Panic of 1837

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Whig cartoon showing the effects of unemployment on a family that has portraits of Democrats Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren on the wall. Panic1837.jpg
Whig cartoon showing the effects of unemployment on a family that has portraits of Democrats Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren on the wall.

The Panic of 1837 was a financial crisis in the United States that touched off a major recession that lasted until the mid-1840s. Profits, prices, and wages went down while unemployment went up. Pessimism abounded during the time. The panic had both domestic and foreign origins. Speculative lending practices in western states, a sharp decline in cotton prices, a collapsing land bubble, international specie flows, and restrictive lending policies in Great Britain were all to blame. [1] [2] On May 10, 1837, banks in New York City suspended specie payments, meaning that they would no longer redeem commercial paper in specie at full face value. [3] Despite a brief recovery in 1838, the recession persisted for approximately seven years. Banks collapsed, businesses failed, prices declined, and thousands of workers lost their jobs. Unemployment may have been as high as 25% in some locales. The years 1837 to 1844 were, generally speaking, years of deflation in wages and prices. [4]

A financial crisis is any of a broad variety of situations in which some financial assets suddenly lose a large part of their nominal value. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, many financial crises were associated with banking panics, and many recessions coincided with these panics. Other situations that are often called financial crises include stock market crashes and the bursting of other financial bubbles, currency crises, and sovereign defaults. Financial crises directly result in a loss of paper wealth but do not necessarily result in significant changes in the real economy.

A bullion coin is a coin struck from precious metal and kept as a store of value or an investment rather than used in day-to-day commerce. A bullion coin is distinguished by an explicit statement of weight and fineness on the coin; this is because the weight and composition of coins intended for legal tender is specified in the coinage laws of the issuing nation, and therefore there is no need for an explicit statement on the coins themselves. The United Kingdom defines investment coins more specifically as coins that have been minted after 1800, have a purity of not less than 900 thousandths and are, or have been, legal tender in their country of origin. Under United States law, "coins" that fail the last of these requirements are not coins at all, and must be advertised as "rounds" instead. Bullion coins are usually available in both gold and silver, with the exceptions of the Krugerrand and the Swiss Vreneli, which are only available in gold. The American Eagle and Canadian Gold Maple Leaf series are available in gold, silver, platinum, and palladium.

New York City Largest city in the United States

The City of New York, usually called either New York City (NYC) or simply New York (NY), is the most populous city in the United States, as well as the second-most populous city in North America, second only to Mexico City. With an estimated 2018 population of 8,398,748 distributed over a land area of about 302.6 square miles (784 km2), New York is also the most densely populated major city in the United States. Located at the southern tip of the state of New York, the city is the center of the New York metropolitan area, the largest metropolitan area in the world by urban landmass and one of the world's most populous megacities, with an estimated 20,320,876 people in its 2017 Metropolitan Statistical Area and 23,876,155 residents in its Combined Statistical Area. A global power city, New York City has been described as the cultural, financial, and media capital of the world, and exerts a significant impact upon commerce, entertainment, research, technology, education, politics, tourism, art, fashion, and sports. The city's fast pace has inspired the term New York minute. Home to the headquarters of the United Nations, New York is an important center for international diplomacy.



The crisis followed a period of economic expansion from mid-1834 to mid-1836. The prices of land, cotton, and slaves rose sharply in these years. The origins of this boom had many sources, both domestic and international. Because of the peculiar factors (Specie Circular) of international trade at the time, abundant amounts of silver were coming into the United States from Mexico and China. Land sales and tariffs on imports were also generating substantial federal revenues. Through lucrative cotton exports and the marketing of state-backed bonds in British money markets, the United States acquired significant capital investment from Great Britain. These bonds financed transportation projects in the United States. British loans, made available through Anglo-American banking houses like Baring Brothers, fueled much of the United States's westward expansion, infrastructure improvements, industrial expansion, and economic development during the antebellum era. [5]

An economic expansion is an increase in the level of economic activity, and of the goods and services available. It is a period of economic growth as measured by a rise in real GDP. The explanation of fluctuations in aggregate economic activity between economic expansions and contractions is one of the primary concerns of macroeconomics.

The Specie Circular is a United States presidential executive order issued by President Andrew Jackson in 1836 pursuant to the Coinage Act and carried out by his successor, President Martin Van Buren. It required payment for government land to be in gold and silver.

