Stephen Duncan, an entrepreneur, a financier, and one of the largest slave owners in the antebellum South, was born on 4 March 1787 in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Duncan, the second of five children of John Duncan and Sarah Eliza Postlethwaite Duncan, grew up in Carlisle and lived a comfortable childhood but received an emotional blow at the age of six when his father was killed in a duel. Four years later, his mother remarried the well-to-do Col. Ephraim Blaine. Following the standard preparatory schooling of the day, Duncan attended Dickinson College in Carlisle, which his paternal grandfather and namesake had helped found. After graduating in 1805, Duncan studied medicine at the University of Pennsylvania under the renowned Benjamin Rush. Though a promising career appeared to await him as a physician in Philadelphia, Duncan instead migrated to the Natchez District of Mississippi in 1808.
Among the factors that contributed to Duncan’s move were the economic opportunities available in the newly opened territory. His maternal uncle, Samuel Postlethwaite, had migrated to the Natchez District in 1800 and stood ready to introduce his nephew to the growing inner circle of “Natchez Nabobs,” which Postlethwaite had entered through his marriage to Ann Dunbar.
Duncan cemented his place among the Natchez elite with his marriage to Margaret Ellis on 19 September 1811. Duncan used Ellis’s dowry lands along the Homochitto River outside of Natchez to begin his career in planting and slave owning, which soon trumped his career in medicine. The couple had two children before Margaret Duncan died of yellow fever in 1815. On 25 May 1819, Stephen Duncan married Catharine A. Bingaman, whose family helped constitute the core of the Natchez elite. In 1820 they moved into Auburn, an architecturally significant home on the outskirts of Natchez, where they raised their five children. (Duncan’s children from his previous marriage lived with relatives.) Though Auburn was considered the family’s main residence, they annually spent early summer through late fall visiting friends and family in Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and New York. Duncan’s significant social, familial, and business ties in the Northeast eventually prompted him to purchase a three-story townhouse in Washington Square in New York City.
In one generation, Duncan created an economic empire built on a variety of entrepreneurial pursuits, among which slave owning and agriculture played an important role, catapulting him to the highest echelons of the mid-nineteenth-century American elite. By the eve of the Civil War, Duncan enslaved more than twenty-two hundred men, women, and children on more than fifteen cotton and sugar plantations in Mississippi and Louisiana. The harsh labor regimen on the Duncan plantations produced an extraordinary amount of cotton and sugar, and these cash crops provided Duncan with great liquidity that allowed him to survive economic disasters. In 1860, Duncan was worth at least $3.5 million, about half of that amount in slaves.
Though much of his fortune was built on the back of slave labor, he also had railroad, lumber, and shipping interests in Mississippi as well as the Northeast. However, banking provided another cornerstone of his financial empire. When Samuel Postlethwaite died in 1825, Duncan assumed his uncle’s role as president of the Bank of the State of Mississippi, remaining in that position until the bank’s demise in 1844. Until 1833 the bank constituted the state’s only financial institution. At that point Duncan and his associates liquidated most of the bank’s funds and created the Agricultural Bank. Duncan’s new “pet bank” received federal deposits in the wake of Pres. Andrew Jackson’s veto of the Bank of the United States, an irony not lost on those involved in Mississippi politics: Duncan was a rabid anti-Jacksonian.
In politics, Duncan identified as a National Republican and later a Whig. Representing Adams County at the 1832 Mississippi constitutional convention, he scoffed at the idea of Jacksonian democracy. Duncan also became involved in the presidential campaigns of John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay, and upper-level Whigs considered Duncan a potential candidate for secretary of the treasury if the Whigs prevailed in the 1852 presidential contest. As a Whig, Duncan believed in a national economy bolstered by high tariffs, a policy that many southerners and slave owners rejected. However, Duncan argued that tariffs would protect the southern economy by producing revenue that could then be used to transport surplus slave labor outside of the United States. According to Duncan, a plan of gradual emancipation and colonization would simultaneously address economic and racial concerns by limiting the danger of crop overproduction and reducing white fears about an increasing slave population. In 1831 Duncan and other large planters formed the Mississippi Colonization Society, and he served as the society’s president from its inception until the late 1840s, when he resigned over financial and political disagreements with both the state society and the national parent organization, the American Colonization Society. In spite of the dissension, Duncan was elected vice president of the American Colonization Society in 1836 and appointed as a life director in 1858. For all Duncan’s involvement in colonization, no evidence indicates that he emancipated any of those he enslaved.
Duncan’s involvement in the community stretched beyond politics and included philanthropic efforts and institution building in the Natchez area. Shortly after his arrival, he became manager of the elite Natchez Dancing Assemblies. In the 1820s he launched a campaign to build Trinity Episcopal Church, and he served as its treasurer from 1822 to 1826. He also lobbied the federal government to donate land to Oakland College and served as a trustee of Jefferson College from 1830 to 1840.
As secession approached, Duncan first sided with the southern cause and accused the North of trampling on private property rights. Following secession, Duncan blamed the South for triggering war. He eventually concluded that both sides bore responsibility. Throughout the Civil War period, Duncan remained a staunch unionist, and in 1863 he moved permanently to his New York home, where he remained until he died of natural causes on 29 January 1867. He is buried in Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia.
- Martha Jane Brazy, An American Planter: Stephen Duncan of Antebellum Natchez and New York (2006)
- D. Clayton James, Antebellum Natchez (1968)
- Noel L. Polk, ed., Natchez before 1830 (1989)
- Morton Rothstein, in Entrepreneurs in Cultural Context, ed. Sydney M. Greenfield et al. (1979)
- Morton Rothstein, in Essays in Honor of Arthur C. Cole, ed. Hans L. Trefousse (1977)
- William Scarborough, Masters of the Big House: Elite Slaveholders of the Mid-Nineteenth-Century South (2003)