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Biography of Chauncey P. Williams
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CHAUNCEY P. WILLIAMS
AMONG the noted men of Albany Chauncey P. Williams stands in the front rank as a banker and financier. He is a native of Connecticut – a state which has furnished so many of the enterprising pioneers of our own and other states of the Union. He was born at Upper Middletown (now Cromwell), Conn., on the 5th of March, 1817, the son of Josiah and Charity Shaler Williams. His early years were spent upon his father’s farm, where in summer his physical powers were trained to healthful development by the labors of the farm, and his winters occupied in mental culture at the common school. He early developed a taste for mathematics and astronomy, and probably would have devoted his life to those sciences, but for the fact that circumstances made it imperative that he must earn his own way in the world. At the age of sixteen he accepted a clerkship with his brothers, the firm of T. S. Williams & Brothers, then engaged in extensive commercial business at Ithaca, N. Y. He remained at Ithaca two years, when in 1835 he was transferred to the Albany house of the same firm, then under the direction of Josiah B. Williams. In 1839 he succeeded to the business of the Albany house, which, in connection with Henry W. Sage as his partner, conducting the business of the new firm at Ithaca and elsewhere, continued through a long term of years.
Mr. Williams’ ancestry is of Welsh stock. Certain dim traditions claim for it an origin in common with that of Cromwell, lord protector of the English commonwealth. He traces it back only to Thomas Williams, whose first child Thomas, was born at Wethersfield, Conn., March 9, 1656. When the father, Thomas, came to Wethersfield, or from whence he came, is not known. A search through the accessible emigrant lists, from 1620 down to 1656, has failed to give us any information regarding him. If there is any truth in the traditions above referred to, it is hardly probable that he or his family, for several generations down from this time, would have felt proud of the relationship, or have laid claim to it with much earnestness, considering the fact that the minions of Charles II could not allow the bones of Cromwell to rest peacefully in his grave, but dug them up to hang them on Tyburn gallows; and three of the judges who condemned Charles I were hiding incognito in the caves and mountain fastnesses of New England to escape their vengeance.
Passionately fond of his studies in youth, Mr. Williams has been a student through life. While his mind and time have been closely occupied with affairs, his leisure hours have given him opportunity to pursue a course of study which has been largely in the line of finance and practical economics. The statistics of political science, banking and finance, the currency and related topics, with the general problems of political economy, have all occupied much of his attention. Perhaps no man in our city has investigated these subjects with more careful thought, or more profound research. He has boldly expressed his views in well-chosen words on the banking system, the financial situation of our country and on gold, silver and the coinage of the silver dollar. And though his statements have met with opposition in some quarters, yet his arguments are well worthy of close attention by those interested in banking institutions. Mr. Williams early collected the leading English and American publications on banking and financial matters; and to the study and analysis of the various assertions of many different authors in this line he has devoted a lifetime.
Mr. Williams first visited Albany in 1833, and two years later he became a permanent resident of our city. His well-known abilities as a financier were so highly appreciated that in 1861, at the commencement of the civil war, he was asked to take charge of the Albany Exchange bank, then greatly involved in financial difficulties. With such consummate wisdom, rare, ability and strict integrity did he perform his duties in this capacity, that after conducting its affairs through the trying period of the civil war, on closing its corporate existence as a state institution to become a national bank in 1865, the entire capital was returned to the shareholders with fifty-four per cent of surplus earnings.
During the civil war Mr. Williams’ bank was made the agent of the treasury in distributing the loans of the government to the people, in which he took great interest. Through those dark days many men of large financial experience, to whom the public looked up for advice, wavered and were led by their fears to avoid United States securities and to advise their friends to do likewise. So general became this apprehension that at one time the notes of our state banks commanded a premium of one or two per cent in Wall street, while railroad bonds, like New York Central sixes, which had usually sold at about 90, readily commanded 118; at the same time the gold-bearing sixes of the United States sold at 90. Through these trying days Mr. Williams stood with calm faith before the public, expressing his unwavering confidence in the ultimate issue. With circulars addressed to the public, and with unhesitating advice to his friends to invest in the bonds of the government as the best means to aid both it and themselves, he urged them to consider what securities would be valuable, if our government were allowed to perish ? These arguments so far prevailed that, after the close of the war, an agent of the government asserted that the community of Albany and its neighborhood were more generally salted with government securities than any other he knew.
The subject of our sketch was exempt by his age from the draft for military service during the war of the slaveholders’ rebellion. His interest in the struggle would, however, have led him to volunteer in the service, had he not felt satisfied that he was accomplishing more toward its favorable issue, in the position he occupied of strengthening the financial power of the government, by inducing the people to furnish the ” sinews of war,” than he could do by active service in the field. At the invitation of the secretary of war, however, he did furnish a representative recruit to serve in his stead in the person of John W. Robe, the present gentlemanly and efficient agent of the Albany News Company, who did effective service as a soldier of the Union in the Shenandoah Valley and elsewhere.
Mr. Williams continued as the financial officer of the National Albany Exchange bank, first as cashier and later as president during its entire corporate existence of twenty years, from 1865 to 1885, when, on closing its affairs, after regular semi-annual dividends, its whole capital with ninety-seven per cent of surplus earnings was restored to its share-holders. In 1885 the bank was reorganized under the title of the National Exchange bank of Albany, of which Mr. Williams was also elected president. But, in 1887, he withdrew from the responsible charge of the bank to secure more of calm and leisure. He still has charge of the business of the Albany Exchange Savings bank, which has been in his hands for twenty-five years, and also of such few interests of the expired National Albany Exchange bank as arc still unsettled.
