America's First Great Depression: Economic Crisis and Political Disorder after the Panic of 1837. By Alasdair Roberts. (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2012. Pp. 255. $26.00.)
Article first published online: 4 MAR 2014
© 2014 Phi Alpha Theta
Volume 76, Issue 1, pages 140–141, Spring 2014
How to Cite
Bush, D. (2014), America's First Great Depression: Economic Crisis and Political Disorder after the Panic of 1837. By Alasdair Roberts. (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2012. Pp. 255. $26.00.). Historian, 76: 140–141. doi: 10.1111/hisn.12030_33
- Issue published online: 4 MAR 2014
- Article first published online: 4 MAR 2014
Alasdair Roberts argues that America's first great depression was not the economic downturn of the 1930s but actually occurred ninety years earlier between 1836 and 1848. The boom times of the 1820s and early 1830s were supported by state government financed internal improvements (roads, canals, and railroads) and state-supported banks that in turn financed the expansion of farms and plantations. States financed these expenditures by borrowing increasingly large amounts of funds—often from Britain.
Excessive expansion created a bubble that burst in the late 1830s with the collapsing price of wheat and cotton in Europe, the federal government's new policy requiring land purchases to be paid for in specie rather than paper currency, and British restrictions on lending. With European demand for American commodities evaporating and unable to borrow, by 1842 one-third of the states, from Michigan to Mississippi, defaulted. America's failure to service its debts was put to song in London's Literary Gazette,
Yankee Doodle borrows cash,/Yankee Doodle spends it,/And then he snaps his fingers at/The jolly flat who lends it./Ask him when he means to pay,/He shews no hesitation,/But says he'll take the shortest way,/And that's repudiation! (65)
Economic problems continued through much of the 1840s, ending only with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. By this time, political crises across Europe, poor European harvests that increased demand for American wheat, and the discovery of California gold reopened British bank vaults to Americans.
However, Roberts's book is more than an economic analysis of the 1830s and 1840s; he persuasively argues that it was a great depression not solely for economic reasons but because of resulting social and political changes. In the page-turning chapter “Law and Order,” Roberts discusses violent civil unrest in several states. Disenfranchised Rhode Island citizens, supported by some state militia units, wrote their own state constitution and demanded access to the ballot at the point of a gun. Farther south, in Philadelphia, before the Panic of 1837, unions and a growing economy kept racial and ethnic tensions in check, but union influence collapsed along with the economy; violence between Irish and blacks and between native-born whites and the Irish then exploded. Roberts argues that the violence seen across the nation “raised questions about the capacity of citizens to regulate themselves, and also about the ability of a nation organized on democratic principles to maintain civil peace” (138). Governments found their answer by establishing police forces.
America's First Great Depression is an engaging book that could spark classroom debate on a number of important topics: internal improvements, the changing role of state governments, Anglo-American relations, immigration, urbanization, Jacksonian democracy, the Bank War, tariff issues, and the federal role in regulating the economy, slavery, and westward expansion. Roberts does a particularly fine job of placing this period of US history within a global perspective. As it is only 216 pages of text, this reviewer will assign this book in his Early US History survey class.