- Historic Sites
A knowledgeable and passionate guide takes us for a walk down Wall Street, and we find the buildings there eloquent of the whole history of American finance
November 1987 | Volume 38, Issue 7
One of the pleasant burdens of friendship, and of living in a renowned and intimidating great city like New York, is that friends planning to visit will ask me to show them the sights of some quarter of town, most usually in the borough of Manhattan, county of New York.
Perhaps because I once taught economic history, the odds are that I will be asked to walk Wall Street with them. Since I am a bit of an antiquarian and a long-distance walker with a reputation for being lippy (New Yorkese for garrulous), I usually suggest Greenwich Village or, better, a walk of decent length from the Village through SoHo and Little Italy into the City Hall area and across Brooklyn Bridge, ending amid the brownstone elegance and quietude of Brooklyn Heights.
But it is Wall Street every time. “The Street,” as the locals call it, is not hospitable to the amateur, the lounger, the muser, as all walkers know ourselves to be. Nevertheless, though they do not quote that master of the language Willie Sutton, my friends want to go there because, as Willie once explained his affinity for visiting banks after hours, “that’s where the money is.”
I prefer to start at about ten o’clock, when the morning rush hour is past its worst. We meet at Trinity Church because from there all Wall Street is visible. And there, too, is the north graveyard of Trinity, where Wall Street financial history is commingled with every other kind. Just inside the fence is an impressive memorial in brownstone, fashioned to resemble the church itself: the Martyrs’ Monument, dedicated to the soldiers of the Revolutionary Army who died in prison. The anonymous dead of what Walt Whitman called the “sacred army” are remembered in this monument probably designed by Richard Upjohn, who designed the church itself. The graveyard memorial, unlike the church, is topped not by a cross but by a startling gilded eagle. Perhaps some old friend of a martyr or a fellow soldier who survived might have demurred at a religious symbol for the heroes, claiming that an eagle was more fitting a symbol for men who probably had, many of them, been inspired by the infidel Tom Paine.
The north yard also contains the tomb of Albert Gallatin, who became Thomas Jefferson’s Secretary of the Treasury after a career that included emigration from his native Switzerland, teaching French at Harvard, farming and land speculating on the hard western Pennsylvania frontier, a leading role in Congress, and a distinguished sojourn as a diplomat and then as a banker. In his active political life Gallatin replaced James Madison as the leader of Jefferson’s men in the House and was so adept that Abigail Adams described him as “sly,” “artful,” and “insidious.”
Gallatin died in 1849 at his daughter’s home in Astoria, Long Island. He had become the friend of John Jacob Astor, though he balked at being his partner. The Astor touch can be seen at many places in Trinity Yard and the church itself. The cross at the center point of the north yard is dedicated to the Mrs. Astor, Caroline Schermerhorn Astor, the wife of William Backhouse Astor, Jr. John Jacob Astor himself is buried elsewhere, but his great-grandson provided the entrance doors, designed by the family architect, Richard Morris Hunt, and the family always retained its closeness to the church, especially to the vestry, which had so often obliged the Astors’ need for additional real estate in Manhattan by leasing various parcels to them.
Trinity Church, with its spire rising 284 feet, has dominated this part of the Street since it opened in 1846. It is the third church to stand on the site. The first, of brick and wood, was built in 1698 after the charter founding the parish had been granted by William III. This was the rustic part of town; to the north of the church was very much country. The church burned in the great fire of September 1776, a fire the British alleged Nathan Hale had set. By 1790 a new church had been consecrated, with George Washington in attendance, for the capital had not yet moved to Philadelphia. That second church sagged and cracked in the 183Os under some heavy snowfalls and was pulled down.
The Georgian style would not do for the next church, and Richard Upjohn designed it in the Gothic style, which gave the church instant venerability, the look of age and grace preferred by many of the newly wealthy, and distinction from the democratic, if not to say plebeian, implications of the Greek Revival.
In 1976 Queen Elizabeth II visited New York for the Bicentennial celebration and, of course, took in Wall Street and Trinity Church. A stone marker in the pavement just before the east doors recalls her “gracious” visit on July 9, 1976, two hundred years to the day after George Washington ordered that the Declaration of Independence be read to his troops assembled in “the fields”—what we now call City Hall Park—a few blocks north of us. A crowd of artisans, small merchants, and sailors, among whom were some of the Sons of Liberty, were part of the audience; raised to heights of enthusiasm by Washington’s manifesto, they raced down Broadway past Trinity to Bowling Green, the park that still sits at the origin of the city’s longest street. There, where the fountain is now, stood a huge equestrian statue of George III, in gilded lead set upon a fifteen-foot-high marble pedestal. The rioters threw ropes around the figure, pulled it down, and jubilantly hacked the king to pieces, the chunks eventually to be cast into bullets and fired at his troops. So filled with meaning was this act of defiance that prints of it became best sellers in France and Prussia. Monarchs trembled at the thought they might fall, if only in effigy.
Trinity’s south yard is the burial site of Capt. James Lawrence, the commander of the Chesapeake, whose dying words were “Don’t give up the ship!” and almost everyone reacts to the plaque next to the impressive tomb with the same look of childlike wonder when they recall that ancient cry of patriotic duty. At the southernmost fence is Alexander Hamilton’s tomb. That Hamilton is buried here was a touch-and-go affair because, of course, he died in the famous duel with Aaron Burr on the heights at Weehawken across the river on July 11, 1804. Dueling had become such a scourge among the class of gentlemen, a touchy and vindictive bunch, that the rector of Trinity had threatened not to bury any of the victims or, when their time came, the victors in one of these “interviews.” Hamilton’s son had been killed in a duel with a Burrite, as the colonel’s followers were called; the loss had cracked the spirit of one of his daughters and brought the father to despair. Before his own appointment with Burr, Hamilton produced a powerful editorial against dueling that, it is said, won over the rector when the great man died.
Hamilton was not sanguine about the outcome; at a banquet the night before, he sang a setting of Gray’s “Elegy,” including the well-known line about the paths of glory leading but to the grave. The “aura of being a brilliant gambler” that Hamilton gave off, as his biographer James T. Flexner described it, seemed abruptly to have passed, like a lucky streak. The best he could do politically was to foil the ambitions of Aaron Burr; he had thrown the remains of his influence to Jefferson in the disputed presidential election of 1800 and later told everyone within hearing that Burr was a “dangerous man … who ought not to be trusted with the reins of government.”
Hamilton settled his affairs, readied the same pistols his son had used in his fatal duel, and told his friends that he would reserve his first fire the next morning “and I have thoughts even of reserving my second fire—and thus giving a double opportunity to Col. Burr to pause and reflect.”
