Day By Day

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

The Second Bank

Recently "She Who Must Not Be Named" and I spent a couple of days in Philadelphia's historical district. The room where we stayed was right across the street from this building. Looking out the window I was reminded that back in 1842 Charles Dickens had enjoyed the same view I did. He recorded his impressions in his American Notes:

Looking out of my chamber-window, before going to bed, I saw, on the opposite side of the way, a handsome building of white marble, which had a mournful ghost-like aspect, dreary to behold. I attributed this to the sombre influence of the night, and on rising in the morning looked out again, expecting to see its steps and portico thronged with groups of people passing in and out. The door was still tight shut, however; the same cold cheerless air prevailed: and the building looked as if the marble statue of Don Guzman could alone have any business to transact within its gloomy walls. I hastened to inquire its name and purpose, and then my surprise vanished. It was the Tomb of many fortunes; the Great Catacomb of investment; the memorable United States Bank.

The stoppage of this bank, with all its ruinous consequences, had cast (as I was told on every side) a gloom on Philadelphia, under the depressing effect of which it yet laboured. It certainly did seem rather dull and out of spirits.

The collapse of the Second Bank of the United States, or "Biddle's Bank" as it was popularly known, was one of the great financial disasters to afflict the early republic. It was caused by the actions of President Andrew Jackson. Historians today still argue as to whether Jackson's "War On the Bank" was justified and what its effects were. As I gazed out on the building I was struck by the similarities between Jackson's justifications for destroying the Bank and the rhetoric issuing from some of today's presidential candidates.

For a left-wing, pro-Jackson treatment of the Bank controversy see Sean Wilentz' The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln (2005).

For a more moderate and balanced view that is critical of Jackson check out Dan Howe's What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848 (2007).