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The First Bank of the United States

David Cowen

Birth of the Bank

In February 1791, the First Bank of the United States (1791-1811) received a unique national charter for twenty years. Alexander Hamilton’s brainchild, a semi-public national bank, was a crucial component in the building of the early U.S. economy. The Bank prospered for twenty years and performed traditional banking functions in exemplary fashion. With a main office in Philadelphia and eight branches nationwide to serve its customers, the Bank’s influence stretched along the entire Atlantic seaboard from Boston to Charleston and Savannah and westward along the Gulf Coast to New Orleans.

Hamilton’s Broad Economic Plan

When the Treasury Department was created by an Act of Congress in September 1789, President George Washington rewarded Hamilton with the post of Secretary. Hamilton quickly became the nation’s leading economic figure. When Congress asked Hamilton to submit an economic plan for the country, he was well prepared. The Secretary delivered several monumental state papers that forged the financial system for the nation: The Report on Public Credit (January 9, 1790), The Report on the Bank (December 13, 1790), The Establishment of a Mint (January, 1791), and The Report on Manufactures (December 5, 1791). Hamilton’s reports outlined the strategies that were part of a comprehensive Federalist economic and financial program. They included a sinking fund to extinguish the national debt and an excise tax to be collected on all distilled liquors.

A key component of Hamilton’s economic plan for the country was the national Bank, an institution that would safeguard all pecuniary transactions. The Bank would not only stimulate the economy but also enhance the shaky credit of the government. The English financial system, particularly the Bank of England, provided an important model for Hamilton.

The Bank’s Funding and Privileges

The Report on the Bank explained that the national Bank would be chartered for twenty years, during which time the Congress would agree not to establish another national bank. The seed capital would be $10 million: $8 million from private sources, and $2 million from the government. The Bank would have the right to issue notes or currency up to $10 million. The government would also pledge that the notes of the Bank would be unique in that they were valid for payments to the United States. In short, the notes would be suitable for payment of taxes, a feature that would provide the Bank with a strong advantage over its competitors.

The national Bank would confer many benefits on the government including a ready source of loans, a principal depository for federal monies that were transferable from city to city without charge, and a clearing agent for payments on the national debt. The government, as the largest stockholder, would share in the profits, but have no direct participation in the management.

Debate over Establishment of the Bank

The Bank bill was introduced into Congress on December 13, 1790, passed the Senate on January 20, 1791, the House on February 8, 1791, and therefore was forwarded to President Washington for his signature. It was unclear whether Washington would sign the bill into law. Powerful forces led by James Madison, Thomas Jefferson and the Attorney General, Edmund Randolph, argued to Washington that the Constitution had not granted the government the power to incorporate a Bank and therefore he should not sign the bill.

Washington Accepts Hamilton’s View on Implied Powers

Washington showed Hamilton the opposition’s argument and asked him to prepare a document explaining why he should sign the bill. The pressure was therefore on Hamilton to produce a flawless retort. His reply to Washington has been christened as the benchmark of a broad interpretation of the Constitution. Hamilton turned the tables on his opposition. If Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and Edmund Randolph argued that the power to incorporate was not available unless explicitly prescribed by the Constitution, then Alexander Hamilton retorted that a power was not unavailable unless so stated in the Constitution. Washington accepted Hamilton’s logic and signed the bill on February 25, 1791 to create the national Bank.

Most important, however, was not the political infighting, but rather that Hamilton’s view holding that implied governmental powers were a viable part of the Constitution had carried the day. Hamilton had accomplished his aim: his detractors defeated; his economic approach adopted. In the ensuing years the Bank of the United States occupied center stage of the American financial system.

Life of the Bank

Initial Stock Offering

On July 4, 1791, in the largest initial stock offering the country had ever witnessed, investors displayed confidence in the new funding system by scooping up $8 million in Bank of United States stock with unprecedented alacrity. Many notable members of the Congress were purchasers. Prices of receipts for the right to buy stock (i.e. not the stock itself), know as scripts, were driven from an initial offering price of $25 to the unsustainable height of over $300, and then tumbled to $150 within days, causing alarm in the markets. Secretary Hamilton calmed the storm much as a modern central banker would have by using public money to directly purchase government securities. However, the script bubble led many to blame the Bank for such rabid speculations.

