David Leavitt (August 29, 1791–1879) was an early New York City banker and financier. As president of the American Exchange Bank of New York during the Financial Panic of 1837  he represented bondholders of the nascent Illinois and Michigan Canal, allowing completion of the historic canal linking the Midwest with the East Coast. For his role in helping prevent the collapse of the canal scheme, Chicago authorities named Leavitt Street after the financier. Leavitt was also an early art collector, and many of the artist Emanuel Leutze's paintings, including that of Washington at Valley Forge, were initially in Leavitt's collection housed at his Great Barrington, Massachusetts estate.
Biography[edit | edit source]
David Leavitt was born in Bethlehem, Connecticut on August 29, 1791, to merchant and Connecticut legislator  David Leavitt Sr. and his wife Lucy (Clark) Leavitt. The ambitious David Leavitt Jr. left rural Connecticut in 1813 at age 22 for New York City, where he began his career as a clerk in a produce and commission house. Three years later Leavitt's father died and, after inheriting a share of the elder Leavitt's estate, the son David Leavitt set himself up as a New York merchant and financier.
By 1815, Leavitt had gone into business with David Lee at 133 Front Street in Manhattan in the firm of Leavitt & Lee, wholesalers in the grocery business. By 1820 Leavitt & Lee had moved to 127 Front Street, and shortly afterwards the two partners dissolved their business. Leavitt left the grocery business and decided to set himself up as a financier. He decided to go it alone.
In one of Leavitt's first transactions, he bought an entire cargo of tea which the merchant John Jacob Astor had imported. When the German immigrant Astor inquired of Leavitt how he intended to pay for the cargo, Leavitt produced from his pocket a handful of notes written by Astor on his account, which Leavitt had bought up on the street.
In his next large transactions, the 25-year-old Leavitt again demonstrated his business acumen. The government of Colombia, facing a conflict at home, had paid a group of New York merchants to build a warship and equip it with armaments for use by the South American nation. Ultimately, those building the vessel were unable to complete the transaction, and Leavitt stepped in, paying for the ship's construction, and assuring that the United States government would help arm it with munitions. Leavitt then took command of the vessel, sailing it to South America, where the Colombian government paid him $100,000 in Colombian currency, and an additional $100,000 in a London bank draft.
On his way home, Leavitt stopped in Havana, where he converted the Colombian currency into Spanish doubloons, which he converted back into dollars when demand for doubloons soared. The London bank draft finally cleared in its entirety after several years' delay, during which Leavitt bided his time instead of selling the draft at a discount. The entire transaction had netted Leavitt a tidy profit, which he invested in other ventures.
In 1823, a local businessman had established a manufactory for white lead in the emerging city of Brooklyn. Acting as a lender to the business from its inception, Leavitt stepped in to take control in 1825 and founded the Brooklyn White Lead Company, later Dutch Boy Paint. Much of Leavitt's wealth derived from his early investment in lead manufacturing and importing.
Leavitt had already had a home built in Brooklyn, where he took up residence with his wife Maria Clarissa (Lewis), a native of Goshen, Connecticut. At the time of Leavitt's move to Brooklyn, there were only three homes visible from his own, and the New York merchant later bought up large tracts of Brooklyn real estate, and became a trustee of the village of Brooklyn Heights.
Leavitt also owned and operated the Fulton Street Ferry, until popular sentiment against Leavitt's large monopolies put an end to his ownership. In 1843, Leavitt financed construction of an elegant mansion in Brooklyn Heights, which he sold a decade later to Henry C. Bowen. (The Leavitt-Bowen Mansion was demolished in 1904). During this time, Brooklyn Heights was the residence of increasing numbers of New York City's most prominent merchants.
Seeking to find uses for his accumulated capital, Leavitt entered into several banking ventures. He was elected president of the Fulton Bank of New York City. Later, in 1838, he became president of the American Exchange Bank, a large lending institution headquartered in Manhattan, with which he served for 16 years. During his tenure at American Exchange, there was a financial panic, during which European bondholders of the State of Illinois declared their intention to foreclose on the bonds issuer. "Grave fears were entertained that the bonds would not be paid", wrote The New York Times, "and several financiers had failed in placing them in the European market, but by pledging his own credit, Mr. Leavitt succeeded in creating a degree of confidence in the scheme, and it was a source of pride to him in after years that all the holders of the bonds eventually received both principal and interest." To reassure the bondholders, Leavitt not only advanced his own funds, but traveled to England to meet jittery European stakeholders.