After the duel Hamilton was brought back across the river to die at his friend William Bayard’s country home in Greenwich Village. The city mourned the hero and founder of American public finance. Hamilton, dead in his forties, underwent the process of beatification that made him the patron saint of the business classes of the old Northeast and the model of statesmanship for the likes of the Lodges and the Republican Roosevelt.
Years later Burr was to say, “Had I read Voltaire less and Sterne more, I might have seen the world as wide enough for Hamilton and myself.”
At Trinity, Broadway meets Wall Street. Walt Whitman loved Broadway, “that noted avenue” with its “human currents,” and I usually gaze at the crowds and listen to “the blab of the pave” as I prepare to blab about Wall, a street only a third of a mile long and twenty-five feet wide.
I feel that barging in is the best tactic to begin a walk, and we make a beeline for the white skyscraper to the south of Trinity that looks as new-minted as Trinity looks old. The church, with its sandstone begrimed by the years, seems to have absorbed all the sins of a street H. L. Mencken once called the “Devil’s chasm,” the thoroughfare that Main Street has always distrusted.
Number One Wall Street shines and glitters, even on the darkest winter day, in its curtain wall of beautifully worked limestone. The Irving Trust Company moved into the architect Ralph Walker’s flamboyant fifty-story building, the last to be built directly on the street, in the glum year of 1932. The banking room, a riot of red and orange tiles, is so exuberant that one forgets that this is, after all, a trust company, priding itself on fiduciary restraint. Designed in the “New Era” of the twenties, this jazzy, Art Deco style did not seem as frivolous as it might have just a decade earlier—or later, as the Depression-ridden thirties settled in.
The site of the banking room itself was once 3 Wall Street, where Washington Irving lived in 1808, while he was writing A History of New York, from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty. Irving, in the days when Wall was still a modest commercial and banking center, was the first American professional writer. He also became our first expatriate when he left Gotham, as he dubbed New York, and its love of the “almighty dollar,” a phrase he coined, to serve in diplomatic posts abroad. But he had linked himself securely enough to New York City for the bank above his vanished home to bear his name.
It was a disappointment to me, who grew up knowing Irvings as pharmacists, butchers, and furriers or as bespectacled and reedy young men bustling through the Bronx High School of Science, to learn that the bank was not named after an Irving who had scaled the height of finance. But they never christen banks with someone’s first name, do they? Some of Washington Irving’s ironic flippancy easily rubs off on viewers of Ralph Walker’s extraordinary building.
Washington Irving’s Peter Stuyvesant, “tough, sturdy, valiant, weather-beaten, nettlesome, obstinate, leathern-sided, lion-hearted,” fourth governor of New Netherland, dedicated servant of the Dutch West India Company, would not have taken my lightheartedness lightly. In 1653 he commanded that a fortified wall be built from the East River to the Hudson. The wall was no more than a “curtain of planks,” which, alas, did not prevent the British from forcing Stuyvesant in 1664 to surrender without firing a shot. In the 169Os the British finally tore the wall down and used the wood to put up the first Trinity Church and a new City Hall. New York was marching uptown.
The old wall was intercepted by New Street, the first street the English incised into the street pattern of the old Dutch settlement. New runs north-south, while most of the older streets run eastward, gently sloping to the East River.
The greatest of the north-south streets was Broadway, the “route of heroes,” the street New York set aside for its greatest parades. Up from the Battery they marched to City Hall, where the mayor gave the keys to the city to Charles Lindbergh, or Gertrude Ederle, or Marie, queen of Romania. The skies filled with ticker tape and torn telephone books, and that man-made blizzard became a signature of the city and a symbol of the peak of success and acclaim.
Number One Wall Street shines and glitters, even on the darkest winter day, in its curtain wall of beautifully worked limestone.
No one parades up New Street; it is too narrow. And nobody paraded anywhere in the city in March 1888 after the Great Blizzard had brought the city to a standstill. The best photographs of the aftermath were taken on New Street, forested with telephone poles that carried not only the dits and dots of telegraphers but also stock-ticker reports, the gold ticker, telephone signals, and Mr. Edison’s live electric wires. After the blizzard the city forced the wires underground, and one of the enduring wonders or annoyances of Wall Street’s life is how much and how often the streets are torn up to get at the tangled lifelines beneath the asphalt.
Halfway between New and Broad there is a wall plaque that memorializes the site of old 15 Wall Street. Here in 1889, twenty-two years after the stock ticker had gone into use, one year after the paralyzing blizzard, and three years after the miraculous first million-share day on the exchange, Charles H. Dow and Edward B. Jones first produced The Wall Street Journal, then only a trim gazette of quotations and financial news and now, of course, the largest-circulation national newspaper.
Earlier in the century a more robust age saw the birth of financial reporting when James Gordon Bennett founded his Herald in 1835 in a basement at what was then 20 Wall. Bennett invented the “beat” and handled Wall Street on his own. “News not views” was his disingenuous motto. A determined Democrat, of distinctly Southern sympathies, Bennett used most of his investigatorial energies to expose the rigged thimbles in Whig commercial circles and for his troubles was often punched, caned, or lashed with cowhide whips. No gentleman, he was never challenged to any duels. Ever alert to his own economic interests, he knew what sold papers and set a permanent headline that read BENNETT THRASHED AGAIN.
Bennett was editor, owner, and publisher all in one, so he could indulge his belief that all “paper changers” were at bottom swindlers. His financial column began in 1837, the year of an economic panic and bust, always a good time for skeptical and probing ventures into the mysteries of Wall Street operations. The penny press of that era of Jacksonian reform unloosed itself on the princes of ‘Change, as the Stock Exchange was then known.
Broad Street is broad and, compared with Wall and New, gives a positively prairie vista. The street, originally the Heere Gracht, or “Great Canal,” was filled in 1676, when the refuse of local provisions merchants fouled the water. Across the street—on the southeast corner of Broad—is 23 Wall. This house bears no name, nor does it need to. It is the Morgan Bank or the House of Morgan, and J. P. Morgan still dominates the strategic ground as he dominated the marketing of railroad bonds in the post-Civil War economy, reorganized bankrupt roads in the 1880s, undid the spoliations of Drew, Fisk, and Gould in the eyes of European investors, and almost singlehandedly forged the system of railroads that crisscrossed the country.
Morgan turned his hand to industry in the 1890s, coordinating what was a jungle filled with price-cutting predators into the gigantic trusts and mergers that were the food and drink of the hungriest of all bull markets. The climax was the first billion-dollar corporation, United States Steel, put together by Morgan in 1901. The Stock Exchange Building across the street is as much a temple of the new age of giant enterprise as was the Homestead Steel Works that Morgan purchased from Andrew Carnegie as the centerpiece of Big Steel and a monument to what was then called “Morganization.”
