The Bank of the United States was established in 1791 to serve as a repository for federal funds and as the government’s fiscal agent. Initially proposed by Alexander Hamilton, the First Bank was granted a twenty-year charter by Congress in spite of the opposition of the Jeffersonians to whom it represented the dominance of mercantile over agrarian interests and an unconstitutional use of federal power. The Bank, based in Philadelphia with branches in eight cities, conducted general commercial business as well as acting for the government. It was both well managed and profitable, but it won the enmity of entrepreneurs and state banks, who argued that its fiscal caution was constraining economic development. Others were troubled by the fact that two-thirds of the bank stock was held by British interests. These critics, working with agrarian opponents of the bank, succeeded in preventing renewal of the charter in 1811, and the First Bank went out of operation.
Soon, however, problems associated with the financing of the War of 1812 led to a revival of interest in a central bank, and in 1816, the Second Bank of the United States was established, with functions very much like the first. The Second Bank’s initial years were difficult, and many felt that its mismanagement helped bring on the panic of 1819. Popular resentment led to efforts by several states to restrict the Bank’s operations, but in McCulloch v. Maryland (1819), the Supreme Court held that the Constitution had granted Congress the implied power to create a central bank and that the states could not legitimately constrain that power.
This decision did not settle the controversy, however. State banks and western entrepreneurs continued to criticize the Bank as an instrument of federal control and of eastern commercial interests. In 1832, Senator Henry Clay, a longtime supporter of the Bank, was running for president against Andrew Jackson, who was up for reelection. Clay persuaded the Bank’s president, Nicholas Biddle, to apply early for rechartering, thus injecting the issue into the campaign. Congress approved the renewal, but Jackson (who distrusted banks) vetoed it, campaigned on the issue, and took his electoral victory as a mandate for action. Starting in 1833, he removed all federal funds from the Bank. When its charter expired in 1836, the Second Bank ended its operations as a national institution. It was reestablished as a commercial bank under the laws of Pennsylvania, where it continued to operate until its failure in 1841.
The Reader’s Companion to American History. Eric Foner and John A. Garraty, Editors. Copyright © 1991 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.