bank was about one-third the size of a Massachusetts or Pennsylvania bank and a mere one-sixth as large as Virginia’s banks. By 1850 the average Massachusetts bank declined relatively, operating on about two-thirds the paid-in capital of a Pennsylvania country bank. Rhode Island’s banks also shrank relative to Pennsylvania’s and were tiny compared to the large branch banks in the South and West.

Table 2

Average Bank Size by Capital and Lending in 1820 and 1850 Selected States and Cities

(in $ thousands)

1820

Capital

Loans 1850 Capital Loans
Massachusetts $374.5 $480.4 $293.5 $494.0
except Boston 176.6 230.8 170.3 281.9
Rhode Island 95.7 103.2 186.0 246.2
except Providence 60.6 72.0 79.5 108.5
New York na na 246.8 516.3
except NYC na na 126.7 240.1
Pennsylvania 221.8 262.9 340.2 674.6
except Philadelphia 162.6 195.2 246.0 420.7
Virginia1,2 351.5 340.0 270.3 504.5
South Carolina2 na na 938.5 1,471.5
Kentucky2 na na 439.4 727.3

Notes: 1 Virginia figures for 1822. 2 Figures represent branch averages.

Source: Bodenhorn (2002).

Explanations for New England Banks’ Relatively Small Size

Several explanations have been offered for the relatively small size of New England’s banks. Contemporaries attributed it to the New England states’ propensity to tax bank capital, which was thought to work to the detriment of large banks. They argued that large banks circulated fewer banknotes per dollar of capital. The result was a progressive tax that fell disproportionately on large banks. Data compiled from Massachusetts’s bank reports suggest that large banks were not disadvantaged by the capital tax. It was a fact, as contemporaries believed, that large banks paid higher taxes per dollar of circulating banknotes, but a potentially better benchmark is the tax to loan ratio because large banks made more use of deposits than small banks. The tax to loan ratio was remarkably constant across both bank size and time, averaging just 0.6 percent between 1834 and 1855. Moreover, there is evidence of constant to modestly increasing returns to scale in New England banking. Large banks were generally at least as profitable as small banks in all years between 1834 and 1860, and slightly more so in many.

Lamoreaux (1993) offers a different explanation for the modest size of the region’s banks. New England’s banks, she argues, were not impersonal financial intermediaries. Rather, they acted as the financial arms of extended kinship trading networks. Throughout the antebellum era banks catered to insiders: directors, officers, shareholders, or business partners and kin of directors, officers, shareholders and business partners. Such preferences toward insiders represented the perpetuation of the eighteenth-century custom of pooling capital to finance family enterprises. In the nineteenth century the practice continued under corporate auspices. The corporate form, in fact, facilitated raising capital in greater amounts than the family unit could raise on its own. But because the banks kept their loans within a relatively small circle of business connections, it was not until the late nineteenth century that bank size increased.2

Once the kinship orientation of the region’s banks was established it perpetuated itself. When outsiders could not obtain loans from existing insider organizations, they formed their own insider bank. In doing so the promoters assured themselves of a steady supply of credit and created engines of economic mobility for kinship networks formerly closed off from many sources of credit. State legislatures accommodated the practice through their liberal chartering policies. By 1860, Rhode Island had 91 banks, Maine had 68, New Hampshire 51, Vermont 44, Connecticut 74 and Massachusetts 178.

The Suffolk System

One of the most commented on characteristic of New England’s banking system was its unique regional banknote redemption and clearing mechanism. Established by the Suffolk Bank of Boston in the early 1820s, the system became known as the Suffolk System. With so many banks in New England, each issuing it own form of currency, it was sometimes difficult for merchants, farmers, artisans, and even other bankers, to discriminate between real and bogus banknotes, or to discriminate between good and bad bankers. Moreover, the rural-urban terms of trade pulled most banknotes toward the region’s port cities. Because country merchants and farmers were typically indebted to city merchants, country banknotes tended to flow toward the cities, Boston more so than any other. By the second decade of the nineteenth century, country banknotes became a constant irritant for city bankers. City bankers believed that country issues displaced Boston banknotes in local transactions. More irritating though was the constant demand by the city banks’ customers to accept country banknotes on deposit, which placed the burden of interbank clearing on the city banks.3

In 1803 the city banks embarked on a first attempt to deal with country banknotes. They joined together, bought up a large quantity of country banknotes, and returned them to the country banks for redemption into specie. This effort to reduce country banknote circulation encountered so many obstacles that it was quickly abandoned. Several other schemes were hatched in the next two decades, but none proved any more successful than the 1803 plan.

