THE WORLD OF SAMUEL MEEKER, MERCHANT OF PHILADELPHIA, AND GILBERT STUART, AMERICAN PORTRAIT ARTIST

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

The Bingham estate is finally liquidated in 1964, heirs divide what is left; William Bingham on the front page of The New York Times!

On November 15, 1964, a picture and story of William Bingham was on the front page of The New York Times! I was alerted to this by the following sentence in “The Golden Voyage: The Life and Times of William Bingham 1752-1804” by Robert Alberts. (Scroll down for the Stuart portrait of Bingham or click here, and here for more on his wife Anne Willing Bingham and her Stuart portrait, socialite extraordinaire of the capital Philadelphia.) From the book; "On Sunday, November 15, 1964, one of the Stuart portraits of William Bingham appeared on the front page of the New York Times, with the story of his famous trust.”p.432

I am not sure why author Alberts designated the image (seen on left) as that of a portrait by Stuart! In any case, the article is a very interesting epilogue to William and Anne Willing Bingham, who were at the lofty top of the prominent political and social elite of Philadelphia during the time that this city was the capital of our nation (1790s). In one of my recent entries were the words “As glamorous as the 1790s were for Bingham, they came to a crashing end.”
A commentator wrote... 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?





The Crash

William for most of his relatively short life (died age 52) knew only success; vast riches and immense political success, all of which was gold-plated by the fortuitous choice of his wife, Anne Willing. From “These Fiery Frenchified Dames” by Susan Branson (University of Pennsylvania Press Philadelphia 2001); “Anne Bingham is well remembered in the various memoirs and reminiscences of Philadelphia society in the late eighteenth century. Her ability to facilitate political sociability by bringing together a wide variety of individuals at her balls, dinners, and theater parties, as well as her patronage of rising authors such as Susanna Rowson, marked her success as a true salonniere. The most remarkable thing about Bingham’s achievement is that she elevated social occasions to a new level. The combination of her well-learned lessons at home and abroad, with her presence at the center of the national political community, provided Bingham the opportunity to help create a public political space for women which had not previously existed in America.” p.140



Samuel Breck, famed memoire writer of that time, made an entry into in his diary on July 28, 1858 when he was 88 (he was a Schuylkill neighbor of Meeker)—...after recording the temps for that day, his mind returned to events of sixty years earlier, and once again to Anne Bingham. “Mrs. Bingham stood above competition in her day; nor has anyone of equal refinement in address, or social stateliness, and graceful superintendence of a splendid establishment, been produced since in any circle of our city.”



William doted on his wife. Life was the perfect picture of success until the first disaster, occuring in 1799. Maria, the second daughter, at the nubil young age of 15, eloped with the Comte de Tilly, causing a scandal that rocked society. He was handsome, experienced, an attentive French count; but poor, and more than twice her age. The parents fell into a raging swoon, kidnapping the daughter back from Tilly, and arranging for a divorce. A terrible terrible shock on all levels, for this family.
The second serious blow for William Bingham, occurring shortly after that 'devastating' event, was the removal of the federal government to Washington in the summer of 1800. The decision to not leave Philadelphia was surely difficult and heart-rending for William, but was made all the more easier by the pregnancy of Anne with her 3rd child, age 37.
The pregnancy went well, a boy was born in late December 1800.



But within months, Anne fell fatally ill. “Too soon after her confinement, against the instructions of her physician and the advice of her family and friends, Anne had gone on one of the day sleighing parties she loved so much—possibly an all-night party with a fiddler beside the coachman, warm bricks for the feet, frequent stops at taverns for hot punch and oyster stew, and travel over the snow with incredible speed and smoothness.” (from The Golden Voyage, p 411.)
It seems she caught pneumonia. Within a few weeks, she was dead, leaving William and their two daughters, and a baby son behind. It was the spring of 1801. Politics gone, beloved wife and mother gone, rocked by scandal—the family left for England. William left his infant son to the care of Thomas Willing (Anne’s brother).
In 1803 he became ill and died. It is suggested he never recovered from his wife’s death; clinical evidence indicates a stroke.




(from the article above; The New York Times Nov. 15, 1964)


The estate of a man reputed to have been the richest American when the 13 colonies won independence has been ordered liquidated.....William Bingham, a Philadelphia merchant and landowner who had been a Senator from Pennsylvania in the second United States Congres, died in 1804 while visiting Britain. His estate was held in trust. Once the estate owned 2,000,000 acres in Maine, but that was sold about the time of the Civil War.
Mr. Bingham also had extensive property holdings in New York and Pennsylvania, including huge tracts of wilderness in Potter, McKean, Elk and Tioga counties on this state’s northern border.
Some of the land was held jointly with his father-in-law, Thomas Willing, a former Mayor of Pennsylvania and an Associate Justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court before and after the Revolutionary War. R. Sturgis Ingersoll, one of the trustees of the estate terminated by Judge Alfred L. Taxis Jr. of the Montgomery County Orphans Court, said today that “nobody has the faintest idea” what the estate was orginally worth.
“He owned most of the state of Maine,” he continued. “He owned all of Mount Desert Island where the Northeast Harbor and Bar Harbor are located. He owned tens of thousands of acres of land in Western Pennsylvania.”
Judge Taxis said the assets-- $699,228 in principal and $138,009 in income—would be distributed in shares ranging from $25. to $55,000.
Mr. Ingersoll said the trustees disposed of the last of the real estate in July, mainly oil properties in western Pa that brought over $800,000. “The oil properties were producing less and less income,’ Mr Ingersoll said. ‘With the multiplication of beneficiaries and with the expenses of handling the estate running up, we thought it wise to sell and terminate the trust.”
Judge Taxis explained that under the terms of the trust it had no termination date and could therefore run indefinitely. He said that the rule of law against perpetuity did not apply in this instance.
Throughout the years, the income from the property or proceeds from the sale of the land was distributed to heirs, who were the beneficiaries of the trust. He said the trustees had “broad powers,” and could invest, buy or sell, being charged only with “prudent adminstration” of the estate. The estate at the time of Mr. Bingham’s death was worth much more than it was today, because much of it has been sold in the intervening years. He said that after the last land was sold, the trustees argued that there was no longer a need for a manager of the estate, and “I agreed with them,” and approved the liquidation. Mr. Bingham was born in Philadelphia in 1752. His two daughters married into the Baring banking family in England. One of his descendants was Lord Ashburton who, in 1842, negotiated the Webster-Ashburton treaty that settled the US-Canada boundary dispute.


