Philadelphia Reflections

The musings of a physician who has served the community for over six decades

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Revolutionary Philadelphia's Patriots
All kinds of people were patriots in 1776, and many of them were all mixed up about what was going on and how they stood. Hotheads in the London Coffee House stirred up about an inoffensive Tea Act, Scotch-Irish come here to escape the British Crown, the local artisan class and the local smuggler class, unexpectedly prospering under non-importation, and the local gentry -- offended to be denied seats in Parliament like other Englishmen. Pennsylvania wavered until Ben Franklin stepped forward with a plan.

The Missouri Compromise

{William Bingham}
William Bingham

The Louisiana Purchase took place in 1804. Napoleon insisted on payment in gold, which the United States government didn't have. William Bingham of 3rd and Spruce Street graciously supplied the necessary gold as a loan, eventually repaid around the time of the Civil War, long after Bingham had died. It's an interesting question whether Nicholas Biddle might have been involved in the financing of the Louisiana Purchase, too. He was part of the American diplomatic mission in France and definitely had a hand in the details of the treaty. Philadelphia was a pretty small town at that time, so it seems certain he knew Bingham, although his own future banking career was not yet visible.

{Henry Clay}
Henry Clay

By fifteen years after the purchase, settlers from the South had poured into what is now Missouri, taking their slaves along with them, and petitioning to be admitted as a state. While slave owners had every right to do so, anti-slavery forces in the North were distressed to see slavery spreading into the new western territories, and particularly upset to see two new pro-slavery Senators from Missouri upset the deadlock that kept either side from advancing its cause by statute. Henry Clay of Kentucky proposed the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which had three main components. Missouri would be admitted as a slave state, but -- slavery in the new territories would otherwise not be permitted north of the southern boundary of Missouri in the future, and the voting balance in the Senate would be preserved by carving out a new state of Maine from Massachusetts.


The Maine part brings us back to Philadelphia and William Bingham because the Bingham estate largely owned the land that would become the new State of Maine. To go back a little, Massachusetts had earlier sold off three million acres to General Henry Knox, later Washington's Secretary of War, in order to pay its Revolutionary War debts. Knox was not wealthy and soon found the purchase was more than he could manage. William Bingham was always looking for good investments and acquired the land for $250,000, or ten cents an acre. Just about everything Bingham touched soon turned to gold, but Maine proved to be one of his more mediocre investments. As farmland, it was pretty poor.

Not only was Maine cold, but it had also been scraped down to the rock by the earlier glaciers. Bingham's gamble was that settlers would be forced to go North instead of West by uncertainty about the Indians. The managers of his estate switched attention from farming to lumbering and eventually made out reasonably well, but it wasn't what Bingham had hoped for. Ohio had the topsoil that had been scraped from Maine, George Washington owned 5,000 acres of Kentucky and 33,000 elsewhere. Aaron Burr had dreams of a Western empire of his own, Andrew Jackson was willing to drive Indians tribes thousands of miles if they got in the way. Bingham had essentially stepped on his own toes, and the Louisiana Purchase offered such cheap fertile farmland that the West made Maine look pretty unattractive to settlers by comparison. Meanwhile, Bingham was betting against many of the political leaders of the country. Oh, well, you can't win & all.

Originally published: Thursday, October 24, 1991; most-recently modified: Friday, June 07, 2019

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