The Suffolk Bank was chartered in 1818 and within a year embarked on a novel scheme to deal with the influx of country banknotes. The Suffolk sponsored a consortium of Boston bank in which each member appointed the Suffolk as its lone agent in the collection and redemption of country banknotes. In addition, each city bank contributed to a fund used to purchase and redeem country banknotes. When the Suffolk collected a large quantity of a country bank’s notes, it presented them for immediate redemption with an ultimatum: Join in a regular and organized redemption system or be subject to further unannounced redemption calls.4 Country banks objected to the Suffolk’s proposal, because it required them to keep noninterest-earning assets on deposit with the Suffolk in amounts equal to their average weekly redemptions at the city banks. Most country banks initially refused to join the redemption network, but after the Suffolk made good on a few redemption threats, the system achieved near universal membership.

Early interpretations of the Suffolk system, like those of Redlich (1949) and Hammond (1957), portray the Suffolk as a proto-central bank, which acted as a restraining influence that exercised some control over the region’s banking system and money supply. Recent studies are less quick to pronounce the Suffolk a successful experiment in early central banking. Mullineaux (1987) argues that the Suffolk’s redemption system was actually self-defeating. Instead of making country banknotes less desirable in Boston, the fact that they became readily redeemable there made them perfect substitutes for banknotes issued by Boston’s prestigious banks. This policy made country banknotes more desirable, which made it more, not less, difficult for Boston’s banks to keep their own notes in circulation.

Fenstermaker and Filer (1986) also contest the long-held view that the Suffolk exercised control over the region’s money supply (banknotes and deposits). Indeed, the Suffolk’s system was self-defeating in this regard as well. By increasing confidence in the value of a randomly encountered banknote, people were willing to hold increases in banknotes issues. In an interesting twist on the traditional interpretation, a possible outcome of the Suffolk system is that New England may have grown increasingly financial backward as a direct result of the region’s unique clearing system. Because banknotes were viewed as relatively safe and easily redeemed, the next big financial innovation — deposit banking — in New England lagged far behind other regions. With such wide acceptance of banknotes, there was no reason for banks to encourage the use of deposits and little reason for consumers to switch over.

Summary: New England Banks

New England’s banking system can be summarized as follows: Small unit banks predominated; many banks catered to small groups of capitalists bound by personal and familial ties; banking was becoming increasingly interconnected with other lines of business, such as insurance, shipping and manufacturing; the state took little direct interest in the daily operations of the banks and its supervisory role amounted to little more than a demand that every bank submit an unaudited balance sheet at year’s end; and that the Suffolk developed an interbank clearing system that facilitated the use of banknotes throughout the region, but had little effective control over the region’s money supply.

Banking in the Middle Atlantic Region

Pennsylvania

After 1810 or so, many bank charters were granted in New England, but not because of the presumption that the bank would promote the commonweal. Charters were granted for the personal gain of the promoter and the shareholders and in proportion to the personal, political and economic influence of the bank’s founders. No New England state took a significant financial stake in its banks. In both respects, New England differed markedly from states in other regions. From the beginning of state-chartered commercial banking in Pennsylvania, the state took a direct interest in the operations and profits of its banks. The Bank of North America was the obvious case: chartered to provide support to the colonial belligerents and the fledgling nation. Because the bank was popularly perceived to be dominated by Philadelphia’s Federalist merchants, who rarely loaned to outsiders, support for the bank waned.5 After a pitched political battle in which the Bank of North America’s charter was revoked and reinstated, the legislature chartered the Bank of Pennsylvania in 1793. As its name implies, this bank became the financial arm of the state. Pennsylvania subscribed $1 million of the bank’s capital, giving it the right to appoint six of thirteen directors and a $500,000 line of credit. The bank benefited by becoming the state’s fiscal agent, which guaranteed a constant inflow of deposits from regular treasury operations as well as western land sales.