In 1836, directors of the Bank of England noticed that the Bank's monetary reserves had declined precipitously in recent years, possibly because of poor wheat harvests that forced Great Britain to import much of its food. [6] To compensate, the directors indicated that they would gradually raise interest rates from 3 to 5 percent. The conventional financial theory held that banks should raise interest rates and curb lending when faced with low monetary reserves. Raising interest rates, according to the laws of supply and demand, was supposed to attract species since money generally flows where it will generate the greatest return (assuming equal risk among possible investments). In the open economy of the 1830s, characterized by free trade and relatively weak trade barriers, the monetary policies of the hegemonic power – in this case, Great Britain – were transmitted to the rest of the interconnected global economic system, including the U.S. The result was that as the Bank of England raised interest rates, major banks in the United States were forced to do the same. [7]

Bank of England Central bank of the United Kingdom

The Bank of England is the central bank of the United Kingdom and the model on which most modern central banks have been based. Established in 1694 to act as the English Government's banker, and still one of the bankers for the Government of the United Kingdom, it is the world's eighth-oldest bank. It was privately owned by stockholders from its foundation in 1694 until it was nationalised in 1946.

Supply and demand economic model of price determination in microeconomics

In microeconomics, supply and demand is an economic model of price determination in a market. It postulates that, holding all else equal, in a competitive market, the unit price for a particular good, or other traded item such as labor or liquid financial assets, will vary until it settles at a point where the quantity demanded will equal the quantity supplied, resulting in an economic equilibrium for price and quantity transacted.

An open economy is an economy in which there are economic activities between the domestic community and outside. People and even businesses can trade in goods and services with other people and businesses in the international community, and funds can flow as investments across the border. Trade can take the form of managerial exchange, technology transfers, and all kinds of goods and services.

An 1837 caricature blames Andrew Jackson for hard times. The times panic 1837.jpg
An 1837 caricature blames Andrew Jackson for hard times.

When New York banks raised interest rates and scaled back on lending, the effects were damaging. Since the price of a bond bears an inverse relationship to the yield (or interest rate), the increase in prevailing interest rates would have forced down the price of American securities. Importantly, demand for cotton plummeted. The price of cotton fell by 25% in February and March 1837. [8] The United States economy, especially in the southern states, was heavily dependent on stable cotton prices. Receipts from cotton sales provided funding for some schools, balanced the nation's trade deficit, fortified the US dollar, and procured foreign exchange earnings in British pound sterling, the world's reserve currency at the time. Since the United States was still a predominantly agricultural economy centered on the export of staple crops and an incipient manufacturing sector, [9] a collapse in cotton prices would have caused massive reverberations.

A reserve currency is a currency that is held in significant quantities by governments and institutions as part of their foreign exchange reserves. The reserve currency is commonly used in international transactions, international investments and all aspects of the global economy. It is often considered a hard currency or safe-haven currency. People who live in a country that issues a reserve currency can purchase imports and borrow across borders more cheaply than people in other nations because they do not need to exchange their currency to do so.

Within the United States, there were several contributing factors. In July 1832, President Andrew Jackson vetoed the bill to recharter the Second Bank of the United States (BUS), the nation's central bank and fiscal agent. As the BUS wound up its operations in the next four years, state-chartered banks in the West and South relaxed their lending standards, maintaining unsafe reserve ratios. [2] Two domestic policies, in particular, exacerbated an already volatile situation. The Specie Circular of 1836 mandated that western lands could be purchased only with gold and silver coin. The circular was an executive order issued by Andrew Jackson and favored by Senator Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri and other hard-money advocates. The intent was to curb speculation in public lands, but the circular set off a real estate and commodity price crash as most buyers were unable to come up with sufficient hard money or "specie" (gold or silver coins) to pay for the land. Secondly, the Deposit and Distribution Act of 1836 placed federal revenues in various local banks (derisively termed "pet banks") across the country. Many of these banks were located in western regions. The effect of these two policies was to transfer specie away from the nation's main commercial centers on the East Coast. With lower monetary reserves in their vaults, major banks and financial institutions on the East Coast had to scale back their loans, which was a major cause of the panic along with the real estate crash. [10]

Andrew Jackson 7th president of the United States

Andrew Jackson was an American soldier and statesman who served as the seventh president of the United States from 1829 to 1837. Before being elected to the presidency, Jackson gained fame as a general in the United States Army and served in both houses of Congress. As president, Jackson sought to advance the rights of the "common man" against a "corrupt aristocracy" and to preserve the Union.

