Skip to main content

1784 Two Hundred Years Ago

March 2023
1min read

On February 23 there appeared in the New York newspaper Packet a notice that read: “ BANK . It appearing to be the disposition of the Gentlemen in this City, to establish a Bank on liberal principles, the stock to consist of specie only: they are…hereby invited to meet…at the Merchant’s Coffee-House; where a plan will be submitted to their consideration.”

The meeting was held the next day and a committee appointed to sell a thousand shares at five hundred dollars each. The bank was to be organized when half the shares were taken; this was quickly managed, and so came into being the Bank of New York.

Alexander Hamilton bought a single share of the stock. He had retired from Congress the previous year to devote himself to the practice of law. He was, with his lone share, elected one of the directors of the new enterprise and remained so until he resigned in 1788.

It was Hamilton who drew up the bank’s constitution, adopted by his colleagues on March 15, 1784. He wanted the bank to be incorporated and, indeed, it was probably at his instigation that the bank had applied for a state charter even before the constitution was approved. But it was seven years before the legislature overcame the objections of Governor Clinton to allow it. Difficult as it now is to imagine, there was then a general fear that large financial corporations might abuse their “privelege” and trample on the fruits of our newly won liberty.

During the same month that the gentlemen met to organize their bank, another event took place that was also to have great implications for the commercial future of America. The Empress of China sailed from New York for Macao. Maj. Samuel Shaw of Boston was aboard, carrying a letter from President Washington. This was the first American ship to visit China, and Shaw was the first American businessman to deal directly with Chinese merchants. When he returned, his account of the trip was read aloud in Congress.

The Chinese wanted ginseng (a root they valued for medicinal purposes), sandalwood, and, above all, the fur of the sea otter. American ships brought home teas, silks, ivory, and objects of art. It has been estimated that a ten-cent investment in some trifle could be traded to the Indians of Oregon for two dollars’ worth of otter skins, which in turn fetched a five-dollar box of tea from China. With a 5,000 percent return, it is no wonder that the China trade flourished.

We hope you enjoy our work.

Please support this 72-year tradition of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it with a donation to American Heritage.


Stories published from "February/March 1984"

Authored by: John Kobler

The great tenor came to America in 1903, and it was love at first sight—a love that survived an earthquake and some trouble with the police about a woman at the zoo

Authored by: Richard D. Brown

The early years of our republic produced dozens of great leaders. A historian explains how men like Adams and Jefferson were selected for public office, and tells why the machinery that raised them became obsolete.

Authored by: John R. Stilgoe

Today more Americans live in them than in city and country combined. How did we get there?

Authored by: William B. Meyer

…And what’s more, the planet’s highly civilized inhabitants live together in perfect harmony. So argued an eminent astronomer named Percival Lowell, and for decades tens of thousands of Americans believed him.

Authored by: The Editors

The richly embellished account book of an eighteenth-century sea captain, newly discovered in a Maine attic

Authored by: Harry G. Summers Jr

The first major engagement of the U. S. Army in Vietnam was a decisive American victory. Perhaps it would have been better for all of us if it had been a defeat.

Authored by: Gregory Thorp

The largest Gothic cathedral in the Western Hemisphere has the strangest stained-glass windows in the world

Authored by: The Editors

The author of ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ never set foot on our shores, but he had a clear and highly personal vision of what we were and what we had been

Authored by: The Editors

At one time or another, practically every American artist has brought forth a blossom.

Authored by: The Editors

For millions of women, consciousness raising didn’t start in the 1960s. It started when they helped win World War II.

Featured Articles

Rarely has the full story been told how a famed botanist, a pioneering female journalist, and First Lady Helen Taft battled reluctant bureaucrats to bring Japanese cherry trees to Washington. 

Often thought to have been a weak president, Carter was strong-willed in doing what he thought was right, regardless of expediency or the political fallout.

Why have thousands of U.S. banks failed over the years? The answers are in our history and politics.

In his Second Inaugural Address, Abraham Lincoln embodied leading in a time of polarization, political disagreement, and differing understandings of reality.

Native American peoples and the lands they possessed loomed large for Washington, from his first trips westward as a surveyor to his years as President.

A hundred years ago, America was rocked by riots, repression, and racial violence.

During Pres. Washington’s first term, an epidemic killed one tenth of all the inhabitants of Philadelphia, then the capital of the young United States.

Now a popular state park, the unassuming geological feature along the Illinois River has served as the site of centuries of human habitation and discovery.  

The recent discovery of the hull of the battleship Nevada recalls her dramatic action at Pearl Harbor and ultimate revenge on D-Day as the first ship to fire on the Nazis.

Our research reveals that 19 artworks in the U.S. Capitol honor men who were Confederate officers or officials. What many of them said, and did, is truly despicable.

Here is probably the most wide-ranging look at Presidential misbehavior ever published in a magazine.

When Germany unleashed its blitzkreig in 1939, the U.S. Army was only the 17th largest in the world. FDR and Marshall had to build a fighting force able to take on the Nazis, against the wishes of many in Congress.