While residing in a city in whose welfare he took so deep an interest, Mr. Williams never sought political preferment, but in 1849-50 he was persuaded to accept the nomination of alderman in his ward. He was elected and served with great credit to himself and his constituents.
The winter of 1875-6 Mr. Williams spent abroad, visiting the most interesting and famous places in England, France and Italy, and storing his mind with a varied knowledge of the scenery, manners and customs, literary and artistic treasures of the old world. He also studied with great care the working of the banking system abroad, the history of commercial and political science, and the mode of transacting every day business of life among foreign nations. He returned home with increased knowledge, but at the same time with a higher appreciation of his native land and the blessings of its free institutions.
Mr. Williams was always a true representative of the principles of universal freedom. From 1842 to 1857 he was the repeated candidate of the old liberty party – a party very unpopular in those times – for congress from the Albany district. He was an intense hater of human slavery in our country, belonging to that class of abolitionists of which Gerritt Smith, Alvan Stewart, James G. Birney, Beriah Green, Seth M. Gates, Joshua Leavitt, Arthur and Lewis Tappan, John G. Whittier and Charles Sumner were illustrious representatives. And the heart of no man in our midst was more gladdened than was that of Mr. Williams when, in the year 1863 – - forever memorable in American history – the hand of Abraham Lincoln penned the immortal emancipation proclamation by which the shackles which bound five millions of slaves were burst asunder, never more to be a blot and curse upon this free republic. In his opposition to the cruel system of slavery Mr. Williams was always ready to indorse the sentiments of the poet Campbell in his address to Nature as having produced man as lord of all:
“Say, was that lordly form inspired by thee.
To wear eternal chains and bow the knee?
Was man ordained the slave of man to toil.
Yoked with the brutes, and fetter’d to the soil,
Weigh’d in a tyrant’s balance with his gold? No ! ”
In 1868, Mr. Williams published in a pamphlet form of forty-six octavo pages, an able “Review of the Financial Situation of our Country.” The financial question was then especially one of absorbing interest to all citizens throughout the land; and in this pamphlet he expressed his mature views of the whole subject, in which the four per cent bond was proposed. And a task like this, he was, by previous study and research, admirably qualified to perform in a most satisfactory manner.
In this pamphlet Mr. Williams opposes as the worst possible economy, the continuance of an inconvertible legal tender currency; and of the suicidal policy of entertaining schemes of partial repudiation, which in seductive form were then rife – the most formidable of which were a proposal of * Gen John A. Logan in congress to tax the coupons of all United States bonds two per cent of the principal of the bonds per annum by deducting the tax from the interest as paid at the treasury- and a proposal offered in the senate to the holders of the United States bonds to accept a bond at a lower rate of interest under the threat that the bonds then held might be paid off in greenbacks. He urges the course of keeping the strictest faith with the public creditor, even to the length of construing all questions of doubt against ourselves; as being the true interest of the country, and the easiest policy for the payment of its great debt. The subsequent twenty years have most fully justified all his advice then offered.
In 1875 Mr. Williams read a paper before the Albany institute on “Money: True or False.” It was full of practical suggestions, and received general attention. In it he showed the folly of making any further advance in the issues of inconvertible paper money, and of the absolute necessity of returning to a sound specie basis. The inflationist’s were, of course, opposed to his views, which, on the other hand, met with the hearty approval of all broad, farseeing and thoroughly-educated financiers.
Mr. Williams contributed a series of papers to the Albany Journal, in 1878, on “The Greenback Question,” in which he arrayed himself boldly against the principles of the greenback, labor or national party. The state of Ohio had at this time exhibited a strong leaning toward the greenback, and a national party favoring the adoption of irredeemable currency as a permanent money policy, with Peter Cooper as its candidate for president, was making progress in gaining the people’s approval. Mr. Williams’ articles exposed, in irrefutable terms, the absurdity of making a measure of value and medium of exchange, out of a thing which by universal acknowledgment possessed no value.
In 1886 Mr. Williams, continuing his labors on the subject of the currency, read another valuable paper before the Albany institute, on the subject of “Gold, Silver, and the Coinage of the Silver Dollar.” This was afterward issued in a pamphlet form, and very generally commended for the strong arguments and sound financial views presented in it.
The latest great public effort of Mr. Williams is an “Address on the National Banks and State Taxation,” delivered before the American Bankers’ association at Pittsburg, Pa., on the 13th of October, 18S7. In this address, which was published by the Bankers’ association, he criticizes at considerable length and with great force and comprehensiveness the recent adverse decision of the supreme court of the United States in exempting the stocks of other corporations from taxation, when at the same time the shares of the national banks are taxed, notwithstanding the restriction of congress limiting the taxation of such shares to a rate not greater than is imposed upon other moneyed capital. It is an address, to say nothing of the principles involved, which exhibits the most careful, profound and exhaustive research, and establishes the full reputation of its author as an accomplished writer on the great banking and financial problems of the day.
Mr. Williams has made himself conspicuous in opposing what he regarded as the excessive, unwarrantable and illegal taxation of the shareholders of banks throughout most of the United States, and especially of the state of New York. He has conducted suits on his own individual responsibility, running through more than twenty years, at an expense of more than $15,000 to bring the state laws imposing these excessive taxes to the adjudication of the United States Supreme Court.
In 1842 Mr. Williams married Miss Martha A. Hough, of Whitestown, N. Y. He has one son and two daughters living. One of his daughters was married some years ago to Robert C. Pruyn, president of the National Commercial bank of Albany, and his son, Capt. C. P. Williams, Jr., recently married Miss Emma McClure, a daughter of the late Archibald McClure, so prominently identified with the drug business, and also with many public and philanthropic matters relating to the welfare of the city of Albany.
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