Morgan thought Carnegie an egregious blowhard and a dangerous man; the Scot believed in running his mills “full” and in cutting prices to ruin competitors. Morgan, no doctrinaire believer in competition, thought that almost criminal; cutthroat competition demolished the stability and order—the “sure thing”—that the investment banker wanted.
Morgan did not achieve his titanic ends out of reverence for free competition and laissez-faire. His mind was not encumbered with that kind of ideological cant; he would have been the first to scoff at a theorist or pulpit orator who used abstractions or the arguments of the survival of the fittest to justify capitalism. He wanted to shape it and take it from the stage of mere anarchy to a new level of centralized control and planning that would make things predictable and profitable all around. He was not in business for his health, he often said, but the scent of trusts in the air was more agreeable than the reek of sweat and blood from active competition in the marketplace. He paid Carnegie off with four hundred million dollars in first mortgage bonds to get that inveterate hard-driving, production-minded, price-cutting maverick out of his way. Carnegie proceeded (since he seemed to take seriously his own essay “The Gospel of Wealth”) to give much of it away. Many of the local branch libraries in New York City are glorious pieces of architecture paid for out of the bounty the wily Scot extracted from Morgan. As Carnegie said, it took a Scot to beat a Yankee. The Yankee, however, created the most powerful of all the trusts, the Money Trust, a feat he accomplished with a personal fortune that never matched, let us say, John D. Rockefeller’s.
On September 16, 1920, a little before noon, a horse and cart were left unattended just across Wall from Morgan. A few minutes later an explosion rocked the street, and a sheet of fire erupted as the horse and cart were obliterated. Shrapnel from sash weights carried in the cart along with the explosives rocketed around the intersection, killing thirty-three people and maiming hundreds more. The explosion gouged jagged pockmarks out of the oversize limestone blocks of the Wall Street side of Morgan’s headquarters. General belief has it that an anarchist aimed to kill a great capitalist, in an assassination attempt similar to Alexander Berkman’s on Henry Clay Frick.
When the dead and injured were cleared from the street, a search among the ruins turned up only a horseshoe, which was traced to a Lower East Side blacksmith who recalled fastening it a day or two before, but remembered only that his customer was Sicilian. We are left to wonder if the perpetrator, like the terrorist in Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent, who wanted to bomb the Greenwich Observatory and thus throw a bomb into the heart of pure mathematics, thought he could destroy capitalism.
It is perfectly fitting that from the expanse of sidewalk—almost a plaza—in front of the House of Morgan we get the best view of George B. Post’s grandiloquent Renaissance Stock Exchange.
All that Georgia marble, the huge entablature, and the heroic figures in the sculpture of the pediment—this is a bourse to be proud of. It is enormous, as grand as the hopes and successful speculations of the brokers who planned it in 1900 and were present in 1903, when it opened for business in the middle of an unprecedented bull market. That bull market began in 1897 and came to an end in the crash of 1907, with only an attack of collywobbles in 1901 to interrupt its surge.
William McKinley, a safe man, defeated William Jennings Bryan for the Presidency in 1896 and saved the gold standard; gold was discovered simultaneously in Australia, South Africa, and Alaska; we won a “splendid little war” with Spain; and there was an explosion of self-confidence and contentment in the country. What Lewis Mumford called the “imperial facade” is the appropriate style, and it came ready to hand to tastes fashioned by the White City architecture of the Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Louis Sullivan called it the “white cloud” that set American architecture back and down, but Post, who had once been a rebel and called himself a “Goth,” knew his customers and gave them the operatic building they wanted.
There are no traffic lights on Wall Street until one gets to Water Street, and the flow of automobiles, moving vans, bicycle messengers, tour buses, and the ubiquitous stretch limousines, sinister with their opaque windows, is torrential. But it is worth braving to get to a glorious Greek Revival building.
On the uptown side of Wall, where Broad opens up and reaches its northern boundary, stands Federal Hall National Memorial. The building on the site is the Custom House built from 1834 to 1842 and designed by Ithiel Town and Alexander Jackson Davis. It became a Subtreasury in 1863, when customs moved to the Merchants Exchange at Number 55, and it was the home of the Federal Reserve Bank from 1920 to 1924.
Why, then, is it named Federal Hall? A little more history is in order. At the time Trinity first went up and the wall was coming down, the town was growing northward and the English decided to build a new City Hall. They built it at the intersection of Nassau, Broad, and Wall. That was in 1703, and the building served as City Hall, jailhouse, and library, among other things. In 1735 it was the site of John Peter Zenger’s trial for seditious libel, a trial in which Andrew Hamilton (no relation to Alexander), nearly eighty years old and the prototype of the clever “Philadelphia lawyer,” was imported for the defense. Hamilton, defying the court and all precedent, made out a case that truth protected the publisher from an action for libel. In the English common law the truth concerning a matter of the crown made a statement even more seditious. The jury of New Yorkers, angry that Chief Justice James De Lancey had disbarred Zenger’s first set of attorneys, rebelled against the judge’s instructions and brought in an acquittal. They had responded to Hamilton’s plea: “It is not the cause of a poor printer, nor of New York alone which you are now trying. No! It is the best cause, it is the cause; it is the cause of liberty, both of exposing and opposing arbitrary power by speaking and writing truth!”
In 1765 the Stamp Act Congress met here to protest the enactment of duties on the internal commerce of the colonies, and the assembled colonists passed a Declaration of Rights and Grievances that set them on the way to the theory of independence. When the act was repealed in 1766, the first Liberty Pole was erected in front of City Hall. The Sons of Liberty formed, and nonimportation from Britain became the watchword of most of the merchants. The long-term effect on the Congress was what Christopher Gadsden of South Carolina wanted: “There ought to be no New England man, no New Yorker, known on the continent, but all of us Americans.”
After independence the Congress of the Confederation met here and in 1787 enacted the Northwest Ordinance, which set the terms for continental expansion westward.
The ballots of the electoral college were tallied here by the first Congress to be elected under the Constitution. When Washington was declared elected and made a week-long triumphal ride north from Mount Vernon to appear for his April 30 inauguration, it was on the balcony of the City Hall, for the first time called Federal Hall, that he took the oath to “preserve, protect, and defend” the Constitution of the United States.
That fall the first twelve amendments were submitted to the Congress in the building on this site; ten of them were adopted on September 25, 1789, and ratified by 1791 as the Bill of Rights. When Madison argued for his amendments, especially for the one guaranteeing free speech, he might have been thinking of Zenger: “A popular government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or tragedy, or perhaps to both.”
