Nathaniel Borradaile Browne, (1819-1875), was a Philadelphia lawyer, businessman, and public servant. Born in Philadelphia in 1819, he lived and worked in the district known as West Philadelphia. He served in both the federal and the Pennsylvania state governments, worked on the Philadelphia Centennial in Fairmount Park, and became the first president of Fidelity Trust Company.
After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania in 1839, he studied law in the office of Charles Chauncey for one year. He spent another year learning business and commercial law in a large Philadelphia establishment before beginning his own private commercial and real estate law practice. He was admitted to the Philadelphia bar in 1842, and settled in West Philadelphia in 1850, where he became a substantial property owner. He was elected President of the Board of Commissioners of West Philadelphia in 1853, and influenced the University of Pennsylvania to relocate there. Browne was part of a group of reformers, which included Philadelphia resident Eli K. Price, who wanted to unite the city of Philadelphia with its surrounding separate districts.
In addition to his legal practice, Browne became involved in state and national politics through his interest in local reforms. Browne represented the Fourth District in the Pennsylvania State Senate as a Democrat from 1854 until 1856, where he helped to pass the Consolidation Act of 1854, which united the city and county of Philadelphia, and the Temperance Act of 1855. At the end of the 1856 session, he served as Speaker ad interim. United States President James Buchanan appointed him Postmaster of the city of Philadelphia in 1859, a position he kept until the end of Buchanan's term. Browne became a Director of the Union League during the Civil War, and served on the Executive Committee concerned with enlisting African-American troops. In 1865, he was appointed Treasurer of the U.S. Mint and Assistant Treasurer of the United States at Philadelphia. In 1866 he became a founding member and first president of the Fidelity Insurance, Trust and Safe Deposit Company. This company changed its name to Fidelity Trust Company during the 1890s and continued to do business under this name until Shawmut Bank acquired it in 1986.
Browne served on the first board of Commissioners of Fairmount Park along with Major General George Meade and Eli K. Price. As Treasurer of the Fairmount Park Commission from 1867 to 1871, Browne helped to expand the park and to plan for the 1876 Centennial. In February, 1875, Browne developed pneumonia and he died of typhoid on March 13 of that year, at the age of 56. At the time of his death, he was a vestryman at the Church of the Saviour in West Philadelphia. The Philadelphia bar, editors of the Episcopal Register, and the Board of Directors of the Fidelity Insurance, Trust, and Safe Deposit Company wrote eulogies.
Biographical information derived from the collection.
Butler, C.M. A Sermon in Memory of N.B. Browne, Esq. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott & Co., 1882.
Coxe, Robert. Legal Philadelphia: Comments and Memories. Philadelphia: Campbell, 1908.
Gopsill, James. Gopsill's Philadelphia Business Directory. Philadelphia: James Gopsill's Sons, 1880, 1885, 1889, 1903.
Martin, John Hill. Martin's Bench and Bar of Philadelphia. Philadelphia: R. Welsh & Co., 1883.
White, Theo B. Fairmount, Philadelphia's Park: A History. Philadelphia: The Art Alliance Press, 1975.
The N.B. Browne papers, 1845-1873, documents professional and personal affairs of a successful nineteenth- century Philadelphia businessman and public servant. Comprising .3 linear feet of correspondence, legal documents, and financial papers, much of the collection roughly corresponds to Browne's various occupations and is arranged in three series.
Series I. Legal Practice includes documents dating from 1845-1846 and related to Browne's private legal practice. Series II. Political Appointments represents Browne's service as Postmaster of Philadelphia, (1859-1861), and as Assistant Treasurer of the U.S. at Philadelphia, (1868- 1871). Series III. Business, Public Service, Personal Affairs includes items from Browne's tenure as Treasurer of the Fairmount Park Commission, (1868-1871), as well as business, personal, and family matters that span the entire date range.
Most of the documents in the private legal practice series concern lawsuits against or on behalf of people represented by Browne. They cover a geographic range from Philadelphia to Chester and Mercer counties in eastern Pennsylvania, to New York City and Michigan. The letters describe lawsuits concerning real estate sales, delivery of inferior goods, and bad debts. These legal documents, whether depositions, or letters soliciting help from Browne, are hand written and reveal a sampling of nineteenth-century watermarks, sealing wax, postmarks, and forms of address.
Letters, legal documents, and accounting reports comprise the papers in the political appointments series. The Postmaster folders (F4 and F5) contain letters written to N.B. Browne by prospective employees or their patrons. A legal opinion on the right of the Post Office to refuse mail delivery to certain businesses bears the signature J.S. Black. Jeremiah Sullivan Black was the U.S. Attorney General during the Buchanan administration. This letter is marked "copy" at the top, so it is not certain that Black actually signed it. The letter contains hole punches that indicate that it may have been removed from a file at some point. The Treasury folder (F7) contains a copy of a large handwritten ledger sheet, prepared by N.B. Browne, that calculates a portion of the interest on the U.S. public debt, and was approved by the auditor of Browne's accounts. The Treasury folder also contains Internal Revenue stamps; receipts for deposits to the U.S. Treasury bearing N.B. Browne's signature; letters on "Mint of the United States" stationery; a letter from the Comptroller's Office of the U.S. Treasury; postmarked envelopes; and envelopes from the U.S. Treasury.
The papers in the first two series reveal something of the complexity of party politics, political patronage, and partisanship at the outbreak of the Civil War. Young men seeking positions in the Post Office based their qualifications on their political affiliations and moral character. One letter writer stressed that he was a loyal unionist and not attracted to "know nothingism." Another job seeker had heard a rumor that someone who supported Stephen Douglas, the Northern Democrat candidate for President in 1860, too loudly might be fired from his Post Office job, and in that event, offered himself for the vacancy. Some letters of reference for prospective employees are from individuals, but others contain the signatures, addresses, and occupations of community members who were willing to attest to an applicant's character. These letters also illuminate more direct connections between mid-nineteenth- century businesses and the government. The legal opinion given by J.S. Black (see F6) relates to a set of affidavits attesting to the legitimacy of the R.R. West Company. The Philadelphia Post Office had apparently refused to deliver the company's mail. It was up to the company to prove that it was engaged in legitimate business by collecting and submitting to the Postmaster affidavits of support from well- known businesses in the area. Finally, the letters, accounting notes, receipts, and reports shed light on business office and accounting practices of this period.
The third series contains letters and reports sent to Browne by David Foley, the Assistant Secretary of the Fairmount Park Commission, during Browne's term as Treasurer of that Commission, September 1868 to November 1871 (F8). These items document expansion of and improvements to the park. Foley's letters to Browne itemize money received from sales of dead tree limbs and pasturage; rentals of homes and businesses within the park; licenses for steamboats, carriages, playgrounds, restaurants, quarries, coal yards, and breweries; and fines for strays. Reports document disbursements of money spent on a library for the park engineers and gardeners. Some letters are written on "Commissioners of Fairmount Park" stationery. The Business folder (F9) includes receipts for financial notes issued by Browne; a check drawn on the Philadelphia National Bank and bearing an Internal Revenue Stamp; and one printed envelope from The Fidelity Insurance, Trust, and Save Deposit Company. This series also contains documents concerning William Betz, George Browne, Samuel Browne, Catherine Harrison, and George Wetherill, who were members of Browne's family (F10). The estate of Samuel Browne, dated 1873, and three copies of a summons are included. The summons is directed to N.B. Browne and other relatives and concerns a lawsuit brought by Jesse Browne, Jr., over a contested family will.