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Nicholas Biddle

president of the Bank of the United States

Nicholas Biddle

Nicholas Biddle was born in Philadelphia on January 8, 1786, one of seven sons born to Charles and Hannah (Shepard) Biddle. His ancestors were Quakers who had emigrated to Pennsylvania from England to America in 1681, and some had fought in the pre-Revolutionary colonial struggles. His father served as Vice-President of Pennsylvania (now known as the office of Lieutenant Governor) from October 10, 1785 until October 31, 1787, alongside President (now known as the office of Governor) Benjamin Franklin. One uncle, Captain Nicholas Biddle, lost his life during the Revolutionary War, and another, Edward Biddle, served in the Continental Congress.

An exceptionally intelligent child, Nicholas entered the University of Pennsylvania at the age of ten and completed his studies in three years, but he was denied a degree due to his young age. Undeterred, he went on to the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University), from which he graduated as valedictorian in 1801. He then studied law for three years.

In 1804, Biddle's intellect got him appointed secretary to John Armstrong, Minister to France, and he was in Paris when Napoleon Bonaparte crowned himself Emperor of France. After completing his secretarial assignment, he was appointed to certify and pay claims that had been filed against the French government by American merchants, as the United States had agreed to assume those claims as part of its payment for Louisiana. After completing this work, he traveled extensively through Europe before accepting a position as secretary to James Madison, then Minister to Great Britain.

Returning to Philadelphia in 1807, Biddle subsequently completed his law studies, and was admitted to the Pennsylvania bar in 1809. While so engaged, he also began writing articles for Port Folio, the first American literary journal, and became that journal's editor in 1812. In 1810, he agreed to edit History of the Expedition under the Command of Captains Lewis and Clark, upon William Clark's request and Benjamin Smith Barton's recommendation. While engaged in this work, he became interested in Native American culture, and included some of his own research with the official notes. He also encouraged Thomas Jefferson to write a biography of Meriwether Lewis to include in the introduction. Biddle had completed most of the two-volume work before handing the job over to Paul Allen in 1812.

On October 3, 1811, Biddle married Jane Margaret Craig. The couple ultimately had three sons (Edward, Charles John, Craig) and one daughter (Adele). The Biddles made their home at Andalusia, the estate Jane inherited from her ancestors in 1814.

At the same time Biddle was working on the Lewis and Clark journals, he was also serving in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives (1810-1811); he had turned the journals over to Allen because he felt he had been neglecting his political duties. In 1814, he was elected to the Pennsylvania Senate, where he did not allow anything else to divert his political duties. As a member of that body, Biddle wrote Pennslvania's negative reply to the Hartford Convention's call for constitutional amendments, introduced the bill that established a public schooling system in Pennsylvania, and, in 1816, was instrumental in winning renewal of the charter for the Bank of the United States. He also compiled Commercial Regulations, a digest of international trade laws. Biddle gave up his seat in 1817, after which he made two failed bids for a seat in the U.S. Congress. When not running for office, he practiced law.

In 1819, Biddle was rewarded for his work on the Bank of the United States charter by being named as one of its five government directors by President James Monroe, and he replaced Langdon Cheves as its president in 1823. Under Biddle's direction, the Bank was controlling state banks, regulating currency, and protecting the commercial operations of the United States by the end of 1829, making it one of the most powerful institutions in the country. But that power created many enemies, not the least of which were the numerous state banks that had been forced to accede to the Bank's regulatory control in order to be assured of an adequate supply of the federal currency they needed to continue operations. The Bank's other major enemy was Andrew Jackson, who, while serving in the U.S. Senate, had fought against chartering the Bank on the grounds that having a private institution in control of federal money was unconstitutional.

The war between Biddle and Jackson began soon after Jackson was elected President in 1828. Having made the Bank one of his campaign issues, President Jackson's first annual message to Congress included a request that it begin considering renewal of the Bank's charter. The House Ways and Means Committee responded by sending a report to the full House explaining why the Bank should be rechartered. One of the Bank's principal supporters was Representative Henry Clay, who wanted to make the Bank an issue in the 1832 presidential elections. Clay convinced Biddle to submit an early application for Congressional renewal of the Bank's charter (the charter was not scheduled to expire until 1836). The Senate passed the rechartering bill on June 11, 1832, and the House followed suit on July 3. As expected, President Jackson vetoed the bill as soon as it hit his desk, on July 10. Congressional efforts to override the veto fell short, and Clay had his campaign issue. Unfortunately for Clay, the vast majority of voters agreed with Jackson, who won re-election by a substantial margin.

Although Biddle had lost the fight to renew the Bank's charter early, he refused to concede that he had lost the war to Jackson. Still having a full years to go before the Bank's charter was due to officially expire, Biddle decided to use economic force to keep the institution alive, by calling in loans made to the federal government and by tightening credit to state and local banks. Biddle's actions only served to anger Jackson, however, who instructed Secretary of the Treasury Louis McLane to pull government deposits out of the Bank of the United States and place them in state banks. When McLane refused to follow his orders, Jackson fired him. McLane's successor, William J. Duane, also refused to do as he was instructed, and was just as quickly fired. Jackson's third appointee, Roger B. Taney, complied with the directive and began withdrawing Treasury funds from the Bank. The Senate tried to retaliate against Jackson by failing to ratify Taney as Treasury Secretary in 1834, but the Bank had already been seriously crippled by then. Biddle continued to fight for renewal of the Bank's charter, but by 1836 Congress had had enough of the "Bank War" and the charter was allowed to expire. As soon as the Bank's national charter expired, it was immediately rechartered by Pennsylvania as the Bank of the United States, of Pennsylvania. Biddle stayed on as president until 1839, and the Bank was forced into liquidation in 1841.

Having lost his war with Jackson, Biddle retired to Andalusia, from where he took a prominent part in the establishment of Girard College. He died there on February 27, 1844, and was buried in St. Peter's Churchyard, Philadelphia.

Benjamin Franklin
Revolutionary War
Napoleon Bonaparte
Louisiana Purchase
James Madison
William Clark
Thomas Jefferson
Meriwether Lewis
President James Monroe
Andrew Jackson
Henry Clay

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This page was last updated on September 27, 2017.