Richard S. Grossman, Wesleyan University
The National Banking Era Begins, 1863
The National Banking Acts of 1863 and 1864
The National Banking era was ushered in by the passage of the National Currency (later renamed the National Banking) Acts of 1863 and 1864. The Acts marked a decisive change in the monetary system, confirmed a quarter-century-old trend in bank chartering arrangements, and also played a role in financing the Civil War.
Provision of a Uniform National Currency
As its original title suggests, one of the main objectives of the legislation was to provide a uniform national currency. Prior to the establishment of the national banking system, the national currency supply consisted of a confusing patchwork of bank notes issued under a variety of rules by banks chartered under different state laws. Notes of sound banks circulated side-by-side with notes of banks in financial trouble, as well as those of banks that had failed (not to mention forgeries). In fact, bank notes frequently traded at a discount, so that a one-dollar note of a smaller, less well-known bank (or, for that matter, of a bank at some distance) would likely have been valued at less than one dollar by someone receiving it in a transaction. The confusion was such as to lead to the publication of magazines that specialized in printing pictures, descriptions, and prices of various bank notes, along with information on whether or not the issuing bank was still in existence.
Under the legislation, newly created national banks were empowered to issue national bank notes backed by a deposit of US Treasury securities with their chartering agency, the Department of the Treasury’s Comptroller of the Currency. The legislation also placed a tax on notes issued by state banks, effectively driving them out of circulation. Bank notes were of uniform design and, in fact, were printed by the government. The amount of bank notes a national bank was allowed to issue depended upon the bank’s capital (which was also regulated by the act) and the amount of bonds it deposited with the Comptroller. The relationship between bank capital, bonds held, and note issue was changed by laws in 1874, 1882, and 1900 (Cagan 1963, James 1976, and Krooss 1969).
Federal Chartering of Banks
A second element of the Act was the introduction bank charters issued by the federal government. From the earliest days of the Republic, banking had been considered primarily the province of state governments. Originally, individuals who wished to obtain banking charters had to approach the state legislature, which then decided if the applicant was of sufficient moral standing to warrant a charter and if the region in question needed an additional bank. These decisions may well have been influenced by bribes and political pressure, both by the prospective banker and by established bankers who may have hoped to block the entry of new competitors.
An important shift in state banking practice had begun with the introduction of free banking laws in the 1830s. Beginning with laws passed in Michigan (1837) and New York (1838), free banking laws changed the way banks obtained charters. Rather than apply to the state legislature and receive a decision on a case-by-case basis, individuals could obtain a charter by filling out some paperwork and depositing a prescribed amount of specified bonds with the state authorities. By 1860, over one half of the states had enacted some type of free banking law (Rockoff 1975). By regularizing and removing legislative discretion from chartering decisions, the National Banking Acts spread free banking on a national level.
Financing the Civil War
A third important element of the National Banking Acts was that they helped the Union government pay for the war. Adopted in the midst of the Civil War, the requirement for banks to deposit US bonds with the Comptroller maintained the demand for Union securities and helped finance the war effort.
Development and Competition with State Banks
The National Banking system grew rapidly at first (Table 1). Much of the increase came at the expense of the state-chartered banking systems, which contracted over the same period, largely because they were no longer able to issue notes. The expansion of the new system did not lead to the extinction of the old: the growth of deposit-taking, combined with less stringent capital requirements, convinced many state bankers that they could do without either the ability to issue banknotes or a federal charter, and led to a resurgence of state banking in the 1880s and 1890s. Under the original acts, the minimum capital requirement for national banks was $50,000 for banks in towns with a population of 6000 or less, $100,000 for banks in cities with a population ranging from 6000 to 50,000, and $200,000 for banks in cities with populations exceeding 50,000. By contrast, the minimum capital requirement for a state bank was often as low as $10,000. The difference in capital requirements may have been an important difference in the resurgence of state banking: in 1877 only about one-fifth of state banks had a capital of less than $50,000; by 1899 the proportion was over three-fifths. Recognizing this competition, the Gold Standard Act of 1900 reduced the minimum capital necessary for national banks. It is questionable whether regulatory competition (both between states and between states and the federal government) kept regulators on their toes or encouraged a “race to the bottom,” that is, lower and looser standards.