Wealthy at age of 28.
William Bingham was an aristocratic entrepreneur who exploited his social and political connections and an intimate knowledge of the lucrative West Indian trade to become the richest man in Revolutionary American at the age of 28. He was born in 1752 of a wealthy Philadelphia family that had been prominent in England before some of its members emigrated to Pa in the early 18th century.
After his graduation from the College of Pennsylvania, the forefunner of the University of Pennsylvania, in 1768, he quickly established a reputation as a brilliant businessman and was made British Consul at St. Pierre on Martinique in 1770. Bingham’s duties were as much commercial as diplomatic and he used his position to begin amassing a fortune through private speculations in trade. The West Indies trade at the time was a tricornered business that consisted of shipping slaves from Africa to the Indies, where they were traded for sugar, shipping the sugar to New England, where it was made into rum, and then selling the rum in America, or exporting it to England, or using it to purchase more slaves in Africa.
After the Revolutionary War broke out, Bingham resigned his position as a British Consul and in 1776 became the West Indies commerical agent for the Continental Congress for four years. He continued his personal speculation in trade, however, and supplemented this by profitably investing in privateering vessels that preyed on British merchant shipping during the Revolution. Privateers were privately owned warships that obtained authorization, or letters of marque, from a government giving them the privilege of seizing enemy ships in wartime. The seized vessels and their cargoes were then sold and the profits divided amongst the government owners of the ship and the crew. The letters of marque distinguished privateering from ordinary piracy.
By 1780, when Bingham returned to Philadelphia, he was a millionaire and the wealthiest man in America.
That same year he married Anne Willing, a beautiful Philadelphia aristocrat. Miss Willing’s father was Thomas Willing, a wealthy merchant and the business partner of Robert Morris [click here for his Stuart portrait], a signer of the Declaration of Independence and the second-ranking American millionaire of the period.
Bingham and Thomas Willing became business associates and founded The Bank of North American, in 1781.
Anne Bingham also became the leading hostess in the city, at that time the country’s capital.
The Bingham mansion on Third street, with its marble stairways and liveried footmen, became an important social and political center for the Federalist party. General Washington was entertained there often and in one of his letters mentions that he had promised Anne Bingham to sit for a portrait by Gilbert Stuart. [the Lansdown portrait, click here]
The Binghams preserved the pre-Revolutionary custom of having footmen announce guests as they arrived for social occasions, however, this was said to have offended egalitarian moralists of the period.
Bingham made his purchases of more than 2 million acres of land in Maine in the late 1780s and early 90s for a reputed $250,000.00. Maine was at that time a province of the Commonwealth of Ma. Most of the first tract of approximately a million acres of timberland east of the Penobscot River was bought from the Commonwealth of Ma. The other tract of similar size along the Kennebec River was bought from General Henry Knox, President Washington’s Secretary of War.
There are no available estimates of what the land would be worth in terms of present real estate prices.
Bingham served in the United States Senate from 1795 to 1801 and was elected Senate president pro tempore in 1797.
He retired from public life in 1801 to manage his fortune. He was in Bath, England, when he died in 1804. He is buried in the parish church there.


~

2 comments:

David Apatoff said...

Thank you for satisfying our curiosity. I assumed that Bingham inherited much of his money through some royal land grant, and that his wealth slipped through his fingers because he lacked the common sense to preserve it. However, it seems that the reality was very different-- he played a major role in building his own wealth by the time he was 28.

The lesson seems to be that no matter how tough, rich and shrewd you are, there is no force on earth that can protect you from the lethal combination of a naive daughter and a good-for-nothing French romancer. That seems to be the event that started the ball rolling downhill. (As Francis Bacon said, "He that hath wife and children hath given hostages to fortune.")

StimmeDesHerzens said...

Yes, all that work, leading to such an end! He surely would have loved to take at least some of his riches with him to his reward! Another moral of the story is, don't raise kids using a nanny. (Haven't we heard that word bandied about lately?) Their baby son, William, did not prove to be anything more than a spoiled wastrel.
As the family had moved to England, the two daughters and their English husbands (brothers) remained there, so most of the multitude of future heirs were European, thus even the estate did not offer much financial benefit to Philadelphia.
But apparently, until the dreadful elopement unfolded, the 'French romancer' was accepted with open arms in the Bingahm Mansion (hint,remember Anne's portrait? more 'revealing' that what might have been considered proper in those days, and she was only in her 30s)
--wit and goodlooks? ...a lethal combination for a female of any age...

 
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