At the end of the Revolution, our new country found itself
independent but in heavy debt. Fortunately it had a secret
weapon in the form of Alexander Hamilton. The founding
fathers were a talented lot, but among them were three
bona fide geniuses - Benjamin Franklin, Thomas
Jefferson, and Alexander Hamilton. Hamilton's genius lay
with his brilliant mind and incredible organizational skills.
Washington had seen Hamilton's abilities during the
American Revolution when he was Washington's personal
secretary. When he became President, Washington
turned over the treasury to Hamilton and Hamilton
executed a miracle.
The colonies had not had a banking system or much of a
financial infrastructure - all that was taken care of by the
mother country. Hamilton, upon assuming the post of
secretary of Treasury, was instrumental in creating the
First Bank of the United States. The bank was, by design,
a private corporation which chose to gain public trust by
building an imposing building in the latest Federal style of
architecture. Expressing the all of the young optimism of
the new country, its front, of Pennsylvania blue marble, is
full of classical Roman details which combine to make a
strong political statement.
First Bank of the United States
Look above the windows to see the bundled reeds, the
fasces, once the symbol of Roman imperial power. The
projecting portico is held up by six Corinthian columns, the
favorite architectural order of the Romans. More
impressive still is the eagle in the tympanum. Actually
carved of wood, (stone carvers were a pretty rare
commodity in Philadelphia of 1790), it holds arrows and a
shield defiantly in one set of talons and turns its head
angrily toward the front of the building. If there's any doubt
that America was beginning to regard itself as the inheritor
of Roman values, and perhaps Roman attitudes toward the
rest of the world, this carving seems to settle the argument.
The building was designed by Samuel Blodgett, who was a merchant,
author and amateur architect. He may have been inspired by the
Royal Exchange in Dublin completed just 38 years earlier. The bank's
overall form is very Federal based on both English architecture of the
same era and contemporary archaeological discoveries in Italy.
When you walk around the building you discover that the front of the
building is a bit of a stage set. The sides and back are plain brick
punctuated by beautiful Federal era double hung windows. Plain, and
a little severe, the sides and rear of the building don't inspire much,
but what a front façade. The colonials had just thrown off the yoke of
the mother country. By building this impressive building perhaps they
hoped to attract investment and let everybody know that investments
would be safe with this new political enterprise.
Having just removed a King, our
new country went to great lengths
to build a bank elaborate enough
to create an image of solidity and
stability for new investors. Its
formality clearly links to Roman
republican ideals and values that
our country felt a kinship to.