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The Panic of 1857 and the Coming of the Civil War

James L. Huston

Publication Year: 1999

In the autumn of 1857, sustained runs on New York banks led to a panic atmosphere that affected the American economy for the next two years. In The Panic of 1857 and the Coming of the Civil War, James L. Huston presents an exhaustive analysis of the political, social and intellectual repercussions of the Panic and shows how it exacerbated the conflict between North and South. The panic of 1857 initiated a general inquiry between free traders and protectionists into the deficiencies of American economic practices. A key aspect of this debate was the ultimate fate of the American worker, an issue that was given added emphasis by a series of labor demonstrations and strikes. In an attempt to maintain the material welfare of laborers, northerners advocated a program of high tariffs, free western lands, and education. But these proposals elicited the opposition of southerners, who believed that such policies would not serve the needs of the slaves system. Indeed, many people of the period saw the struggle between North and South as an economic one whose outcome would determine whether laborers would be free and well paid or degraded and poor. Politically, the Panic of 1857 resurrected economic issues that had characterized the Whig-Democratic party system prior to the 1850s. Southerners, observing the collapse of northern banks, believed that they could continue to govern the nation by convincing northern propertied interests that sectionalism had to be ended in order to ensure the continued profitability of intersectional trade. In short, they hoped for a marriage between the Yankee capitalist and the southern plantation owner. However, in northen states, the Panic had made the Whig program of high tariffs, a national bank, and internal improvements popular with distressed members of the community. The country’s old-line Whigs and nativists were particularly affected by the state of economic affairs. When Republicans moved to adopt a portion of the old Whig program, conservatives found the attraction irresistible. By maintaining their new coalition with conservatives and by exploiting the weaknesses of the Buchanan administration, the Republicans managed to capture the presidency in 1860. No other book examines in such detail the political ramifications of the Panic of 1857. By explaining how the economic depression influenced the course of sectional debate, Huston has made an important and much-needed contribution to Civil War historiography.

Published by: Louisiana State University Press


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p. 1-1

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. 2-7


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pp. vii-11

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pp. xi-xvi

In a bibliographic essay appended to their masterful work The Civil War and Reconstruction, James C. Randall and David H. Donald noted that the one monograph that dealt with the Panic of 1857 was "inadequate." The problem from Randall and Donalds perspective was that although the economic aspects of the Panic of 1857 had received attention, the political ramifications had not. The only published works that have focused upon the relations...

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pp. xvii-21

In the long and arduous process of putting this manuscript into finished form, I have incurred a great number of intellectual and personal debts. Winton U. Solberg, Walter L. Arnstein, Clark C. Spence, Richard C. Rohrs, LeRoy H. Fischer, H. James Henderson, and Kenneth M. Stampp read the manuscript in various stages of completion and offered useful suggestions (frequently, it must be confessed, concerning length). A number of...

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ONE: A Pensive Nation

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pp. 1-13

The course of political, social, and economic developments in the United States for the three decades prior to 1860 largely determined the effects that the Panic of 1857 had upon sectional attitudes. The economic conditions that the Panic exposed, and which became the justification for certain sectional appeals, were in large part the results of an economic growth based...

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TWO: Panic Stalks Wall Street

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pp. 14-34

The course the Panic took between late August and mid-October had a significant bearing upon the manner in which Americans reacted to the crisis. Due to a bountiful harvest, most Americans anticipated a rewarding fall trade and expected any monetary difficulty to remain isolated in New York City. When the financial problems overwhelmed commerce and...

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THREE: Public and Political Reactions

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pp. 35-65

The financial turmoil of 1857 instigated a wide-ranging and angry debate over economic policy. This discussion surprisingly did not influence the sectional controversy over slavery, at least for the time being. Although many southerners and a few abolitionists pressed the financial crash into service for their pro- and antislavery causes, the general public's reaction, as well...

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FOUR: Economic Thought and the Panic of 1857

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pp. 66-110

The financial crisis of 1857 reinvigorated a long-standing controversy over appropriate national economic policy—that is, whether the nation should establish free trade in its international dealings with the world or erect high tariff barriers to protect certain types of business activities. For much of the 1850s the quarrel over free trade or protectionism had lain dormant, but its reawakening in 1857 had distinct repercussions for the sectional...

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FIVE: Two Panics in Congress

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pp. 111-138

The process of converting the economic issues produced by the Panic of 1857 into topics of sectional acrimony began with the convening of the first session of the Thirty-fifth Congress on December 7, 1857. At the same time that legislators pondered appropriate remedies for the business depression, they also struggled with the treacherous question of admitting Kansas...

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SIX: The Elections of 1858

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pp. 139-172

It was during the elections of 1858 that Panic-related economic issues finally emerged and began to influence the course of sectional controversy. The rise of protectionist sentiment in Pennsylvania not only added an economic dimension to the debate over the expansion of slavery but also reinforced an essential point of contention between the North and the South: the different attitudes and goals that a slaveholding society and a free labor...

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SEVEN: A Retrenchment Congress

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pp. 173-209

Three political circumstances contributed to sectional tensions at the beginning of 1859 that were the distinct legacies of the Panic of 1857. Pennsylvania Democrats experienced the first in the congressional elections of 1858 when so many voters in the state accepted the opposition premise that a high tariff was a cure for economic depression. The second was a result of the presence of concrete economic issues whose resolution seemed...

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EIGHT: Economic Resurrection and the Rights of Labor

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pp. 210-230

The functioning of the economy in 1859 and 1860 buttressed many of the sectional arguments that the financial crash of 1857 had evoked. Southerners found much evidence in the slow recovery of northern businesses to confirm their opinion that the welfare of the North depended upon trade with the South; they believed that this circumstance could be used with telling force in the political battle over slavery. The outbreak of...

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NINE: The Election of 1860

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pp. 231-260

The Panic of 1857 shaped the presidential campaign of 1860 in a number of ways. The Panics most obvious effect was the injection of specific economic policy questions into the controversy between North and South. For most of the 1850s sectional agitators had used economic arguments for and against slavery, but the onslaught of depression in late 1857 transformed the subject of federal policy from a debate over sectional favoritism...

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TEN: Conclusion

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pp. 261-276

A study of the Panic of 1857 does not dislodge the primacy of slavery as the cause of the American Civil War.' Following the monetary collapse, the all-absorbing topic of debate continued to be slavery throughout the North and the South. The Panic of 1857 reintroduced some economic programs into political...

A: Party Victors in Selected Northern State Congressional Contests, 1856–1860

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pp. 277-279

B: Democratic Vote Losses in the Election of 1860 in Pennsylvania Counties Changing Party Preference

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pp. 280-282


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pp. 283-306


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pp. 307-315

E-ISBN-13: 9780807153581
Print-ISBN-13: 9780807124925

Page Count: 336
Publication Year: 1999