A vividly rendered history of this important stretch of real estate traces the long rise of Manhattan's storied financial district from colonial outpost to the technological epicenter of world finance, chronicling the cast of visionaries, power brokers, and criminals who made it happen.
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John Steele Gordon, author of two previous books on aspects of Wall Street's history, including Hamilton's Blessing, writes a popular column on American economic history for American Heritage. He also writes for the op-ed pages of the Wall Street Journal and USA Today and can be heard on Public Radio International's Marketplace. He lives in North Salem, New York.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Chapter One: "A Cloacina of All the Depravities of Human Nature"
Among its innumerable other distinctions, New York is the only major city in the United States ever to have been walled.
By the 1650s, less than thirty years after its founding, Nieuw Amsterdam was becoming so prosperous that the English colonies in New England were beginning to covet the Dutch trading post in the middle of one of the world's largest and most splendid natural harbors. Even more threatening to Nieuw Amsterdam's future, the First Anglo-Dutch War had broken out in 1652.
The Dutch governor of the colony, Peter Stuyvesant, had been a soldier and thought like one. Fearing a land attack from New England, he decided to build a defensive wall on the town's northern edge. He borrowed six thousand guilders from local merchants and ordered every able-bodied man to assist in its construction. Made of sixteen-foot logs sunk four feet into the ground and sharpened at the top, the wall stretched from Pearl Street (which was then at the shoreline) on the east, 2,340 feet to what is today the western edge of Trinity Churchyard. There the land fell off sharply to the Hudson River, forming a natural defensive barrier. Gates were built at the East River, where most ships off-loaded, and at Broadway, the main land route north.
When Stuyvesant presented the bill for the wall to the brand-new city council (established only on February 2, 1653) for payment, however, the members balked. The newly appointed, self-important council members said the bill for the wall was the problem of the Dutch West India Company, which owned the colony, and refused to pay it. Not until Stuyvesant agreed to turn over the revenues from the tax on liquor in compensation did the council agree to pay for the governor's wall.
But like many a soldier before and since, Stuyvesant had failed to take sea power into account. When the English finally attacked the city, in 1664, they did not do so by land from the north, as Stuyvesant had feared and prepared for. Instead, an English fleet sailed up the harbor from the south and put the town under its guns, which far outnumbered those of Fort Amsterdam at the island's tip.
Stuyvesant, undaunted if outflanked, was prepared to defend the town no matter what the cost. But the local merchants -- including his own son -- were not. They signed a petition to the governor calling on him to surrender the city rather than have it -- and their fortunes -- destroyed. With great reluctance, Stuyvesant agreed. The next day, his beloved Nieuw Amsterdam became New York, so named because it was given as a birthday present to James, Duke of York, the younger brother and heir of King Charles II.
Stuyvesant remained in New York, living on the farm he had established far north of the city until his death in 1672. That farm, which ran from what is now Fifth Street to Seventeenth Street, Park Avenue to the East River, would make his descendants a wealthy family in the nineteenth century.
The wall, now completely useless, soon fell into disrepair and was torn down in 1698, the year the first Trinity Church was built at its western end. Had that been all there was to it, the wall would have been no more than a minor footnote in history. But on the ground immediately behind the wall, a space of one hundred feet had been reserved for troop movements, with no building allowed. As crosstown traffic was already a problem in Manhattan, just as it still is, this space was quickly and inevitably utilized as a cross street and, just as inevitably, came to be named Wall Street. That little street, thanks to another Dutch legacy to New York, would go on to become one of the most famous thoroughfares in the world.
That second legacy was the town's fundamental character. The Dutch invented modern capitalism in the early seventeenth century. Although many of the basic concepts had first appeared in Italy during the Renaissance, the Dutch, especially the citizens of the city of Amsterdam, were the real innovators. They transformed banking, stock exchanges, credit, insurance, and limited-liability corporations into a coherent financial and commercial system. The resulting explosion of wealth in turn transformed the tiny Netherlands, briefly making it one of the great powers of Europe.
It was in the Netherlands that the early techniques of stock-market manipulation were developed, such as short selling (selling stock one doesn't own, in hopes of a fall in price), bear raids (where insiders conspire to sell a stock short until the outsiders panic and sell out their holdings, allowing the insiders to close their shorts profitably), syndicates (where a group manipulates a stock price by buying and selling among themselves), and corners (where a person or syndicate secretly acquires the entire floating supply of a commodity, forcing all who need to buy the commodity to do so at their price).
