Lewis Tappan hated slavery as much as he hated people who didn’t pay their debts. In 1841, he found he could do well by doing good. He began to use his network of abolitionists throughout the country to review the creditworthiness of his customers.
Today, Lewis Tappan is best known for financing the legal defense of the kidnapped Africans who mutinied aboard the Amistad. A former president, John Quincy Adams, successfully argued their case.
But Lewis Tappan enlisted a future president, Abraham Lincoln, along with thousands of others, to report on the character and dependability of his customers. That network of spies later evolved into the Dun & Bradstreet credit rating company.
Born into a religious family in Northampton, Mass., in 1788, Lewis Tappan adhered to strict Puritan principles throughout his life. He opened a store in Philadelphia, then Boston, and achieved early success. He insisted on cash transactions because the Bible warned against lending money and charging interest.
Lewis then lost his fortune to bad investments in woolen and cotton mills. In 1827 he started over with his brother Arthur in the silk trade in New York.
The brothers earned a reputation as fanatical philanthropists for their support of moral crusades. They gave away Bibles, ratted out gambling halls and went into brothels to ‘pluck fallen women from roaring lions who seek to devour them.’
In 1830, Arthur and Lewis Tappan met William Lloyd Garrison. They then started financing his abolitionist activities. They helped form the American Anti-Slavery Society, which advocated the immediate abolition of slavery. The brothers also helped found Oberlin College, which admitted people of all races.
But even within the anti-slavery movement, Lewis Tappan was considered extreme. He believed intermarriage would solve America’s racial issues. And he dreamed of a copper skinned country where race would not define anyone.
When 53 Africans faced murder charges after killing their Spanish captives in 1839, Lewis Tappan called it a ‘providential occurrence.’ He believed the case might touch the heart of the nation. Tappan attended every day of the trial and hired Yale students to teach the Africans English.
He believed the Emancipation Proclamation didn’t go far enough. In a letter to Sen. Charles Sumner, he wrote, “When will the poor negro have his rights? Not, I believe, until he has a musket in one hand and a ballot in the other.”
Lewis Tappan may have been radical on racial issues, but he held conservative views about women’s issues. He and Arthur quit the Anti-Slavery Society in 1840 when the group added Lucretia Mott, Maria Weston Chapman and Lydia Marie Child to its board. They formed the American Missionary Association, which started 115 anti-slavery Congregational churches in Illinois.
After the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, Tappan supported the Underground Railroad.
The Tappan brothers’ abolitionism was not a popular choice in the textile industry. Cotton exporters feared the collapse of their business if slavery didn’t exist, and white laborers thought freed slaves would take their jobs.
By 1834, mobs attacked Lewis’ home and Arthur’s store. The brothers had to extend credit. Then came the panic of 1837, which wiped them out. Two years later, older and wiser, Arthur repaid his creditors and the business resumed.
Lewis Tappan began keeping files on their customers, with reviews of their characters and their bank balances. Other merchants began to turn to Lewis for advice.
Through his abolitionist crusade, Lewis Tappan had met anti-slavery activists throughout the country. He tapped into that network to create records of timely credit information about people. Among his correspondents: a young Illinois lawyer named Abraham Lincoln and a storekeeper named Ulysses S. Grant.
By 1844, Lewis Tappan had 280 clients and offices in Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore and New York. But not everyone appreciated his efforts. Some people viewed his credit information as an invasion of privacy.
In 1849, his clerk Benjamin Douglass took charge of the agency. Two years later, 2000 full-time correspondents spied on sinners. In 1858, Douglass transferred the company to his brother-in-law, Robert Graham Dun. The company merged with its rival Bradstreet in 1933 to become Dun & Bradstreet. Today it’s the world’s largest credit reporting company.
Lewis Tappan retired a rich man. After the Civil War, he founded many schools and colleges to educate freed slaves. He died in 1873.
This story last updated in 2022.