Balance Sheets of the Bank of the United States

The Bank of the United States was the closest the United States came to having a central bank before establishing the Federal Reserve System. What was later called the First Bank of the United States operated from 1791 until its charter lapsed in 1811. The bank established a nationwide network of branches to help the federal government, its largest customer, transfer funds across the country. It was the only U.S. bank with a nationwide branch network until the 1990s. After bad experience without a national bank during the War of 1812, the federal government chartered what was termed the Second Bank of the United States in 1816. When its charter lapsed in 1836, the bank continued as the United States Bank of Pennsylvania, which failed in 1841 following recessions and financial panics. In all of its incarnations, its headquarters was in Philadelphia and it was the largest bank in the United States.

With three former students of CFS Special Counselor Steve Hanke, I have gathered the balance sheets of the Bank of the United States into a working paper and accompanying spreadsheet file that should be useful for anyone interested in the quantitative study of the financial system during the early years of the Republic. Adil Javat gathered data for the First Bank of the United States, George Gulino gathered data for the Second Bank, and Zackary Baker gathered data for the U.S. Bank of Pennsylvania. Javat and Baker previously published their data and analysis in working papers for Hanke’s Institute for Applied Economics, Global Health, and the Study of Business Enterprise. I filled in a number of holes that remained in their data. The joint working paper is a data paper only, with no analysis. (Here is the link to the whole working paper series: Javat’s paper is no. 74, Baker’s paper is no. 101, and the joint paper is no. 132. Gulino’s paper is unpublished.)

I see two lines of follow-on research that could be worthwhile for somebody else to do, since we lack the time and interest for them. One is to examine the relationships among the far-flung branches of the Second Bank and the U.S. Bank of Pennsylvania for clues about differences in regional financial development. Our paper digitizes the overall balance sheet for the Second Bank and the U.S. Bank of Pennsylvania, but the financial statements also show many important balance sheet items for individual branches, which we did not digitize. (Javat did digitize the branch data from the First Bank, which were far less extensive hence not unreasonably time-consuming for a student term paper.)

The second line of research concerns the liquidation of the U.S. Bank of Pennsylvania after it failed in 1841. The bankruptcy was possibly the largest ever in relation to the size of the U.S. economy. It lasted 15 years, at the end of which creditors were paid in full, though shareholders received nothing. There does not seem to be even any cursory scholarly summary of the bankruptcy proceedings. If adequate records exist, it could be a fascinating case study from the legal, economic, and possibly political angles alike. Nicholas Biddle, the sometime president of the Bank of the United States, destroyed many of its internal documents, but perhaps a trawl through court archives and newspapers will uncover records from which to write an informative account.

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