First United States Bank


Besides the questions of urgency, such as the provision of a  revenue, the establishment of an effective administration of finance, and the satisfaction of the government's creditors, there were other financial problems which early engaged the attention of Congress. In part these were inspired by Hamilton, who had definite convictions on the proper relation of government to finance, and in part they were due to new and unforeseen demands on the treasury.

Hamilton was convinced that a national bank would be an important factor in the improvement of national credit. Little in the previous experience of the country gave encouragement to such a project. During the Revolutionary period several banking propositions had been discussed, and as a result in the decade 1780-1790 three institutions had been established,  the Bank of North America, originally chartered by Congress in 1781 at the suggestion of Robert Morris; the Bank of New York, organized in 1784; and the Massachusetts Bank. Hamilton had already shown his interest in the subject by co-operating in the founding of the Bank of New York, for which he drafted the articles of association. On December 13, 1790, within a few months of his induction into office, he presented an elaborate document in favor of a federal bank. After rapidly reviewing some precedents in the history of other countries he sums up the advantages which would be derived from such an institution: First, there would be an increase of actual capital by an enlargement of notes in circulation, by providing greater use of individual notes of hand,  and by a gathering up of individual deposits; second, the bank would make it easier for the government to obtain loans;  and, third, it would make it easier for the individual to pay his taxes to the government, since he would have a greater opportunity to borrow, and there would be an increase and quickening of the circulation of money. Hamilton enumerated and discussed the possible economic disadvantages, such as increase of usury; interference with other kinds of lending; temptation to overtrading; disturbance of the natural course of trade; fictitious credit to bankrupts; and banishment of gold and silver from the country. The report closed with an outline of a constitution of a bank. In the congressional debate which followed, the opposition dwelt less upon the commercial and fiscal merits and demerits of a bank than upon the charges that a bank would be a monopoly inconsistent with a free republic.

After the debate seemed about at an end, it was renewed with much vigor on the question of constitutionality. Madison recalled that the Constitutional Convention of 1787 had rejected the insertion of a power to Congress to grant charters of incorporation, and roundly attacked the whole idea, asserting that " It appeared on the whole that the power exercised by the bill was condemned by the silence of the Constitution ; was condemned by the rule of interpretation arising out of the Constitution; was condemned by its tendency to destroy the main characteristics of the Constitution; was condemned by the expositions of the friends of the Constitution whilst depending before the people; was condemned by the apparent intentions of the parties which ratified the Constitution; was condemned by the explanatory amendments proposed by Congress themselves to the Constitution."

The bill passed the House by a sectional vote of 39 to 20 ; in the negative there was only one vote north of Maryland, and in the affirmative but three south of that State. Washington was in doubt as to approving the bill, and asked his cabinet advisers for written opinions on its constitutionality. Randolph, the attorney-general, and Jefferson, secretary of state, submitted adverse opinions, which were then presented to Hamilton for examination. Hamilton's opinion is one of his ablest papers; it not only solved the president's doubts, but it furnished an arsenal of argument to be drawn upon in the future for a generous interpretation of the Constitution.

The charter provided for a capital stock of $10,000,000, of which one-fifth was to be subscribed by the government; the remainder was open to public subscription, one-fourth to be paid in specie and three-fourths in government stock bearing 6 per cent, interest. The government subscription was to be borrowed from the bank, payable in ten annual installments, or sooner if the government should think fit; the note issues of the bank were limited by the provision that all debts should not exceed the deposits by more than $10,000,000, and they were receivable for all payments to the United States ; the establishment of branches was authorized according as the directors might deem proper; and periodical statements of the bank's condition might be called for by the secretary of the treasury. The charter was to run for twenty years, and in the mean time the government pledged itself to grant no other bank charter. Capital was secured without difficulty, and the central bank was opened at Philadelphia, December 12, 1791, followed by the establishment of eight branches, at Boston, New York, Baltimore, Washington, Norfolk, Charleston, Savannah, and New Orleans.

In a history of government finance the chief interest in the experience of the United States Bank lies in the assistance which the bank rendered to the government treasury. In the first place the bank lent the $2,000,000 contemplated in the charter and speedily supplemented this aid by other loans made  in anticipation of taxes. As revenue in these early years was uncertain, and expenditures increased out of proportion, the government had a valuable advantage ; but unfortunately it proved difficult to discharge the obligation which had been so easily incurred, and by 1796 the debt to the bank had increased to $6,200,000. The bank then became insistent upon payment because of its own needs, and the government sold a portion of its stock in 1796-1797 ; as financial pressure still continued, by 1802 it parted with all its holdings. The sales showed a profit, yielding a premium of $671,860. In addition the government during its ownership received dividends of $1,101,720, or about 8 3/8 per cent, annually. As compared with the payments made by the government to the bank for its loan, the original investment netted a handsome profit.

The second fiscal service which the bank rendered to the government was in caring for its funds. As the government depended for its revenue almost entirely upon customs duties, collected at ports extending along a seaboard of thousands of miles, it would have been difficult for the treasury department in the early years of its existence to have made the necessary transfers, and as yet there were but few local banking institutions which could have been chosen for depositories. The bank and its branches, however, did not have the exclusive privilege of government deposits. In 1811, even before rechartering was refused, at least eleven local banks were employed, of which eight were in the eastern section of the country; and the private depositories had the custody of one- third of the public deposits.


Website: The History
Article Name: First United States Bank
Researcher/Transcriber Miriam Medina


BIBLIOGRAPHY: Financial history of the United States by Davis Rich Dewey, PH.D., LL.D., Fourth Edition; Longmans, Green, and Co. 1912
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