The Bank of North America owed its origin to the vigorous mind and enterprising genius of Robert Morris, who conceived the idea of it when superintendent of the public finances, and submitted to Congress in the month of May, in the year 1781, the plan for establishing a national bank of North America.
Agreeably to this plan, the capital was to consist of 1,000 shares, of $400 each, or $400,000, payable in gold and silver, to be increased by new subscriptions, from time to time, at the pleasure of the directors. The directors, twelve in number, were to be chosen by the stockholders, and were to be intrusted with the management of the institution. The notes of the bank payable on demand were to be made a legal tender in the discharge of duties, taxes, etc.
On the 26th of May, in the same year, Congress approved of the plan, and passed several resolutions, by which it pledged itself to support the proposed institution; to incorporate the subscribers, under the name of the president, directors, and company of the Bank of North America; to recommend to the several states the prevention of similar establishments within their respective jurisdictions, during the war; to receive the notes of the institution in payment of taxes, duties, and debts due to the United States, and to use its influence with the several legislatures, to have laws passed, which should make it a felony to counterfeit the notes of the bank, etc.
After this, subscriptions were immediately opened, during the summer and autumn of the same year. In November, directors were chosen. In December, Congress, conformably to its former resolutions, passed an ordinance which created the subscribers to the bank a corporation for ever, under the title of "The President, Directors, and Company of the Bank of North America." The original features of the plan were preserved, but the bank was restricted from holding property exceeding the amount of $10,000,000.
The institution commenced its operations in the month of January following, and Robert Morris, who may be justly styled the father of the system of credit and paper circulation in the United States, succeeded in securing for it the good-will and confidence of the people at large, by various judicious measures, of which a circular letter, addressed to the governors of the several states, explaining the object of the institution, and the certain advantages to be derived from it, was not the least effectual.
"Thus the first bank in the United States came into existence, and such was its happy and immediate influence on the public finances, and on commercial concerns in general," says Goddard in his History of Banking Institutions, "that it may be justly doubted whether, without its seasonable aid, the revolutionary struggle for independence could have been brought to a satisfactory termination.
"The United States, for several years, was constantly indebted to the bank, to a larger sum than the stock they owned; nor could the various devices for creating a revenue have answered their end, or the army have been fed and clothed, or any degree of order and punctuality maintained in the dispatch of public affairs out for the great facility in the management of business, and the restoration of confidence, which were created by this institution. The sense of the great utility of the bank, was so universal, that Massachusetts and Pennsylvania corroborated the ordinances of Congress, by additional charters, and Rhode Island, Connecticut, and Delaware passed laws for the purpose of preventing the counterfeiting of its notes.
"Yet when peace had been concluded, and the pressure of the times was over, there were not wanting those who viewed the prosperous state of the affairs of the bank with a jealous eye, and conjured up imaginary fears of an overbearing oppression, an alarming foreign influence, and fictitious credit, from temporary punctuality; of a created scarcity of specie; possible commercial convulsions, from the stopping of discounts; partial favors, and comparative disadvantages, under which distant traders labored; as if, in a moral community, the bare possibility of abuse could ever furnish a good argument against the decided utility of a thing; or as if a benefit were to be relinquished, because all cannot be benefited alike. And so effectually were those objections against the institution urged, that on the 13th of September, 1785, the legislature of Pennsylvania actually repealed their charter."
The repeal was persevered in by the succeeding legislature, notwithstanding innumerable petitions to the contrary, and vast efforts to enlighten their proceedings.
The bank, however, continued its usual operations under the charter from Congress, and in the enjoyment of corporate rights, which, it was presumed, could not be arbitrarily wrested from them after having been once legally bestowed.
The legislature which met in December, 1786, at last thought proper to renew the charter of the bank, and passed an act to that effect, on the 7th of March, 1787, by which, however, the term of the charter was limited to fourteen years, and the capacity of the corporate body of holding property was restricted to two millions of dollars. The same charter was extended for the term of fourteen years more, by an act passed on the 20th of March, 1799.