First Bank of the United States

Color photo showing two-story marble building with multiple columns supporting a triangular pediment.
The First Bank of the United States was at the center of an argument over the interpretation of the U.S. Constitution.

NPS photo

 

After the Revolutionary War, the United States faced overwhelming debt and an uncertain commercial future. As a response, Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton stepped forward with a plan to establish a national bank, which would give the federal government more authority to handle the fiscal situation. His proposal incited a heated debate that tested the U.S. Constitution’s boundaries and laid the foundation for the country’s financial system. Located on 3rd Street between Walnut and Chestnut, the First Bank of the United States is currently closed to the public, but its compelling history and stunning exterior continually draw observers from all over the world.

Constitutional Debates

Among the plan’s most vocal opponents was Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson advocated for a strict interpretation of the U.S. Constitution, which didn’t explicitly state that the federal government could create a national bank. On the other hand, Hamilton argued, the Constitution also didn’t prohibit the formation of such a bank. Even after both the House and the Senate approved the bill, Jefferson urged President Washington to veto it. Instead, Washington gave Hamilton a week to address Jefferson’s arguments. Hamilton delivered a 15,000-word rebuttal that swayed Washington.

Bank Business

Congress gave the Bank of the United States, now commonly known as the First Bank, a 20-year charter that started in December 1791. The bank did not dictate fiscal policy, but it still wielded great influence over the country’s finances. The banknotes issued by the First Bank gave the U.S. the closest thing to a national currency at a time when each state could print its own banknotes. First Bank notes were also the only ones accepted when paying federal taxes, which the First Bank was in charge of collecting. It also worked to pay the government’s bills, including much of the debt left over from the Revolutionary War. The House opted not to renew the bank's charter when it expired in 1811. Five years later, President James Madison signed a bill establishing the Second Bank of the United States.


The Building

When the bank first opened in 1791, it was initially housed in Carpenters’ Hall on Chestnut Street, but it moved into a magnificent new home on South Third Street six years later. Designed by architect Samuel Blodgett, Jr., the new bank headquarters consisted of a three-story brick building with a blue marble façade. After the First Bank closed, the building housed Girard Bank, founded by Philadelphia merchant Stephen Girard. Girard Bank officials had the building’s interior remodeled in 1902. In 1955, the National Park Service procured the First Bank building. Today, it houses park offices and is closed to the public, though the exterior remains a popular spot for photo-ops.

Last updated: October 18, 2016

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