Bank Branches

In the fall of 1791 the new stockholders met in Philadelphia to choose board members and decide on rules and regulations. While the Bank would be headquartered in Philadelphia, the stockholders clamored for and received branches, with four opening in Baltimore, Boston, Charleston, and New York in 1792, and eventually four more in Norfolk (1800), Washington (1802), Savannah (1802) and New Orleans (1805). The branches were of great concern to the existing state banks, which viewed the national Bank as a competitive threat.

The Bank’s First President and Cashiers

Thomas Willing accepted the title of president of the Bank and remained in that position until 1807. Willing possessed strong credentials as he had been president of the Bank of North America, Mayor of Philadelphia, the Secretary to the Congress of delegates at Albany, and a Judge of the Supreme court of Pennsylvania. As the day-to- day manager, the role of bank cashier was also important. At the head office in Philadelphia, John Kean was appointed the cashier; however, the most noteworthy was George Simpson, who held the post from 1795-1811.

The Bank’s Roles in the Economy

On December 12, 1791, the Bank opened for business in Philadelphia. The customers were merchants, politicians, manufacturers, landowners, and most importantly, the government of the United States. The Banks notes circulated countrywide and therefore infused a safe medium of paper money into the economy for business transactions. The sheer volume of deposits, loans, transfers and payments conducted by the Bank throughout the country made it far and away the single largest enterprise in the fledgling nation. Profits, however, were moderate during the operation of the Bank because its directors opted for stability over risk taking.

The Bank and the “Panic of 1792″

The Bank had an enormous impact on the economy within two months of opening its doors for business by flooding the market with its discounts (loans) and banknotes and then sharply reversing course and calling in many of the loans. Although the added liquidity initially helped push a rising securities market higher, the subsequent drain caused the very first U.S. securities market crash by forcing speculators to sell their stocks. The largest speculator caught in the financial crisis was William Duer. When he went insolvent in March 1792, the markets were temporarily paralyzed. This so-called “Panic of 1792″ was short lived as again Secretary Hamilton (as in the previous year during the script bubble) injected funds by buying securities directly and on behalf of the sinking fund. Yet incidents like the Panic of 1792 and the script bubble would be remembered for many years by opponents of the Bank who were still in steadfast opposition to the Hamilton inspired institution.

The Bank’s Business with the National Government

The rest of Bank years were never as tumultuous as the events surrounding the Panic of 1792. Rather during its twenty-year lifespan the Bank performed many mundane pecuniary functions for its customers. The largest customer, the government, had many notable interactions with the Bank. One of the highlights of the relationship was the Bank’s efficient managing of the government’s fiscal affairs with respect to the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. In its earlier days, the Bank had lent heavily to its largest customer. By the end of 1795 the Bank had lent the government over $6 million, or 60% of its capital. At this point Willing and the other directors became alarmed and demanded the Government repay part of its loan. Since Government credit was still weak, the Treasury resorted to selling shares of its Bank stock. The sales began in 1796 and ended in 1802. With the proceeds from the sales of stock, the government repaid the Bank.

Central Banking Functions of the Bank

The Bank performed certain functions that today are associated with central banking. First, the Bank attempted to regulate state banks by curtailing those that had overissued their bank notes. Second, the Bank, in coordination with the Treasury department, discussed economic conditions and attempted to promote the safety of the entire credit system. Third, while the Philadelphia board gave each branch autonomy respecting lending to individuals, the Bank tried to coordinate aggregate policy changes, whether a loosening or tightening of lending credit, across the entire network of branches.

Death of the Bank

The anti-Bank forces had remained steadfast in their opposition to the Bank since its inception in 1791. By the time of the renewal debate in Congress, the Federalists were no longer in control. The Democrats now held the majority and were ready to act against the Federalist conceived institution. The opponents of the Bank included Henry Clay, William Branch Giles and Vice-President George Clinton. The Federalists supported renewal and were joined by two notable Democrats who crossed party lines, Treasury Secretary Albert Gallatin, who believed in the usefulness of the institution, and then President Madison, who had switched camps with respect to the Bank issue because he believed the matter had been settled by precedent.

Complaints about the Bank

The opponents charged that because three-fourths of the ownership of the stock was held by foreigners, that the Bank was under their direct influence. The charge was false, as foreigners were prohibited from electing directors. The opposition also charged that the Bank was concealing profits, operating in a mysterious fashion, unconstitutional, and simply a tool for loaning money to the Government.

