Biddle's preparatory education was received at an academy in Philadelphia, where his progress was so rapid that he entered the class of 1799 in the University of Pennsylvania, and would have taken his degree at the age of thirteen had it not been deemed wise to keep him longer at his books. He was accordingly sent to Princeton, entered the sophomore class, and graduated in 1801 as valedictorian, dividing the first honor of the class with his only rival.
The ancestors of the Biddle family came to the United States with William Penn, and fought in the pre-Revolutionary colonial struggles. In the American Revolutionary War, Charles, father of Nicholas, was prominent in devotion to the cause, while his uncle was an early naval hero. Another uncle served in the old French war, and was a member of the congress of 1774.
Biddle was offered an official position before he had finished his law studies. As secretary to John Armstrong, United States minister to France, he went abroad in 1804, was in Paris at the time of Napoleon's coronation, and afterward, Biddle participated in an audit related to the Louisiana Purchase, acquiring his first experience in financial affairs.
Afterward, Biddle traveled extensively through Europe and Greece, returning to England to serve as secretary for James Monroe, then United States minister to England. Accompanying him to Cambridge, Biddle took part in a conversation involving a comparison between the modern Greek dialect with that of Homer with Cambridge professors. The incident captured Monroe's attention.
In 1807, Biddle returned home to practice law and write, contributing papers on various subjects, but chiefly on the fine arts, to different publications. He became associate editor of a magazine called Port-Folio, which ran from 1806 to 1823. When editor Joseph Dennie died in 1812, Biddle took over the magazine.
Biddle also prepared Lewis and Clark's report of their exploring expedition to the mouth of Columbia River for publication. He encouraged Thomas Jefferson to write an introductory memoir of Captain Meriwether Lewis. Biddle's name does not appear, as he was elected to the state legislature (1810-1811), and was compelled to turn over the whole work to Paul Allen, who supervised its publication, and, with the consent of all parties, was the recognized editor. It is said, however, by Robert T. Conrad, that Biddle actually wrote the two volumes from Lewis and Clark's notes.
In the legislature Biddle quickly became prominent. He originated a bill favoring popular education, a quarter of a century in advance of the times. The bill was defeated, but came up again in different forms until, in 1836, the Pennsylvania common-school system was inaugurated as a direct result of his efforts. He was more successful in advocating the re-charter of the Bank of the United States, which was his first step toward a financial career. The War of 1812 intervened. Moving to the state senate, the United States bank was re-chartered in 1819 and President Monroe appointed him a government director. Upon the resignation of bank president Langdon Cheves, Biddle ascended to president. During his connection with it he was appointed by Monroe, under authority from congress, to prepare a "Commercial Digest" of the laws and trade regulations of the world, for many years regarded as an authority.
The "bank war," inaugurated by President Andrew Jackson in 1829, undermined the credit of the institution, and after the bill for its re-charter was vetoed in 1832, Biddle's efforts to save the bank failed. The withdrawal of the government deposits by Jackson's order in 1833 precipitated financial disasters that involved the whole country. Biddle's friends assert that his non-partisanship provoked Jackson's hostility, a claim denied by Jackson's admirers. The literature of the "bank war" is voluminous, including a series of letters by Mr. Biddle, vindicating his own course. In 1839 he resigned the bank presidency, and in 1841 the bank failed.
He was a leading spirit in the establishment of Girard College under the provisions of the founder's will, and remained respected in spite of the tainted conclusion of his financial career.
Nicholas Biddle was the brother of author Richard Biddle and father of soldier Charles John Biddle.
adapted from an entry in Appleton's Cyclopedia of American Biography, originally published in 1887.