Bank of the United States

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Bank of the United States

The American Revolutionary War resulted in the emergence of a new country faced with the task of establishing a fundamental basis for government embodying the principles of freedom for which the colonists had fought. The need for a sound financial system was most urgent, and this was remedied by the creation of the First Bank of the United States in 1791.

Alexander Hamilton, first U.S. secretary of the treasury, devised the original plan for the bank. It was argued that the Constitution did not empower Congress to institute such a bank, and that the bank was partial to commercial interests as opposed to those of farmers. Congress, nonetheless, endorsed the passage of the bank's charter.

The bank, located in Philadelphia, began with assets of $10 million, one-fifth of this money furnished by the federal government, the remainder provided by outside investors. Its affairs were administered by twenty-five directors. The bank's powers were limited to commercial enterprises, and loans were processed at six percent interest. The first bank performed well, but renewal of its charter in 1811 was thwarted by the argument against its constitutionality and by the opposition of agricultural workers. The First Bank of the United States closed for business in 1811 with a profit.

The need for a second national bank became apparent in 1816, after the War of 1812 catapulted the country into a financial crisis. However, the constitutionality of such a bank was still in dispute. In mcculloch v. maryland, the Supreme Court, in an opinion by Chief Justice John Marshall, held that Congress possessed the authority to create a national bank and that the states lacked the power to tax it (17 U.S. [4 Wheat.] 316, 4 L. Ed. 579 [1819]).

The new bank began on a grander scale, with capital amounting to $35 million. For the first three years it tottered on the verge of disaster under the mismanagement of its chief administrator, William Jones. When Jones left the bank in 1819, Langdon Cheeves assumed his duties, and the bank became sound. By the time Nicholas Biddle became president in 1823, the bank was functioning efficiently, and it remained a reliable system of finance for the next ten years.

In 1832, Biddle requested renewal of the charter, which was due to expire in 1836. The bank again met opposition by those who believed it had become too powerful. President Andrew Jackson led the opposition, and the controversy became an issue in his presidential election campaign in 1832 against Henry Clay. Clay, an advocate of the bank, had encouraged Biddle to apply for the charter renewal earlier than necessary.

The reelection of Andrew Jackson sounded the death knell for the Second Bank of the United States. He rejected the renewal of the charter and in 1833 deposited federal monies into selected state banks, termed "pet banks." The loss of federal funds greatly crippled the effectiveness of the bank, and it closed in 1836, the year its charter expired.

Further readings

Brown, Marion A. 1998. The Second Bank of the United States and Ohio, 1803–1860: A Collision of Interests. Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen.

Cowen, David Jack. 2000. The Origins and Economic Impact of the First Bank of the United States, 1791-1797. New York: Garland.


Banks and Banking.

West's Encyclopedia of American Law, edition 2. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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