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Published by EH.NET (November 2001)

Robert E. Wright, The Origins of Commercial Banking in America,

1750-1800. London and New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2001. xii

+ 219 pp. $65 (cloth), ISBN: 0-7425-2086-2; $24.95 (paperback), ISBN:

0-7425-2087-0.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Edwin J. Perkins, Professor of History, emeritus,

University of Southern California.

Robert Wright has written a highly original book that merits our attention.

First, he overlaps the late colonial period and the first decade of the early

national era — an uncommon periodization for financial historians. Previous

authors typically have covered either the colonial period or the national

period, not both. Second, Wright approaches the subject mainly from an

economic perspective rather than from a political angle. Earlier writers have

been mostly concerned with the public policy ramifications of legislative

debates over financial matters, and they have been less concerned with the

impact of financial legislation on the economy. Trained as a historian but

employed for several years in the economics department of the University of

Virginia, Wright has a unique academic profile. That interdisciplinary

background has enabled him to generate an analysis of critical financial

issues during this era that is unmatched by any of his predecessors. For

economists, in particular, this volume stands as the new starting point for

gaining an understanding of the evolution of U.S. commercial banking.

Wright focuses throughout on the perpetual demand for improved liquidity. The

colonial economy had no active private banks. Likewise, there was no uniform

currency since the British had forbidden the establishment of a colonial mint.

As a result, most of the coinage in circulation originated in Spain’s colonial

empire in the Western Hemisphere. The paper currency issues of the various

colonial legislatures supplemented these hard monies. Capital markets in the

colonies were non-existent or thin. Only Massachusetts had a public debt that

was privately held and occasionally traded. The whole financial system was

institutionally immature. A huge percentage of the outstanding colonial

mercantile debt could be traced back to the London money market. Colonial

merchants did make use of domestic and foreign bills of exchange, but it was

nearly impossible to convert these financial instruments into cash during

periods of stringency. While the financial system was sufficiently functional

to support steady increases in the size of the colonial economy (primarily due

to population growth), its overall performance was less than optimal.

Liquidity was sorely lacking. Merchants, family farmers, great planters, and

artisans all sought some form of institutional relief.

Parliamentary regulations and the negative attitudes of distant British

administrators who were responsible for colonial affairs discouraged private

initiatives. Colonial leaders from South Carolina to New England periodically

sought legislative permission to create banks of one variety or another, but

none of these attempts produced anything sustainable. Wright covers these

early efforts in a fair amount of detail. He views these abortive efforts as

legitimate antecedents of the private commercial banks that emerged after

1780.

After the achievement of independence, the new nation began to experiment with

modern commercial banking. Luckily, these experiments, which aroused much

public debate and legislative controversy at the state and federal levels,

almost immediately led to the creation of viable institutions. I say “luckily”

because the effort to create similar institutions in many other emerging

nations over the last two centuries has produced numerous tragic missteps.

The Bank of North America, the brainchild of Robert Morris, the famous

treasurer of the confederation government, became the prime model for all

subsequent commercial banks. It issued currency supported by adequate specie

reserves, accepted deposits, discounted mercantile notes, and turned a

respectable profit for investors. Other commercial banks operating under state

charters began to multiply. The problem of illiquidity in the U.S. economy was

steadily alleviated thereafter. The national government created the Bank of

the United States, which was the largest economic unit in the economy

throughout its twenty-year life span. Commercial banks were the pillars and

catalysts for the expansion of the U.S. economy from 1790 forward. We are

finally coming to the realization, thanks largely to the contributions of

Richard Sylla and his collaborators, that improvements in financial services

preceded advancements in agriculture, transportation, and industry.

For his discussion of events after 1780, Wright draws most of his information

from a careful analysis of banking in Pennsylvania and New York. His

conclusions contrast at many points with Naomi Lamoreaux’s study of New

England banking during the same period. In her research, Lamoreaux found that

commercial banks were typically closely held; the major investors dominated

the board of directors and made numerous insider loans to themselves. Wright

has found a different pattern in the middle Atlantic region. These banks had a

larger capitalization and a broader ownership. They made loans mainly to

depositors, not owners, and the occupations of borrowers varied — from

merchants to farmers to artisans. As much as I admire Wright’s detailed

discussion of the development of the commercial banking system, I would have

gone about this project in a different manner — not necessarily better, but

different and complementary. Since I have been working in this subfield for

decades, I offer my own admittedly biased opinions without apology.

Whereas Wright concentrates on the demand for liquidity, I would have

celebrated the supply side of the equation. I am not convinced that the

colonial demand for liquidity was any different than the persistent demands of

thousands of urban merchants in past civilizations. I take the demand for

superior financial services as a given — a truism. What was astonishingly

different in the eighteenth century was the institutional response in the new

United States. Borrowing piecemeal from the example of a handful of British

private bankers and the singular Bank of England, the first generation of

independent Americans were imaginative and prudent institutional innovators.

Despite their strategic differences, Hamiltonians and Jeffersonians both

wanted a successful financial system — if only to prove to a skeptical world

that a republican form of government could survive and indeed thrive

financially as well as politically.

I also wish Wright had cited the public loan offices created by the colonial

legislatures as the prime forerunners of the modern commercial bank. Across

the Atlantic Ocean, advocates of land banks had tried for centuries to gain

the attention and approval of the ruling classes. Their proposed land banks

were designed to offer loans to citizens with real estate as collateral. None

of these European schemes proved viable. But in English North America, land

banks in the middle colonies (but not in New England) operated successfully

for decades. They made loans to a wide swath of landholders; they experienced

few losses; and they generated substantial interest revenue for their

provincial legislatures. Their issues of paper currency were retired at their

original purchasing-power values; depreciation was not a serious problem. The

Pennsylvania legislature imposed no new taxes for decades because interest

income from the loan office covered its modest annual expenses. True, the loan

offices did not accept deposits and did not discount mercantile paper, but

they succeeded over a long period of time, whereas similar efforts in all

other contemporary societies had failed. The colonial land offices were

remarkable enterprises for their era and deserve more recognition as emulative

institutional models.

My third friendly amendment relates to the coverage of the Bank of the United

States. Wright just does not devote sufficient space to this novel

institution. It too was highly innovative. Unlike the Bank of England, its

main customers after 1795 were private citizens, not governments. It possessed

branch offices in major port cities. As David Cowen has recently argued, the

BUS in tandem with the U.S. Treasury Department acted very much like a modern

central bank. Fourthly, Wright might have cited the recent work of Glenn

Crothers on commercial banking in northern Virginia in the 1790s. I had better

stop here with my recommended additions or I might be roundly accused of

criticizing the author for not writing the book I had envisioned rather than

the book he chose to write. By revising the analytical model for all subsequent

historians who embark on an examination of the origins of U.S. commercial

banking, Robert Wright has made a major scholarly contribution. The supply

side innovations did not occur in a vacuum, Wright reminds us; they came about

because thousands of participants in the eighteenth-century economy desired

increased levels of liquidity. If the author has gone slightly overboard to

prove a valid point, he has done so in a noble cause.

Edwin J. Perkins has written extensively about financial history. His books

include American Public Finance and Financial Services, 1700-1815 (Ohio

State University Press, 1994). His most recent publication is Wall Street

to Main Street: Charles Merrill and Middle Class Investors (Cambridge

University Press, 1999).