By 1803 the demand for loans outstripped the existing banks’ supply and a plan for a new bank, the Philadelphia Bank, was hatched and its promoters petitioned the legislature for a charter. The existing banks lobbied against the charter, and nearly sank the new bank’s chances until it established a precedent that lasted throughout the antebellum era. Its promoters bribed the legislature with a payment of $135,000 in return for the charter, handed over one-sixth of its shares, and opened a line of credit for the state.

Between 1803 and 1814, the only other bank chartered in Pennsylvania was the Farmers and Mechanics Bank of Philadelphia, which established a second substantive precedent that persisted throughout the era. Existing banks followed a strict real-bills lending policy, restricting lending to merchants at very short terms of 30 to 90 days.6 Their adherence to a real-bills philosophy left a growing community of artisans, manufacturers and farmers on the outside looking in. The Farmers and Mechanics Bank was chartered to serve excluded groups. At least seven of its thirteen directors had to be farmers, artisans or manufacturers and the bank was required to lend the equivalent of 10 percent of its capital to farmers on mortgage for at least one year. In later years, banks were established to provide services to even more narrowly defined groups. Within a decade or two, most substantial port cities had banks with names like Merchants Bank, Planters Bank, Farmers Bank, and Mechanics Bank. By 1860 it was common to find banks with names like Leather Manufacturers Bank, Grocers Bank, Drovers Bank, and Importers Bank. Indeed, the Emigrant Savings Bank in New York City served Irish immigrants almost exclusively. In the other instances, it is not known how much of a bank’s lending was directed toward the occupational group included in its name. The adoption of such names may have been marketing ploys as much as mission statements. Only further research will reveal the answer.

New York

State-chartered banking in New York arrived less auspiciously than it had in Philadelphia or Boston. The Bank of New York opened in 1784, but operated without a charter and in open violation of state law until 1791 when the legislature finally sanctioned it. The city’s second bank obtained its charter surreptitiously. Alexander Hamilton was one of the driving forces behind the Bank of New York, and his long-time nemesis, Aaron Burr, was determined to establish a competing bank. Unable to get a charter from a Federalist legislature, Burr and his colleagues petitioned to incorporate a company to supply fresh water to the inhabitants of Manhattan Island. Burr tucked a clause into the charter of the Manhattan Company (the predecessor to today’s Chase Manhattan Bank) granting the water company the right to employ any excess capital in financial transactions. Once chartered, the company’s directors announced that $500,000 of its capital would be invested in banking.7 Thereafter, banking grew more quickly in New York than in Philadelphia, so that by 1812 New York had seven banks compared to the three operating in Philadelphia.

Deposit Insurance

Despite its inauspicious banking beginnings, New York introduced two innovations that influenced American banking down to the present. The Safety Fund system, introduced in 1829, was the nation’s first experiment in bank liability insurance (similar to that provided by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation today). The 1829 act authorized the appointment of bank regulators charged with regular inspections of member banks. An equally novel aspect was that it established an insurance fund insuring holders of banknotes and deposits against loss from bank failure. Ultimately, the insurance fund was insufficient to protect all bank creditors from loss during the panic of 1837 when eleven failures in rapid succession all but bankrupted the insurance fund, which delayed noteholder and depositor recoveries for months, even years. Even though the Safety Fund failed to provide its promised protections, it was an important episode in the subsequent evolution of American banking. Several Midwestern states instituted deposit insurance in the early twentieth century, and the federal government adopted it after the banking panics in the 1930s resulted in the failure of thousands of banks in which millions of depositors lost money.

“Free Banking”

Although the Safety Fund was nearly bankrupted in the late 1830s, it continued to insure a number of banks up to the mid 1860s when it was finally closed. No new banks joined the Safety Fund system after 1838 with the introduction of free banking — New York’s second significant banking innovation. Free banking represented a compromise between those most concerned with the underlying safety and stability of the currency and those most concerned with competition and freeing the country’s entrepreneurs from unduly harsh and anticompetitive restraints. Under free banking, a prospective banker could start a bank anywhere he saw fit, provided he met a few regulatory requirements. Each free bank’s capital was invested in state or federal bonds that were turned over to the state’s treasurer. If a bank failed to redeem even a single note into specie, the treasurer initiated bankruptcy proceedings and banknote holders were reimbursed from the sale of the bonds.

