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Biddle, Nicholas

Born: 1786-02-08 Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Died: 1844-02-27 Pennsylvania

Flourished: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Nicholas Biddle was a Philadelphia banker, financier, and politician best known as president of the Second Bank of the United States. A precocious and highly intelligent child, Biddle matriculated at the University of Pennsylvania at age ten. Although ready to graduate at thirteen, his parents decided he should further his education, and he enrolled in the College of New Jersey (later Princeton University), graduating in 1801 as valedictorian of his class. He returned to Philadelphia to study law under the tutelage of his brother William Biddle and renowned jurist William Lewis. In 1804, he accompanied John Armstrong, the newly-appointed United States minister to France, to Paris as his secretary. In 1807, he served as secretary for James Monroe, the American ambassador to the United Kingdom. Upon return to Philadelphia, Biddle resumed his legal studies and earned admission to the Pennsylvania Bar in 1809. The following year he won election to the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, where he gained a reputation as a proponent of public education and an ardent defender of the Bank of the United States. He also contributed articles to the Port Folio, the magazine of the Tuesday Club, a literary society, and in 1812, he became its editor. When Meriwether Lewis and William Clark returned from exploring the Louisiana Purchase, Biddle commenced work on the official record of the expedition entitled History of the Expedition of Captains Lewis and Clark (1814). In 1811, he married Jane Craig, with whom he had five children.

During the War of 1812, Biddle assisted his father, the chairman of the Philadelphia Committee of Defense, and in 1814, Philadelphia voters elected him to the Pennsylvania Senate. In the Senate, he authored Pennsylvania's response to the resolutions coming out of the Hartford Convention. After his stint in the Pennsylvania Senate, Biddle sought a federal appointment from his old mentor James Monroe. Monroe tabbed Biddle to compile a volume of laws and regulations of foreign countries on commerce, money, and weights and measures, which Biddle published as The Commercial Digest (1819). Monroe also appointed Biddle as government director of the Second Bank of the United States. Biddle initially cooperated with Langdon Cheves, president of the Bank, but the latter's deflationary policies, which caused the Panic of 1819, left Biddle frustrated and disenchanted, and he left the governing board in December 1821.

Momentarily out of public service, Biddle became a gentleman farmer, working to develop his wife's estate, "Andalusia," on the Delaware River in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. He also threw himself into the intellectual, cultural, and literary life of Philadelphia. When Cheves resigned as president of the Bank in 1822, President Monroe, Secretary of the Treasury William Crawford, and a faction of the stockholders encouraged Biddle to take the position. On November 25, 1822, the stockholders elected Biddle as president; he would hold the position for the next fourteen years. During the first decade of his presidency, Biddle rehabilitated the Bank's reputation and became American's foremost financier. By 1830, the Bank enjoyed unparalleled popularity.

Regardless, the Bank continued to have detractors who denied its constitutionality and decried it as an example of monopolies that stunted individual freedom and economic liberty. Unfortunately for Biddle, one such critic was President Andrew Jackson. Hoping to counter the president's prejudices against the Bank and all banks, Biddle launched a publicity campaign to inform the public of the Bank's importance for economic stability. In January 1832, Biddle moved to obtain a re-charter of the Bank--four years before the charter was to expire. Congress passed the re-charter bill, but on July 10, 1832, Jackson vetoed the bill, and the Bank bill veto became a chief issue in the presidential election of 1832. Congress failed to override Jackson's veto, and he won re-election, vindicating, to Jackson at least, his position and giving him a mandate to crush the Bank. In 1833, Jackson began removing public deposits from the Bank and depositing them in select state banks, called "pet banks" by Jackson's critics. Jackson's "war" against the Bank forced Biddle to wind up the Bank's business in 1834, and in 1836, its federal charter lapsed. The Bank became the Bank of the United State of Pennsylvania under a state charter, but Biddle failed to stabilize the economy in the wake of the Panic of 1837, and in March 1839, he resigned as president, and the Bank failed in 1841. He retired to Andalusia, where he died of bronchitis accompanied by dropsy.

Gravestone, Saint Peter's Episcopal Churchyard, Philadelphia, PA; William G. Shade, "Biddle, Nicholas," American National Biography, ed. by John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 2:734-36.