Saturday, June 4, 2011

A brief story of glittering society in the new Republic; daughter of a wealthy Philadelphian merchant, Anne [Willing] Bingham

Her grandfather was Charles Willing, a British-born merchant in Philadelphia. At the southern end of the Philadelphia waterfront, he operated a countinghouse, a warehouse, a retail store...and, even more importantly, Charles Willing maintained several ‘square-rigged frigates’ in the wharf stretching to the north for another two miles along the west bank of the Delaware. Philadelphia was at this time [c.1750] the busiest port in the colonies, and the Willing firm was fast becoming a leader in colonial trade. Charles eldest son Thomas Willing, sent to England to a private academy, returned to Philadelphia in 1750 and became a partner in the firm. “Their practice followed the contours of the British imperial economy: the firm exported Pennsylvania produce, primarily wheat, to Europe, and imported wine, manufactured goods, and immigrants—usually indentured servants from the continent, but also slaves from Africa and from British plantations in the Carribbean.” p. 13 Robert Morris, Financier of the American Revolution by Charles Rappleye, pub. Simon & Schuster NY, 2010

Charles Willing, while making rounds of the pest house, died of disease in 1754. Thomas assumed control of the business, as well as various prominent public functions—he was a justice of the peace and served twice as mayor of Philadelphia, was a member of the Continental Congress, President of the Bank of North America (the first national bank.) Willing became an ally of Alexander Hamilton (did Stuart paint his portrait? click here) in his quest to reduce the national debt through loans and a central bank. He married Anne McCall in 1763, and together they had thirteen children. Their daughter Anne Willing in 1780 married William Bingham, a business associate of Thomas Willing. “In 1776 the Continental Congress sent Bingham to French Martinique in the West Indies where he secured produce and munitions to supply the American army. He amassed great personal wealth through trade and ownership of privateers, which would keep him in litigation for most of his life. In 1780, he returned to Philadelphia and married Anne Willing, the daughter of his then former business partner. Between William's wealth and kind demeanor, and Anne's beauty and spirit for entertainment, they would become Philadelphia's (and possibly the United States') leading social couple." Anne used her wealth and personal connections to recreate salon society, described as brilliant balls, sumptuous dinners and constant receptions, which she had experienced in Paris.

"The 1790s proved to be the high-point of Bingham's public life. Philadelphia was the nation's capitol, and Bingham played host to the so-called Federalist court. He used his large, extremely elegant Philadelphia mansion to entertain the political and social elites of the new country. By reputation Bingham was the wealthiest man in America, a view reinforced in 1800 when he was assessed the highest tax of anyone in Philadelphia.... As glamorous as the 1790s were for Bingham, they came to a crashing end. After the national capitol moved to Washington, D.C., his wife Anne died in 1801. Soon after Anne's death the distraught Bingham moved to England with his son. He died at Bath, England, in 1804, possibly following a stroke. Although his moment of glory was short-lived, Bingham certainly made a huge impression on the United States in its infancy.”

Anne Willing Bingham by Gilbert Stuart 1797
Philadelphia Museum of Art

The portrait was painted at Lansdown, the Bingham's country house on the Schuylkill River, not far from Fountain Green.
For more on Anne Bingham and Lansdown click here.

The rather revealing cut of her black dress draped with the large gold pendant on a gold chain.... most likely provoked excited gossip about this portrait in the city. This opulence is balanced by indication of her intellect, the books; she belonged to a generation of women who questioned the traditional roles for females as set by society and custom.

1 comment:

David Apatoff said...

It would be nice to know why it all came "crashing down." Did they have economic, health and political reversals all in the space of a couple of years? Why? Did William break a mirror or walk under a ladder or something?

I notice from these portraits that neither Anne nor Elizabeth were averse to slightly "revealing" pictures.

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