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File:Brooklyn Museum - David Leavitt - Samuel Lovett Waldo - overall.jpg

New York City banker David Leavitt, ca. 1820, Samuel Lovett Waldo, Brooklyn Museum of Art

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 [1] he represented bondholders of the nascent Illinois and Michigan Canal, allowing completion of the historic canal linking the Midwest with the East Coast.[2] For his role in helping prevent the collapse of the canal scheme, Chicago authorities named Leavitt Street after the financier.[3] 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.[4]



Washington at Monmouth, painted by Emanuel Leutze, 1852. Commissioned by Leutze patron David Leavitt, Doe Memorial Library, University of California, Berkeley

David Leavitt was born in Bethlehem, Connecticut on August 29, 1791, to merchant and Connecticut legislator [5] David Leavitt Sr.[6] and his wife Lucy (Clark) Leavitt.[7] 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.[8]

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.[9] He decided to go it alone.[10]

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.[11]

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.[12] 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.[11] Much of Leavitt's wealth derived from his early investment in lead manufacturing and importing.[13]

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.[14]


Letter to New York City banker David Leavitt, representing lenders to the Illinois and Michigan Canal of the opening of the waterway. 10 May 1848

Leavitt also owned and operated the Fulton Street Ferry,[15] 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.[16] (The Leavitt-Bowen Mansion was demolished in 1904).[17] During this time, Brooklyn Heights was the residence of increasing numbers of New York City's most prominent merchants.[18]

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.[19] 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."[11] To reassure the bondholders, Leavitt not only advanced his own funds, but traveled to England to meet jittery European stakeholders.[14]

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.[20] At the opening of the canal in April 1848, Leavitt – and the only other trustee [21] 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.[22]

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.[23] 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.[24]

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,[25] from whom Leavitt had commissioned The Battle of Monmouth.[26] Leavitt was also painted in a portrait during his lifetime by the artist Francis Bicknell Carpenter.[27] During his time in Massachusetts, Leavitt was chosen president of the Housatonic Railroad.[28] At the outbreak of the Civil War, Leavitt was named permanent chairman of Great Barrington's committee to aid the Union effort.[29] At the meeting, chairman Leavitt "proclaimed himself willing to contribute his means and, if necessary, his person, to the holy cause."[30]


Barn at Brookside, Great Barrington, Massachusetts, estate of David Leavitt, Winterthur Museum

Leavitt built, in Gothic revival style, an enormous three-story 'cascade barn', measuring 200 feet-by-40 feet, on his estate.[31] The building received extensive write-ups [32] in the following years, including one by Horace Greeley,[33] for its mechanical ingenuity and devices, but nothing apart from the foundations remains today following an 1885 fire.[34][35]

File:Brooklyn Museum - Maria Clarissa Leavitt - Samuel Lovett Waldo - overall.jpg

Maria Clarissa (Lewis) Leavitt, wife of David Leavitt, ca. 1820, Samuel Lovett Waldo, Brooklyn Museum of Art

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.[36] While in Great Barrington, Leavitt attended the First Congregational Church of Great Barrington.[37] David Leavitt and his wife had an only daughter, Elizabeth Leavitt Howe,[38] whose son and grandson became New Jersey bankers [39] and lived at Fieldhead, the family estate in Princeton, New Jersey,[40] 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.[41][42] 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.[43]


  1. 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
  2. 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.
  3. Chicago: Its History and Its Builders, Vol. III, J. Seymour Currey, S. J. Clarke Publishing Company, Chicago, Ill., 1918
  4. Mrs. Hopkins's Recent Art Purchase, from the San Francisco Bulletin, The New York Times, December 18, 1881
  5. 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
  6. History of Ancient Woodbury, Connecticut, from the First Indian Deed in 1659 to 1854, William Cothren, Bronson Brothers, Waterbury, Conn., 1854
  7. 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.[1]
  8. 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.[2] John Wheeler Leavitt was the grandfather of American portrait painter Cecilia Beaux.
  9. 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
  10. The Old Merchants of New York City, Walter Barrett, Published by Carleton, New York, 1866
  11. 11.0 11.1 11.2 David Leavitt, obituary, The New York Times, December 31, 1879
  12. History of American Manufactures from 1608 to 1860, J. Leander Bishop, Reissued by Kessinger Publishing, 2006, ISBN 1425495168, 9781425495169
  13. 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
  14. 14.0 14.1 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
  15. 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.[3]
  16. A Covenant with Color: Race and Social Power in Brooklyn, by Craig Steven Wilder, Columbia University Press, 2001, ISBN 0231119070, 9780231119078
  17. 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
  18. Riches, Class and Power: America Before the Civil War, Edward Pessen, Transaction Publishers, 1990, ISBN 978-0887388064
  19. 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
  20. History of Chicago, Alfred Theodore Andreas, The Arno Press, 1884
  21. 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
  22. I. & M. Canal Document, Letter from Robert Stuart to David Leavitt Concerning Accounts and the Canal's Opening, April 10, 1848, Illinois State Archives
  23. 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
  24. The Merchants' Magazine and Commercial Review, Isaac Smith Homans, William Buck, Vol. XLIV, 1861
  25. Washington at Monmouth, American Heritage Magazine, June 1965, Volume 16, issue 4,
  26. Following Leavitt's death, several of the Leutze paintings were bought by Mrs. Mark Hopkins for her collection in San Francisco.[4]
  27. Artists of the Nineteenth Century and Their Works, Vol. I, Clara Erskine Clement Waters, Houghton, Osgood & Company, Boston, 1879
  28. 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
  29. History of Great Barrington, Charles James Taylor, Clark W. Bryan & Co., Great Barrington, Mass., 1882
  30. The Tenth Regiment, Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, 1861–1864, Alfred S. Roe, Tenth Regiment Veteran Association, Springfield, Mass., 1909
  31. Appletons' Hand-book of American Travel, D. Appleton & Co., New York, 1873
  32. The Year-book of Agriculture, Or, The Annual of Agricultural Progress and Discovery, David A. Wells, Childs & Peterson, Philadelphia, 1856
  33. Transactions of the Connecticut State Agricultural Society, for the Year 1855, Printed by Order of the Executive Committee, Press of Case, Tiffany & Co., 1856
  34. Field Guide to New England Barns and Farm Buildings, Thomas Durrant Visser, Published by UPNE, 1997, ISBN 0874517710, 9780874517712
  35. A Hundred-Thousand Dollar Barn Burned, The New York Times, July 11, 1885
  36. The Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York, George Lewis Prentiss, Anson D. F. Randolph & Co., New York, 1889
  37. Manual of the First Congregational Church in Great Barrington, Mass., The Riverside Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1873
  38. Mrs Elizabeth Leavitt Howe, obituary, The New York Times, September 22, 1899
  39. Mr. Cleveland at Princeton, The New York Times, April 4, 1897
  40. Genealogical and Personal Memorial of Mercer County, New Jersey, Vol. II, Francis Bazley Lee, The Lewis Publishing Company, New York, 1907
  41. Obituary of David Leavitt, Jr., The New York Times, Sept. 17, 1897
  42. A third Leavitt daughter, Josephine, married Max Erwin von Arnim. [5] 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. [6] 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.
  43. Brief Memoirs of the Class Graduated at Yale College in September, 1802, David D. Field, Printed for Private Distribution, 1863

External links[]

Further reading[]

See also[]

  • Illinois and Michigan Canal
  • Emanuel Leutze