A national bank of issue was one of the essential parts of the system built up by Alexander Hamilton in organizing the finances of the Federal government under the constitution of 1789. The first "Bank of the United States" was accordingly incorporated in 1791, with a capital of $10,000,000, divided into 25,000 shares of $400 each. This bank issued circulating notes, discounted commercial paper and aided the government in its financial operations. The government subscribed one-fifth of the capital, but paid for it by a roundabout process which actually resulted in the loan of the amount by the bank to the treasury. Other loans were made by the bank to the government, which gradually carried the obligation by the end of 1795 to $6,200,000. In order to meet these obligations, the government gradually disposed of its bank stock, until by 1802 its entire holdings had been disposed of at a profit of $671,860. The bank did not publish regular reports, but a statement submitted by Gallatin to congress for January 24, 1811, showed resources of $24,183,046, of which $14,578,294 was in loans and discounts, $2,750,000 in United States stock and $5,009,567 in specie.

The expiration of the charter of the bank in 1811 was the occasion of a party contest, which prevented renewal and added greatly to the financial difficulties of the government in the war with Great Britain which began in the next year. Although foreign shareholders were not permitted to vote by proxy, and the twenty-five directors were required to be citizens of the United States, the bank was attacked on the ground of foreign ownership as well as on the constitutional ground that congress had no power to create such an institution.

The government was compelled in the war of 1812 to rely on the state banks. Their suspension of specie payments, in 1814, made it very difficult for the treasury to transfer funds from one part of the Union to the other, because the notes of one section did not circulate readily in another. Gallatin left on record the opinion that the suspension of specie payments "might have been prevented at the time when it took place, had the former Bank of the United States been still in existence."

The financial condition of the government became so bad during the war that the second Bank of the United States was authorized in April 1816. The general project was that of Alexander J. Dallas, who in October 1814 had become secretary of the treasury. The capital of the new bank was $35,000,000, and the government again appeared as owner of one-fifth of the stock, which was paid in a stock note. The president of the United States was authorized to appoint five of the twenty-five directors and public funds were to be deposited in the bank, "unless the secretary of the treasury shall at any time otherwise order and direct." The right of congress to charter the bank came before the Supreme Court in 1819 in the famous case of McCulloch v. Maryland. Chief Justice Marshall rendered the decision that the right to create the bank was within the implied powers granted by the Federal constitution, and that it was not competent for the states to levy taxes upon the circulating notes of the bank or upon its property except in common with other property.

The second Bank of the United States was not well managed in the early part of its career, but was upon a firmer foundation under the presidency of Langdon Cheves in 1819. Its policy greatly benefited commerce, but invited bitter complaints from the private dealers in exchange, who had been enabled to make excessive profits while the currency was below par, because of its different values in different states and the constant fluctuations in these values. The Bank, in the language of the report of Senator Samuel Smith of Maryland in 1832, furnished "a currency as safe as silver, more convenient, and more valuable than silver, which through the whole western and southern and interior parts of the Union, is eagerly sought in exchange for silver; which, in those sections, often bears a premium paid in silver; which is, throughout the Union, equal to silver, in payment to the government, and payments to individuals in business."

The bank in 1835 had attained a circulation of $23,075,422; loans of $59,232,445; and deposits of $5,061,456. The institution was ultimately destroyed by the open enmity of President Jackson, who in 1833 had suspended the deposit of public money in its custody. This policy known as the "removal of the deposits," excited a bitter political controversy in which Clay and Webster led the opposition, but Jackson was supported by the public (see Jackson, Andrew). The Federal charter of the bank expired in 1836. Under a charter obtained by President Nicholas Biddle from the state of Pennsylvania, the bank continued its business, but without success, and in 1841 it went into liquidation.