For his role in averting the bond collapse, and allowing construction of the Illinois and Michigan Canal to the growing city of Chicago, city elders ultimately named Leavitt Street after the New York financier. At the opening of the canal in April 1848, Leavitt – and the only other trustee  of the canal's bondholders who had personally intervened to float the $1.6 million loan to complete the project – were feted at the opening ceremonies.
Leavitt acted as financier through the decades for other banks and financing packages. He served as Receiver of the North American Trust and Banking Company. In 1857, during another financial panic which swept the markets, Leavitt took to the steps of the American Exchange Bank building, where he addressed depositors, assuring them the institution would meet its obligations and stemming a run on the bank. By 1861, when The Merchants' and Bankers' Almanac was published by Bankers' Magazine, the portrait of David Leavitt, along with those of George Peabody, Albert Gallatin, Erastus Corning, and Stephen Girard, graced the periodical's cover.
Leavitt later built a 300-acre estate called Brookside in the Massachusetts Berkshires at Great Barrington, Massachusetts, where he established a gallery for his growing art collection, especially the works of Emanuel Leutze, from whom Leavitt had commissioned The Battle of Monmouth. Leavitt was also painted in a portrait during his lifetime by the artist Francis Bicknell Carpenter. During his time in Massachusetts, Leavitt was chosen president of the Housatonic Railroad. At the outbreak of the Civil War, Leavitt was named permanent chairman of Great Barrington's committee to aid the Union effort. At the meeting, chairman Leavitt "proclaimed himself willing to contribute his means and, if necessary, his person, to the holy cause."
Leavitt built, in Gothic revival style, an enormous three-story 'cascade barn', measuring 200 feet-by-40 feet, on his estate. The building received extensive write-ups  in the following years, including one by Horace Greeley, for its mechanical ingenuity and devices, but nothing apart from the foundations remains today following an 1885 fire.
David Leavitt died at the home of his son Edward in Manhattan on December 30, 1879, at age 88. His widow predeceased him, dying in 1867 at age 76 at the couple's Great Barrington estate. Leavitt was a longtime member of the First Presbyterian Church of Brooklyn, where he had worshipped for a half-century. While in Great Barrington, Leavitt attended the First Congregational Church of Great Barrington. David Leavitt and his wife had an only daughter, Elizabeth Leavitt Howe, whose son and grandson became New Jersey bankers  and lived at Fieldhead, the family estate in Princeton, New Jersey, as well as three sons, Edward, Henry and David Jr.
David Leavitt, Jr., moved to Dresden, Germany, where daughter Louise Walcott Leavitt married Baron Franz Oswald Trützschler von Falkenstein. Her sister Helen Hudson Leavitt married Baron Adolf von Strahlenheim. Hugh Toler Leavitt, brother of the Baronesses, became a German Army officer.
David Leavitt's nephew David Leavitt Hough, a lawyer educated at Middlebury College, settled at LaSalle, Illinois, where he acted as an attorney for the Trustees of the Illinois and Michigan Canal.
References[edit | edit source]
- A Brief Popular Account of All the Financial Panics and Commercial Revulsions in the United States, Members of the New York Press, J.C. Haney, New York, 1857
- Canals for a Nation: The Canal Era in the United States, 1790–1860, Ronald E. Shaw, The University Press of Kentucky, 1990, ISBN 978-0-8131-0815-5.
- Chicago: Its History and Its Builders, Vol. III, J. Seymour Currey, S. J. Clarke Publishing Company, Chicago, Ill., 1918
- Mrs. Hopkins's Recent Art Purchase, from the San Francisco Bulletin, The New York Times, December 18, 1881
- Roll of State Officers and Members of General Assembly of Connecticut from 1776 to 1881, Published by Order of the General Assembly, Press of Case, Lockwood and Brainard, Hartford, 1881
- History of Ancient Woodbury, Connecticut, from the First Indian Deed in 1659 to 1854, William Cothren, Bronson Brothers, Waterbury, Conn., 1854
- Banker David Leavitt Jr.'s grandfather had moved to Litchfield County, Connecticut, from Hingham, Massachusetts in the early eighteenth century. His son David Leavitt II served as private in Capt. Thomas Bull's Company of Major Elisha Sheldon's Regiment, Connecticut Light Horse, from September to December 1776.