Maj. Pierre L’Enfant, an engineer and an infantry officer in the Revolution, was the man who redesigned the old City Hall in what came to be called the Federal style. The azure ceiling he worked up for the Senate chamber featured a painted sun, surrounded by thirteen stars. The pilasters of the largest chamber—for the House of Representatives—were of what L’Enfant called “an American order”; they bore eagles with spread wings atop Corinthian capitals. The relief he designed for the pediment over the portico had an eagle, surrounded by a glory, coming out of a cloud, gripping in its claws thirteen arrows and a new seal of the United States. Altogether it was a new design for a new nation in its first national building.
The Custom House—as the new building was at first called—is indeed a testament to the democratic upsurge of the 183Os. Tuckahoe marble from Westchester, just north of the city, Doric columns of great simplicity and strength with an unadorned pediment, a powerful and steep flight of steps, and the glorious, if inconsistent, rotunda, a Roman form—all contrive to make this one of the most notable buildings in the city.
Looking across Nassau Street from Federal Hall, we see a classical eclectic 1912 skyscraper that was home to Bankers Trust for fifty years. From this angle the locality is very much the work of the architectural firm of Trowbridge & Livingston. Trowbridge & Livingston designed Morgan’s elegant and powerful corner house, the annex to the Stock Exchange across Wall Street from us, and the Bankers Trust Building itself. Everyone knew that Morgan controlled Bankers Trust, so Trowbridge & Livingston received two commissions in one.
We turn northward on Nassau, another street cut by the British as their royal colony began to expand. The Doric columns of Federal Hall enclose the east side of the narrow street. In fact, except for Broad, it is unnecessary to describe any street down here as anything but narrow. Pine is the first street to the north, and it is as narrow and gloomy as a defile in a primeval northern forest. It is empty during the middle of the day, save for a few cars and vans tucked almost against the walls of the tall buildings that line the entire street. There are none of the street vendors of steamed hot dogs, fresh orange juice, coffee and croissants, ice cream, nuts and dried fruits that throng every corner of Wall from Broadway eastward and down Broad, with a particular phalanx at the trading-floor entrance of the exchange. But in the early nineteenth century Pine was the center of the fast-food vendors of the day. New York was known then as a city where people would “gobble, gulp, and go,” and oysters and ale taken from street carts was the usual hustling lunch. In the 183Os the clam sellers would sing out: “Here’s your fine clams/As white as snow/On Rockaway these clams do grow.”
Small merchants and vendors had to be inventive when the operations of the bigger fellows led to panics. In 1837 they reverted to barter, and this transaction was overheard: “Tom, do you want oysters for lunch today?”
“Then here’s a ticket, and give me two shaves in return.”
An innocent reversion to a labor theory of value with not a revolutionary implication in sight.
When Aaron Burr returned from exile in 1812, he set up at 9 Nassau, in a cubbyhole of a law office, announced by a tiny tin sign, and financed by a ten-dollar loan from an old friend. In his first twelve days the fifty-five-year-old attorney took in two thousand dollars in fees.
At Number 23 the Sons of Tammany was formed in 1786 by—among others—an ex-Revolutionary soldier, William Mooney, whose home and upholsterer’s and wallpapering shop was here. Tammany’s members were artisans and former foot soldiers—not the material for the Society of the Cincinnati. They became the political legions Burr used to elect Jefferson. Later, flooded by new Irish-immigrant clients, Tammany supported Andrew Jackson in his war to the death with Nicholas Biddle’s “Tory” Bank of the United States.
In the old city Nassau was a street with lawyers, merchants, printers, and newspapers all thrown together in the little three-story houses that dotted the area.
At Cedar Street the bulk of the Federal Reserve Bank—it is enormous—swallows up the vista to the north. But before it to the right lies a large, open area, Chase Manhattan Plaza, and on the plaza, resting on spindly stilts, is the Chase Manhattan Bank. The building is a glass and aluminum box, in fact, the first built in the downtown financial district, where “the more masonry, the better” once was the rule and standard of sturdiness. The new glass buildings may look a bit vulnerable, but the vaults lie deep in the granite bedrock of the island beneath the architectural fancies above.
In 1961 many feared that downtown was losing out in aesthetic and economic attractiveness to the business district uptown. David Rockefeller of Chase planned his new headquarters to be the first International Style skyscraper in the neighborhood and to stand in its first plaza. But the building is an oversize and rather timid copy of the Lever House on Park Avenue, and despite its impressive height and the expanse of open space on which it sits, it seems too dim to be a fitting home for a bank put together with extraordinary guile by John McCloy, one of the legendary Wall Street lawyers, who contrived to have the relatively tiny Manhattan Company take over the gigantic Chase National Bank to get around charter restrictions.
Just north of the plaza stands a Florentine palazzo, no taller than fourteen stories but dominating every building in sight with not just its bulk but its distinctive masonry cladding of limestone and sandstone and its extraordinary wrought-iron work. Authority is the word that best describes it. This is the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, which stands on a rise commanding the lowlands of Wall Street to the south, looking just like what it is, the most powerful actor in the money markets of the country.
After the Panic of 1907, when Morgan was summoned from the General Convention of the Episcopal Church to get the major banks together and borrow funds from the Secretary of the Treasury to sort out the mess, many proposals for monetary reform as well as investigations of the Money Trust erupted. When Woodrow Wilson was elected President in 1912, one of the earliest reforms of his New Freedom program was the creation of the Federal Reserve System to assure that banking crises would not occur again. A central bank on the model of the Bank of England or the Bank of France was obnoxious to the South and West, so a decentralized bank with twelve members was created pretty much by Carter Glass, the representative from Virginia, a tough little man who spoke out of the side of his mouth as if he had been reared in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen rather than in the South. But as Wilson is supposed to have said, Glass said more out of the side of his mouth than most men said with the whole thing. In 1912 he used his sotto voce powers of persuasion to deliver the entire Virginia delegation to Wilson. .Then he mastered banking theory and practice and the principles of the proposed reforms of Sen. Nelson Aldrich to create the Federal Reserve System. The Aldrich-Vreeland Act of 1908, bearing Senator Aldrich’s name, had in fact been written by Paul Warburg of Kühn, Loeb, a keen student of the European central banks; Henry Pomeroy Davison, who was to become a Morgan partner; and Benjamin Strong of Bankers Trust.
The architects York & Sawyer won the strenuous competition for the project. Seeking a proper style to house the most prestigious of all the planned banks, they decided on a palazzo based on the fortress houses of the great Florentine banking and political families, and elements of many of the most famous Florentine structures appear in the massing and decoration of the building.
The bank did not succeed in warding off future crises (though it was indispensable in financing the First World War), and in fact, it fueled the speculative fervor of the twenties. Today people look to the Fed (its monetary policies are set by the Federal Open Market Committee in Washington but executed in the New York market) to see what the monetary supply is up to.
