Before he locked horns with President Andrew Jackson over the fate of the “many headed monster” (a.k.a. The Second Bank of the United States), banker Nicholas Biddle fancied himself something of a poet and aesthete. Born to wealth and blessed with brilliance, Biddle graduated from Princeton University — at the head of his class — at the tender age of 15. This was only after the University of Pennsylvania refused to grant the Philadelphia wunderkind a bachelors degree a few years before.
Like John Quincy Adams, Biddle (1785-1844) was well-traveled from an early age. In 1804, he accompanied the American minister John Armstrong to France as his personal secretary, and sat in the pews of Notre-Dame as Napoleon Bonaparte crowned himself Emperor of France. In England, the dashing and probably cocky Nicholas had the gumption to verbally spar with University of Cambridge dons about the differences between ancient and modern Greek. Biddle’s sojourns were hardly unique. By the early 1800s, scores of Americans had visited Europe either as diplomats or merrymakers on the “Grand Tour.” Another Philadelphian, the late Dr. Benjamin Franklin, was still revered in France, where his bespectacled visage still adorned countless Parisian homes. John Quincy Adams had been as far afield as St. Petersburg, where he served as America’s first minister to Russia.
But Nicholas Biddle was only the second American to visit Greece, the birthplace of modern democracy. In May 1806, the young Philadelphian sailed from the Italian port of Trieste and landed in Zante, Greece. For three months, he roamed through the land which had been “the first brilliant object that met my infancy.” Like many well-educated men of his time, Biddle supported Greece’s struggle for independence from the Ottoman Empire. Another aristocratic man of letters, Lord Byron, died fighting with the Greek army twenty years after Biddle’s visit. Composer Ludwig van Beethoven wrote incidental music for August von Kotzebue’s 1811 play The Ruins of Athens for a performance in Budapest. Giovanni Battista Piranesi’s engravings of classical ruins were wildly popular in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and inspired the Americans architects such as Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Latrobe.
Biddle, himself possessed of Byronic good looks, was conscious of the influence that Greek philosophers had on American political theorists. ”Where are her orators?” he wrote of the Greeks. “Gone forth to enlighten distant nation without a solitary ray for their country. Whilst foreign erudition has lighted its lamp at the flame of their genius, their works are unknown to posterity.”
As Biddle gazed at the ruins of the Acropolis in Athens, he came to believe that this architectural language was best suited to the ideals of new American Republic, which strangely like Greece was heavily based on chattel slavery. To Biddle, the best Greek buildings had an understated majesty. This was a result of their purity of form, use of the “Golden Ratio” of 1 to 1.618, and richness of materials over mere ornamentation.
The Parthenon, commissioned by Pericles and designed by the architect Iktinos in the 5th century B.C., was built using the most “masculine” of the Greek orders: Doric. In the Doric order, columns were massive and fluted, and topped by smooth flared capitals. The architrave – the stone lintel supported by the columns – was likewise spare, decorated with grooved triglyphs and metopes that mimicked earlier wooden post-and-lintel construction. Because of its austerity, the Doric was the least popular order in neoclassical Western architecture, particularly in the churches and palaces that Biddle saw in France and Rome. The other two orders, Ionic and Corinthian, were more elaborate and romantic in their aesthetic. In the new American capital of Washington, D.C., architect William Thornton used the Corinthian order on the Capitol Building, while James Hoban used Ionic for his “presidential palace,” more popularly known as the White House. But to Biddle, the Doric’s restraint appealed to his purest classical sensibilities, in which less was indeed more. And Doric was not tainted with associations with Imperial Rome and the European absolutist monarchies that followed it.
Biddle might have revered the ancient Greeks, but he was disgusted by the state of Athenian affairs in 1806. He, like many Westerners, blamed Greece’s sorry state on the Turks. The Parthenon was a victim of this long occupation. In 1687, after having stood nearly intact for centuries, the Parthenon, which the Turks were using as an arsenal, was hit by a shell from Venetian guns. Biddle gazed on the crumbling ruins with despair. “Are these few wretches, scarcely superior to the beasts whom they drive heedlessly over the ruins, are these men Athenians?” he wrote. “Where is their freedom? Alas! This is the keenest stab of all. Bowed down by a foul oppression, the spirit of Athens has bent under slavery. The deliberations of her assemblies were once their laws; they now obey the orders of a distant master, and on the citadel itself, the protectress & the asylum of Grecian freedom, now sits a little Turkish despot to terrify & to command.”
Overture and chorus from “The Ruins of Athens” by Ludwig van Beethoven.
The “little Turkish despot” Biddle referred to was most likely not a man, but the small mosque that the Turks had built in the middle of the ruined Parthenon.
When Biddle returned to Philadelphia, he must have looked with dismay at the architecture of his own sober Quaker City. Most of its buildings were of plain red brick with white wood trim, various versions of the British-influenced Georgian or the somewhat newer Roman-influenced Federal style. Over the coming years, as Biddle rapidly ascended local and national power structures, Biddle made it his mission to transform the City of Brotherly Love (φιλεω “to love” and αδελφος ”brother”) into the Athens of America. He founded and edited Port-Folio, the nation’s first literary magazine. Soon after he married the heiress Jane Craig, Biddle remodeled his country residence “Andalusia” on the Delaware River and his city home on the 700 block of Spruce Street in the Greek style. When appointed as the head of the Second Bank of the United States, Biddle commissioned the architect William Strickland to build an adaptation of the Parthenon as its new home. Completed in 1824, it was made entirely of Pennsylvania blue marble.
Nicholas Biddle’s mortal struggle with President Andrew Jackson is well-known, as is his hubristic fall from grace. Yet the beautiful Greek-influenced buildings he commissioned in and around Philadelphia still grace his native city, which was once known as the Athens of America.
William Harris, “The Golden Mean,” Humanities and Liberal Arts, Middlebury College. http://community.middlebury.edu/~harris/Humanities/TheGoldenMean.html#refpoint4
R.A. McNeal, ed. Nicholas Biddle in Greece: The Journals and Letters (University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1993), p.50, 219.