Table 1: Numbers and Assets of National and State Banks, 1863-1913
|Number of Banks||Assets of Banks ($millions)|
|National Banks||State Banks||National Banks||State Banks|
Source: U.S. Department of the Treasury. Annual Report of the Comptroller of the Currency (1931), pp. 3, 5. State bank columns include data on state-chartered commercial banks and loan and trust companies.
Capital Requirements and Interest Rates
The relatively high minimum capital requirement for national banks may have contributed to regional interest rate differentials in the post-Civil War era. The period from the Civil War through World War I saw a substantial decline in interregional interest rate differentials. According to Lance Davis (1965), the decline in difference between regional interest rates can be explained by the development and spread of the commercial paper market, which increased the interregional mobility of funds. Richard Sylla (1969) argues that the high minimum capital requirements established by the National Banking Acts represented barriers to entry and therefore led to local monopolies by note-issuing national banks. These local monopolies in capital-short regions led to the persistence of interest rate spreads. (See also James 1976b.)
Financial crises were a common occurrence in the National Banking era. O.M.W. Sprague (1910) classified the main financial crises during the era as occurring in 1873, 1884, 1890, 1893, and 1907, with those of 1873, 1893, and 1907 being regarded as full-fledged crises and those of 1884 and 1890 as less severe.
Contemporary observers complained of both the persistence and ill effects of bank failures under the new system. The number and assets of failed national and non-national banks during the National Banking era is shown in Table 2. Suspensions — temporary closures of banks unable to meet demand for their liabilities — were even higher during this period.
Table 2: Bank Failures, 1865-1913
|Number of Failed Banks||Assets of Failed Banks ($millions)|
|National Banks||Other Banks||National Banks||Other banks|
Source: U.S. Department of the Treasury. Annual Report of the Comptroller of the Currency (1931), pp. 6, 8.
The largest number of failures occurred in the years following the financial crisis of 1893. The number and assets of national and non-national bank failures remained high for four years following the crisis, a period which coincided with the free silver agitation of the mid-1890s, before returning to pre-1893 levels. Other crises were also accompanied by an increase in the number and assets of bank failures. The earliest peak during the national banking era accompanied the onset of the crisis of 1873. Failures subsequently fell, but rose again in the trough of the depression that followed the 1873 crisis. The panic of 1884 saw a slight increase in failures, while the financial stringency of 1890 was followed by a more substantial increase. Failures peaked again following several minor panics around the turn of the century and again at the time of the crisis of 1907.
Among the alleged causes of crises during the national banking era were that the money supply was not sufficiently elastic to allow for seasonal and other stresses on the money market and the fact that reserves were pyramided. That is, under the National Banking Acts, a portion of banks’ required reserves could be held in national banks in larger cities (“reserve city banks”). Reserve city banks could, in turn, hold a portion of their required reserves in “central reserve city banks,” national banks in New York, Chicago, and St. Louis. In practice, this led to the build-up of reserve balances in New York City. Increased demands for funds in the interior of the country during the autumn harvest season led to substantial outflows of funds from New York, which contributed to tight money market conditions and, sometimes, to panics (Miron 1986).
Attempted Remedies for Banking Crises
Causes of Bank Failures
Bank failures occur when banks are unable to meet the demands of their creditors (in earlier times these were note holders; later on, they were more often depositors). Banks typically do not hold 100 percent of their liabilities in reserves, instead holding some fraction of demandable liabilities in reserves: as long as the flows of funds into and out of the bank are more or less in balance, the bank is in little danger of failing. A withdrawal of deposits that exceeds the bank’s reserves, however, can lead to the banks’ temporary suspension (inability to pay) or, if protracted, failure. The surge in withdrawals can have a variety of causes including depositor concern about the bank’s solvency (ability to pay depositors), as well as worries about other banks’ solvency that lead to a general distrust of all banks.
Bankers and policy makers attempted a number of different responses to banking panics during the National Banking era. One method of dealing with panics was for the bankers of a city to pool their resources, through the local bankers’ clearinghouse and to jointly guarantee the payment of every member banks’ liabilities (see Gorton (1985a, b)).
Another method of coping with panics was deposit insurance. Eight states (Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, Texas, Mississippi, South Dakota, North Dakota, and Washington) adopted deposit insurance systems between 1908 and 1917 (six other states had adopted some form of deposit insurance in the nineteenth century: New York, Vermont, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, and Iowa). These systems were not particularly successful, in part because they lacked diversification: because these systems operated statewide, when a panic fell full force on a state, deposit insurance system did not have adequate resources to handle each and every failure. When the agricultural depression of the 1920s hit, a number of these systems failed (Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation 1988).