Actually Michigan preempted New York’s claim to be the first free-banking state, but Michigan’s 1837 law was modeled closely after a bill then under debate in New York’s legislature. Ultimately, New York’s influence was profound in this as well, because free banking became one of the century’s most widely copied financial innovations. By 1860 eighteen states adopted free banking laws closely resembling New York’s law. Three other states introduced watered-down variants. Eventually, the post-Civil War system of national banking adopted many of the substantive provisions of New York’s 1838 act.

Both the Safety Fund system and free banking were attempts to protect society from losses resulting from bank failures and to entice people to hold financial assets. Banks and bank-supplied currency were novel developments in the hinterlands in the early nineteenth century and many rural inhabitants were skeptical about the value of small pieces of paper. They were more familiar with gold and silver. Getting them to exchange one for the other was a slow process, and one that relied heavily on trust. But trust was built slowly and destroyed quickly. The failure of a single bank could, in a week, destroy the confidence in a system built up over a decade. New York’s experiments were designed to mitigate, if not eliminate, the negative consequences of bank failures. New York’s Safety Fund, then, differed in the details but not in intent, from New England’s Suffolk system. Bankers and legislators in each region grappled with the difficult issue of protecting a fragile but vital sector of the economy. Each region responded to the problem differently. The South and West settled on yet another solution.

Banking in the South and West

One distinguishing characteristic of southern and western banks was their extensive branch networks. Pennsylvania provided for branch banking in the early nineteenth century and two banks jointly opened about ten branches. In both instances, however, the branches became a net liability. The Philadelphia Bank opened four branches in 1809 and by 1811 was forced to pass on its semi-annual dividends because losses at the branches offset profits at the Philadelphia office. At bottom, branch losses resulted from a combination of ineffective central office oversight and unrealistic expectations about the scale and scope of hinterland lending. Philadelphia’s bank directors instructed branch managers to invest in high-grade commercial paper or real bills. Rural banks found a limited number of such lending opportunities and quickly turned to mortgage-based lending. Many of these loans fell into arrears and were ultimately written when land sales faltered.

Branch Banking

Unlike Pennsylvania, where branch banking failed, branch banks throughout the South and West thrived. The Bank of Virginia, founded in 1804, was the first state-chartered branch bank and up to the Civil War branch banks served the state’s financial needs. Several small, independent banks were chartered in the 1850s, but they never threatened the dominance of Virginia’s “Big Six” banks. Virginia’s branch banks, unlike Pennsylvania’s, were profitable. In 1821, for example, the net return to capital at the Farmers Bank of Virginia’s home office in Richmond was 5.4 percent. Returns at its branches ranged from a low of 3 percent at Norfolk (which was consistently the low-profit branch) to 9 percent in Winchester. In 1835, the last year the bank reported separate branch statistics, net returns to capital at the Farmers Bank’s branches ranged from 2.9 and 11.7 percent, with an average of 7.9 percent.

The low profits at the Norfolk branch represent a net subsidy from the state’s banking sector to the political system, which was not immune to the same kind of infrastructure boosterism that erupted in New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland and elsewhere. In the immediate post-Revolutionary era, the value of exports shipped from Virginia’s ports (Norfolk and Alexandria) slightly exceeded the value shipped from Baltimore. In the 1790s the numbers turned sharply in Baltimore’s favor and Virginia entered the internal-improvements craze and the battle for western shipments. Banks represented the first phase of the state’s internal improvements plan in that many believed that Baltimore’s new-found advantage resulted from easier credit supplied by the city’s banks. If Norfolk, with one of the best natural harbors on the North American Atlantic coast, was to compete with other port cities, it needed banks and the state required three of the state’s Big Six branch banks to operate branches there. Despite its natural advantages, Norfolk never became an important entrepot and it probably had more bank capital than it required. This pattern was repeated elsewhere. Other states required their branch banks to serve markets such as Memphis, Louisville, Natchez and Mobile that might, with the proper infrastructure grow into important ports.

