"MERCHANTS OF WAR" - Barings and Bingham, Revolutionary Bankers from the War of Independence to the Louisiana Purchase
My wife and I were walking part of Devon’s South West coast path along a section that had been described to us as Lord Revelstoke’s carriage drive. A passing interest in who Lord Revelstoke might have been and why he should build this splendid drive led to a series of connections which took me back in time to Philadelphia in 1774 and the first Continental Congress.
Lord Revelstoke, it turned out was Edward Charles Baring, who had acquired the Membland Estate in 1876, whilst he was senior partner of Baring Brothers Bank. His fellow senior partner in the Bank and cousin, Henry Bingham Mildmay, had also acquired the adjacent estate of Flete at much the same time. The two Barings men had married sisters who had grown up at Flete before the estate (and that of Membland) had been lost to their family through some distant financial disaster. The question of why and how the two London bankers would marry two Devon sisters was still hanging when I read of the Barings Bank Crashof 1890 – the one that preceded the Nick Leeson affair by almost 100 years, and in its time of equal magnitude, if not with quite such devastating results.
Barings Bank crashed in 1890 because of one speculative investment too far in Argentina – the partners seemed somehow distracted in Devon. Only reluctant but decisive action by the Bank of England with support from, amongst others, Lord Rothschild, saved a run on British and European Banks. Barings, as was the custom at the time for merchant banks was a partnership and the liabilities of the partners unlimited. The quid pro quo imposed by the Bank of England on the partners, in particular Lord Revelstoke and Henry Bingham Mildmay was draconian – in effect putting both men into bankruptcy, and requiring the disposal of the Devon estates, the Mayfair townhouses and the sale of their sumptuous contents.
I resolved to write that story, perhaps as a piece for local TV, but as the research continued I felt that I needed to know more of the early history of Barings Bank, the Baring family, and merchant banking in general.
From relatively humble roots in the wool trade in northern Germany, they (Barings) were to become possibly the first and certainly the most successful merchant bank in the world. Francis and John Baring established their merchant house in 1762 in London, just one of many attempting to service the huge expansion of world trade at the end of the 18th century. They were finding their feet and beginning to turn a profit in the years running up to the American War of Independence. And yet little more than 25 years later they had financed, in association with the Dutch bank, Hope & Co, the Louisiana Purchase, and were described later by Richelieu as the “Sixth greatest power in Europe after Britain, France, Russia ,Austria and Prussia”. This change from just another merchant house to pre-eminence happened around the time of and just after the American War of Independence and the creation of the United States. Was it a coincidence? And who was this Senator from Philadelphia, William Bingham who appears in the Baring family tree in 1798 and who’s descendent, Henry Bingham Mildmay, was so publicly involved in the crash of 1890?
Researching William Bingham led inevitably to his clandestine role in supplying Washington’s army as agent for the Continental Congress in French Martinique and his connection with Philadelphia merchants Thomas Willing and Robert Morris. The firm of Willing & Morris was deeply involved in the financing and organisation of the revolutionary war. Barings Bank acquired the agency of the United States in 1804. President John Adams said (after his term of office) of William Bingham “that he, Washington and the country had really been governed by Bingham and his family connections”.
To answer these questions, I started with the definitive and scholarly history “The Sixth Great Power, Barings 1762-1929” by Philip Ziegler. This led in turn to Robert C Alberts’ biography of William Bingham “The Golden Voyage”, and then to Marten G. Buist’s history on Hopes Bank, “At Spes Non Fracta”. From this research it became clear that the American War of Independence was a critical part of the story, but not for the reasons I had expected.
I also decided that these three source documents were like ships passing in the night, each dealing with part of the story, so I set out to go back as far as possible using original documents to get a fuller picture of events. Reflecting on the times I thought that perhaps gun-running or slave trading might have been the secret for success that I was looking for, but time spent in the Baring archive did not identify any smoking guns or slave ships. However, Francis Baring’s General Ledger for the year 1775 revealed the name of Philadelphia’s foremost merchants Willing & Morris, and as it turns out, this was the critical connection.
I have used countless other sources to get a broader perspective on this remarkable story. I have been allowed access to the Barings Archive in London and studied hundreds of documents from sources in Britain and America, to write the book which uncovers the secret of Barings Brothers Bank's success and the connections that contributed to the rise of the American nation.