Another measure adopted to curtail bank risk-taking, and through risk-taking, bank failures, was double liability (Grossman 2001). Under double liability, shareholders who had invested in banks that failed were liable to lose not only the money they had invested, but could be called on by a bank’s receiver to contribute an additional amount equal to the par value of the shares (hence the term “double liability,” although clearly the loss to the shareholder need not have been double if the par and market values of shares were different). Other states instituted triple liability, where the receiver could call on twice the par value of shares owned. Still others had unlimited liability, while others had single, or regular limited, liability. It was argued that banks with double liability would be more risk averse, since shareholders would be liable for a greater payment if the firm went bankrupt.
By 1870, multiple (i.e., double, triple, and unlimited) liability was already the rule for state banks in eighteen states, principally in the Midwest, New England, and Middle Atlantic regions, as well as for national banks. By 1900, multiple liability was the law for state banks in thirty-two states. By this time, the main pockets of single liability were in the south and west. By 1930, only four states had single liability.
Double liability appears to have been successful (Grossman 2001), at least during less-than-turbulent times. During the 1890-1930 period, state banks in states where banks were subject to double (or triple, or unlimited) liability typically undertook less risk than their counterparts in single (limited) liability states in normal years. However, in years in which bank failures were quite high, banks in multiple liability states appeared to take more risk than their limited liability counterparts. This may have resulted from the fact that legislators in more crisis-prone states were more likely to have already adopted double liability. Whatever its advantages or disadvantages, the Great Depression spelled the end of double liability: by 1941, virtually every state had repealed double liability for state-chartered banks.
The Crisis of 1907 and Founding of the Federal Reserve
The crisis of 1907, which had been brought under control by a coalition of trust companies and other chartered banks and clearing-house members led by J.P. Morgan, led to a reconsideration of the monetary system of the United States. Congress set up the National Monetary Commission (1908-12), which undertook a massive study of the history of banking and monetary arrangements in the United States and in other economically advanced countries.
The eventual result of this investigation was the Federal Reserve Act (1913), which established the Federal Reserve System as the central bank of the US. Unlike other countries that had one central bank (e.g., Bank of England, Bank of France), the Federal Reserve Act provided for a system of between eight and twelve reserve banks (twelve were eventually established under the act, although during debate over the act, some had called for as many as one reserve bank per state). This provision, like the rejection of the first two attempts at a central bank, resulted, in part, from American’s antipathy towards centralized monetary authority. The Federal Reserve was established to manage the monetary affairs of the country, to hold the reserves of banks and to regulate the money supply. At the time of its founding each of the reserve banks had a high degree of independence. As a result of the crises surrounding the Great Depression, Congress passed the Banking Act of 1935, which, among other things, centralized Federal Reserve power (including the power to engage in open market operations) in a Washington-based Board of Governors (and Federal Open Market Committee), relegating the heads of the individual reserve banks to a more consultative role in the operation of monetary policy.
The Goal of an “Elastic Currency”
The stated goals of the Federal Reserve Act were: ” . . . to furnish an elastic currency, to furnish the means of rediscounting commercial paper, to establish a more effective supervision of banking in the United States, and for other purposes.” Furnishing an “elastic currency” was important goal of the act, since none of the components of the money supply (gold and silver certificates, national bank notes) were able to expand or contract particularly rapidly. The inelasticity of the money supply, along with the seasonal fluctuations in money demand had led to a number of the panics of the National Banking era. These panic-inducing seasonal fluctuations resulted from the large flows of money out of New York and other money centers to the interior of the country to pay for the newly harvested crops. If monetary conditions were already tight before the drain of funds to the nation’s interior, the autumnal movement of funds could — and did –precipitate panics.
Growth of the Bankers’ Acceptance Market
The act also fostered the growth of the bankers’ acceptance market. Bankers’ acceptances were essentially short-dated IOUs, issued by banks on behalf of clients that were importing (or otherwise purchasing) goods. These acceptances were sent to the seller who could hold on to them until they matured, and receive the face value of the acceptance, or could discount them, that is, receive the face value minus interest charges. By allowing the Federal Reserve to rediscount commercial paper, the act facilitated the growth of this short-term money market (Warburg 1930, Broz 1997, and Federal Reserve Bank of New York 1998). In the 1920s, the various Federal Reserve banks began making large-scale purchases of US Treasury obligations, marking the beginnings of Federal Reserve open market operations.