State Involvement and Intervention in Banking

The second distinguishing characteristic of southern and western banking was sweeping state involvement and intervention. Virginia, for example, interjected the state into the banking system by taking significant stakes in its first chartered banks (providing an implicit subsidy) and by requiring them, once they established themselves, to subsidize the state’s continuing internal improvements programs of the 1820s and 1830s. Indiana followed such a strategy. So, too, did Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee and Georgia in different degrees. South Carolina followed a wholly different strategy. On one hand, it chartered several banks in which it took no financial interest. On the other, it chartered the Bank of the State of South Carolina, a bank wholly owned by the state and designed to lend to planters and farmers who complained constantly that the state’s existing banks served only the urban mercantile community. The state-owned bank eventually divided its lending between merchants, farmers and artisans and dominated South Carolina’s financial sector.

The 1820s and 1830s witnessed a deluge of new banks in the South and West, with a corresponding increase in state involvement. No state matched Louisiana’s breadth of involvement in the 1830s when it chartered three distinct types of banks: commercial banks that served merchants and manufacturers; improvement banks that financed various internal improvements projects; and property banks that extended long-term mortgage credit to planters and other property holders. Louisiana’s improvement banks included the New Orleans Canal and Banking Company that built a canal connecting Lake Ponchartrain to the Mississippi River. The Exchange and Banking Company and the New Orleans Improvement and Banking Company were required to build and operate hotels. The New Orleans Gas Light and Banking Company constructed and operated gas streetlights in New Orleans and five other cities. Finally, the Carrollton Railroad and Banking Company and the Atchafalaya Railroad and Banking Company were rail construction companies whose bank subsidiaries subsidized railroad construction.

“Commonwealth Ideal” and Inflationary Banking

Louisiana’s 1830s banking exuberance reflected what some historians label the “commonwealth ideal” of banking; that is, the promotion of the general welfare through the promotion of banks. Legislatures in the South and West, however, never demonstrated a greater commitment to the commonwealth ideal than during the tough times of the early 1820s. With the collapse of the post-war land boom in 1819, a political coalition of debt-strapped landowners lobbied legislatures throughout the region for relief and its focus was banking. Relief advocates lobbied for inflationary banking that would reduce the real burden of debts taken on during prior flush times.

Several western states responded to these calls and chartered state-subsidized and state-managed banks designed to reinflate their embattled economies. Chartered in 1821, the Bank of the Commonwealth of Kentucky loaned on mortgages at longer than customary periods and all Kentucky landowners were eligible for $1,000 loans. The loans allowed landowners to discharge their existing debts without being forced to liquidate their property at ruinously low prices. Although the bank’s notes were not redeemable into specie, they were given currency in two ways. First, they were accepted at the state treasury in tax payments. Second, the state passed a law that forced creditors to accept the notes in payment of existing debts or agree to delay collection for two years.

The commonwealth ideal was not unique to Kentucky. During the depression of the 1820s, Tennessee chartered the State Bank of Tennessee, Illinois chartered the State Bank of Illinois and Louisiana chartered the Louisiana State Bank. Although they took slightly different forms, they all had the same intent; namely, to relieve distressed and embarrassed farmers, planters and land owners. What all these banks shared in common was the notion that the state should promote the general welfare and economic growth. In this instance, and again during the depression of the 1840s, state-owned banks were organized to minimize the transfer of property when economic conditions demanded wholesale liquidation. Such liquidation would have been inefficient and imposed unnecessary hardship on a large fraction of the population. To the extent that hastily chartered relief banks forestalled inefficient liquidation, they served their purpose. Although most of these banks eventually became insolvent, requiring taxpayer bailouts, we cannot label them unsuccessful. They reinflated economies and allowed for an orderly disposal of property. Determining if the net benefits were positive or negative requires more research, but for the moment we are forced to accept the possibility that the region’s state-owned banks of the 1820s and 1840s advanced the commonweal.

Conclusion: Banks and Economic Growth

Despite notable differences in the specific form and structure of each region’s banking system, they were all aimed squarely at a common goal; namely, realizing that region’s economic potential. Banks helped achieve the goal in two ways. First, banks monetized economies, which reduced the costs of transacting and helped smooth consumption and production across time. It was no longer necessary for every farm family to inventory their entire harvest. They could sell most of it, and expend the proceeds on consumption goods as the need arose until the next harvest brought a new cash infusion. Crop and livestock inventories are prone to substantial losses and an increased use of money reduced them significantly. Second, banks provided credit, which unleashed entrepreneurial spirits and talents. A complete appreciation of early American banking recognizes the banks’ contribution to antebellum America’s economic growth.

