William Duer (Continental Congressman)

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William Duer
Member of the
Continental Congress
In office
Member of the New York State Senate for the Eastern District
In office
September 9, 1777 – June 30, 1778
Preceded byInaugural holder
Succeeded byEbenezer Russell
Member of the
Provincial Congress
In office
Personal details
BornMarch 18, 1743
Devon, Great Britain
DiedMay 7, 1799(1799-05-07) (aged 56)
New York City, New York, U.S.
Political partyFederalist
Catherine Alexander
(m. 1779; his death 1799)
RelationsWilliam Duer (grandson)
Children8, including William, John
ParentsJohn Duer
Frances Frye
EducationEton College

William Duer (March 18, 1743 – May 7, 1799)[1] was a British-born American lawyer, developer, and speculator from New York City. A Federalist, Duer wrote in support of ratifying the United States Constitution as "Philo-Publius." He had earlier served in the Continental Congress and the convention that framed the New York Constitution. In 1778, he signed the United States Articles of Confederation.

Early life[edit]

Duer was born in county of Devon, Great Britain, in 1743.[1] He was the son of John Duer, a planter in Antigua in the West Indies, who kept a villa in Devon, and Frances Frye. She was the daughter of Sir Frederick Frye, who held a command in the West Indies, where she met and married Duer.[2]

Duer was educated at Eton, and while still under age, was put into the army as ensign. He accompanied Robert Clive as aide-de-camp on his return to India as governor general in 1762. He suffered severely from the climate, so Lord Clive sent him back to England, where he remained five years until his father's death,[3] upon which he inherited his father's estates in Dominica.[4]


Having left the army, Duer went to Antigua. He traveled to New York State, for the first time in 1768, to arrange for a regular and constant supply of lumber for his plantations in Antigua and Dominica.[3] As a planter, he traded extensively with Philip Schuyler, who persuaded him to move to New York early in the 1770s. On a previous trip to the area, Duer had purchased tracts of land on the upper Hudson River near Albany. The area, known as Fort Miller, served both as Duer's first residence and as the site of his early financial ventures.[4] Duer set up sawmills, warehouses, and a store.

In 1773 he returned to England, where he obtained a contract to supply the Royal Navy with timber for masts and spars.[3] By 1776, had built a moderately successful mercantile business based primarily on lumber production.[1]

American Revolution[edit]

Duer was originally a moderate Whig, somewhat reluctant to become involved in active resistance to the British government. But he became a member of the Provincial Congress in 1775; he was one of the committee which drafted the original New York Constitution the next year.[1]

Duer was a member of the 1st New York State Legislature, serving in the New York State Senate for the Eastern District from September 9, 1777 to June 30, 1778.[a] He served as a member of the Continental Congress in 1778 and 1779.[5] While in Congress, he reportedly impressed future president John Adams and financier Robert Morris from Philadelphia, with whom he served on the finance committees as well as the "Board of War," the precursor to the War Department.[4]

In 1779, Duer returned to private business, in partnership with John Holker, the French commercial agent. He also did well in his business of supplying the American army, under contracts arranged for him by Robert Morris.[1]

Later life[edit]

Duer became a prominent speculator after the peace; he was also elected to the New York General Assembly in 1786. When Alexander Hamilton, Schuyler's son-in-law, became first Secretary of the Treasury in 1789, Duer became the first Assistant Secretary. He continued to speculate in American bonds, including the failed Scioto Company scheme to buy up the American debt to France at a discount.[1]

Duer went bankrupt as a result of the Panic of 1792, and was held in debtor's prison for the rest of his life.[6] His failure has been cited as a cause of the panic, reportedly the first in New York caused by speculation.[3] The loss was estimated at $3,000,000, and impoverished many in all classes.[1][4]

Personal life[edit]

Catherine Duer

In 1779, Duer married Lady Catherine Alexander (1755–1826), second daughter of Sarah (née Livingston) Alexander and General William Alexander, the claimant of the Scottish earldom of Stirling, and a major general in the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War.[7] The marriage took place at Alexander's country seat, "The Buildings," near Basking Ridge, New Jersey. It was designed in the style of a residence of an English nobleman, with all the appointments of an English country seat. Catherine's paternal grandparents were New Jersey Attorney General James Alexander and merchant Mary Spratt Provoost Alexander, and her maternal grandparents were Catherine Van Brugh Livingston and Philip Livingston, 2nd Lord of Livingston Manor.[2] She was, descended from the De Peysters, Livingstons, and Schuylers, and occupied a prominent place in the society of the period.[3]

Together, they were the parents of eight children, including:[2]

Duer died in New York City on April 18, 1799 at the age of 57. He was buried in the family vault under the old church of St. Thomas, and later reinterred in Jamaica, Long Island, New York.[1] After his death, his widow remarried to William Neilson on September 15, 1801.[12]


Through his eldest son William, he was the grandfather of Denning Duer,[b] great-grandfather of James Gore King Duer,[2] and the great-great-grandfather of Alice Duer Miller (1874–1942), the feminist poet and writer.[17][18]

Through his son John, he was the grandfather of William Duer (1805–1879) who served in the U.S. Congress representing New York.[19]

In popular culture[edit]

Duer was featured as a figure in the 1986 television series George Washington II: The Forging of a Nation, where he was portrayed by Richard Fancy.[20]

Duer appears as a major character in The Whiskey Rebels, a historical novel by David Liss (Random House, 2008).[21]

Duer is mentioned in Billions (tv series), season 5, chapter 6; as the reason why stock exchange market was created in the United States, to keep him out for being a "crook and a market manipulator". [22]