The Federal Reserve and State Banking
The establishment of the Federal Reserve did not end the competition between the state and national banking systems. While national banks were required to be members of the new Federal Reserve System, state banks could also become members of the system on equal terms. Further, the Federal Reserve Act, bolstered by the Act of June 21, 1917, ensured that state banks could become member banks without losing any competitive advantages they might hold over national banks. Depending upon the state, state banking law sometimes gave state banks advantages in the areas of branching, trust operations, interlocking managements, loan and investment powers, safe deposit operations, and the arrangement of mergers. Where state banking laws were especially liberal, banks had an incentive to give up their national bank charter and seek admission to the Federal Reserve System as a state member bank.
The McFadden Act (1927) addressed some of the competitive inequalities between state and national banks. It gave national banks charters of indeterminate length, allowing them to compete with state banks for trust business. It expanded the range of permissible investments, including real estate investment and allowed investment in the stock of safe deposit companies. The Act greatly restricted the ability of member banks — whether state or nationally chartered — from opening or maintaining out-of-town branches.
The Great Depression: Panic and Reform
The Great Depression was the longest, most severe economic downturn in the history of the United States. The banking panics of 1930, 1931, and 1933 were the most severe banking disruption ever to hit the United States, with more than one quarter of all banks closing. Data on the number of bank suspensions during this period is presented in Table 3.
Table 3: Bank Suspensions, 1921-33
|Number of Bank Suspensions|
|All Banks||National Banks|
Source: Bremer (1935).
Note: 1933 figures include 4507 non-licensed banks (1400 non-licensed national banks). Non-licensed banks consist of banks operating on a restricted basis or not in operation, but not in liquidation or receivership.
The first banking panic erupted in October 1930. According to Friedman and Schwartz (1963, pp. 308-309), it began with failures in Missouri, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Arkansas, and North Carolina and quickly spread to other areas of the country. Friedman and Schwartz report that 256 banks with $180 million of deposits failed in November 1930, while 352 banks with over $370 million of deposits failed in the following month (the largest of which was the Bank of United States which failed on December 11 with over $200 million of deposits). The second banking panic began in March of 1931 and continued into the summer. The third and final panic began at the end of 1932 and persisted into March of 1933. During the early months of 1933, a number of states declared banking holidays, allowing banks to close their doors and therefore freeing them from the requirement to redeem deposits. By the time President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was inaugurated on March 4, 1933, state-declared banking holidays were widespread. The following day, the president declared a national banking holiday.
Beginning on March 13, the Secretary of the Treasury began granting licenses to banks to reopen for business.
Federal Deposit Insurance
The crises led to the implementation of several major reforms in banking. Among the most important of these was the introduction of federal deposit insurance under the Banking (Glass-Steagall) Act of 1933. Originally an explicitly temporary program, the Act established the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (the FDIC was made permanent by the Banking Act of 1935); insurance became effective January 1, 1934. Member banks of the Federal Reserve (which included all national banks) were required to join FDIC. Within six months, 14,000 out of 15,348 commercial banks, representing 97 percent of bank deposits had subscribed to federal deposit insurance (Friedman and Schwartz, 1963, 436-437). Coverage under the initial act was limited to a maximum of $2500 of deposits for each depositor. Table 4 documents the increase in the limit from the act’s inception until 1980, when it reached its current $100,000 level.
Table 4: FDIC Insurance Limit
Additional Provisions of the Glass-Steagall Act
An important goal of the New Deal reforms was to enhance the stability of the banking system. Because the involvement of commercial banks in securities underwriting was seen as having contributed to banking instability, the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933 forced the separation of commercial and investment banking. Additionally, the Acts (1933 for member banks, 1935 for other insured banks) established Regulation Q, which forbade banks from paying interest on demand deposits (i.e., checking accounts) and established limits on interest rates paid to time deposits. It was argued that paying interest on demand deposits introduced unhealthy competition.
Recent Responses to New Deal Banking Laws
In a sense, contemporary debates on banking policy stem largely from the reforms of the post-Depression era. Although several of the reforms introduced in the wake of the 1931-33 crisis have survived into the twenty-first century, almost all of them have been subject to intense scrutiny in the last two decades. For example, several court decisions, along with the Financial Services Modernization Act (Gramm-Leach-Bliley) of 1999, have blurred the previously strict separation between different financial service industries (particularly, although not limited to commercial and investment banking).
