America's First Great Depression

America's First Great Depression: Economic Crisis and Political Disorder after the Panic of 1837

Alasdair Roberts
Copyright Date: 2012
Edition: 1
Published by: Cornell University Press
Pages: 264
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  • Book Info
    America's First Great Depression
    Book Description:

    For a while, it seemed impossible to lose money on real estate. But then the bubble burst. The financial sector was paralyzed and the economy contracted. State and federal governments struggled to pay their domestic and foreign creditors. Washington was incapable of decisive action. The country seethed with political and social unrest. In America's First Great Depression, Alasdair Roberts describes how the United States dealt with the economic and political crisis that followed the Panic of 1837.

    As Roberts shows, the two decades that preceded the Panic had marked a democratic surge in the United States. However, the nation's commitment to democracy was tested severely during this crisis. Foreign lenders questioned whether American politicians could make the unpopular decisions needed on spending and taxing. State and local officials struggled to put down riots and rebellion. A few wondered whether this was the end of America's democratic experiment.

    Roberts explains how the country's woes were complicated by its dependence on foreign trade and investment, particularly with Britain. Aware of the contemporary relevance of this story, Roberts examines how the country responded to the political and cultural aftershocks of 1837, transforming its political institutions to strike a new balance between liberty and social order, and uneasily coming to terms with its place in the global economy.

    eISBN: 978-0-8014-6420-1
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[vi])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [vii]-[viii])
  3. Introduction: Back to the Future
    (pp. 1-12)

    There was a time, not so long ago, when most Americans felt good about the economic prospects for themselves and their country. In 2006, according to polls, Americans thought that their personal circumstances and the economic condition of the nation as a whole were better than they had been in several years. Most regarded their personal finances as secure, and expected further improvement in the following year. Confidence was buoyed by rising home prices. Few Americans expected a significant decrease in housing values. A majority said it was a good time to buy real estate.

    Confidence about economic conditions at...

  4. Chapter 1 Boom and Bust
    (pp. 13-48)

    The First Great Depression might be regarded purely as an economic crisis, and in its early phases the economic aspects—the see-sawing of trade, employment, and investment—were certainly the most easily observed. But a great trauma such as this should not be regarded only as an economic phenomenon. Economic woes soon spawned other troubles, and in its later phases the Depression could as easily be viewed as a political, and a cultural, and a diplomatic crisis. Regardless of how the Depression is perceived, though, there is a common theme: the pervasive influence in American affairs by the superpower, Great...

  5. Chapter 2 The States’ Crisis
    (pp. 49-84)

    The First Great Depression had a profound effect on the structure of government in the United States, and above all, on state government. This may seem odd to a modern reader. Today, when we think about problems that have an international aspect—such as the management of a crisis within the North Atlantic economy—our impulse would be to assume that they would fall within the sphere of federal responsibilities. To understand the crisis of 1836–1848 we must put this preconception aside. At that time—indeed, for most of American history until the Great Depression of the 1930s—the...

  6. Chapter 3 The Federal Government’s Crisis
    (pp. 85-136)

    The panic in spring 1837 that marked the onset of the First Great Depression was rooted in a collapse of trust among financiers and businessmen. As in all panics, no one knew who was solvent and who was not. “A general distrust and want of confidence exists in reference to everybody,” the American political economist Condy Raguet observed about early nineteenth- century panics. “Everybody is afraid to trust his neighbor.” As a consequence, business ceases entirely. Trust holds the machinery of commerce together: when it dissipates, the machinery succumbs to disintegrating forces and flies apart.

    Something similar could be said...

  7. Chapter 4 Law and Order
    (pp. 137-174)

    The First Great Depression began as a crisis among financial institutions and then effloresced into something larger and more complicated. Economic troubles led to political turmoil. The machinery of state and federal government strained to manage a welter of old and new antagonisms—between sections, between parties, between debtors and creditors, between Americans and Britons. Voting rates surged, the duration of incumbency for officeholders became more uncertain, tempers frayed, and the capacity for conciliation declined. The country’s nascent democratic institutions were like the boiler on a steamboat. Could the pressures within those institutions be regulated and contained, or would the...

  8. Chapter 5 The End of the Crisis
    (pp. 175-202)

    The Mexican War was a product of the First Great Depression, and also marked its end. Many Americans took the view that Texas, the territory at the center of the struggle, would eventually be joined to the United States. That Texas was annexed in 1845, rather than some later year, and that the United States fought a war to confirm its sovereignty over it, can be explained substantially by the bleak circumstances in which Americans found themselves in the trough of the depression.

    The war was encouraged by American anxiety about British territorial and commercial ambitions. British leaders were surprised...

  9. Conclusion: Freedom, Order, and Economic Crisis
    (pp. 203-214)

    In November 2010 the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks released a vast trove of cable messages from the U.S. State Department that had been leaked to it by a government source. Buried within the cable traffic was a message that described a private meeting between Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in 2009. The subject of the meeting was the American and Australian relationship with China. “The Secretary affirmed the U.S. desire for a successful China,” the cable said. At the same time, Clinton and Rudd recognized that China’s increasing power would create diplomatic challenges. This was...

  10. Note on Method and Acknowledgments
    (pp. 215-216)
  11. Notes
    (pp. 217-248)
  12. Index
    (pp. 249-256)