nick biddle tries to spend money -- 6/24/19

Today's selection -- from Nicholas Biddle: Nationalist and Public Banker 1786-1844 by Thomas Payne Govan. As a young state legislator, Nicholas Biddle -- later famed as Philadelphia's leading citizen and president of the notorious Second Bank of the United States -- learned that his fellow Pennsylvanians were highly reluctant to spend money:

"[Nicholas Biddle] was unusually active for a new assemblyman. ... His first assignment was the chairmanship of the Committee on the Education of the Poor. The Pennsylvania constitution had directed the legislature to provide for the establishment of schools 'in such that the poor may be taught gratis,' but in twenty years not a single free school had been established in the state. No one besides the chairman seemed interested in the least, but Biddle had studied the free schools of Europe and New England, and had read the works of Noah Webster, Benjamin Rush and Samuel Harrison Smith, and other proponents of a national system of free education in the United States.

"He determined to make a serious proposal, for he was convinced that American society could not be truly equal so long as it continued 'the most odious of all distinctions, the practical inequality between the educated and the ignorant.' His plan provided for the division of all countries of the state into small neighborhoods so that each family would be convenient to a school, the schoolmaster was to be paid a sufficient sum to enable him to teach the poor free of charge, and the rest of the pupils would pay a small tuition. Such schools, Biddle believed, combining chil­dren of all economic classes, would make for mutual sympathy and under­standing between them. This proposal was too expensive to be considered by a legislature dominated by small property-holders, more interested in avoiding taxes than in the welfare of the state and its people. No action was taken on the bill, but twenty-five years later, when Thomas H. Bur­rows established a free system of public schools in Pennsylvania, he acknowledged his indebtedness to Biddle's pioneer work in the field.

Nicholas Biddle

"Biddle was also a member of the Committee on the Reorganization of the Militia, in which capacity he carried on an extensive correspondence with officials of other states in a vain attempt to provide an effective de­fense force for the war with Great Britain or France, or perhaps both, that he thought was approaching. He was similarly unsuccessful in his attempt to arouse the interest of the legislature in internal improvements. He was particularly concerned with the proposal to build a canal to connect the Delaware and Susquehanna rivers, but the same unwillingness to spend money that had defeated his efforts for the schools and the militia defeated this proposal too.

"The Republican party in Pennsylvania, at this stage in its history, was insistently loyal to the dogmas which its leaders had promulgated in the 1790s. Governmental economy was the principal aim of political activity, and all proposals for the expenditure of funds, however necessary or useful they might be, were relentlessly opposed, Biddle had no patience with this shortsighted policy. Pennsylvanians, he insisted, were too indifferent to the improvement of their state. They were idle and inactive while their rivals were making progress. New York had already built a connection between Lake Erie and the Mohawk River and could supply Pittsburgh more cheaply than Philadelphia could. Maryland was constructing turn­pikes to attract the produce of the Susquehanna Valley to Baltimore, but the Pennsylvania legislature did nothing."



Thomas Payne Govan


Nicholas Biddle: Nationalist and Public Banker, 1786-1844


University of Chicago Press


Copyright 1959 by The University of Chicago


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