The Savings and Loan crisis of the 1980s, resulting from a combination of deposit insurance-induced moral hazard and deregulation, led to the dismantling of the Depression-era Federal Savings and Loan Insurance Corporation (FSLIC) and the transfer of Savings and Loan insurance to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation.
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 The two exceptions were the First and Second Banks of the United States. The First Bank, which was chartered by Congress at the urging of Alexander Hamilton, in 1791, was granted a 20-year charter, which Congress allowed to expire in 1811. The Second Bank was chartered just five years after the expiration of the first, but Andrew Jackson vetoed the charter renewal in 1832 and the bank ceased to operate with a national charter when its 20-year charter expired in 1836. The US remained without a central bank until the founding of the Federal Reserve in 1914. Even then, the Fed was not founded as one central bank, but as a collection of twelve regional reserve banks. American suspicion of concentrated financial power has not been limited to central banking: in contrast to the rest of the industrialized world, twentieth century US banking was characterized by large numbers of comparatively small, unbranched banks.
 The relationship between the enactment of the National Bank Acts and the Civil War was perhaps even deeper. Hugh Rockoff suggested the following to me: “There were western states where the banking system was in trouble because the note issue was based on southern bonds, and people in those states were looking to the national government to do something. There were also conservative politicians who were afraid that they wouldn’t be able to get rid of the greenback (a perfectly uniform [government issued wartime] currency) if there wasn’t a private alternative that also promised uniformity…. It has even been claimed that by setting up a national system, banks in the South were undermined — as a war measure.”
 Eichengreen (1984) argues that regional mortgage interest rate differentials resulted from differences in risk.
 There is some debate over the direction of causality between banking crises and economic downturns. According to monetarists Friedman and Schwartz (1963) and Cagan (1965), the monetary contraction associated with bank failures magnifies real economic downturns. Bernanke (1983) argues that bank failures raise the cost of credit intermediation and therefore have an effect on the real economy through non-monetary channels. An alternative view, articulated by Sprague (1910), Fisher (1933), Temin (1976), Minsky (1982), and Kindleberger (1978), maintains that bank failures and monetary contraction are primarily a consequence, rather than a cause, of sluggishness in the real economy which originates in non-monetary sources. See Grossman (1993) for a summary of this literature.
 See Calomiris and Gorton (1991) for an alternative view.
 See Mishkin (1991) on asymmetric information and financial crises.
 Still other states had “voluntary liability,” whereby each bank could choose single or double liability.
 See Dewald (1972) on the National Monetary Commission.
 Miron (1986) demonstrates the decline in the seasonality of interest rates following the founding of the Fed.
 Other Fed activities included check clearing.
 According to Kent (1963, pp. 48), starting in 1922 the Comptroller allowed national banks to open “offices” to receive deposits, cash checks, and receive applications for loans in head office cities of states that allowed state-chartered banks to establish branches.
 Prior to 1922, national bank charters had lives of only 20 years. This severely limited their ability to compete with state banks in the trust business. (Kent 1963, p. 49)
 National banks were subject to more severe limitations on lending than most state banks. These restrictions included a limit on the amount that could be loaned to one borrower as well as limitations on real estate lending. (Kent 1963, pp. 50-51)
 Although the Bank Consolidation Act of 1918 provided for the merger of two or more national banks, it made no provision for the merger of a state and national bank. Kent (1963, p. 51).
 References touching on banking and financial aspects of the Great Depression in the United States include Friedman and Schwartz (1963), Temin (1976, 1989), Kindleberger (1978), Bernanke (1983), Eichangreen (1992), and Bordo, Goldin, and White (1998).
 During this period, the failures of the Credit-Anstalt, Austria’s largest bank, and the Darmstädter und Nationalbank (Danat Bank), a large German bank, inaugurated the beginning of financial crisis in Europe. The European financial crisis led to Britain’s suspension of the gold standard in September 1931. See Grossman (1994) on the European banking crisis of 1931. The best source on the gold standard in the interwar years is Eichengreen (1992).
 Interestingly, federal deposit insurance was made optional for savings and loan institutions at about the same time. The majority of S&L’s did not elect to adopt deposit insurance until after 1950. See Grossman (1992).
 See, however, White (1986) for
Citation: Grossman, Richard. “US Banking History, Civil War to World War II”. EH.Net Encyclopedia, edited by Robert Whaples. March 16, 2008. URL