Henry Pomeroy Davison was a key figure in the US banking industry at the beginning of the twentieth century and worked closely with Sen. Nelson Aldrich to develop a proposal for a new central banking system. Many of this plan’s provisions were eventually included in the Federal Reserve Act of 1913.
Davison was born in 1867 in Troy, Pennsylvania, today a town of about 1,200 people. His mother died when he was young, and he and his three siblings were raised by aunts and uncles. After graduating from high school, he worked as an errand boy at his uncle’s small bank. A few years later, he moved to New York City and took a job at the Astor Place Bank. He rose quickly through the banking world, and by age 33 he was named president of Liberty National Bank. In 1903, he was one of the founders of the Bankers Trust Company of New York, which became the second-largest trust in the country. In 1902, George F. Baker hired Davison as vice president of First National Bank.
During the Panic of 1907, Davison worked closely with J.P. Morgan to help quell the turmoil. The experience prompted Morgan to ask Davison to join his firm, which he did as a partner in 1908.
After the Panic of 1907 spurred Aldrich to take up banking reform, he hired Davison as an advisor to the National Monetary Commission. Davison traveled with Aldrich to meet with European bankers and central bankers, and in 1910 he helped the senator organize a meeting with a small group of banking experts to synthesize what they had learned and develop a plan to present to the commission and to Congress. This was the famous “Jekyll Island” meeting, which led to the Aldrich plan. Although the Aldrich plan was rejected by Congress, it laid the technical foundation for the Federal Reserve Act, which became law in 1913.
In 1917, President Wilson appointed Davison chair of the American Red Cross War Council. He oversaw an unprecedented fundraising campaign that helped send Red Cross teams to multiple fronts during World War I. After the war, he proposed uniting multiple countries’ Red Cross organizations to form what is known today as the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.
Davison died at his home on Long Island in 1922 after a failed operation to remove a brain tumor. He was survived by his wife, Kate, and four children.
Lamont, Thomas W. Henry P. Davison: The Record of a Useful Life. Harper and Brothers: New York, 1933.
Forbes, B. C. “Henry P. Davison” in Men Who Are Making America. B.C. Forbes Publishing Co.: New York, 1917.
Written by the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond. See disclaimer.