And it was in the Netherlands that the eruption of "tulipomania" caused the first recorded financial bubble. Soon after the tulip was introduced into western Europe in the middle of the sixteenth century from Turkey, a craze had developed for the flower. By the early seventeenth century the prices of the more prized varieties had risen to remarkable heights, as the rich competed to display the latest and rarest varieties in their gardens. By the early 1630s, the fad had created a classic speculative madness. Tulip bulbs were being bought not for their inherent value or even their beauty, but in expectation of a continuing increase in price. (The idea that there will always be someone willing to buy an asset at a higher price than was paid for it has long been known as the Greater Fool Theory of investing.)
In 1635 a variety known as Childer was selling for 1,615 florins. To get some idea of what that sum meant in the economy of early-seventeenth-century Holland, consider that a team of four oxen, the equivalent of a tractor, could be had for 480 florins. A thousand pounds of cheese cost 120 florins. Nevertheless, the prices of tulips only continued to rise, and the following year, a single bulb of a particularly rare variety (only two bulbs were in all of the Netherlands at the time) sold for 4,600 florins plus a new carriage, two gray horses, and a complete set of harness.
But since all financial bubbles are as flimsy as their real-world namesakes, the tulip bubble burst when someone realized that, because speculation does not create wealth but only transfers it, a day of reckoning was inevitable. When that nameless person sold out (or, more courageously, sold short), others followed, and soon the frenzy to sell equaled the earlier frenzy to buy. Prices crashed and thousands were ruined in the ensuing debacle.
It was the sort of people who could precipitate such an event in Europe that founded the little colony at the mouth of the Hudson in North America. From the very first it differed from most of the other colonies that were planted on North America's eastern seaboard in that century. The Puritans of New England, the Quakers of Pennsylvania, the Catholics of Maryland, all came to the New World to worship God as they chose. In each case, the colonists' first task, as they saw it, was to build a shining city on a hill, a community to be emulated for its piety and morality.
But when the Dutch set up shop -- quite literally -- in their new colony, their purpose was only to make a buck. So busy were they pursuing wealth that they didn't even get around to building a proper church for seventeen years. (When they finally did, they named it for St. Nicholas, and Santa Claus has been the occasionally inattentive patron saint of New York ever since.)
New York's distinct origins and character produced a tension between it and other colonies quite early on. Even when New York extended no farther up Manhattan Island than St. Paul's Chapel at the foot of City Hall Park, Thomas Jefferson called the city "a cloacina of all the depravities of human nature." This tension is noticeable even today. To the rest of the country, New York is often regarded as the epitome of all that is wicked and dangerous. To New Yorkers, the rest of the country is morally smug and, above all, boring.
The Dutch were very successful at first. Many of the new colonies were established by joint-stock companies -- the forerunners of the modern corporation -- that had been especially created to found a colony. All these companies soon went broke, and the colonies they founded were taken over by the crown. But the Dutch West India Company was already well established and rich from sugar and slave trading. And while the company spent twenty thousand guilders formally establishing the colony, the first shipload of furs sent back from Nieuw Amsterdam was valued at forty-five thousand guilders, a return on investment of 125 percent.
The company profits did not last long, however, thanks mostly to frequently incompetent government -- another, less fortunate inheritance New York would get from its Dutch forebears. But the individual citizens of the colony fared far better. A purely commercial enterprise founded by the live-and-let-live Dutch, Nieuw Amsterdam soon possessed a cosmopolitan character. When Peter Stuyvesant, a pious member of the Dutch Reform Church, tried to expel the Jews and the Quakers who had settled in Nieuw Amsterdam, the company told him in no uncertain terms to mind his own business, so that the Jews and the Quakers could tend to theirs. A French priest visiting in the 1640s, when the town's population was still well under a thousand, counted no fewer than eighteen languages being spoken by people on its streets. They were all there to make money. Besides furs, commodities such as flour, slaves, lumber, and myriad others were also being traded in Manhattan before long. Its merchants, already firmly linked to the markets of northern Europe, soon sought to buy cheap and sell dear in the Mediterranean, the West Indies, and even the Indian Ocean.
