Nicholas Biddle

Engraving by John Sartain, from a Portrait by Thomas Sully.  From: Govan, Thomas. Nicholas Biddle: Nationalist and Public Banker.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1959.

President of the Bank of the United States before it was dissolved by Andrew Jackson, child genius, and prominent Philadelphia lawyer Nicholas Biddle was born in Philadelphia on 8 January 1786 to an established family who had originally come to America with William Penn. Nicholas's father, Charles Biddle had been the vice president of the Supreme Executive Council of Pennsylvania. His mother was Hannah Shephard Biddle. At age 10, Biddle enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania, only to be denied a degree upon completion of his coursework because he was so young. He then enrolled as a sophomore at Princeton, graduating in 1801 at the age of 15, at which time he decided to study law.

In 1804, Biddle went to Europe as the secretary to John Armstrong, the U.S. Minister to France, and experienced first hand the politics and violence of the Napoleonic Wars. Because of that experience, Biddle developed a deep sense of U.S. nationalism. After working for Armstrong, Biddle was assigned to certify and pay the claims of American merchants filed against the French government that the U.S. assumed as part of the payment for the Louisiana territory. He cultivated a knowledge of commercial and financial practices related to international law through this experience.

After traveling throughout Europe and Asia, Biddle went to England to serve as a temporary secretary to James Monroe, who was then serving as the American Minister to Great Britain. While in Britain, Biddle developed an interest in Greek literature, which was fortified through his travels to Greece. He became a prominent member of the Greek revival movement upon his return to America.

He returned to America in 1807 to pursue his studies of law, literature, and other liberal arts, and started writing for The Port Folio, a respected literary magazine. He had met its founder, Joseph Dennie, while at Princeton. Upon Dennie's death in 1812, Biddle assumed the publication of the magazine himself, and wrote for it under the pseudonym Oliver Oldschool.

In the intervening years, Biddle agreed to edit the notes from the Lewis and Clark expedition upon Clark's request and Benjamin Smith Barton's recommendation. He began work on that project in 1810, the same year he was elected to the Pennsylvania State Legislature. During that time, he corresponded often with William Clark and encouraged Thomas Jefferson to write a biography of Meriwether Lewis to include in the introduction to the journals. His own interests in Indian culture led him to do further research and include information in the journals beyond that contained in the original notes. In June of 1811, Biddle had finished his work on the journals, and relinquished his role in the publication and edition of the journals to Paul Allen. Biddle had been unable to complete the publication because of the weakness of the publishing industry preceding the War of 1812, and because he felt he was neglecting his governmental responsibilities by spending excessive amounts of time working on the journal. He also married Jane M. Craig in 1811, who bore him six children.(Armacost, 1995) One son died in childhood in 1814. He opened his own law practice the following year.(Cutright, 1976)

Biddle's most important accomplishments as a member of the legislature consisted in the introduction of two seminal bills. One established a public schooling system in Pennsylvania. the other won the renewal of the charter for the Bank of the United States, which initiated his career in the financial realm of U.S. politics. His participation in national banking was curtailed through the War of 1812, during which time Biddle served as a member of the state senate. In 1819, the Bank of the United States was re-chartered and President James Monroe appointed Biddle to the position of Government Director. The president of the bank resigned shortly thereafter, and Biddle assumed the office in 1822. He served as President of the Bank until 1839. The bill to re-charter the bank was vetoed in 1832 be president Andrew Jackson who opposed the bank. In order to undermine the credibility of the bank, Jackson withdrew all the government deposits in 1833, which had repercussions throughout the national economy. He continued his bank war through another recession in 1837 until 1839, when Biddle resigned as President of the Bank, and the Bank failed completely in 1841. After his financial career, Biddle played an instrumental role in the establishment of Girard College. Nicholas Biddle died in Philadelphia on 27 February 1844.(Govan, 1959)

Information from:

Armacost, J. Andrew and Jennifer Paul. "Biddle Family Papers." University of Delaware Special Collections., 1995.

Cutright, Paul. A History of the Lewis and Clark Journals. Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 1976. p. 53-73.

Govan, Thomas Payne. Nicholas Biddle: Nationalist and Public Banker 1786-1844. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1959.

"Nicholas Biddle." Appleton's Cyclopedia of American Biography, edited by James Grant Wilson and John Fiske. New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1887-1889. Copyright 2001, Virtualology. Accessed 15 December 2003.