- Joining David Leavitt as New York City merchants were his cousins from Lithfield County, Connecticut, John Wheeler Leavitt and Rufus Leavitt. For a while all three flourished. But ultimately the two Leavitt cousins, who were in business together, were declared insolvent, with David Leavitt left as one of their primary creditors. John Wheeler Leavitt was the grandfather of American portrait painter Cecilia Beaux.
- Annual Report of the Corporation of the Chamber of Commerce of the State of New York, Press of the Chamber of Commerce, New York, 1896
- The Old Merchants of New York City, Walter Barrett, Published by Carleton, New York, 1866
- David Leavitt, obituary, The New York Times, December 31, 1879
- History of American Manufactures from 1608 to 1860, J. Leander Bishop, Reissued by Kessinger Publishing, 2006, ISBN 1425495168, 9781425495169
- The Wealth and Biography of the Wealthy Citizens of the City of New York, Moses Yale Beach, Published at the Sun Office, New York, 1846
- Portrait Gallery of the Chamber of Commerce of the State of New York, Catalogue and Biographical Sketches, George Wilson (compiler), Press of the Chamber of Commerce, New York, 1890
- As owner of the Fulton Street Ferry, and other businesses on the Brooklyn side of the East River, Leavitt often petitioned the Board of Aldermen of New York for various improvements to the piers and waterfront.
- A Covenant with Color: Race and Social Power in Brooklyn, by Craig Steven Wilder, Columbia University Press, 2001, ISBN 0231119070, 9780231119078
- Old Brooklyn Heights: New York's First Suburb: Including Detailed Analyses of 619 Century-old Houses, Clay Lancaster, Edmund Vincent Gillon, Published by Courier Dover Publications, 1979, ISBN 0486238725, 9780486238722
- Riches, Class and Power: America Before the Civil War, Edward Pessen, Transaction Publishers, 1990, ISBN 978-0887388064
- Portrait Gallery of the Chamber of Commerce of the State of New York: Catalogue and Biographical Sketches, George Wilson, New York Chamber of Commerce, Press of the Chamber of Commerce, New York, 1890
- History of Chicago, Alfred Theodore Andreas, The Arno Press, 1884
- The Illinois and Michigan Canal: A Study in Economic History, Chicago Historical Society's Collection, Vol. X, James William Putnam, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, Ill., 1918
- I. & M. Canal Document, Letter from Robert Stuart to David Leavitt Concerning Accounts and the Canal's Opening, April 10, 1848, Illinois State Archives
- Reports of Cases in Law and Equity in the Supreme Court of the State of New York, Vol. XVII, Oliver L. Barbour, Gould, Banks & Co., Albany, N.Y., 1855
- The Merchants' Magazine and Commercial Review, Isaac Smith Homans, William Buck, Vol. XLIV, 1861
- Washington at Monmouth, American Heritage Magazine, June 1965, Volume 16, issue 4, AmericanHeritage.com
- Following Leavitt's death, several of the Leutze paintings were bought by Mrs. Mark Hopkins for her collection in San Francisco.