To put it simply, the operations of the bank create or destroy money, not in a physical sense—though old bills are shredded on the premises—but by raising or lowering bank reserves on which the amount of credit depends, and through their open-market purchases or sales of government securities. One measure of the New York bank’s importance is that in 1986 its president’s salary was, at $170,800, more than twice that of the chairman of the Federal Reserve Board itself.
We have been standing for a long while as I discourse, and though it is midday and the day a sunny one, we have been standing in complete shadow. The shadow is cast far across the plazas by a monumental pile behind us and to our left at 19 Nassau, the Equitable Building of 1915.
The building, which stands on just under an acre of ground, rises sheer to a height of forty stories and contains an astonishing 1.2 million square feet of office space. The shadow it cast upon its completion, one-seventh of a mile at noon, was not just physical but ethical and political as well.
The Equitable was the creation of H. B. Hyde, a genius at marketing. He created new policies, expanded his sales force, and adopted the motto that appeared on all policies and on company letterheads, “Protector of the widow and orphan,” and built up the company to be the third-largest insurance firm in the world. In the process he overcame, with the help of clergymen like Henry Ward Beecher, a religious prejudice against insurance, which seemed to tamper with the divine will by anticipating the end of one’s days and put financial temptation before otherwise docile wives. Hyde enlisted the support of the city’s foremost Presbyterian families, who financed his company and populated its board and high offices.
His son, James Hazen Hyde, who inherited the controlling shares in the enterprise, was a dandy and an aesthete. He had none of the discipline necessary to master the business and no resources to protect his own and the widows’ and orphans’ funds (though he often thought they were one and the same) from being put at the disposal of the Wall Street speculators. It must be said for the junior Hyde—and he did say it later for himself—that pooling private and company funds was something everyone did, and he was startled to be singled out.
When the scandal broke in 1905 and an investigation, headed by the severe and very intelligent Charles Evans Hughes, was begun, it was revealed that the officers of the Equitable, and the other major insurance companies, spent much money on political corruption and ran a “House of Mirth” in Albany where compliant legislators would be treated to the pleasures of the extra-legislative life by hosts from the company and hostesses from touring musical comedies and other sources of the young and pretty. Ironically Edith Wharton’s novel of the same name came out that year and was an extraordinary success partly because many buyers expected to read a salacious exposé in the muckraking genre.
By the time the investigation was over, the Equitable was a much distrusted and a very well hated institution, and Charles Evans Hughes was on his way to becoming a progressive, reform governor of the state of New York and, eventually, Chief Justice of the United States.
Then, in 1912, a fire gutted the old building on this site. Many suspected the blaze was set to destroy records that might implicate the Equitable even more deeply in scandal. The conflagration was famous in the annals of the city’s fire department; with firemen straining at hacksaws for hours to save people trapped beneath the sidewalk level in the steel barred vaults.
When it opened in 1915, the new Equitable Building’s sheer mass touched off a huge public outcry. The next year New York became the first American city to enact zoning regulations and a building ordinance that made future Equitables impossible. The controversial giant had packed in floor space almost thirty times the site’s area; thereafter buildings would be confined to floors of just twelve times the site’s area. The building code’s requirements led to the look of the twenties: buildings with a succession of setbacks from the street so that air and light might be saved, though tall towers might be built on the 25 percent of the building plots that remained after the last required setback level was reached. Thus a grotesquely dominating building, reflecting a grotesquely mismanaged and exploited financial institution, brought the rudiments of city planning to New York.
One might say that when the public learned what was done “with other people’s money,” they rebelled and demanded that some limit be set on what might be done with other people’s space, air, and light.
It is worth walking through the Equitable Building from Nassau to Broadway to see acres of marble and barreled vaults and elegant lunettes. The interior arcade is some compensation for the brutal exterior bulk.
When we come out the other side on Broadway, we are looking across at two narrow, Gothic-style skyscrapers of twenty-one stories each, joined at the top floor by a flying corridor and framing a slender road called Thames Street. No one knows when Thames got its name or why, but I suspect it was named after one of the victories of the War of 1812.
In 1906, when the buildings were opened to renters, Bernard Baruch, by then a wealthy and well-known figure on the Street, took an office in the Trinity Building at 111 Broadway, the southernmost of the twins. Baruch’s office was at the prestige address, for unlike the US. Realty Building to the north, it had the view, the air, and the light that the north graveyard of Trinity provided, probably in perpetuity.
Dorothy Parker once said that there were two things she could never understand: how a zipper worked and what exactly Bernard Baruch did. Baruch had his own problems describing what he did. When the Money Trust hearings were called in 1913 and he was summoned as a witness, he became flustered enough to seek the advice of one of the new breed of public relations men who had risen recently to counsel business tycoons in the face of reformers, muckrakers, and insurgent politicians. Baruch was told to declare that he was a speculator and then to describe what he did. His candor before the committee was precisely the right approach, and Baruch emerged with his reputation unharmed.
Baruch became a big contributor to Woodrow Wilson’s campaign; but not until the coming of World War I did he go into government, and then he was one of the dollar-a-year men who ran the new wartime agencies. Baruch’s baby was the War Industries Board, where he dubbed himself “Dr. Fact,” hired a champion stenographer with the unlikely name of Billy Rose, and proceeded to dictate edicts that set the allocations of the resources of production. We have Baruch to thank for the vogue of the word priority; he set the order of priority for users of precious steel, copper, and the like.
It was not all clear sailing for Dr. Fact in the war years, for some industrialists retained a quaint but annoying affection for the doctrines of laissez-faire. Henry Ford was one, and Ford’s competitor, Mr. Dodge, another. Ford, like most Midwesterners, hated Wall Street and most bankers. Baruch’s suasion did not win them over; nor did it Judge Gary of the Steel Trust. Baruch therefore phoned William Gibbs McAdoo, who, in addition to being the President’s son-in-law, was Secretary of the Treasury, the railroad administrator, and a czar set up over all the other minor czars who were running the war machine. There were czars and then there were real czars. Baruch asked McAdoo to cut off all railroad service to the holdout industrialists. McAdoo agreed. And in the end the industrialists caved in to what they might have seen as the exercise of the sort of sovereign right that had gone out of business with the Glorious Revolution.
Later Baruch said that the greatest accomplishment of his government career was to have helped inter the extreme dogmas of laissez-faire and to have hastened the day of a new economy based—for good and bad—on cooperation and government planning.
The reach of the War Industries Board was long indeed. To save steel, one edict denied metal for the production of stays in the old-fashioned corsets many women still cinched around themselves. So in his way Baruch influenced the flapper fashions of the postwar years and with them a shifting of laissez-faire to the realm of morals and manners.