“Merchants of War” covers events that took place well over 200 years ago that have shaped the modern world and in particular laid the foundations for a super power – the United States of America, and forced Britain to create another Empire elsewhere in the world.
This history comes to an end in 1804, but opens the door for the next one, "Same Old Game!", which was actually the first one, which ends in 1900. And the last story, “Finale” ends, not surprisingly in 1995................
In 1775 John and Francis Baring & Company was just one of many merchant houses in London riding the wave of expanding world trade. By 1803, Baring Brothers Bank and its Dutch associate had financed the Louisiana Purchase, a remarkable achievement due in no small part to the bank's connections in particular with wealthy Philadelphia merchant and later senator William Bingham. This book describes the events and relationships that established Barings as the world'd first merchant bank and how it played a major role in transforming the United States into an international superpower. Appendices examine the genealogy of the Baring, Bingham and Willing families; the impact of these bankimg pioneers on English aristocracy; the life of Anne Willing Bingham; and information on locations featured in the book, among other topics.
"MERCHANTS OF WAR" - THE RESEARCH
My interest in the story came from my curiosity about the estates in Devon acquired by the Barings Bank partners and their sudden loss in 1890. I did not realise at the time that the family had grown from humble roots in the wool trade in Devon.
John Baring, the first in the line, had made enough money from the family wool business to send his second son Francis, to London to be educated and apprenticed as a merchant. Francis Baring became the pre-eminent merchant and banker in London, became the first identifiable “merchant banker”, financed the US government’s Louisiana Purchase in 1803 and acquired the agency of the United States soon after.
How did all this happen so fast? The official histories of Barings were not much help, but Robert C. Alberts in his biography of William Bingham, the Golden Voyage, got very close but did not pursue the story, after all his subject was Bingham and not Baring.
So I decided that I would go back to as many original documents as I could find, and find the answer to my question myself.
I contacted the Baring Archive and asked permission to look at any documents that might exist for the very early years of John & Francis Baring, which opened its doors in 1762, a turbulent time at the end of the Seven Years War which established Britain as the dominant maritime nation in Europe, and through the East India Company, the world.
The only documents in the Baring archive that have survived from that period are the General Ledgers for each year that show the accounts with all the firm’s correspondents, and for those early years are in French, for which I was not properly prepared. (At the time French was the language of commerce, and employing a French scribe was de-rigeur)
I had no idea what I was looking for – I had the notion that financing/supplying arms to the rebellious American colonies might be the answer and would fit in with the timescale – Barings grew rapidly from 1775 onwards, so I trawled for names.
I had my eureka moment when in the Ledgers for 1775 and 1776 I found the names of Philadelphia merchants Willing & Morris, French aristocrat and composer Caron de Beaumarchais, and American founding father Benjamin Franklin! I had found some vital clues but was a long way from working it all out. And in the Ledgers for 1784 and 1785 I found the name of William Bingham, a wealthy merchant and would-be politician from Philadelphia.
By now I knew that Willing & Morris were the most significant merchants in Philadelphia and probably the whole of the colonies, and were key in financing George Washington’s Continental Army. Thomas Willing and Robert Morris were members of the Committee of Correspondence that conducted the war with Britain.
Caron de Beaumarchais assisted personally with raising funds for the American cause against Britain, and in encouraging the French government to do the same.
Benjamin Franklin, by this time had returned to America after failing to convince the British government to improve the rights of the colonists, and was immediately appointed to the Committee of Correspondence, and created and chaired the Committee of Secret Correspondence which conducted the war politically and strategically. To this end Benjamin Franklin sent a very young merchant to French Martinique in the Caribbean to act as agent for what had now become the rebellious United States of America. The young agent was William Bingham, and he appears in Barings Bank records in 1784.
It looked as though the next stage of the story would be in America so spent some time at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, at the Winterthur Museum in New Jersey, and the Smithsonian in Washington DC. And so it was.
I now know how Barings Brothers Bank became the world’s first merchant bank, financed the Louisiana Purchase, and how its family members dominated British politics for more than a hundred years.
All the answers will be found in "Merchants of War" -Barings & Bingham, Revolutionary Bankers from the War of Independence to the Louisiana Purchase, and now available in paperback from the Amazon Bookstore.