First Bank of the United States

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What happened here:

Place name: First Bank of the United States building

Location: 116 S. 3rd Street, Philadelphia, Pennslyvania

Event in Hamilton's life: The Bank of the United States (BUS), which was active during its 20 year charter (1791-1811), completed this building for its operations between 1795 and 1797. The BUS was the brainchild of Alexander Hamilton, who wrote a report outlining its function and structure, and then defended its constitutionality in order to have the bank bill signed into law.

Get the details: Alexander Hamilton understood early on the importance of a national bank for the fledgling thirteen states. As an aide-de-camp to George Washington during the Revolutionary War, he witnessed the difficulties placed on the national government under the Articles of Confederation. In 1780, at age 23, Hamilton wrote a letter to Robert Morris, who was known as the "Finacier of the Revolution." In the letter, Hamilton encouraged an establishment of a national bank to allow for the financing, raising capital, and better managing the nation's finances. Morris at the time was in the process of establishing such a bank, and a few months later, the Bank of North America was officially formed. Though it did not have capitalization rates at the levels that Hamilton had proposed, it was still the first bank on the North American continent and provided a source of capital for the thirteen colonies.

Alexander Hamilton developed further experience with banking when he founded the Bank of New York in 1784, shortly after the Revolutionary War had ended. However, he saw the importance in a national bank to regulate the federal government's finances and provide stablity for the nation as a whole.

As Secretary of the Treasury, Hamilton wrote several reports that were delivered to Congress to be considered for legislation. His "Report on the Establishment of a National Bank," was delivered to Congress on December 13, 1790. In the report, Hamilton outlined the structure for a national bank. Hamilton determined several functions for the bank; "to issue paper money (also called banknotes or currency), provide a safe place to keep public funds, offer banking facilities for commercial transactions, and act as the government’s fiscal agent, including collecting the government’s tax revenues."¹ He further believed that all of these fuctions would help generate capital that would help the US grow and rebuild following the economic turmoil of the 1770s and 1780s.

Though the bill for the bank passed in both the House and the Senate, there were strong opponents to a national bank. Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson and Attorney General Edmund Randolph both advised President George Washington to veto the bill, expressing concerns over the constitutionality of a national bank. Washington came to Hamilton with these concerns and asked for own opinion; Hamilton reviewed the arguments of Jefferson and Randolph and a week later churned out a rebuttul of over 13,000 words. In his "Opinion on the Constitutionality of an Act to Establish a Bank," Hamilton explains that a national bank is consistitutional as it allowed the national government to carry out the tasks laid out in the Constitution - described as a "loose-interpretation" of the Constitution's implied powers. Washington was convinced by Hamilton's extensive arguments and signed the bank bill into law. 

The 20-year charter for the Bank of the United States was officially granted on February 25, 1791. Unlike the bank of England, which was owned completely by the government, the US government would only have 20% ownership of the bank - the other 80% made up of private ownership. This structure was specifically choosen so that the bank operations would resist political pressures while still having oversight by and accountability to the national government. 

The Bank of the United States began running operations in December 1791 in Carpenters Hall in Philadelphia before it moved to its own building in 1797. The First Bank building was designed by Samuel Blodget, Jr., who was the "Superintendent of Buildings" for the in-progress capital being constructed in Washington, D.C. The three-story bank building is made from brick with a marble facade in the front entrance. It "was probably the first important building with a classic facade of marble to be erected in the United States."²

When the 20-year charter for the bank expired without being renewed (defeated by one vote in each chamber of Congress), the First Bank closed its doors on March 3, 1811. The bank building was then used for another bank, the Girard Bank, until 1926. As a result of the country's experience in the War of 1812 and financial downturns, a Second Bank of the United States was chartered in 1816, but was housed in its own building one block away from the First Bank building. Today, both bank buildings are part of the Independence National Historic Park.

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How to Visit:

The First Bank of the United States building is a part of Independence National Historic Park and is maintained by the National Park Service. The interior is not currently open to the public, but its beautiful marble facade may be admired from S. 3rd Street.

The First Bank Restoration Project is underway to restore and reopen the building to the public. More information on this project will be shared soon!

Next to the bank building remains the foundation of the US Treasury offices that Alexander Hamilton worked in from 1790-1795.

Visiting Information: 

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