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Blodget, Samuel, Jr.locked

(28 August 1757–11 April 1814)
  • Kenneth Hafertepe

Blodget, Samuel, Jr. (28 August 1757–11 April 1814), entrepreneur, architect, and economist, was born in Goffstown, New Hampshire, the son of Samuel Blodget and Hannah White. The elder Blodget was a merchant, manufacturer, and canal builder, and also a visionary, having developed machinery for raising sunken ships. The son seems to have inherited the father’s versatility and visionary quality.

The younger Blodget served in the New Hampshire militia from 1775 to 1777, then resigned to pursue the mercantile trade in Exeter, New Hampshire, and in Boston, in partnership with Daniel Gilman, a younger son of an Exeter family prominent in New Hampshire politics. Blodget made two trips to Europe, in 1784 and again around 1790. He married Dorothy Folsom in Exeter in 1778; she died in Philadelphia in 1790. Two years later he married Rebecca Smith, the daughter of the provost of the University of Pennsylvania.

In 1789 Blodget moved from Boston to Philadelphia, but he continued to conduct business in Boston. In 1791 he was a founder of the Boston Tontine Association, a life insurance scheme in which individuals purchased a subscription and received an annuity. As each subscriber died his annuity was divided among the survivors, and the last subscriber took all. When the tontine failed to attract sufficient subscribers, the members, including Blodget, used the funds to found the Union Bank in 1792.

In that same year Blodget and former postmaster general Ebenezer Hazard announced another tontine arrangement in Philadelphia. Again sales went poorly, and the subscribers decided to use the funds to organize the Insurance Company of North America. This company underwrote merchants’ ships at sea; within a few years, it expanded to offer fire insurance and life insurance. Blodget sold a great deal of the stock himself—40,000 shares were bought within eleven days, the greatest triumph of his entrepreneurial career. He was elected to the board of directors and served until 1799.

Blodget was an early advocate for the new District of Columbia, both as an investor and as an architect. In January 1792, months before the official sale of lots, he purchased 494 acres, known as the Jamaica tract, for $36,000. His first known venture as an amateur architect was a design for the U.S. Capitol, which owed a great deal to conversations with Thomas Jefferson. The building was to have four porticoes and a dome; the columns were based on the Corinthian order of the Maison Carrée at Nîmes and the dome on that of the Halle aux Blés in Paris. All these features Jefferson admired individually, if not in the combination Blodget proposed. The plan, however, was not adopted.

Undeterred, Blodget lobbied for the position of superintendent of buildings. George Washington acknowledged in a letter of 30 November 1792 that Blodget had traveled extensively, claimed to have studied architecture, “and is certainly a projecting Genius,” yet he was unsure whether Blodget was the right man for the job. In spite of Washington’s reservations, Blodget was appointed early in 1793.

On taking office Blodget proposed a lottery to raise funds for the district. First prize was a hotel worth $50,000, designed by James Hoban, architect of the White House. When the winners were not announced in fall 1793, the capital commissioners declared Blodget personally liable for the lottery, and there his financial problems began. In January 1794 the commissioners informed Blodget that his continued service was impracticable, given that he was not resident in the city and given his involvement in the lottery. In October 1794 the lottery winner, Robert S. Bickley, discovered that the hotel was unfinished, and in 1798 he brought suit against Blodget.

With Benjamin Stoddert, another investor in district lands and later secretary of the navy under John Adams, Blodget founded the Bank of Columbia, the first private bank in the district. The state of Maryland chartered the bank in December 1793, permitting the capital commissioners, acting for the federal government, to subscribe for up to 2,000 shares in the bank, though the commissioners actually purchased 1,053 shares. Blodget served as president for one year, then was succeeded by Stoddert.

The building for which Blodget is remembered as an architect—indeed, his only built work—is the Bank of the United States in Philadelphia (1795). Its exterior was strongly influenced by Thomas Cooley’s Royal Exchange in Dublin, but the Gazette of the United States observed that the proportions of the portico corresponded to those of the Maison Carrée, and that the six Corinthian columns were ornamented as “at Palmyra and Rome when architecture was at its zenith in the Augustan age.” The first-floor banking room featured two rows of Corinthian columns supporting a barrel vault, which ran from front to back. The interior was completely remodeled by James Windrim in 1901, but Blodget’s monumental exterior stands largely intact.

In 1802 the Pennsylvania courts ruled that Blodget owed Bickley the title to the unfinished hotel and an additional $21,500 to complete it. Blodget found himself in debtor’s prison, and his property was sold off in 1805. However, the proceeds were not even near the required sum of $21,500, and an additional sale of property was held in 1813.

Blodget was an outspoken advocate for building a combined monument to Washington and a national university. In an 1803 memorial to Congress he proposed that Washington’s tomb be placed in the center of the complex, encircled with a portico and surrounded with buildings of the college, much like the Timoleonton in Syracuse, as described in Plutarch. Blodget began collecting $5 donations for the project and continued to do so even while in debtor’s prison. At his death he had accumulated some $7,000, but, as with so many of his ideas, nothing ever came of it, and the money disappeared.

Besides his work as a gentleman architect, Blodget was also one of the earliest American writers on political economy. His first publication was Thoughts on the Increasing Wealth and National Economy of the United States of America, a pamphlet published in Washington in 1801. Not surprisingly, he praised Alexander Hamilton’s report on public credit. Blodget argued that cheap and extensive lands in the United States would give a much higher return for labor than in Great Britain; he proposed a policy of mercantile expansionism and urged the government to borrow from other countries and to maintain a constantly increasing money supply.

Blodget’s principal written work, Economica: A Statistical Manual for the United States (1806), is considered to be the earliest American book on economics. It is a fairly miscellaneous collection of materials, including a lengthy prefatory address, a chronology of American history, notes on agriculture, commerce, and banking, and an appendix devoted to his pet project of a national university. A modern economic historian has characterized Blodget’s estimates of 1805 as “a heroic one-man effort with weak statistical underpinnings.” A second printing in 1810 added the results of the years 1805 to 1809 and offered “Thoughts on a Plan of Economy (Suited to the Crisis of 1808).”

As a gentleman architect Blodget drew on contemporary European neoclassicism and its ancient sources to create a dignified image for the First Bank. As an entrepreneur and economist he saw banks, insurance companies, and other financial institutions as agents of stability, development, and democracy. He eagerly embraced the industrial and consumer revolutions of the eighteenth century and foresaw the United States as a continental nation. His optimism frequently outran his prudence, for which he ultimately paid a heavy price. He died in a Baltimore hospital.

Bibliography

Economica is a critical primary source on Blodget, as are the papers of Washington, Jefferson, and Madison and a sprinkling of Blodget papers at the Massachusetts Historical Society. On the First Bank, see James O. Wettereau, “The Oldest Bank Building in the United States,” in Historic Philadelphia: From the Founding until the Early Nineteenth Century, American Philosophical Society Transactions, vol. 43, part 1 (1953). On Blodget’s business affairs see Marquis James, Biography of a Business: 1792–1942: Insurance Company of North America (1942), and John Joseph Walsh, Early Banks in the District of Columbia, 1792–1818 (1940). On Blodget’s activities in Washington see Wilhelmus Bogart Bryan, A History of the National Capital (1914). For an assessment by an economic historian, see Alice Hanson Jones, Wealth of a Nation to Be (1980), p. 82.