Purifying the Air of American Business

  • Prosperity
  • 1841

In the aftermath of the religious revival known as the “Second Great Awakening,” a web of evangelical Christian charities called the “Benevolent Empire” mobilized across America. Lewis Tappan was a major donor to this Protestant reform movement, which created scores of groups like the American Bible Society, American Missionary Association, American Anti-Slavery Society, and American Tract Society.

Tappan’s dealings with officers in these organizations, along with his many business contacts, gave him keen insight into the character of the men leading America. Recognizing that there were economic ramifications to honesty, trustworthiness, and other aspects of character, Tappan created the nation’s first credit-rating business—the Mercantile Agency—in 1841. Agents across the states, many of them attorneys (including Abraham Lincoln), reported to the agency on the sobriety and payment histories of small entrepreneurs. Subscribers to the agency paid to be able to check the backgrounds of these businessmen as they sought credit—which in such a vast, fast-growing, and mobile country, where cash was often scarce, was crucial to commerce.

By 1846 Tappan had over 700 agents and his financial reports were earning $15,000 a year, which he used to continue his large donations to religious and anti-slavery causes (see 1830 entry on our list of Religious philanthropy). But inventing credit ratings wasn’t just a way for Tappan to fund his philosophical goals—he believed his ingenious agency, which became today’s Dun & Bradstreet, was itself an important boost to the nation’s morals: “It checks knavery, and purifies the mercantile air.” Historians agree that Tappan’s innovation, which “blended business and moral agendas,” was critical to the development of the American economy. As Ronald Walters observes, it gave “economic preference to virtue.”

  • Kathleen McCarthy, American Creed: Philanthropy and the Rise of Civil Society (University of Chicago Press, 2005)
  • Bertram Wyatt-Brown, Lewis Tappan and the Evangelical War Against Slavery (LSU Press, 1997)