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

Overview

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 ...

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

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Overview

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.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"Alasdair Roberts tells a wide-ranging story of the depression that began in 1837 with lucidity, emphasizing the role of global financial markets and finding plenty of analogies to the economic problems of today."—Daniel Walker Howe, Pulitzer-Prize-winning author of What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815–1848

"America's First Great Depression is astute, compelling, concise, original, relevant, transatlantic, well-written, and witty. No ellipses and no exaggerations."—Robert E. Wright, Nef Family Chair of Political Economy, Augustana College, South Dakota, author of One Nation Under Debt and Fubarnomics

"Alasdair Roberts's poignant yet balanced account of the financial, economic, and political crises of the 1830s and 1840s provides us with a distant mirror reflecting our current travails. By not knowing and learning from history, we continue to make the same mistakes our ancestors did. If you want to complete your education, America’s First Great Depression is a good place to begin."—Richard Sylla, Henry Kaufman Professor of the History of Financial Institutions and Markets, New York University, coauthor of A History of Interest Rates

"America's First Great Depression is an intriguing history of American financial policy in the 1830s and 1840s. Alasdair Roberts’s contention that international financial considerations shaped U.S. policymaking is well sustained, the writing is sprightly, and the argument is nicely documented with a wealth of judiciously culled evidence."—Richard R. John, Columbia University, author of Network Nation: Inventing American Telecommunications

Publishers Weekly
For the first 50 years after achieving independence, Americans had every reason to believe theirs to be the most fortunate of nations. Then came the Panic of 1837, which caused a hopelessness rendered worse by the optimism that had preceded it and resulted in a crisis that lasted until 1848. The analysis by Suffolk University Law School professor Roberts (The Logic of Discipline) reveals how this disaster led to epochal shifts in policy and culture, and his lively narrative and commitment to character ensure that the human cost is never out of sight. Roberts is especially keen to demonstrate how this mid-19th century ordeal relates to America’s current woes. The “hard times” of the 1830s led to financial ruin for state governments, a near-cessation of federal aid, and an outbreak of violent protests in many major cities. For Roberts, though, the most relevant parallel by far is the relationship between the U.S. and its primary foreign creditor: Great Britain. If today’s commentators worry about a growing Chinese threat, during the 19th century British ascension was an established fact; its military had no rival and its investors and industry served as “the real engine of American development.” This timely work suggests that the U.S. has spent more time as a global underdog than as an undisputed hegemon. (Apr.)
Library Journal
Roberts (Jerome L. Rappaport Professor, law & public policy, Suffolk Univ. Law Sch.; The Logic of Discipline: Global Capitalism and the Architecture of Government) examines the financial, political, and social upheavals that occurred in the United States in the decade following the Panic of 1837, which he calls the First Great Depression. The years leading up to the panic, he says, were a time of boom marked by geographic expansion, the near elimination of the national debt, states borrowing large sums for improvement projects, and land values that appeared to be rising without end. He explains that the panic caused a deep economic depression that resulted in loan defaults by nine states, federal gridlock, a breakdown of law and order, a loss of faith in banks, and a slow recovery for the U.S. economy, which came back only after the Mexican War. Parallels to the country's current economic recession are clear throughout the text, and Roberts makes explicit comparisons in his conclusion. VERDICT This timely book will be of great use not just to students of economic history but also to readers who wish to find historical precedent for today's uncertain, turbulent times.—Lawrence Maxted, Gannon Univ. Lib., Erie, PA
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780801478864
  • Publisher: Cornell University Press
  • Publication date: 5/14/2013
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 255
  • Sales rank: 955,908
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.20 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Alasdair Roberts is the Jerome L. Rappaport Professor of Law and Public Policy at Suffolk University Law School in Boston, Massachusetts. He is also a Fellow of the U.S. National Academy of Public Administration. He is the author of America's First Great Depression, also from Cornell, The Logic of Discipline, and Blacked Out: Government Secrecy in the Information Age.

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Table of Contents

Introduction: Back to the Future

1. Boom and Bust
Hard times
Gauging the losses
The bubble
The collapse

2. The States' Crisis
Defaulting on state debts
Disgrace in Europe
Shackling the states

3. The Federal Government's Crisis
Gridlock in Washington
The fraying national compact
Losing the arms race
Reconciling with the superpower

4. Law and Order
Rebellion in Rhode Island
The anti- rent war
Cannon fire in Philadelphia
Building civic armies

5. The End of the Crisis
A proxy war in Mexico
Redemption

Conclusion: Freedom, Order, and Economic Crisis

Note on Method and Acknowledgments
Notes
Index

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