Bibliographic Essay

Because of the large number of sources used to construct the essay, the essay was more readable and less cluttered by including a brief bibliographic essay. A full bibliography is included at the end.

Good general histories of antebellum banking include Dewey (1910), Fenstermaker (1965), Gouge (1833), Hammond (1957), Knox (1903), Redlich (1949), and Trescott (1963). If only one book is read on antebellum banking, Hammond’s (1957) Pulitzer-Prize winning book remains the best choice.

The literature on New England banking is not particularly large, and the more important historical interpretations of state-wide systems include Chadbourne (1936), Hasse (1946, 1957), Simonton (1971), Spencer (1949), and Stokes (1902). Gras (1937) does an excellent job of placing the history of a single bank within the larger regional and national context. In a recent book and a number of articles Lamoreaux (1994 and sources therein) provides a compelling and eminently readable reinterpretation of the region’s banking structure. Nathan Appleton (1831, 1856) provides a contemporary observer’s interpretation, while Walker (1857) provides an entertaining if perverse and satirical history of a fictional New England bank. Martin (1969) provides details of bank share prices and dividend payments from the establishment of the first banks in Boston through the end of the nineteenth century. Less technical studies of the Suffolk system include Lake (1947), Trivoli (1979) and Whitney (1878); more technical interpretations include Calomiris and Kahn (1996), Mullineaux (1987), and Rolnick, Smith and Weber (1998).

The literature on Middle Atlantic banking is huge, but the better state-level histories include Bryan (1899), Daniels (1976), and Holdsworth (1928). The better studies of individual banks include Adams (1978), Lewis (1882), Nevins (1934), and Wainwright (1953). Chaddock (1910) provides a general history of the Safety Fund system. Golembe (1960) places it in the context of modern deposit insurance, while Bodenhorn (1996) and Calomiris (1989) provide modern analyses. A recent revival of interest in free banking has brought about a veritable explosion in the number of studies on the subject, but the better introductory ones remain Rockoff (1974, 1985), Rolnick and Weber (1982, 1983), and Dwyer (1996).

The literature on southern and western banking is large and of highly variable quality, but I have found the following to be the most readable and useful general sources: Caldwell (1935), Duke (1895), Esary (1912), Golembe (1978), Huntington (1915), Green (1972), Lesesne (1970), Royalty (1979), Schweikart (1987) and Starnes (1931).

References and Further Reading

Adams, Donald R., Jr. Finance and Enterprise in Early America: A Study of Stephen Girard’s Bank, 1812-1831. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1978.

Alter, George, Claudia Goldin and Elyce Rotella. “The Savings of Ordinary Americans: The Philadelphia Saving Fund Society in the Mid-Nineteenth-Century.” Journal of Economic History 54, no. 4 (December 1994): 735-67.

Appleton, Nathan. A Defence of Country Banks: Being a Reply to a Pamphlet Entitled ‘An Examination of the Banking System of Massachusetts, in Reference to the Renewal of the Bank Charters.’ Boston: Stimpson & Clapp, 1831.

Appleton, Nathan. Bank Bills or Paper Currency and the Banking System of Massachusetts with Remarks on Present High Prices. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1856.

Berry, Thomas Senior. Revised Annual Estimates of American Gross National Product: Preliminary Estimates of Four Major Components of Demand, 1789-1889. Richmond: University of Richmond Bostwick Paper No. 3, 1978.

Bodenhorn, Howard. “Zombie Banks and the Demise of New York’s Safety Fund.” Eastern Economic Journal 22, no. 1 (1996): 21-34.

Bodenhorn, Howard. “Private Banking in Antebellum Virginia: Thomas Branch & Sons of Petersburg.” Business History Review 71, no. 4 (1997): 513-42.

Bodenhorn, Howard. A History of Banking in Antebellum America: Financial Markets and Economic Development in an Era of Nation-Building. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Bodenhorn, Howard. State Banking in Early America: A New Economic History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Bryan, Alfred C. A History of State Banking in Maryland. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1899.

