By Ronald E. Shaffer
Born in New Jersey. Received a private classical education. Made aide to Gov. William Franklin while serving as a Lt. Col. in N.J. Militia. Became New Jersey’s first Secretary of State and…during his first year, became aide to Gov. William Livingston. Petitt’s marriage to Sarah Reed, daughter of Pennsylvania power house politico Joseph Reed, propelled him into financial, mercantile and political circles. Petitt’s home in Princeton was burned to the ground by the British…sufficient reason for him to relocate his family to Philadelphia. He quickly became an important merchant and took his son Andrew into partnership.
In 1777, Petitt’s New Jersey boyhood friend, Nathanial Greene (now a general) was appointed Quartermaster General by George Washington in an attempt to clean up the corrupt supply-side of the army. This took place as the Continental Army settled into winter headquarters at Valley Forge. What began as a mild winter suddenly turned frigid. Soldiers faced starvation. They lacked clothing. Many men mutinied. Horses froze. To resolve this situation, General Greene reached out to two of his most trusted friends: John Cox and Charles Petitt. Congress, to make sure the work of these three men was rewarded, allotted each man one percent commission on the cost of supplies. [In today’s money] the supplies amounted to $32M which meant the Quartermaster General and his two assistants each received $500,000. But because the money was in Continental dollars it fast became worthless. Greene relied on his military pay for his family. Cox and Petitt did not. Both had multiple business interests to support them. Of the two, Petitt, as part owner and sales agent for the Batsto Iron Works in New Jersey’s Pine Barrens, had a conflict of interest. Batsto was a major supplier of iron and cannonballs. Greene became a business partner of both Cox and Petitt. Big mistake! Like today, the news-seeking press caught scent of the tainted business relationships. Greene’s sensitivity to seeing his name in newspapers forced him to resign as Quartermaster General…after a silent no confidence vote by Congress. [Even Benedict Arnold had his thumb in the “supply pie” with these three men…but that’s another Old Pine graveyard story waiting to be told.]
After the war, with his children grown and wife dead, Charles Petitt accepted the presidency of North America…a start-up company underwriting marine insurance. And why not! Philadelphia’s docks had two miles of potential business. By now, Petitt, in appearance, was an old school gentleman when it came to business attire. He wore a powdered wig, knee britches, silk stockings and silver buckled shoes. None-the-less, it was his business acumen which guided his underwriting company during 1797-1804. This was a time when the insurance business was born. Unscrupulous agents proliferated. Cut-throat deals were not unusual. Petitt persevered. The company became his life after a serious carriage accident. In the aftermath, he insisted on being carried to his company’s office at the S.W. corner of Front and Walnut Streets. He refused to leave. Realizing how vital Petitt was to the daily operations of the business, the directors carried him upstairs and immediately outfitted two rooms for his recovery. John Ball was appointed acting president of the firm. For two years, Ball and a secretary were constantly up and down the steps seeking Petitt’s advice. Finally, the day arrived when he could manage the stairs and personally attend to underwriting. The thump of his cane became a neighborhood sound as he walked on the brick walks of side-by-side buildings on 3rd Street between Chestnut and Market Streets…in what was known as “Insurance Row”.
On Sept. 1, 1806, infirmities compelled Charles Petitt to ask the board to appoint one of its own to act as president. They named his son, Andrew…who just months before had become a director. Charles Petitt, along with his wife Sarah and son Andrew are buried in box marker 56-28 in Old Pine’s west side graveyard.
Of note: North America became the Insurance Company of North America. Decades later it merged with Connecticut General…a firm we know today as CIGNA.