Yesterday while we were doing our live blog on Wall Street, I talked to a number of interesting people about the issues of the current financial crisis and how it affects daily life on the Street. One of the more interesting perspectives we heard was from Torben Ohlsson, a ranger for the National Parks Service who serves as a historian at Federal Hall on Wall Street.
For those of you unfamiliar, Federal Hall is the big, columned, temple-like building perched at 26 Wall Street overlooking the front facade of the New York Stock Exchange. Few buildings in this country can boast as much street cred as this place.
It served as the meeting place for delegates from the 13 colonies to bitch about the Stamp Act and write ‘no taxation without representation’, it was New York’s first City Hall building, it was where the Northwest Ordinance was created, and it was also most famously the site of our first president’s inauguration (a large statue of Washington stands out front).
I began talking to the site’s caretaker and historian, Mr. Ohlsson, to get a sense of the mood on Wall Street this week, but what he also gave me was some interesting historical perspective. [Interview and more photos after the jump]:
“I’ve seen a lot of people up on these steps discussing what has been going on since Monday. All you can hear are brokers and financial people ranting about meetings coming up. Everyone is on their crackberrys screaming about finance and what will or won’t happen.”
“At first it was Merrill Lynch and Lehman Brothers, and then there were all these people from AIG, whose offices are right down here on Pine Street. There’s been a lot of nervous faces the past couple of days.”
“Most people who work in finance are easy to identify by their attitude and their discussions out here. You can really tell things have been different this week, you can almost feel it on the Street. There is a certain nervousness. I wouldn’t say it’s unprecedented, but it’s definitely noticeable “
But then we realized where we were standing and amidst all the confusion and talk of chaos, Torben began to put it in perspective for me:
“I find it ironic, that I work on Wall Street, but I don’t work in finance. Wall Street is the center of the finance world, and I work across the street from the New York Stock Exchange. They deal with tens of billions of dollars of money each day. But I’m a historian who gives discussions on American Government and constitutional history and right now there is an election going on. This building was the epicenter of all that.”
“There is some irony. I think about it at night. I explain to visitors, whether they are foreigners or Americans, the history of early America, the history of the US Constitution and the freedoms that come out of what the founders and framers envisioned for this country. And here we are 228 years later and we see what’s happening in the American financial market. You read the paper and see the government pumping billions of dollars into these big institutions and you hear the politicians trying to place the blame. Would the framers and founders have envisioned the power that the financial markets have over our day-to-day lives compared to when the country was founded? Back then they were trying to fend off the Indians, the British, and unfair taxation.“
Well maybe instead of warring Indians these days, we’re more concerned with sovereign wealth funds getting control of our banks? But as for British takeovers? We’ve still got those. And unfair taxation? Some might say that an $85 billion bailout of AIG is about as close as you can get to that. So maybe there are more similarities than we thought.
P.S. – An extra special ‘F you’ to the hot dog vendor near the stock exchange that refused to talk to me or answer any questions unless I bought a hot dog from him. You sir, should not expect to see my business under your Sabrett umbrella in the future.
(A portion of the Treasury exhibit at Federal Hall)
(Federal Hall interior dome skylight)
Photos by Brendan