William Bingham was born in Philadelphia on April 8, 1752, the son of prominent and wealthy Philadelphia immigrants William (Sr.) and Molly Stamper Bingham. He graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1768 with a medical degree, eventually earning a Master of Arts in 1771; managed his (deceased) father’s vast Caribbean trade interests, received an appointment as British Consul to St. Pierre, Martinique at age 18, in 1770; and spent a year touring Europe in 1773, cultivating future overseas merchant connections.
During the Revolution, Bingham contributed personal funds to the Bank of Pennsylvania to provision the Continental Army; served as secretary of the Revolutionary Committee of Secret Correspondence; and appointed agent of the Continental Congress in French Martinique. In the latter capacity, he “procured arms, outfitted privateers, organized espionage missions, and stirred up trouble between France and England.” Toward the end of the war (1780), he emerged as a captain of cavalry in the “Philadelphia Associators” and later occupied a seat in the Continental Congress, 1786-1789.
William acquired considerable wealth, enabling the purchase of over four million acres of land (one-fourth from the Act of 1792); assumed a directorship at the Bank of Philadelphia (later chartered as the Bank of North America); was U.S. Treasurer Alexander Hamilton’s chief economic advisor; and acquired substantial tracts of land in New York, Maine, and the northern frontier of Pennsylvania. The city of Binghamton, New York bears reference to the senator’s surname. Additionally, he became one of America’s wealthiest overseas merchants, fleet owners, and bankers.
He served as a vestryman at St. Peters, the church at which William married Anne Willing, a renowned city beauty. The couple entertained intimate friends Albert Gallatin, Washington, Hamilton, Adams, Jefferson, and Madison as frequent guests at the Bingham mansion, Lansdowne. His marriage into the Willing-family forged intimate ties to neighbors Samuel and Elizabeth Willing Powel, and Bingham’s successor as Speaker, Robert Hare, who married Margaret Willing.
Bingham served as: a member of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives from 1790 to 1793; Speaker of the House, 1790-91; the state Senate, 1794-95; Senate Speaker 1794; US Senate, 1795-1801; and elected President pro tempore of the US Senate, 1799. He was president and chief financial officer of the Philadelphia and Lancaster Turnpike Company, 1791 (the nation’s first major public highway); vice president of the Society for Political Inquiries; a member of the American Philosophical Association; and a trustee of the University of Pennsylvania.
William Bingham was a man of vast wealth, whose commercial ties to England “strengthened” the diplomatic missions of Franklin and Adams in their quest of American maritime and trade rights; as such, he figured indispensable in the quest for national independence.
Senator Bingham died at his estate in Bath, England on February 7, 1804; interred at Bath Abbey. The structure of his phenomenally vast 1804 trust remains a legal standard. Surviving today as the Bingham Trust, no beneficiary distribution occurred until 1964. Its substantial proceeds currently support many benevolent causes. Another of Senator Bingham’s legacies is the famous full length portrait of George Washington, commissioned by the senator (for ₤1,000) to close friend Gilbert Stuart as a gift to the Marquis de Lansdowne, for whom Senator Bingham named his (no longer existent) Philadelphia summer estate.
Robert C. Alberts, The Golden Voyage: The life and Times of William Bingham, 1752-1804 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1969), 11; Frank Willing Leach, North American (Philadelphia), June 28, 1908; Dictionary of American Biography, vol. 2, ed. Allen Johnson (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons for the American Council of Learned Societies, 1929), 273-278.