Rechartering Suffers a Narrow Defeat in Congress

Although the charter did not expire until March 4, 1811, the renewal process commenced in the House on March 28, 1808 and in the Senate on April 20, 1808. The matter developed slowly and was referred to Secretary Gallatin for an opinion. On March 3, 1809 Gallatin communicated his beliefs to the House that the Bank charter should be renewed. The matter returned to the House on January 29, 1810 for Committee debate. On February 19th, the committee recommended in favor of renewing the charter and sent the bill to the floor of the House. Floor debate opened on April 13th, and the bill was stopped dead in its tracks. Stockholders resubmitted the bill on December 10th, and despite an intense three-month debate, the bill was killed. The vote in each section of the Congress was incredibly close. The bill was defeated in the House by a 65 to 64 margin on January 24, 1811, and in the Senate was deadlocked at 17 on February 20th before Vice-President Clinton, an enemy of both Madison and Gallatin, broke the tie with a negative vote. The Bank of the United States closed its doors on March 3, 1811.

The Bank and the Debate over Central Government Power

The reason the Bank lost its charter had precious little to do with banking. When charter renewal debate transpired in 1811 banking on the whole was flourishing. The Bank was born, lived, and eventually died a victim of politics. The Bank has been remembered not for what occurred during its operation — stimulating business, infusing safe paper money into the economy, supporting the credit of the country and national government, and with the Treasury department regulating the financial arena — but rather for what occurred during the stormy debates at its birth and death. The death of the Bank was another chapter in an ongoing debate between the early leaders of the country who were split between those who preferred a weak central government on the one hand and those who desired a strong central government on the other.

The chartering of a national economic institution, a Bank of the United States, marks the take-off of the Federalist financial revolution that began several years earlier with the signing of the Constitution. The political die of the United States was cast with that document, and by 1792 the economic base of Federalism was in place, first with the Federal funding of national and state war debts, and second, with a sound national Bank in place to give coherence to the developing U.S. financial system.

Further Reading:

Bowling, Kenneth R. “The Bank Bill, the Capital City and President Washington.” Capital Studies 1, no. 1 (1972).

Cowen, David J. “The First Bank of the United States and the Securities Market Crash of 1792.” Journal of Economic History 60, no. 4 (2000).

Cowen, David J. _The Origins and Economic Impact of the First Bank of the United States, 1791-1797_. New York: Garland Publishing, 2000.

Dewey, Davis Rich and John Thom Holdsworth. The First and Second Banks of the United States. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1910.

Hammond, Bray. Banks and Politics in America: From the Revolution to the Civil War. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1957.

Klubes, Benjamin. “The First Federal Congress and the First National Bank: A Case Study in Constitutional History.” Journal of the Early American Republic10 (1990).

McDonald, Forrest. “The Constitution and Hamiltonian Capitalism.” In How Capitalistic is the Constitution? Edited by Robert A. Goldwin and William A. Schambra. New York: American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, 1982.

Perkins, Edwin. American Public Finance and Financial Services 1700-1815 Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1994.

Redlich, Fritz. The Molding of American Banking. New York: Johnson Reprint Corporation, 1968.

St. Clair Clarke, M. and D. A. Hall. Legislative and Documentary History of the Bank of United States. Washington, D.C.: Gales and Seaton, 1832. Reprint. New York: Augustus M. Kelley Publishers, 1967.

Sylla, Richard. “U.S. Securities Markets and the Banking System, 1790-1840.” Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis Review 80, no. 3 (1998).

Syrett, Harold, editor. The Papers of Alexander Hamilton. New York: Columbia University Press, 1961-87.

Wettereau, James O. “Branches of the First Bank of the United States.” Journal of Economic History 2 (1942).

Wettereau, James O. “New Light on the First Bank of the United States.” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 61 (1937).

Wettereau, James O. Statistical Records of the First Bank of the United States. New York: Garland Publishing, 1985.

Wettereau, James O. “The Oldest Bank Building in the United States.” Transactions of the American Philosophical Society 43, part 1, 1953.

Wright, Robert. Origins of Commercial Banking in America, 1750-1800. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2001.

Wright, Robert. The Wealth of Nations Rediscovered: Integration and Expansion of the U.S. Financial Sector, 1780-1850. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Wright, Robert. “Thomas Willing (1731-1821): Philadelphia Financier and Forgotten Founding Father.” Pennsylvania History, Fall, 1996.

Citation: Cowen, David. “First Bank of the United States”. EH.Net Encyclopedia, edited by Robert Whaples. March 16, 2008. URL http://eh.net/encyclopedia/the-first-bank-of-the-united-states/