The early history of the American colonies is strewn, like that of most new countries, with many crude experiments in banking and currency issues. Most of these colonial enterprises, however, were projects for the issue of paper money rather than the creation of commercial banks. Speculative banking was checked to a large extent in the colonies by the Bubble Act (6 Geo. I. c. 18), which was passed in England after the bursting of the South Sea Bubble. This act, which forbade the formation of banking companies without a special charter, was in 1740 extended to the colonies.
The serious history of banking in the United States may be said to have begun with the foundation of the Bank of Pennsylvania. This bank originated in the project of a number of the citizens of Philadelphia to supply the continental army with rations. The first bills, issued in 1780, were nothing more than interest-bearing notes payable at a future time. The advances in continental money made by the shareholders were secured by bills of exchange for £150,000, drawn on the American envoys in Europe, but not intended to be negotiated.
A further outgrowth of the needs of the continental government was the Bank of North America, which was authorized by congress on May 26, 1781. The act gave to Robert Morris, the financier, power to create a bank with a capital of $400,000, to be increased if desirable. Morris arranged with the Bank of Pennsylvania to take over its holdings of foreign bills and paid in cash its claims against the Federation. The Bank of North America did not begin business until the 7th of January 1782, and there was so much doubt of the power of the continental congress to charter a bank that it was thought advisable to obtain a charter from the state of Pennsylvania. Under this charter the bank continued to operate until it was absorbed in the national banking system in 1863, and it may be considered the oldest organized banking institution in the United States.
The bank did much, during the first eight years after its organization, to restore order to the chaos of Federation finances. It loaned to Morris, as government superintendent of finance, $1,249,975, of which $996,581 was repaid in cash and the remainder by surrendering the stock in the bank owned by the government.