Bank War

The Bank War refers to the political struggle that developed over the issue of rechartering the Second Bank of the United States (BUS) during the presidency of Andrew Jackson (1829–1837). The affair resulted in the destruction of the bank and its replacement by various state banks.

Second Bank of the United States US National Register of Historic Places bank building

The Second Bank of the United States, located in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, was the second federally authorized Hamiltonian national bank in the United States during its 20-year charter from February 1816 to January 1836. The bank's formal name, according to section 9 of its charter as passed by Congress, was "The President, Directors, and Company, of the Bank of the United States."

Americans at the time attributed the cause of the panic principally to domestic political conflicts. Democrats typically blamed the bankers. Whigs blamed Jackson for refusing to renew the charter of the Bank, resulting in the withdrawal of government funds from the bank. [11] Martin Van Buren, who became president in March 1837, was largely blamed for the panic even though his inauguration preceded the panic by only five weeks. Van Buren's refusal to use government intervention to address the crisis (such as emergency relief and increasing spending on public infrastructure projects to reduce unemployment) according to his opponents, contributed further to the hardship and duration of the depression that followed the panic. Jacksonian Democrats, on the other hand, blamed the National Bank, both in funding rampant speculation and in introducing inflationary paper money. Some modern economists view Van Buren's deregulatory economic policy as successful in the long term, and argue that it played an important role in revitalizing banks after the panic. [12]

Martin Van Buren 8th president of the United States

Martin Van Buren (; born Maarten Van Buren was an American statesman who served as the eighth president of the United States from 1837 to 1841. He was the first president born after the independence of the United States from the British Empire. A founder of the Democratic Party, he previously served as the ninth governor of New York, the tenth United States secretary of state, and the eighth vice president of the United States. He won the 1836 presidential election with the endorsement of popular outgoing President Andrew Jackson and the organizational strength of the Democratic Party. He lost his 1840 reelection bid to Whig Party nominee William Henry Harrison, due in part to the poor economic conditions of the Panic of 1837. Later in his life, Van Buren emerged as an elder statesman and important anti-slavery leader, who led the Free Soil Party ticket in the 1848 presidential election.

Infrastructure fundamental facilities and systems serving a country, city, or other areas

Infrastructure is the fundamental facilities and systems serving a country, city, or other area, including the services and facilities necessary for its economy to function. Infrastructure is composed of public and private physical improvements such as roads, bridges, tunnels, water supply, sewers, electrical grids, and telecommunications. In general, it has also been defined as "the physical components of interrelated systems providing commodities and services essential to enable, sustain, or enhance societal living conditions".

Jacksonian democracy was a 19th-century political philosophy in the United States that expanded suffrage to most white men over the age of 21, and restructured a number of federal institutions. Originating with the seventh President Andrew Jackson, and his supporters, it became the nation's dominant political worldview for a generation. The term itself was in active use by the 1830s.

Effects and aftermath

The modern balaam and his ass, an 1837 caricature placing the blame for the Panic of 1837 and the perilous state of the banking system on outgoing President Andrew Jackson, shown riding a donkey, while President Martin Van Buren comments approvingly. Jackson and Van Buren, 1837.jpg
The modern balaam and his ass, an 1837 caricature placing the blame for the Panic of 1837 and the perilous state of the banking system on outgoing President Andrew Jackson, shown riding a donkey, while President Martin Van Buren comments approvingly.

Virtually the whole nation felt the effects of the panic. Connecticut, New Jersey, and Delaware reported the greatest stress in their mercantile districts. In 1837, Vermont's business and credit systems took a hard blow. Vermont had a period of alleviation in 1838, but was hit hard again in 1839–1840. New Hampshire did not feel the effects of the panic as much as its neighbors did. It had no permanent debt in 1838, and did not have a lot of economic stress the following years. New Hampshire's greatest hardship was the circulation of fractional coins inside the state.

