Stephen Whitney

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For the ship named after this person, see Stephen Whitney (ship).
Stephen Whitney
Stephen Whitney Portrait.jpg
Stephen Whitney
Born (1776-09-04)September 4, 1776
Derby, Connecticut
Died February 16, 1860(1860-02-16) (aged 83)
New York, New York
Residence 7 Bowling Green
Nationality American
Occupation Merchant
Known for Wealthy merchant and prominent citizen
Spouse(s) Harriet Suydam

Stephen Whitney (1776–1860) was one of the wealthiest merchants in New York City in the first half of the 19th century. His fortune was considered second only to that of John Jacob Astor. As a prominent citizen of the rapidly growing city, he helped to build some of its institutions, including the Merchants' Exchange Building, the first permanent home of the New York stock exchange.

Early life[edit]

Stephen Whitney was born in humble circumstances in Derby, Connecticut, on September 4, 1776. He was a descendant of Henry Whitney (1615-1673),[1] who immigrated to southern Connecticut in the mid-seventeenth century. Whitney moved to New York City in his early twenties, taking a job in his brother Henry's business firm Lawrence & Whitney. By 1800 Whitney had accumulated enough capital to go into business as a grocer and an importer of wine and spirits on his own, at first in partnership with a Scotsman named John Currie. He married Harriet Suydam, the sister of his brother's wife, in 1803,when he was 26 years old.[2]

War of 1812[edit]

During the War of 1812, American cotton had become almost worthless due to an embargo on exports. Whitney arranged through agents to accept cotton as payment for debts owed him in the South. He was able to export some of that cotton during the war through Amelia Island in northern Florida, at the time still part of neutral Spain. When the war ended in 1815, he owned warehouses full of cotton. He is also reported to have purchased all the cotton bales used to build fortifications by Andrew Jackson's army during the Battle of New Orleans.[3] When the embargo was lifted, the price of cotton shot up, and he became a wealthy man. By 1818—at age 42—he was able to retire from commerce.[2]

Later life[edit]

Whitney turned his attention to investing his fortune. He bought up real estate in the city, especially in the area around Pearl Street and lower Manhattan. He was a director of both the National Bank of Commerce in New York, of which he was a founder in 1839,[4] and the Bank of America. He invested in shipping, including the China trade and the Robert Kermit Red Star Line of packets. One of the Kermit Line vessels was named for him (the ship Stephen Whitney). Other interests were insurance, canals, and the new railroads (he was a director of the New Jersey Rail Road).[5]

lithograph of the Great Fire of New York City in 1835, the burning of the Merchants' Exchange Building
The Merchants' Exchange Building burning in 1835

In 1827, he joined William Backhouse Astor, son of John Jacob Astor, in building a Merchants' Exchange Building at the corner of Wall and William Streets. The New York Stock and Exchange Board moved their operations from the Tontine Coffee House to the new building, adopting it as their first permanent home.[6] In the 1840s he was involved in the founding of Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn.[2]

Much of lower Manhattan was destroyed in a disastrous fire in December of 1835. The Merchants Stock and Exchange Building was one of the losses (a new building, the second building of that name, was built on the site and still stands today). Stephen Whitney was one of the many prominent citizens who served on the committee to help the city rebuild.

Two years later, he managed to make a huge profit from the Panic of 1837. He bought up commercial paper during the panic, and held it until it had rebounded. This greatly increased his wealth, making him a millionaire.

Politically, Whitney was an "Old-Line Whig", and like many New Yorkers he was a supporter of Henry Clay.[7] In 1852 Whitney was one of the leaders in organizing the City Reform League, which spearheaded a movement to wrest some of the power away from corrupt city aldermen.[8]

In 1825, Whitney had a town house built at Number 7 Bowling Green, at the corner of State Street and Broadway—the current site of the old Custom House that is now home to the Heye Indian Museum. The seven houses in the block, which faced across Bowling Green and straight up Broadway, were among the most fashionable in the city when they were built. However, as the city quickly evolved, wealthy residents began to move "uptown" to Washington Square and Fifth Avenue. Stephen Whitney, who was famous for refusing to bend to fashion, was still living at 7 Bowling Green when he died at home on February 16, 1860, even though the neighborhood had become somewhat run down and all of his peers had moved away.[7] An elaborate funeral was held at Trinity Church, after which he was buried at Green-Wood Cemetery.[9] The executors of his estate later had a marble chapel built at his burial site.[10] Harriet Suydam Whitney died four months later, in May 1860.[11]

The contents of the Whitney living room at 7 Bowling Green have been on permanent display at the Museum of the City of New York since 1936.[12]

Whitney was among the first multi-millionaires in the city. Many accounts refer to his fortune as second only to that of John Jacob Astor, who died in 1848 with an estate of $20 million. Whitney's wealth was estimated at his death to be at least $8 million, although some thought it was $10 or even $15 million.[5] Unlike the Astors, he was not given to public philanthropy, and the result is that the Whitney name is not remembered in the city the way that the Astor name is.

References[edit]

  1. ^ "Whitney, Henry (s1615-1673)". Whitney family web site. Retrieved March 26, 2011.  (sources on page include historical publications)
  2. ^ a b c Phoenix, Stephen Whitney (1878). The Whitney family of Connecticut, and its affiliations: being an attempt to trace the descendants, as well in the female as the male lines, of Henry Whitney, from 1649 to 1878. Bradford Press. pp. 119–123. 
  3. ^ "A Fortune Out Of Andrew Jackson's Breastworks". New York Times. October 25, 1886. 
  4. ^ One Hundredth Anniversary of the New York Stock Exchange. New York Stock Exchange. 
  5. ^ a b Vincent, Francis (1860). Vincent's Semi-Annual Register, January–June 1860. F. Vincent. p. 112. 
  6. ^ Minor, David (Fall 2004). "1827 - Place of Business". Crooked Lake Review (133). 
  7. ^ a b "Stephen Whitney Obituary". New York Times. February 17, 1860. 
  8. ^ Burrows, Wallace (2000). Gotham: a History of New York City to 1898. Oxford University Press US. p. 830. 
  9. ^ "Funeral of the Late Stephen Whitney". New York Times. February 20, 1860. Retrieved 12 March 2011. 
  10. ^ "Stephen Whitney - a Chapel for Visitors". Museum Planet. Retrieved 12 March 2011. 
  11. ^ "Died". New York Times. May 14, 1860. Retrieved 12 March 2011. 
  12. ^ "By-Gone City Era Shown In Museum". New York Times. May 5, 1936. Retrieved 12 March 2011.