What’s the History Behind Wall Street?

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Alyssa Hertig is an HNN intern and an undergraduate at the University of Minnesota.

In the seventeenth century the Dutch built a wall in New Amsterdam in order to protect its borders from incursions from natives and the occasional pirates.  This same location soon became known as Wall Street; merchants began to reside there, and since the renamed New York was the first U.S. capital, the city and street garnered quite a prominent financial concentration which eventually spread to its legacy.  Because of the assembly of merchants and stockholders on the street, it became more prominently financially linked over the years, until it came to signify the prosperity of America in relation to the rest of the world.

But this bastion of capitalism was built on slave labor:

Slavery began in the city soon after the Dutch landing in 1609, and enslaved Africans became vital to the colony's economy. Africans built the first homes, brought in the first crops, turned an Indian path into Broadway, and built the wall at Wall Street. When it became the British colony of New York its bankers and merchants so successfully invested in the international African trade they made it the slave-traders' leading port. After the Revolution, with the city leading the way, slavery and its profits grew in the land of the free. A greater percentage of white households in Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island owned slaves than in South Carolina. The world's first stock exchange opened in New York in 1792 and half of its 177 stockholders owned slaves. Africans were auctioned to bidders at Wall Street and other city markets. Forced labor made the Empire State.

On May 17, 1792 the Buttonwood Agreement was signed, which initiated a much smaller, less inclusive version of the contemporary New York Stock Exchange. And thus the American stock market was developed and elevated over the years.

According to Steven Fraser, in his book Wall Street: America’s Dream Palace, “it is that through the years Wall Street has inspired dreamsand nightmares deep inside American culture, leaving its imprinton the lives of ordinary as well some extraordinary people.”  Throughout American history, Wall Street has represented the most marvelous parts of our nation, like social mobility, but also the most inglorious, immoral aspects, like the unearthing of Ponzi schemes, and corrupt government aid to failing institutions.

Under Andrew Jackson, and throughout the rest of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Wall Street came to signify an essential part of the American Dream.  Those field hands that thrived in America, could always one day hope that they could climb the ladder to Wall Street, for the American Dream proclaimed that anything was possibly in such a free society, where everyone has equal access to wealth.

But images of cupidity are also conjured when we think of Wall Street, perhaps Steven Fraser again says it best when he states that “[t]oday’s crony capitalists can’t help but remind us of those Gilded Age financial aristocrats whose power was so great it threatened to undermine the basic institutions of democratic government.”  Certain perceptions of Wall Street overshadow the others with the fluctuations of the economy.