As a speculator Baruch knew the value of rumor and surmise, and his closeness to Presidents and other politicians gave him an aura of power that he probably never had. He never dared to run for political office and win authority on his own, preferring to remain the “chronic friend of presidents” and self-proclaimed elder statesman, who, as one skeptic said, “stood in awe of himself.”
The Bank of New York, at 48 Wall, has been in business since 1784 and boasts among its founders that astonishing all-rounder in war, finance, political philosophy, and campaigning, Alexander Hamilton. Its first home was over eastward in an elegant mansion that stood north of here on what is now Pearl Street. The bank moved westward along Wall Street as finance grew and began to replace the residences and shops of the older town. While his opponents planned a bank that would rest on the value of land pledged by its founders and the mortgage value of their estates, Hamilton planned and succeeded in starting a “specie” bank, to which prosperous associates would subscribe. There had been no commercial banks in the colonies; that was one of the restrictions of the English mercantile system that pinked the ambitions of Americans. But ironically, when Hamilton wrote up the charter of this private bank, he used as his precedent the statute of 1694 that had established the Bank of England. Looking toward England has long been a Wall Street habit, one that has often damned it in the eyes of the rest of the country.
The architecture of this 1920s building looks back to colonial days. Over the entrance there is a broken pediment, such as one might see in Colonial Williamsburg, and there is a splendid Georgian version of a Palladian window to define the banking room on the second floor, one of the loveliest rooms in the city. You reach it by ascending a double wrought-iron staircase that competes with the beautiful curving staircase in City Hall. The top of the building is a Georgian cupola. The Bank of New York is, and has always been, noted for its conservative solidity.
The bank’s first president was Gen. Alexander McDougall, who began as a leather apron in the city, became a merchant and a Son of Liberty, and then was an officer in the Revolution who took over the command of West Point after Benedict Arnold’s treachery was exposed. After the war he was the first head of the Society of the Cincinnati. Bohemians for years flocked to a street in Greenwich Village named for the estimable general but misspelled to the tune of one l.
There are no plaques on Wall Street celebrating Aaron Burr. He is, despite the novelistic revisionism of Gore Vidai, one of America’s chief villains and a figure all Wall Streeters would rather forget. However, 40 Wall, now called the “Bankers Tower” in real estate ads in The New York Times, was built in the twenties as the headquarters of the Bank of the Manhattan Company, which Burr prodded into being in 1799. Considerable wit, a fine eye for the potentialities buried in small print, and an understanding of the economic hopes of his political allies were just a few of the skills Burr brought to his task.
Federalists like Hamilton would not accommodate their Jeffersonian rivals like Burr with loans and discounts, and as long as they controlled the state assembly, no charter would be granted to a competitive group of bankers. The Bank of New York left no doubt it was a Federalist bank; it financed the military expedition to quell the Whiskey Rebellion in 1794. Then, after an outbreak of yellow fever in 1798, Burr brought forth the Manhattan Company to supply the city with “pure and wholesome” water via a charter that he guided through the assembly.
An obscure paragraph was added to those empowering the company to build a reservoir, lay pipes, and deliver water to paying subscribers. It said that the company might do anything with its surplus capital that did not contravene any laws of the state or nation. In other words, were there some spare cash around, it could be lent out, and therefore, the company, if it chose, was a bank. Hamilton was asleep at the switch, and Burr had his bank.
Number 40 itself embodies the spirit of the rivalries of a later age. In the 1920s downtown’s skyscrapers were challenged by the new spires uptown. Walter P. Chrysler wanted an uptown building in his name that would be the tallest in the world. But 40 Wall was planned to rise 927 feet taller than the first plans of Chrysler’s architect, the eccentric and theatrical William Van Alen. Van Alen was once the partner of the downtown architect H. Craig Severance, and they had split in a fury of mutual mistrust and calumny. The moment Number 40 was finished, Van Alen had his construction crews assemble the pieces of a 123-foot nickel-steel tower, which was added to the now-familiar cap of the Chrysler Building. Thus Chrysler and Van Alen outdid not only their downtown competitor but the Eiffel Tower itself. A triumph for a new industrialist, midtown Manhattan, and an architect who was known as the Florenz Ziegfeld of his profession.
When the 1913 Money Trust hearings began, an early PR man told Bernard Baruch to say he was a speculator and then describe what it meant.
Incidentally, it has been alleged that the current owner of record of 40 Wall Street, the New York Land Company, is no more than a blind or front for the real owners, Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos. It seems that politics and economics are forever intertwined down here.
Not all the rivalries on the Street have been strictly economic; it turns out that very few were or are. Just a few more steps to the west is the Seamen’s Bank for Savings, which stands on the site of the Second Bank of the United States Building of 1824, a lovely Greek Revival structure. After the Second Bank failed in 1836, the building became the Government Assay Office. In 1915, when a new Assay Office was going up, the old building was demolished; but the facade was saved, and today it can be seen dominating the Charles Engelhard Court in the American Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
A look back with the help of high school history reminds us that the Second Bank was refused rechartering in 1832, when Jackson vetoed congressional approval of a new empowering of the bank. Old Hickory hated Nicholas Biddle, president of the bank that Jackson called the “Monster” on every occasion he could, with as much passion as he hated those who criticized his military record or the virtue of his wife or the character of his friends.
These two formidably autocratic men fought over the control of the credit of the country. The Street backed Jackson because Biddle’s bank was on Chestnut Street in Philadelphia; denying its charter would probably ensure New York’s economic dominance of the country.
Jackson was the classic man on the make, almost antiquely Roman in his fierce drive for distinction. He carried along in his wake men who were merely avaricious, the kind of men Herman Melville satirized in The Confidence-Man: boomers and land speculators on the frontier and their brokers, financiers, and propagandists in the Eastern cities. New York, because of the Erie Canal, its magnificent harbor, and the wide range of commercial services, now led by a long margin. One historian has said Jackson’s age saw the turn from liberty to a kind of economic license; Jackson liberated a new class of businessmen from the cold, prudent restraints of Nick Biddle and the older patriciate.
