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It always seemed to come down to railroads in the 1800s. Railroads fueled much of the economic growth in the United States at that time, but they required that a great deal of upfront capital be devoted to risky projects. The panics of 1837 and 1857 can both be pinned on railroad investments that went awry, creating enough doubt about the banking system to cause pervasive bank runs. The fatal spark for the Panic of 1873 was also tied to railroad investments—a major bank financing a railroad venture announced that it would suspend withdrawals. As other banks started failing, consumers and businesses pulled back and America entered what is recorded as the country’s longest depression.
Wall Street in the late 1860s was a bare-knuckles affair plagued by robber barons, political patronage, and stock manipulation. In perhaps the most scandalous instance of manipulation ever, a cabal led by Jay Gould, a successful but ruthless railroad executive and speculator, and several highly placed political contacts, conspired to corner the gold market. Although ultimately foiled, they succeeded in bankrupting several venerable brokerage houses and crashing the stock market, causing America’s first Black Friday.
Sometimes the world loses its bearings and the best alternative is a timeout. Such was the case during the Panic of 1857, which started when a prestigious bank in New York City collapsed, making all banks suddenly suspect. Banks, fearing a run on their gold reserves, started calling in loans from commercial firms and brokers, leading to asset sales at fire-sale prices and bankruptcies. By mid-October, banks in Philadelphia and New York suspended convertibility, meaning they would not allow gold to be withdrawn from their vaults even while all other banking services continued. Suspension then swept the nation as part of a defensive strategy, supported by local business interests, to prevent the Panic from spreading. While the suspensions appeared successful and few banks ended up failing, President Buchanan was outraged by what he viewed as yet another corrupt banking practice. He proposed making suspension a “death sentence” for banks as a draconian incentive to encourage safer banking practices. In this edition of Crisis Chronicles, we describe the Panic of 1857 and explain why businesses pushed for national suspension to save themselves.
Correction: This post was updated on May 8 to correct the book title and spelling of the author’s name in the fifth paragraph. We regret the error.
President Andrew Jackson was a "hard money" man. He saw specie—that is, gold and silver—as real money, and considered paper money a suspicious store of value fabricated by corrupt bankers. So Jackson issued a decree that purchases of government land could only be made with gold or silver. And just as much as Jackson loved hard money, he despised the elites running the banking system, so he embarked on a crusade to abolish the Second Bank of the United States (the Bank). Both of these efforts by Jackson boosted the demand for specie and revealed the soft spots in an economy based on hard money. In this edition of Crisis Chronicles, we show how the heightened demand for specie ultimately led to the Panic of 1837, resulting in a credit crunch that pushed the economy into a depression that lasted until 1843.
Centered in London, the banking panic of 1825 has been called the first modern financial crisis, the first Latin American crisis, and the first emerging market crisis. And while the panic displayed many of the key elements of past crises we have covered—fluctuations in money growth, an investment bubble, a stock market crash, and bank runs—this crisis had its own twists, including a Bank of England that hesitated before stepping in as lender of last resort. But it is perhaps best known for an infamous bond market swindle surrounding an entirely made-up Central American principality. In this edition of Crisis Chronicles, we explore the Panic of 1825 and visit the mythical nation of Poyais.
James Narron, David R. Skeie, and Donald P. Morgan
Authors’ Update: Murray Rothbard’s The Panic of 1819: Reactions and Policies was an additional source for this post and should have been cited. We regret the omission.
As we noted in our last post on the British crisis of 1816, while Britain emerged from nearly a quarter century of war with France ready to supply the world with manufactured goods, it needed cotton to supply the mills, and all of Europe needed wheat to supplement a series of poor harvests. The United States met that demand for cotton and wheat by expanding agricultural production, facilitated by the loose credit policies of a growing number of lightly regulated state banks. Meanwhile, the Treasury needed revenue to pay off debts from the Louisiana Purchase and the War of 1812, so the government turned to selling land acquired in the Louisiana Purchase. But the increased agricultural demand and easy credit policies led to a speculative real estate boom, particularly in Alabama. So when the Treasury started to pay off its debts, the specie drain caused a painful but necessary contraction and the boom went bust. In this edition of Crisis Chronicles, we describe America’s first great economic crisis.
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