Guest Essayist: John Steele Gordon

Before independence there was little financial activity in the American colonies. Britain had forbidden the creation of banks and there were no corporations to issue stock and bonds. And while merchants kept their books in pounds, shillings, and pence, the actual money supply was a hodgepodge of foreign coins, warehouse certificates, scrip, and IOU’s.

With independence, that began to change. The Continental Congress issued paper money, called “continentals,” in massive amounts and this fiat money quickly depreciated into near worthlessness. Congress and the various states also issued bonds to help pay the costs of the Revolution. In 1782 the first bank was organized in Philadelphia. By 1790 there were three in operation under the new Constitution that had come into effect the previous year.

And Alexander Hamilton, the first Secretary of the Treasury, pushed through the new Congress a bill for the federal government to assume the debts of the states and to refund its own debt with bonds that were backed by revenue from the new tariff.

He also established the new Bank of the United States, modeled on the Bank of England to act as a central bank. It was to regulate the money supply, provide discipline for state-chartered banks, act as a depository for government funds, and loan money to the government.

Suddenly there were financial instruments—federal and state bonds as well as stock in new banks and insurance companies to be traded—and brokers began to do so.

A broker is someone who brings buyers and sellers together and takes a commission on the sale price. Only relatively recently has it, unmodified, come to mean someone who handles financial instruments. In the 1790’s New York brokers were often involved in a number of different areas. They might be a partner in a private bank, sell insurance, run a private lottery as well as handle securities trading.

While state and federal bonds were the meat and potatoes of the new securities brokerage, the “hottest” security was the stock of the new Bank of the United States. Capitalized at $10 million, a vast sum for that time and place. Twenty percent of the stock was to be held by the government while the rest was to be offered to the public.

Trading in the stock began on a when-issued basis in 1791. When it was issued in July of that year, it sold out almost immediately and began to rise, setting off the country’s first bull market. Short sales (the sale of borrowed stock in hopes of a decline in price), and puts and calls (the right to sell or buy a security at a certain price before a certain date) began at this time, greatly increasing the speculative possibilities.

Early trading took place in coffee houses and taverns (as well as on the street in good weather), but brokers also began holding auctions in their offices. In early 1792, John Sutton and his partner Benjamin Jay and several others decided to form a central auction at 22 Wall Street. Sellers would deposit the securities they wanted to sell and buyers would attend the auction and the auctioneers would take a commission on the sale price.

But the system soon collapsed as brokers would attend the auctions just to learn what the prices were and then offer the securities at a lower commission.

To fix that problem, on May 17th, 1792, a group of men gathered beneath a buttonwood tree (today, such trees are called sycamores) outside of 68 Wall Street and signed an agreement. (There is some doubt as to whether the agreement was actually signed beneath that tree, but it became a beloved Wall Street icon until it fell in a storm on June 14, 1865.)

The agreement read as follows: “We the Subscribers, Brokers for the Purchase and Sale of the Public Stock, do hereby solemnly promise and pledge ourselves to each other, that we will not buy or sell from this day for any person whatsoever, any kind of Public Stock, at a less rate than one quarter percent Commission on the Specie value and that we will give preference to each other in our Negotiations. In Testimony whereof we have set our hands this 17th day of May at New York, 1792.”

This is often regarded as the origin of the New York Stock Exchange, although the exchange would not be formally organized and given a constitution for another quarter of a century. Basically, the Buttonwood Agreement was a price-fixing arrangement among brokers not to undercut each other on commissions. And fixed commissions remained a feature of the Wall Street financial market until 1975, when the Securities and Exchange Commission abolished them, forcing brokers to compete in terms of price. The result was greatly reduced commissions and, therefore, greatly increased volume, bringing today’s Wall Street into being.

John Steele Gordon was born in New York City in 1944 into a family long associated with the city and its financial community. Both his grandfathers held seats on the New York Stock Exchange. He was educated at Millbrook School and Vanderbilt University, graduating with a B.A. in history in 1966.

After college he worked as a production editor for Harper & Row (now HarperCollins) for six years before leaving to travel, driving a Land-Rover from New York to Tierra del Fuego, a nine-month journey of 39,000 miles. This resulted in his first book, Overlanding. Altogether he has driven through forty-seven countries on five continents.

After returning to New York he served on the staffs of Congressmen Herman Badillo and Robert Garcia. He has been a full-time writer for the last twenty years. His second book, The Scarlet Woman of Wall Street, a history of Wall Street in the 1860’s, was published in 1988. His third book, Hamilton’s Blessing: the Extraordinary Life and Times of Our National Debt, was published in 1997. The Great Game: The Emergence of Wall Street as a World Power, 1653-2000, was published by Scribner, a Simon and Schuster imprint, in November, 1999. A two-hour special based on The Great Game aired on CNBC on April 24th, 2000. His latest book, a collection of his columns from American Heritage magazine, entitled The Business of America, was published in July, 2001, by Walker. His history of the laying of the Atlantic Cable, A Thread Across the Ocean, was published in June, 2002. His next book, to be published by HarperCollins, is a history of the American economy.

He specializes in business and financial history. He has had articles published in, among others, Forbes, Forbes ASAP, Worth, the New York Times and The Wall Street Journal Op-Ed pages, the Washington Post’s Book World and Outlook. He is a contributing editor at American Heritage, where he has written the “Business of America” column since 1989.

In 1991 he traveled to Europe, Africa, North and South America, and Japan with the photographer Bruce Davidson for Schlumberger, Ltd., to create a photo essay called “Schlumberger People,” for the company’s annual report.

In 1992 he was the co-writer, with Timothy C. Forbes and Steve Forbes, of Happily Ever After?, a video produced by Forbes in honor of the seventy-fifth anniversary of the magazine.

He is a frequent commentator on Marketplace, the daily Public Radio business-news program heard on more than two hundred stations throughout the country. He has appeared on numerous other radio and television shows, including New York: A Documentary Film by Ric Burns, Business Center and Squawk Box on CNBC, and The News Hour with Jim Lehrer on PBS. He was a guest in 2001 on a live, two-hour edition of Booknotes with Brian Lamb on C-SPAN.

Mr. Gordon lives in North Salem, New York. His email address is jsg@johnsteelegordon.com.

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