  1. ^ The Eastern District (3 seats) consisted of Charlotte, Cumberland and Gloucester counties.
  2. ^ Denning Duer (1812–1891) was married to Caroline King (1813–1863),[15] eldest daughter of U.S. Representative James Gore King (1791–1853).[16]
  1. ^ a b c d e f g h Jones, Robert Francis (1992). "The King of the Alley": William Duer, Politician, Entrepreneur, and Speculator, 1768-1799. American Philosophical Society. ISBN 9780871692023. Retrieved 3 May 2018.
  2. ^ a b c d Weeks, Lyman Horace (1898). Prominent Families of New York: Being an Account in Biographical Form of Individuals and Families Distinguished as Representatives of the Social, Professional and Civic Life of New York City. Historical Company. Retrieved 3 May 2018.
  3. ^ a b c d e f One or more of the preceding sentences incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainWilson, J. G.; Fiske, J., eds. (1900). "Duer, William" . Appletons' Cyclopædia of American Biography. New York: D. Appleton.
  4. ^ a b c d Wright, Robert E.; Cowen, David J. (2006). Financial Founding Fathers: The Men Who Made America Rich. University of Chicago Press. pp. 66–86. ISBN 9780226910680. Retrieved 3 May 2018.
  5. ^ Hough, Franklin B. (1858). The New York Civil List: Containing the names and origin of the civil divisions, and the names and dates of election or appointment of the principal state and county officers from the Revolution to the present time. Weed, Parsons and Co. p. 110. Retrieved 3 May 2018.
  6. ^ Cowan, David J. (2009, Spring). "William Duer and America's First Financial Scandal", Financial History, 97, 20–35.
  7. ^ Duer, William Alexander (1847). The Life of William Alexander, Earl of Stirling, Major-General in the Army of the United States During the Revolution: With Selections from His Correspondence. New Jersey Historical Society. p. 265. Retrieved 3 May 2018.
  8. ^ Cutter, William Richard (1918). American Biography: A New Cyclopedia. Pub. under the direction of the American historical society. p. 267. Retrieved 3 May 2018.
  9. ^ Saint Nicholas Society of the City of New York (1905). The Saint Nicholas Society of the City of New York: History, Customs, Record of Events, Constitution, Certain Genealogies, and Other Matters of Interest. V. 1-. p. 53. Retrieved 3 May 2018. William Duer.
  10. ^ McGill, John (1956). The Beverley family of Virginia: descendants of Major Robert Beverley, 1641-1687, and allied families. R.L. Bryan Co. pp. 998–999. Retrieved 3 May 2018.
  11. ^ a b Moffat, R. Burnham (1904). The Barclays of New York: Who They Are And Who They Are Not,--And Some Other Barclays. R. G. Cooke. p. 117. Retrieved 3 May 2018.
  12. ^ a b c d Greene, Richard Henry; Stiles, Henry Reed; Dwight, Melatiah Everett; Morrison, George Austin; Mott, Hopper Striker; Totten, John Reynolds; Ditmas, Charles Andrew; Pitman, Harold Minot; Forest, Louis Effingham De; Maynard, Arthur S.; Mann, Conklin (1880). The New York Genealogical and Biographical Record. New York Genealogical and Biographical Society. Retrieved 3 May 2018.
  13. ^ Daughters of the American Revolution (1905). Lineage Book, Vol. 20. The Society. pp. 130–131. Retrieved 3 May 2018.
  14. ^ Browning, Charles Henry (1891). Americans of Royal Descent: A Collection of Genealogies of American Families Whose Lineage is Traced to the Legitimate Issue of Kings. Porter & Costes. pp. 108–109. Retrieved 3 May 2018.
  15. ^ "Died. DUER". The New York Times. 25 July 1863. Retrieved 3 May 2018.
  16. ^ "The Sackett Family Association - Hon James Gore King". www.sackettfamily.info. Retrieved 6 December 2016.
  17. ^ Burstyn, Joan N. Past and promise: lives of New Jersey women, Syracuse University Press, 1997; ISBN 0-8156-0418-1. Pg. 171-173
  18. ^ Robert F. Jones, "The King of the Alley": William Duer; Politician, Entrepreneur, and Speculator, 1768–1799 (1992), p. 1; Jonathan J. Bean. "Duer, William"; American National Biography Online, February 2000. Older sources give Duer's year of birth as 1747.
  19. ^ "DUER, William - Biographical Information". bioguide.congress.gov. Biographical Directory of the United States Congress. Retrieved 3 May 2018.
  20. ^ "George Washington II: The Forging of a Nation". rottentomatoes.com. Retrieved 3 May 2018.
  21. ^ Olson, Walter (6 February 2009). "Book Review | 'The Whiskey Rebels,' by David Liss". The New York Times. Retrieved 3 May 2018.
  22. ^ The Nordic Model, retrieved 2020-06-23

Further reading[edit]

  • Cowan, David J. "William Duer and America's First Financial Scandal." Financial History 97 (2009): 20-35.
  • Matson, Cathy. "Flimsy Fortunes: Americans' old relationship with paper speculation and panic" Common-place 10#4 (2010) online free sumamrizes Duer's speculations in the context of the national economy.
  • Matson, Cathy. "Public Vices, Private Benefit: William Duer and His Circle, 1776-1792," in Conrad Edick Wright, ed., New York and the Rise of American Capitalism: Economic Development and the Social and Political History of an American State, 1780-1870 (New York, 1989), 72-123.
  • Sylla, Richard, Robert E. Wright, and David J. Cowen. "Alexander Hamilton, central banker: crisis management during the US financial panic of 1792." Business History Review 83#1 (2009): 61-86.

External links[edit]