The 1830s were a time when the pursuers harried the possessors and Jackson upbraided “aristocracy,” the “money power,” “tyranny,” “wealth,” and “privilege” for the political exclusion they supported, justified, and rewarded. And he was, as Albert Gallatin, a more equable and classically balanced character, put it, a “pugnacious animal” who fought every fight, whether to the duelist’s code or the slack rules of barroom brawls, actually to the death. Biddle was in a struggle with a man who saw the stakes as power over the national destiny, not as a question of the management of credit, and Biddle learned, as the South Carolina nullifiers learned, that Jackson’s will was a terrible and irresistible thing. Jackson’s old wounds and fragile health had him often in bed. “Nothing but the excitement keeps me up,” he said. He told Martin Van Buren, who visited his bedside after his uncompromising veto of the Bank charter bill had been sent to Congress, “The Bank … is trying to kill me, but I will kill it.” And those pugnacious sentiments toward his enemies he kept until he left office, when he said his only two regrets were that he had not shot Henry Clay and hanged John C. Calhoun. Biddle was a gifted man, a virtuoso, and, in fact, a brilliant banker; but despite his alliance with Clay and Daniel Webster and his influence reaching even into Jackson’s cabinet, he met his match in the hard Tennessean.
On July 4, 1842, the building at 55 Wall opened for business as the new, much enlarged Merchants Exchange. The event was overshadowed by the carnival celebration of the opening of the Croton Water System on the same day. Both were bold new answers to problems that had to be solved if the city were to prosper and grow. Without fresh and unspoiled water New Yorkers would have died in the thousands. Without a magnificent new meeting place for merchants and the Stock Exchange, the life of its commerce would have been stunted.
Fires terrified all city dwellers, and the worst of New York’s visitations took place in 1835 on the night of December 16. In fifteen hours it consumed close to seven hundred buildings, including the few remaining Dutch houses and the old Merchants Exchange, with its gorgeous dome and gigantic statue of Alexander Hamilton. Businessmen subscribed for a new building, and Isaiah Rogers, who had just completed the Astor House, was engaged to do the design. He built in Quincy granite and used the Ionic order, as one can see on the first three stories. All-granite construction was as close to fireproofing as one could get in that age. It was hoped that Croton water and temperatures less freezing than those on the night of the 1835 fire might combine to protect Wall Street from another disaster.
This great private building, contemporary with Robert Mills’s Treasury in Washington, D.C., was not only the meeting place for merchants but also the home of the Stock Exchange. It became the Custom House in 1863 and thereafter the center of the Republican machine in New York State.
The collector of the Port of New York had more than a thousand employees and handled two-thirds of the national revenue. In the 1870s the post was held by Chester A. Arthur, who was known as the “Gentleman Boss.” The era and the Custom House were a byword for corruption. Arthur was a loyal henchman to the egregious Roscoe Conkling, who slanged the reformers as “man milliners, the dilettante and carpet knights of politics.” Conkling was certain his enemies favored the “snivel service” and could not understand “parties are not built up by deportment, or by ladies’ magazines, or gush.” Conkling throve after 1868, when, as Henry Adams said, “the moral law had expired, as had the Constitution.” He divided his party into his own “Stalwarts” and the enemy “HalfBreeds” and made possible the election of Grover Cleveland in 1884.
In 1907 a new Custom House was opened at Bowling Green. Number 55 was sold to the National City Bank, which engaged McKim, Mead, & White to add to the building and adapt it for private banking purposes. That the firm did, keeping the classical idea but going for the more elaborate Corinthian order on the upper three stories.
As for Chester Arthur, he was nominated Vice-President in the 1880 campaign and then astonishingly became President when James Garfield was assassinated. And then, equally astonishingly, Arthur threw in with the hated civil service reformers, goo-goos, as the mocking, unrepentant Conkling called them.
James Stillman ran the National City Bank from 1891 on, and he was no male milliner or ribbon clerk. He had started in the rugged cotton trade as a merchant and somewhere along the line made the friendship of the unknown and mysterious Rockefeller, John’s brother William, the brother who had the magical talent with money and investment, otherwise known as the “Wall Street Brother.” Stillman, called “Sunny Jim” because of his dour ways, did not bridle when his bank was called the “Standard Oil Bank,” just as few men complained when they were accused of wearing J. P. Morgan’s collar. The company you keep can do wonders for a credit rating. In important underwritings Stillman and William Rockefeller were joined by Henry H. Rogers, the most gifted of all the Standard executives and the man who rescued Mark Twain from his many follies in money matters.
In the twenties another powerful figure emerged. Charles Mitchell became president of the National City Bank, a director of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, and, as Edmund Wilson described him, “the banker of bankers, the salesman of salesmen, the genius of the new economic era.” His genius consisted in creating and selling the new securities of investment trusts (companies started solely to invest in the stock of other companies), rigging the prices of his own shares, and being generally sportive in the fields of finance. Mitchell’s great insight came when he foresaw that the Liberty Loan drives to finance the First World War would create an entirely new population of securities buyers.
The dome of the old exchange was lost when National City Bank (now Citibank) added its four new stories, but the banking room is so impressive that I ask my friends in, though the sign to the right of the entrance is not at all inviting. By now they are a bit impatient and footsore; after all, we have navigated only three and a half short old city blocks. So they miss the rundown on the wall of the bank’s directors in 1908: Schiff, Vanderlip, Dodge—a veritable hall of fame of turn-of-the-century finance.
On another day, with more time, we would now go a few steps east to duck into Hanover Street and follow it past the site of what was once Delmonico’s wonderful restaurant and Captain Kidd’s city home and talk fondly of that much misunderstood and maligned merchant captain of the colony, so public-spirited a man that he lent his block and tackle for the raising of the first Trinity Church.
Instead, we press on to 59 Wall, Brown Brothers Harriman, one of the older private banking firms on the street. It began in Philadelphia in 1818, and that year is still embedded in its telephone number. Directly across the street is 60 Wall, a place of particularly potent association. Near here, on May 17, 1792, twenty-one individuals and the representatives of three firms gathered under a buttonwood tree to put their names to what turned out to be a momentous agreement.
Two years earlier Hamilton and Jefferson had been leading factions at loggerheads over two great issues: where the capital city should be and what Congress should do to establish sound credit for the new nation. Hamilton was pushing Congress to take up the debts incurred by the states during the Revolution, but states such as Virginia that had already paid their debts were fighting the proposal so bitterly that the Union itself seemed imperiled. Then, during an affable half-hour’s stroll up and down Broadway, Hamilton and Jefferson struck a deal: The capital could be in the South (which Jefferson wanted) if the government assumed the states’ debts (which Hamilton wanted).
So the South got the capital, and Hamilton got the Assumption Act passed. The act meant that Congress issued eighty million dollars in bonds—called “stock” in those days—and soon these securities were being traded in New York. The business was lucrative enough to spawn a group of men who specialized in it—the first stockbrokers. For a while they bid against each other, which gave rise to certain inconveniences that brought them to the buttonwood tree.
