Inside Hamilton’s National Bank

By Nancy Spannaus

May 26, 2019—During my recent trip to Philadelphia, I was honored to get a short tour inside Hamilton’s National Bank, the first Bank of the United States (BUS). Yes, the BUS building, which has the date 1795 on its pediment and was first a place of business in 1797, still stands, right down the street from the Museum of the American Revolution.

Inside Hamilton's National Bank

The second floor of the first Bank of the United States. (Nancy Spannaus)

The massive neo-Classical building is difficult for an amateur photographer to capture, so I am restricted to two views, which give you a glimpse of two of the salient features of the building. One is a view of the pediment with its sculptured figures, taken from the balcony of the Museum across the street. The other is a view of the Bank interior (see above), a massive space that is reminiscent of the Pantheon of Rome.  Its colonnaded second floor is shown here, with the inscription indicating the Bank’s second owner, Philadelphia banker Stephen Girard.

Thanks to the efforts of Rand Scholet, founder of the Alexander Hamilton Awareness Society, on May 25 a small group of Hamilton aficionados and Museum personnel were able to visit the Bank, which is undergoing renovation but is still closed to the general public. The building has been owned by the National Park Service since 1955, and we were treated to a presentation by Doris Devine Fanelli, the Chief of Cultural Resources Management at Independence National Historic Park, of which the Bank is a part.

According to Fanelli, the work on the building is expected to be completed sometime between 2022 and 2026—certainly before the 250th anniversary of Declaration of Independence. As she emphasized, the exterior remains true to the original building, with the exception of the roof, which has been modified. Originally, the domed interior actually had an open skylight, but this has now been covered over, so that the dome is not visible to the outside, although special lighting gives the illusion of openness to those inside. [1]

The first Bank of the United States (Nancy Spannaus)

The very spacious interior extends up two and a half to three stories, and the building also has a basement containing the original bank vaults. Girard’s bank, which took over the building in 1811 after Congress failed to renew the BUS’s charter, functioned in the building until 1926. In the early 20th century, Girard Bank completely renovated the interior into the elegant form in which it survives today.

Once renovated, the Bank will include a series of exhibits on its history and that of banking in the United States.

Interpretations in Process

Fanelli gave a brief history of the BUS while we were inside the Bank, drawing heavily from a pamphlet issued by the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia on that institution.

I would not recommend that pamphlet’s account of the BUS, as it gives short shrift to the major purpose of the Bank in promoting the nation’s wealth in agriculture, industry, and commerce, in favor of stressing its monetary functions.  It also gives credence to—although it does not directly assert—the idea that Hamilton was relying on the model of the Bank of England and ideas of Adam Smith. In reality, as I point out in Hamilton Versus Wall Street, Hamilton’s bank differed substantially in its purposes from England’s, which the Fed pamphlet says explicitly (and correctly) was a great help in financing England’s wars and becoming an empire. And Hamilton’s masterwork, the Report on Manufactures, demonstrates his opposition to Smith’s economic theories, especially in the area of free trade.

It is to be hoped that the exhibitions featured in the BUS, once it’s open to the public, will not stick to the Fed’s presentation, but include Hamilton’s fuller views.  I particularly look for a discussion of Hamilton’s Opinion on the Constitutionality of the Bank, his fourth major state paper. That paper not only convinced President George Washington to sign the Bank bill, but provided a series of crucial arguments on the proper role of the Federal government in the economy, which have been implemented in the most prosperous periods of American history, and need to be revived today.

Inside Hamilton's National Bank

Facade of the First National Bank.

Fanelli subsequently took us outside to look at the Bank’s façade, and pointed out elements of the sculptures.  The pediment frieze,  which you can see most clearly here, features the eagle, the cornucopia (symbol of plenty), the shield of defense, and a spray of oak leaves, which symbolize the beginnings of the mighty oak tree, and thus embody the ideas of faith, power, endurance, and strength.

Right above the doorway, it is Mercury, the Greek god of commerce, who is featured. Work is still being done to interpret the sculpture of the child Mercury resting on the globe, with its many elements. The head of Mercury is shown immediately underneath.

Fanelli noted that these sculptures could be considered the first public art of the fledgling United States. While the sculptors are not known, the architect of the building is; it was Samuel Blodget, Jr., a Captain in the Revolutionary War, who used Pennsylvania blue marble, in combination with brick, to fashion this imposing building.

I, for one, could have spent a lot more time inside the building, looking at the rudimentary signage which is there, and the construction. But I’m grateful for the chance to see the inside of the building which housed Hamilton’s National Bank, the principles of which are still destined, in my view, to play a key role in reviving the economy of the United States.

[1] Since I did not take notes during the tour, it is more than conceivable that my memory fails me on some of the details about the building. My apologies if that is the case. Corrections are welcome.