He was born at Knoxboro, Oneida County, New York, in March, 1828, and graduated from Hamilton College, New York, in 1849. After graduation, he entered the Bank of Vernon, New York, of which his father was president for over twenty years, and later assisted in the organization of banks at Syracuse and Binghamton, N. Y., under the free banking law of New York State. Subsequently, he went to Minnesota and started a private bank at St. Paul with his brother, who afterward was Public Examiner for the State of Minnesota.
At the outbreak of the Civil War, he wrote an article advocating the passage of a national banking law, which was published in Hunt's Merchants' Magazine. This article attracted the attention of Secretary Chase and others, and when Mr. Knox visited Washington after the passage of the National Bank Act he called upon Secretary Chase, who introduced him to Mr. Mc-Culloch, which led to his appointment as a clerk in the office of the Treasurer of the United States. Shortly afterward he was transferred to the Secretary's office as a disbursing clerk. He resigned after about three years' service to accept the position of cashier of the Exchange National Bank of Norfolk, Va. He did not retain this position very long, but re-entered the service of the Treasury Department as a clerk and was shortly thereafter detailed by Secretary Chase to make an examination of the San Francisco Mint. He also examined the Sub-Treasury at New Orleans, in which he discovered a shortage of $1,100,000. This shortage was reduced by recoveries to about $680,819.53. Proceedings were instituted against the former Assistant Treasurer, but upon trial he was acquitted. Mr. Knox remained incharge of the Sub-Treasury and acted as Assistant Treasurer for several months.
The discovery of this shortage was followed immediately by the failure of the First National Bank of New Orleans, in May, 1867. Thomas P. May, who had been the United States Assistant Treasurer at New Orleans, resigned that position to accept the presidency of this bank several months previous to its failure. He was a director, but not president, at the date of suspension. While president he was its sole manager, and as a director he was equally potent in the conduct of the bank's affairs. Subsequently it was discovered that he was largely in arrears to the United States as Assistant Treasurer, and the deficit increased under his successor, apparently for his benefit. The total defalcation of both amounted to the sum above stated. When the defalcation was discovered by Mr. Knox the bank suspended.
In 1867, Mr. Knox was appointed Deputy Comptroller of the Currency, and while holding this position had supervision of the mint and coinage correspondence. He revised and codified the laws relating to mint and coinage, covering a period of about eighty years' legislation, and drafted a bill for the Secretary of the Treasury embodying this codication, which was submitted by the Secretary to Congress, with some modifications, and later was enacted into law and has since been known as the "Coinage Act of 1873."
Mr. Knox has the distinction of having held the office of Comptroller of the Currency for a longer period than any of his predecessors or successors, having served twelve years as Comptroller and over five years as Deputy Comptroller, from March 12, 1867, to April 24, 1872. He resigned as Comptroller to accept the presidency of the National Bank of the Republic of New York City, which position he retained until his death, which occurred in New York City, February 9, 1892.
Mr. Knox was a practical banker and financier. He was an ardent lover of figures and took special delight in delving into and analyzing statistics. On one occasion he prepared an address delivery before the American Bankers' Association, entitled "Dry Statistics," which he declared to be more interesting to him than any novel. A large part of the analytical deductions of the tables contained in his numerous reports to Congress he worked out personally. He was a great writer, and much of his time while Comptroller was occupied in the preparation of addresses and articles for the public prints on banking and currency subjects.
Besides his twelve annual reports to Congress, which contain invaluable statistical information in regard to banking in the United States, and discussions of monetary and banking questions, he was the author of a history of the various forms of paper money issued by the Government, entitled "United States Notes," and at the time of his death was engaged in completing a "History of Banking in the United States," which was revised and completed by Bradford Rhodes, editor, and Elmer H. Young-man, associate editor of The Bankers Magazine of New York, and published by Bradford Rhodes & Company in 1900.
When Mr. Knox assumed charge of the Currency Bureau in 1872 the national banks chartered numbered only 1971, and when he retired in 1884 this number had increased to 3170. During that period the banks adhered more closely to the provisions and limitations of the banking laws in the character of the business they transacted and the scope of their operations than they do at the present time. Many of the questions and conditions which subsequent Comptrollers have had to deal with were unthought of in Mr. Knox's time, so that supervision of the banks was not nearly so onerous then as it has been in subsequent years, and he had more opportunity to indulge in his favorite pastime of writing essays on banking and currency questions and delving into statistics than Comptrollers of later years have had, whose time has been fully absorbed in handling the steadily increasing volume of business and correspondence that has come before the Bureau, leaving them little opportunity for special work.
Mr. Knox, like his predecessor, Mr. McCulloch, had an exalted opinion of the dignity and importance of the office of Comptroller of the Currency. He was exceedingly sensitive in regard to official etiquette, and resentful of any interference with or infringement upon his statutory prerogatives. At one time a chief clerk of the Treasury Department issued an order prohibiting any visitors from calling upon any officer or employee of the Department during business hours without first obtaining his permission. As the story goes, Mr. Knox disregarded this order, and when the chief clerk learned of this he sent for him to come to his office. The assurance of this official so aroused Mr. Knox's indignation that he sent him word that if he wanted to see him he could find him at his desk. When the chief clerk called upon him a brief and breezy interview followed, ending in Mr. Knox ordering the presumptive chief clerk out of his room and curtly inviting him to mind his own business.
Mr. Knox was very highly regarded by the officials of the Treasury Department with whom he came in contact, and particularly by the subordinate officers and clerks of the Currency Bureau, to whom he was ever kind and considerate, and no stronger or more deserving tribute could be paid to his memory and characteristics, or expressions of the esteem with which he was held by the bankers and business men of New York City, among whom he spent the last years of his life, than that contained in the closing lines of a resolution adopted by the Chamber of Commerce of that city at the time of his death, which reads as follows:
Patriotic in his impulses, strong in his convictions, thoughtful but reserved, modest yet courageous, a deep thinker, an able financier, an agreeable companion, a kind friend, an upright citizen, and a courteous Christian gentleman. Such is our judgment of his character, and so shall the record stand.