The agreement those brokers signed said that from that day forth none of them would buy at public auction, none would trade at a rate of less than ¼ percent commission, and they would give one another preference in their dealings. Thus joined, they proceeded to sell each other government bonds, to trade in shares of cotton and pimientos, and to take wagers on an infinity of subjects; one member recorded, for instance, “Mr. Walton bet me fifty dollars to twenty that if Barriere was delivered to the Revolutionary Tribunal by the French Convention on or before the 22nd of March last, that he’d be Guillotined on or before the 3d April last.” This brokers’ fraternity grew up to be the New York Stock Exchange.
When the infant Congress issued bonds, some found it worthwhile to trade them exclusively. They were the first stockbrokers.
The buttonwood tree is gone now—and so, for years, was everything else at 60 Wall. The site stood empty for a long time, but at last a buyer was found for the reported price of fifteen hundred dollars per square foot. Now rising on the site is the rust red skeleton of a building that will become the new headquarters of J. P. Morgan & Company.
Beyond the girders are Pearl Street and a squat and powerful building, Number 74, whose rugged facade is dominated by a huge Romanesque arch at its entrance, decorated with a frieze of nautical symbols: anchors, fish, sailing ships, and the like. Number 74 Wall was built for the Seamen’s Bank for Savings but was taken over by the Williamsburgh Savings Bank. Williamsburg is a neighborhood in the borough of Brooklyn across the East River. Until 1855 it was an independent city, but in that year it was annexed by the city of Brooklyn, losing its independence and the old h at the tail end of its name. As homage to the old days of what was also known as the Eastern District, the bank retained the old spelling. Only the Williamsburgh branch of the Brooklyn Public Library, now in the heart of Hasidic north Brooklyn, retains the sign of political independence.
Another plaque, this one on the northeast corner of Number 74, is a testament to the lengthy and full political career of Edward Livingston, brother of the chancellor Robert R. Livingston, who held the Bible and administered the oath of office to George Washington. Edward lived in a house on this site from 1784 to 1795. He moved to Philadelphia and served in the House of Representatives from 1795 to 1801 and returned to be appointed mayor of New York; he was simultaneously appointed United States attorney for New York, which may bespeak a shortage of dependable Democratic-Republicans in the city at that time. He left for Louisiana when a scandal hit his administration (in the end, although he had no legal obligation to do so, he made good money that had been swindled from the city by a clerk he had appointed).
In Louisiana he continued his political career, alienated from Jefferson, who was convinced that Livingston had connived to help Burr win the 1801 presidential balloting in the House of Representatives after the tie vote in the Electoral College. In time Livingston, who helped organize the defense of New Orleans for Gen. Andrew Jackson, became a stalwart of the new democracy and served as Secretary of State and minister to France for Old Hickory.
Livingston was a rival of Hamilton and believed in limited government but not in limited public service; the abbreviated list on the plaque attests to that. Born at Livingston Manor in upper New York State, the seat of his family’s great estates, he was a patrician and a democrat opposed to the citified finance of men like Hamilton. Although he long made Wall Street his home, Livingston looked toward the great stretches of mainland where Main Street in time would dominate.
A very short block brings us to the southwest corner of Wall and Water, where the brand-new Barclay’s Bank Building stands on the site of the Merchants Coffee House. There, in 1784, the very young Alexander Hamilton founded his specie bank.
The Merchants Coffee House was replaced in 1794 by the bigger and better Tontine Coffee House directly across the street at Number 82, where the stained and rather nondescript turn-of-the-century Tontine Building carries on the name.
It was here that the brokers who signed the Buttonwood Agreement more or less found their first permanent indoor home, where twice daily auctions or calls were held, and it was here that they dealt in that first important national government issue of eighty million dollars.
Coffeehouses were a mixture of social club, political meetinghouse, insurance exchange, commodities market, post office, and newspaper city room; and men living with the hazards of commercial life, political upset, and more than a few plagues and contagions were given to adding to the ordinary budget of uncertainties by betting outright on prices, wars, or anything that might make a horse race, including horse races.
These men who were so at home with the commercial vagaries of slaves and rum and molasses, who dealt with each other a few hundred feet from the sailing ships that were beginning to bring the wealth of the world to the East River piers, seem an incredible distance from the men and women who study the busy electronics of today’s exchange. But the eagerness is the same, and so are the rivalries. And so is the risk. Perhaps this is not a bad place to leave our tour, amid the banter and shoptalk of a Wall Street two centuries gone.
But I prefer to walk back west through those crowded blocks for a last look at Federal Hall and at the statue of George Washington in front of it.
Our first President has stood on the pedestal, more or less where he took the oath of office on the balcony of old Federal Hall, since the statue was dedicated on November 26, 1883. The centennial celebrated was Evacuation Day, the anniversary of the redcoats’ departure from New York and one of the city’s great pleasure days until 1916, when it was downplayed in the movement for preparedness after Wilson’s reelection. By 1917 Washington’s pedestal had become the center of gigantic Liberty-bond rallies, with the likes of Douglas Fairbanks, Charlie Chaplin, and Jacob Schiff, the financier, haranguing huge crowds.
Walking these blocks to find our history helps us overcome Main Street’s old suspicion that Wall Street is in another country.
The statue of Washington was made by John Quincy Adams Ward, who for years had a virtual monopoly on public statuary in the city. He also designed the statuary group in the pediment of the exchange, called Integrity Protecting the Works of Man.
President Chester Arthur was in attendance at the statue’s dedication on that day; he sat with Gov. Grover Cleveland and others of the dignified classes, while Bishop Henry Codman Potter of the archdioceses of the Protestant Episcopal Church gave the benediction. The bishop believed that Washington’s great personal and public distinction was his gravity, the gravity that had in time been replaced by Jefferson’s simplicity, which in turn had given way to the vulgarity Andrew Jackson wheeled in. His feelings might have mirrored Alexander Hamilton’s in one of those moments when he flayed the people as “a great beast.” The bishop spoke as a man of his day and hour; the modern economy of huge railroad and industrial enterprise had been unleashed, and the tycoon and investment banker were being fashioned as a model, an image to equal Washington’s and to diminish Jefferson’s.
I sit on the steps of the old public building and think that if Washington were asked the question that Whitman once posed—“What is it, then, between us?”—he would hardly answer that it was the cash nexus. George Santayana comes to mind, too, for he found American history a puzzle when it was not an affliction to the overrefined side of his nature. “To be an American,” he said, “is of itself almost a moral condition, an education and a career.” Walking Wall Street to find the country’s history is an arduous but rewarding task; it is worth walking again and again, if only to overcome Main Street’s old suspicion that Wall Street is in another country.
Here on Wall Street, where it is said people often discount not only the future in booming investments but often the hereafter as well, it is good to look back in the shadow of Trinity, which Whitman called “somber, sulky and proud,” and remind ourselves of another of his admonitions: “The Founders have passed to other spheres—but what are these terrible duties they have left us?”