James, William (1771–1832), business magnate, financier, and progenitor of a major American intellectual family, was born 29 December 1771 in Corkish, Bailieborough, Co. Cavan, second of three sons of William James (1736–1822), tenant farmer, probably of Welsh stock, and Susan James (née McCartney; 1746–1824), daughter of the agent for the landlord (William Stewart of Bailieborough castle) on whose estate was located the Jameses' twenty-five-acre farm. He was schooled locally, probably under the presbyterian minister, in reading and writing, the Westminster catechism, and rudimentary classics. He emigrated to America at age 18, taking with him a very small sum of money, a Latin grammar, and the desire to visit a battlefield of the recent revolutionary war. After living some time in New York city, by 1793 he was working as clerk in a store for farm products and dry goods in Albany, New York, where within two years he opened his own store. He was naturalised a US citizen in 1802. Possessed of immense energy and business acumen, seizing the opportunities offered by Albany's status (from 1797) as state capital and advantageous situation as a hub for trade 140 miles (225 km) from New York City at the confluence of the Hudson and Mohawk rivers, by 1805 he was operating five places of commerce in Albany, one in New York city, and a tobacco factory.
As a director of the New York State Bank of Albany he negotiated loans to private turnpike projects radiating outwards from the capital, and launched an express delivery service along the great western turnpike between Albany and Utica. After the inauguration (c.1807) of regular steamboat services between Albany and New York, he shipped large quantities of goods from upstate farms and forests down the Hudson to docks at the foot of Greenwich Village. In 1818 he turned over management of his commercial and shipping concerns to his eldest son, concentrating thereafter on banking and investments, becoming first vice-president of the Albany Savings Bank on its establishment (1820). He purchased land on a massive scale throughout upstate New York and invested in diverse aspects of the westward development along the Mohawk valley. He vigorously promoted the construction of the Erie canal to link Albany to the Great Lakes and create a continuous waterway between New York city and the west. Owning stock in the canal and profiting from land speculation along its course, he delivered the principal oration at the ceremonies in Albany marking the canal's opening (November 1825). His most lucrative enterprise derived from purchase (1824) of the lands on which stood the village of Syracuse, NY (population 250), and incumbent salt springs. As president and chief shareholder of the Syracuse company he oversaw extensive reclamation, improvements, and development; exploiting a new method of salt extraction, he immensely increased the profitability of existing salt works.
Socially an outsider for many years in a community of Dutch old money and New England Yankee new money, by the 1820s he was a leader in civic affairs, organiser of Albany chamber of commerce, chairman of the orphan asylum, and trustee of the first presbyterian church. As trustee of Union College, Schenectady, NY, he rescued the institution from bankruptcy with a loan of $100,000, taking as security the mortgage on all lands and buildings, which he later cancelled without receiving any payment. He gave his name to Jamestown, NY, and to streets in Albany and Syracuse. Blue-eyed with ruddy good looks, a man of astute practical intelligence, James was strong-willed, self-righteous, orderly, and humourless. He amassed one of the two or three largest fortunes in America, second in New York state only to that of John Jacob Astor. His life not only epitomised but helped to create the American success myth of immigrant rags to enterprising riches. He died in Albany during a cholera epidemic on 19 December 1832, leaving an estate estimated at $3 million and an elaborate, eccentric will, designed to punish and to police the behaviour of his heirs. With ultimate disposition postponed for some twenty years, the trustees were instructed to ‘discourage prodigality and vice, and furnish an incentive to economy and usefulness’ by cutting out any party guilty of idleness or immorality. A successful legal suit resulted in a reversal of terms and equal division of the estate amongst twelve heirs.
William James of Albany is remarkable as much for the achievements of certain of his large progeny as for his own. He married first (1796) Elizabeth Tillman (1774–97), of German extraction; they had twin sons. He married secondly (1798) Mary Ann Connolly (1779–1800), daughter of Bernard Connolly, well-to-do merchant and farmer of Mohawk, NY, of a catholic family probably from Co. Armagh; they had one daughter. Both his first two wives died in childbirth. He married thirdly (1805) Catharine Barber (1782–1859), granddaughter of Patrick Barber and Jane (née Frazer), both immigrants from Co. Longford; they had seven sons and three daughters. The eleven children who survived infancy all rebelled against their father's religious rigour, entrepreneurial discipline, and unbending temperament. His fourth son by Catharine Barber, Henry James the elder (1811–82), after a dissolute youth, finding himself ‘leisured for life’ by the court-imposed inheritance, became an author, utopian idealist, and iconoclastic religious philosopher, intellectual intimate of the leading American and British literati of the day. His five children included William James (1842–1910), educator, psychologist, and pragmatic philosopher; Henry James the younger (1843–1916), eminent novelist; and Alice James (1848–92), invalid, diarist, and fervent Parnellite Irish nationalist, especially during her lengthy London residence. The greater number of William of Albany's descendants – none of whom, in the younger Henry's words, was ‘guilty of a stroke of business’– were blighted by unfulfilled promise, dilettantish temper, and early death (nine of his children died before age 40). ‘Variously genial, charming, dissipated, or unstable’ (Matthiessen, 5), they and the similar types whom they married ‘hovered and vanished’, but haunted the imagination and fiction of the younger Henry. Catherine Margaret Temple (1820–54), daughter of William James of Albany, contracted consumption from her husband Robert Temple and died within three months of him. Their daughter, Minny Temple (1846–70), who died of consumption at age 24, beloved by her cousin the younger Henry James, inspired much of his novel The portrait of a lady and was the prototype of the dying American heiress Milly Theale in The wings of the dove. William James's stately residence on North Pearl St., Albany, inherited by his widow and known to the younger Henry from childhood visits, was the basis of the Albany home of the Archers in the former novel.
Robert James (d. 1823), elder brother of William James of Albany, remained on the Co. Cavan farm, surviving their father by one year. Two of his sons, William and John, emigrated to America with passage paid by their uncle William of Albany, who set them up as merchants in New York city. A third son, Henry James (1803–73), was working the Cavan farm when in August 1837 it was visited by his first cousin, the elder American Henry James, attended by the exotic presence of his black servant, Billy Taylor; an elder brother of the Cavan Henry James, Robert James, was practising medicine in Bailieborough at the time. Robert (‘Bobby’) James (1840–1932) was the last of the direct line in Ireland to remain in Bailieborough. His son, Henry James, studied medicine in Dublin and practised in Cheshire, England. A stained-glass window in Bailieborough church, erected by Henry of Cheshire, memorialises four generations of Bailieborough Jameses stretching back to the father of William James of Albany.
Biographical data on William James of Albany are to be found in chronicles of the family and biographies of his individual grandchildren, cited below.