- Artists of the Nineteenth Century and Their Works, Vol. I, Clara Erskine Clement Waters, Houghton, Osgood & Company, Boston, 1879
- Report, Connecticut Railroad Commissioners, Annual Report of the Railroad Companies in This State for 1870, Printed by Order of the Legislature, Case, Lockwood & Brainard, Hartford, 1870
- History of Great Barrington, Charles James Taylor, Clark W. Bryan & Co., Great Barrington, Mass., 1882
- The Tenth Regiment, Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, 1861–1864, Alfred S. Roe, Tenth Regiment Veteran Association, Springfield, Mass., 1909
- Appletons' Hand-book of American Travel, D. Appleton & Co., New York, 1873
- The Year-book of Agriculture, Or, The Annual of Agricultural Progress and Discovery, David A. Wells, Childs & Peterson, Philadelphia, 1856
- Transactions of the Connecticut State Agricultural Society, for the Year 1855, Printed by Order of the Executive Committee, Press of Case, Tiffany & Co., 1856
- Field Guide to New England Barns and Farm Buildings, Thomas Durrant Visser, Published by UPNE, 1997, ISBN 0874517710, 9780874517712
- A Hundred-Thousand Dollar Barn Burned, The New York Times, July 11, 1885
- The Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York, George Lewis Prentiss, Anson D. F. Randolph & Co., New York, 1889
- Manual of the First Congregational Church in Great Barrington, Mass., The Riverside Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1873
- Mrs Elizabeth Leavitt Howe, obituary, The New York Times, September 22, 1899
- Mr. Cleveland at Princeton, The New York Times, April 4, 1897
- Genealogical and Personal Memorial of Mercer County, New Jersey, Vol. II, Francis Bazley Lee, The Lewis Publishing Company, New York, 1907
- Obituary of David Leavitt, Jr., The New York Times, Sept. 17, 1897
- A third Leavitt daughter, Josephine, married Max Erwin von Arnim.  Christa von Arnim, granddaughter of Josephine and Max von Arnim, married Ernst August, Prince of Lippe and claimant to the family title of sovereign of the Principality of Lippe. A fourth Leavitt daughter, Emma Hall Leavitt, married architect and sportsman Christopher Wolfe of New York.  The father of the four Leavitt women, David Leavitt Jr. – son of banker David Leavitt and his wife Marie Emma (Hart) Leavitt – lived for many years at Dresden, while maintaining another residence at Great Barrington. David Leavitt Jr. died at Dresden on September 16, 1897.
- Brief Memoirs of the Class Graduated at Yale College in September, 1802, David D. Field, Printed for Private Distribution, 1863
[edit | edit source]
- David Leavitt, obituary, The New York Times, December 31, 1879
- "Received March 16, 1853, from David Leavitt, Treasurer, for the Board of Trustees of the Illinois & Michigan Canal, by the hands of William Gooding, Secretary, the sum of Twenty Five dollars for opposing before a Committee of the House Mr. Haven's Bill to prevent diverting water from the Des Plains river at Joliet, A. Lincoln, I hereby certify the above to be correct", Illinois and Michigan Canal Receipts, Northern Illinois University
- Letter from William Gooding to David Leavitt Concerning Various Items of Canal Business, Illinois and Michigan Canal Document Package, Illinois State Archives
- Letter from Robert Stuart to David Leavitt Concerning an Upcoming Land Sale, Illinois and Michigan Canal, Document Package, Illinois State Archives
- Letter from Robert Stuart to David Leavitt Concerning Accounts and the Canal's Opening, Illinois and Michigan Canal, Document Package, Illinois State Archives
- Letter from D. L. Hough to David Leavitt Concerning His Duties as Timber Land Agent, Illinois and Michigan Canal, Document Package, Illinois State Archives
- Letter from Jeremiah Crotty to David Leavitt Concerning Pending Loan Subscription Payments, Illinois and Michigan Canal, Document Package, Illinois State Archives
- Letter from William Gooding to David Leavitt Concerning Canal Expenditures and the Severe Winter, Illinois and Michigan Canal, Document Package, Illinois State Archives
- Letter from Robert Stuart to David Leavitt Concerning an Upcoming Land Sale, Illinoise State Archives, Northern Illinois University Archives
- Selected Papers of Edward Leavitt Howe, Manuscripts Division, Princeton University Library
- Maria Clarissa Leavitt, wife of David Leavitt, Brooklyn Museum
- David Leavitt, Portrait, Brooklyn Museum
- Leavitt Howe, Princeton, N. J., New York Public Library Digital Library
Further reading[edit | edit source]
- My Early and Later Days: Their Story for My Children and Grandchildren, unpublished manuscript, 1898, Elizabeth Leavitt Howe, Fisher-Howe Family Papers, The New York Historical Society
- The Illinois and Michigan Canal, 1827-1911, Illinois State Archives