Caldwell, Stephen A. A Banking History of Louisiana. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1935.

Calomiris, Charles W. “Deposit Insurance: Lessons from the Record.” Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago Economic Perspectives 13 (1989): 10-30.

Calomiris, Charles W., and Charles Kahn. “The Efficiency of Self-Regulated Payments Systems: Learnings from the Suffolk System.” Journal of Money, Credit, and Banking 28, no. 4 (1996): 766-97.

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1 Banknotes were small demonination IOUs printed by banks and circulated as currency. Modern U.S. money are simply banknotes issued by the Federal Reserve Bank, which has a monopoly privilege in the issue of legal tender currency. In antebellum American, when a bank made a loan, the borrower was typically handed banknotes with a face value equal to the dollar value of the loan. The borrower then spent these banknotes in purchasing goods and services, putting them into circulation. Contemporary law held that banks were required to redeem banknotes into gold and silver legal tender on demand. Banks found it profitable to issue notes because they typically held about 30 percent of the total value of banknotes in circulation as reserves. Thus, banks were able to leverage $30 in gold and silver into $100 in loans that returned about 7 percent interest on average.

2 Paul Lockard (2000) challenges Lamoreaux’s interpretation. In a study of 4 banks in the Connecticut River valley, Lockard finds that insiders did not dominate these banks’ resources. As provocative as Lockard’s findings are, he draws conclusions from a small and unrepresentative sample. Two of his four sample banks were savings banks, which were designed as quasi-charitable organizations designed to encourage savings by the working classes and provide small loans. Thus, Lockard’s sample is effectively reduced to two banks. At these two banks, he identifies about 10 percent of loans as insider loans, but readily admits that he cannot always distinguish between insiders and outsiders. For a recent study of how early Americans used savings banks, see Alter, Goldin and Rotella (1994). The literature on savings banks is so large that it cannot be be given its due here.

3 Interbank clearing involves the settling of balances between banks. Modern banks cash checks drawn on other banks and credit the funds to the depositor. The Federal Reserve system provides clearing services between banks. The accepting bank sends the checks to the Federal Reserve, who credits the sending bank’s accounts and sends the checks back to the bank on which they were drawn for reimbursement. In the antebellum era, interbank clearing involved sending banknotes back to issuing banks. Because New England had so many small and scattered banks, the costs of returning banknotes to their issuers were large and sometimes avoided by recirculating notes of distant banks rather than returning them. Regular clearings and redemptions served an important purpose, however, because they kept banks in touch with the current market conditions. A massive redemption of notes was indicative of a declining demand for money and credit. Because the bank’s reserves were drawn down with the redemptions, it was forced to reduce its volume of loans in accord with changing demand conditions.

4 The law held that banknotes were redeemable on demand into gold or silver coin or bullion. If a bank refused to redeem even a single $1 banknote, the banknote holder could have the bank closed and liquidated to recover his or her claim against it.

5 Rappaport (1996) found that the bank’s loans were about equally divided between insiders (shareholders and shareholders’ family and business associates) and outsiders, but nonshareholders received loans about 30 percent smaller than shareholders. The issue remains about whether this bank was an “insider” bank, and depends largely on one’s definition. Any modern bank which made half of its loans to shareholders and their families would be viewed as an “insider” bank. It is less clear where the line can be usefully drawn for antebellum banks.

6 Real-bills lending followed from a nineteenth-century banking philosophy, which held that bank lending should be used to finance the warehousing or wholesaling of already-produced goods. Loans made on these bases were thought to be self-liquidating in that the loan was made against readily sold collateral actually in the hands of a merchant. Under the real-bills doctrine, the banks’ proper functions were to bridge the gap between production and retail sale of goods. A strict adherence to real-bills tenets excluded loans on property (mortgages), loans on goods in process (trade credit), or loans to start-up firms (venture capital). Thus, real-bills lending prescribed a limited role for banks and bank credit. Few banks were strict adherents to the doctrine, but many followed it in large part.

7 Robert E. Wright (1998) offers a different interpretation, but notes that Burr pushed the bill through at the end of a busy legislative session so that many legislators voted on the bill without having read it thoroughly or at all.