Conditions in the South were much worse than the conditions in the East, and the Cotton Belt was dealt the worst blow. In Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina the panic caused an increase in the interest of diversifying crops. New Orleans felt a general depression in business, and its money market stayed in bad condition throughout 1843. Several planters in Mississippi had spent much of their money in advance, leading to the complete bankruptcy of many planters. By 1839, many of the plantations were thrown out of cultivation. Florida and Georgia did not feel the effects as early as Louisiana, Alabama, or Mississippi. In 1837, Georgia had sufficient coin to carry on everyday purchases. Until 1839, citizens of Florida were able to boast about the punctuality of their payments. It was in the 1840s when Georgia and Florida began to feel the negative effects of the panic.

At first the West did not feel as much pressure as the East or the South. Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois were agricultural states, and the good crops of 1837 were a relief to the farmers. In 1839, agricultural prices fell and the pressure reached the agriculturalists. [13]

Within two months the losses from bank failures in New York alone aggregated nearly $100 million. Out of 850 banks in the United States, 343 closed entirely, 62 failed partially, and the system of state banks received a shock from which it never fully recovered. [14] The publishing industry was particularly hurt by the ensuing depression. [15]

In 1842, the American economy was able to rebound somewhat and overcome the five-year depression, but according to most accounts, the economy did not recover until 1843. [16] [17]

Hard times token, late 1830s; privately minted, used in place of one cent coin during currency shortage; inscription reads "I Take the Responsibility", shows Andrew Jackson holding a drawn sword and a coin bag, emerging from a strongbox. Hard times token.jpg
Hard times token, late 1830s; privately minted, used in place of one cent coin during currency shortage; inscription reads "I Take the Responsibility", shows Andrew Jackson holding a drawn sword and a coin bag, emerging from a strongbox.

Most economists also agree that there was a brief recovery from 1838 to 1839, which then ended as the Bank of England and Dutch creditors raised interest rates. [18] Economic historian Peter Temin has argued that, when corrected for deflation, the economy grew after 1838. [19] According to economist and historian Murray Rothbard, between 1839 and 1843, real consumption increased by 21 percent and real gross national product increased by 16 percent, while real investment fell by 23 percent and the money supply shrank by 34 percent. [20] The recovery from the depression intensified after the California gold rush started in 1848, greatly increasing the money supply. By 1850, the U.S. economy was booming again.

Many individual states defaulted on their bonds, angering British creditors. For a brief time, the United States withdrew from international money markets. Only in the late 1840s did Americans re-enter these markets. These defaults, along with other consequences of the recession, carried major implications for the relationship between the state and economic development. In some ways, the panic undermined confidence in public support for internal improvements. While state investment in internal improvements remained common in the South until the Civil War, northerners increasingly looked to private investment, rather than public, to finance growth. The panic unleashed a wave of riots and other forms of domestic unrest. The ultimate result was an increase in the state's police powers, including more professional police forces. [21] [22]

Intangible factors like confidence and psychology played powerful roles, helping to explain the magnitude and depth of the panic. Central banks had only limited abilities to control prices and employment at the time, making runs on banks common. When a few banks collapsed, alarm quickly spread throughout the community, heightened by partisan newspapers. Anxious investors rushed to other banks, demanding to have their deposits withdrawn. When faced with such pressure, even healthy banks had to make further curtailments – calling in loans and demanding payment from their borrowers. This fed the hysteria even further, leading to a downward spiral or snowball effect. In other words, anxiety, fear, and a pervasive lack of confidence initiated devastating, self-sustaining feedback loops. Many economists today understand this phenomenon as an information asymmetry. Essentially, bank depositors reacted to imperfect information: they did not know if their deposits were safe, and fearing further risk, they withdrew their deposits, even as this caused more damage. The same concept of downward spiral was true for many southern planters, who speculated in land, cotton, and slaves. Many planters took out loans from banks under the assumption that cotton prices would continue to rise. When cotton prices dropped, however, planters could not pay back their loans, jeopardizing the solvency of many banks. These factors were particularly crucial given the lack of deposit insurance in banks. When bank customers are not assured that their deposits are safe, they are more likely to make rash decisions that can imperil the rest of the economy. Economists today have concluded that suspension of convertibility, deposit insurance, and sufficient capital requirements in banks can limit the possibility of bank runs. [23] [24] [25]

See also

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Further reading