A “Peculiar Institution”: The Second Bank of the United States and the Old South’s Modernizing Economy, 1820–40
For evidence, this paper relies on several manuscript collections, newspapers, treasury department documents, census records, and congressional debates. Particularly relevant are the letters of exchange broker Thomas Biddle, cousin of the Bank president. Biddle’s firm, Thomas Biddle & Company, invested in AJ Alexander, a Kentucky hemp grower, and engineered the sale of territorial bonds that secured a Florida property bank whose underlying capital rested on planters’ mortgages, slave-grown crops, and slave property. Reinforcing recent works by Ed Baptist and Sven Beckert, “A Peculiar Institution” locates the BUS as a dominant financial intermediary in the antebellum South – one that equalized exchange rates, facilitated long-distance trade, extended credit to commercial actors, and supported slavery in direct and indirect ways. Beyond functioning as a perennial piñata for Jacksonian Democrats, the Second Bank should be understood as a key institution promoting modernity and capitalism in the South’s slave economy.
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