Bank of North America: America’s first bank

This article will conclude my national banks “race to the first”…kind of.

Earlier we explored banks who were first to receive the first national charter starting from the West Coast, moving to the East. This time I’ll explore the first national bank chartered in all of the United States.

To set the stage, remember that Philadelphia was historically the major Colonial financial center. This is why our Declaration of Independence was authored and signed in Philadelphia and why Philadelphia served as our young nation’s first capital city.

Bank of North America note (Click for larger image in a new window)During the Revolutionary War, Robert Morris, a Philadelphia businessman and our nation’s Superintendent of Finance, decided to form the first bank. He petitioned the Continental Congress for authorization and gained a charter on December 31, 1781. Morris’ goal was to satisfy the financial needs of our national government, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and Philadelphia merchants.

While raising $400,000 of capital to fund the new enterprise, Morris received subscriptions from a wide swath of present period leaders. Names of founding stockholders read like a list of our Founding Fathers: Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, James Monroe, John Jay, and John Paul Jones. (Isn’t it interesting that the first four names have all been featured on U.S. currency?) Also note that Alexander Hamilton would later go on to start the Bank of New York in 1784, and serve as our nation’s first Secretary of Treasury!

Upon considering where to locate the first offices of the Bank of North America, Robert Morris selected the store of Tench Francis on Chestnut Street in Philadelphia, a fellow merchant and agent for the William Penn family. Operations started on January 7, 1782, a mere week after having received its charter. Tench Francis also served as the bank’s first Cashier, a position similar to today’s CEO.

Rite of bills: Founders on moneyFollowing its opening, there was some question as to whether the Continental Congress had proper authority to grant a banking license, so the conservative management sought a duplicate charter from Pennsylvania three months later.

Very quickly, the Bank of North America gained a reputation for prudent, fair business dealings. While other banks would be founded in New York and Boston in 1784, in Providence in 1791 and in Baltimore in 1795, the Bank of North America was viewed as the primary bank in America at the end of the 18th century. When Thomas Jefferson wrote a draft for $100, he simply addressed it “to the Cashier at the Bank.” It was understood that “The Bank” was the Bank of North America.

The Bank of North America provided badly needed financing to our early government during the Revolution including $80,000 to the State of Pennsylvania. Then during the War of 1812, the Bank of North America provided $650,000 emergency loan to the Federal Government. And during the Civil War, the Bank of North America provided over $4,500,000 in credit to the Federal Government.

"Poor Richard" as he appears todayCongress returned a favor to the Bank of North America in 1864 when The Bank was given special approval to seek a national bank charter without changing its name. While this may seem insignificant, every other national bank has always been required to include the word “National” in its formal name.

When I visited New York as a kid, I thought the “N.A.” in “Citibank, N.A.” stood for North America, meaning its operations in North America as opposed to its global operations. The N.A. actually stands for “National Association,” meaning a national charter. The Bank of North America received national charter #602 on December 8, 1864.

You may ask how this organization relates to Wells Fargo. Well, The Bank of North America continued to prosper using its original name until it merged in 1929 with the Pennsylvania Company for Insurances on Lives to form the Bank of North America and Trust Company. This institution then merged with the First National Bank of Philadelphia in 1955 to form The First Pennsylvania Banking and Trust Company. And this firm became Corestates which was acquired by First Union, which became Wachovia Bank.

So you see, this bank’s proud heritage and its founding stockholders are now part of Wells Fargo’s family!

Federalist paper: Founders on moneyOh, and remember the bank’s first Cashier, Tench Francis? I immediately recognized his name as the founding father of the U.S. Navy Supply Corps. In 1795 President Washington selected him to centralize all the Navy Pursers as the first Purveyor of Public Supplies for the United States Navy. Given that I’m a Supply Corps officer, I was tickled to see both his name and John Paul Jones as part of our Wells Fargo lineage!

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10 Responses to Bank of North America: America’s first bank

  1. Hack says:

    Supply Corp!!! Bobo, another fascinating featurette. Seriously, write the book. I’m tired of waiting.

  2. Anonymous says:

    America may have talent, but the Navy has Bobo!!

  3. Juan - Museum Manager L.A. says:

    Again, great research. Ill be waiting for the next installment. Thanks for the post.

  4. Wilson says:

    Excellent write-up! Funny how all banks lead to Wells.

  5. 4xtra says:

    MODERATOR’S NOTE: Just so you know, we removed a URL from 4xtra’s comment in accordance with our Comment Guidelines. Nothing else has been changed or altered in any way!

  6. Annie says:

    Would like to use some excerpts with accreditation given for the article on the The Bank of North America, history, etc., for my family newsletter. My ancestor worked as an accomptant there about 1798-early 1800s.
    Thank you.

  7. Guest says:

    As a history major, I disagree with your opinion that Philadelphia was the Colonial major financial center and the reasons why our nation was founded there. Boston was what New York is today during the Colonial Period. However, after the “Trade Act of 1774”- which closed the Port of Boston, as well as put the city under a form of Marshall Law- merchants and our Founding Fathers settled upon Philadelphia to meet and conduct business.

  8. LW Chandler says:

    Hi! Great article. I was wondering where you found the information regarding Franklin, Jefferson, et. all subscribing? Might I trouble you for the source?
    Thank you,

  9. Guest 2 says:

    Uhhh “guest history major” there is a great book by Robert E. Wright called The First Wall Street, Chestnut Street, Philadelphia, that shows beyond any shadow of a doubt that Philly was the colonial financial center after 1750/60 at the latest.

  10. Peggy Fleener says:

    Robert Morris is was my 5th great grand father. Proud!

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