Thus, when the town was taken over by the English, its citizens remained just as interested in money as they had ever been. They adjusted quickly and easily to English rule and English laws, and today it might seem that the Dutch left only a few place names, such as Spuyten Duyvil and Brooklyn; a few words, such as cookie; and a few personal names, such as Roosevelt, to mark their forty years on the Hudson. But that is not true, for they left their commercial spirit as well.
Today, somewhere deep within New York's mighty metropolis -- like the child within the adult -- there lives on still that little, hustly-bustly, let's-make-a-deal place that was Nieuw Amsterdam. And the making of money -- for good and ill -- is still the city's dearest love.
That spirit was evident as early as 1666, only two years after the English seized control, when Frederick Philipse orchestrated the first financial coup in North America by cornering the wampum market.
Philipse was born in Holland in 1626 and moved with his father to Nieuw Amsterdam in 1647. Trained as a carpenter, he actually helped to construct the wall a few years later. But Philipse did not remain a carpenter for long. Instead, he took one of the royal roads to wealth and married a rich widow. Armed with his wife's money, he began to trade in various commodities with the local Indians, with the West Indies, and with the mother country. He soon demonstrated a keen understanding of the marketplace.
The Indians provided the furs that were the mainstay of the colony's economy at that time. But they did not want to be paid for them in gold or silver. These metals, dear as they were to the hearts of Europeans, were unknown to them and therefore worthless. Instead, they demanded payment in what they regarded as "real money": wampum. Wampum were tubular beads, usually strung together in intricate patterns, that were made from the shells of the freshwater clams that abounded in the rivers and lakes of eastern North America.
In 1650, six white beads or three black beads were worth one Dutch stuiver. (Equal to one-twentieth of a guilder, a stuiver was, in effect, the Dutch equivalent of a nickel.) Unfortunately for the Dutch traders, inflation set in, and by 1659 it took sixteen white beads to equal a stuiver. This played havoc with the local economy, not only because the cost of furs skyrocketed, but because the settlers as well as the Indians used wampum in day-to-day transactions. Governor Stuyvesant tried to fix the problem with the usual government remedy, price controls. And he achieved the usual results -- the price controls were ignored. Then Frederick Philipse began buying up wampum and taking it out of circulation. In fact, he buried it in hogsheads. In a matter of weeks he controlled the market in wampum and succeeded in raising its price dramatically. By 1666 it took only three white beads to equal a stuiver.
The very concept of a central bank would not develop until the end of the seventeenth century (the Bank of England was founded in 1694). But Frederick Philipse was, in effect, acting as one more than three decades earlier by regulating the money supply and, doubtless, making a tidy profit in the process. He would go on to become New York's richest citizen (marrying a second rich widow along the way), with trading interests as far afield as the East Indies and Madagascar.
As for wampum, it continued to be commonly used in New York as a currency until shortly before the American Revolution. Then a machine was invented that cheaply manufactured counterfeit wampum, destroying the value of the real article.
New York's commercial-mindedness and live-and-let-live attitude did not make it an easy place to govern, then or now, and its citizens were soon known for their tendency to riot. It remains to this day the only American colony or state to have hanged a governor, Jacob Leisler. The Navigation Acts, first passed in 1651, were meant to ensure that the American colonies operated for the benefit of the mother country. They forbade most manufacturing and required foreign goods to first pass through British ports (paying British tariffs). But they were spottily enforced at first and, when they were, were often evaded with a timely bribe or a clandestine unloading in New York Harbor's infinity of coves and brooks. The colony flourished.
By the time the wall was torn down, Manhattan had a population of 4,937 (according to the first census ever taken in North America). Most lived at the southern tip of the island, and Wall Street was distinctly uptown. But with the construction of Trinity Church and then, in 1700, the second City Hall, on Wall Street at the head of Broad Street, the western end became a fashionable place of residence.
Only at its eastern end, at the Pearl Street waterfront, was Wall Street commercial. The first commodity regularly traded there in quantity was slaves. New York was the only northern colony to have a large slave population (14 percent of Manhattan's population in 1698), but the city also acted as an entrepôt, shipping slaves south to Virginia and the Carolinas.
Along with furs and slaves, grain also became important to the New York economy after settlers discovered that...
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