The Suffolk System was the first effort to regulate private banking in the United States. Although banking regulation later became a government activity, the Suffolk System was born of a private initiative that saw a need to regulate country banks.
The Suffolk Bank of Boston first established the Suffolk System in 1819 and in 1824 six other Boston banks joined the system. The Suffolk System required country banks around Boston to deposit reserve balances totaling $5,000 in one or more of the seven Boston banks participating in the system. These reserve balances acted as a guarantee that country banks could always redeem their bank notes in specie.
In the pre–Civil War United States individual banks issued their own bank notes, rather than the current practice of issuing checkbooks or debit cards to accompany checking accounts. In today’s United States economy, only the Federal Reserve System can issue bank notes. Under the banking system in which individual banks issued their own bank notes, financially sound banks could always redeem their bank notes in gold and silver coinage; therefore their bank notes circulated at face value, and were accepted in trade as equivalent to gold and silver coinage or other bank notes. Bankers, however, often fell prey to the temptation to issue more bank notes than was reasonable, considering the bank’s gold and silver coin reserves. This left the public holding bank notes that they could not be confident would be redeemed in gold and silver coin. These bank notes circulated below par and anyone accepting one of these bank notes in trade risked taking a loss. Banks that often had to take bank notes as deposits were particularly vulnerable to sustaining a loss from bank notes issued by overextended banks.
The Suffolk System was designed to protect the public and Boston banks from country banks that issued more bank notes than they could be counted on to redeem in gold and silver coin. The Suffolk banks always accepted at par the bank notes of country banks that maintained reserves in the Suffolk System.
In the course of trade bank notes issued by country banks flowed into the hands of the Suffolk banks. The Suffolk banks then immediately presented these bank notes to the issuing banks for redemption, as a way of keeping the issuing banks honest. The Suffolk banks, however, treated the banks that kept reserves within the Suffolk System with a certain amount of consideration, allowing these banks to redeem their bank notes at a steady pace over time. Country banks refusing to keep reserves in the Suffolk System often found themselves suddenly presented with a large volume of their bank notes for immediate redemption, putting an intolerable strain on reserves of gold and silver coin. Without a legal sanction, the Suffolk System was able to coerce the country banks to participate in the Suffolk System.
By 1825 virtually all New England bank notes could be converted at face value in the bank notes of any other bank, or in gold and silver coin, due in no small part to the discipline enforced by the Suffolk System. From 1825 to 1860 New England boasted of the advantages of a uniform currency, a rare accomplishment at that stage of the history of paper money in America. The practice of centralizing reserves in a few banks made itself felt in the development of modern central banks such as the Federal Reserve System.
Calomiris, Charles W., and Charles M. Kahn. 1996. The Efficiency of Self-Regulated Payments Systems: Learning from the Suffolk System. Journal of Money, Credit, and Banking, 28, no. 4 (November): 766–797.
Davis, Lance E., J. R. T. Hughes and D. M. McDougall. 1969. American Economic History.
Myers, Margaret G. 1970. A Financial History of the United States.