Panic of 1837, Economics, Credit, Financial markets, Trade, Exports
When used in 1830s America, “panic” often had a different and narrower meaning than it does today. Whereas “panic” now broadly connotes a sudden and frenetic state of fear, antebellum men and women understood panics as financial crises arising from specifically political causes. When labeling the events of 1837 as a panic, then, American writers and politicians obscured certain causes of financial turmoil and privileged others. They framed their nation’s economic woes in partisan terms, blaming the fiscal policies of either the Whigs or the Democrats.
In her prize-winning monograph, The Many Panics of 1837: People, Politics, and the Creation of a Transatlantic Financial Crisis, Jessica M. Lepler disputes simplistic readings of the Panic of 1837. Previous studies have presented the Panic of 1837 as either a domestic event caused by Democrats’ and Whigs’ conflicts over fiscal policy, or as an “an international crisis based not on politics but global monetary flows” (6). Lepler offers a more nuanced, contingent account, one that centers on countless decisions by commercial elites, bankers, politicians, and newspaper editors between 1836 and May 10, 1837. She characterizes this period as one of genuine uncertainty, during which individuals on both sides of the Atlantic scrambled to gather accurate information about and produce [End Page 420] explanations for financial failures. Within this account, the banks’ suspension of specie payments on May 10 appears not as the start of the panic but as its conclusion.
Lepler’s work makes important contributions to several scholarly literatures. First, as part of the burgeoning field of the history of capitalism, The Many Panics of 1837 both illuminates the workings of nineteenth-century financial markets and provides a powerful case study of how economic understandings are themselves cultural productions. During and immediately following the Panic of 1837, contemporary journalists rejected previous understandings of financial failure as arising from personal immorality. Instead, they blamed financial uncertainty on political fights over banking policy, leading “the actual period of panic to be forgotten.” This subsequently “caused historians and economists to tell stories of a panic-less panic of 1837,” stories that devoted insufficient weight to events prior to May 10 (3). Economic theories of cycles of credit crises, for example, did not crystallize until the 1860s, at which point scholars advanced novel arguments that macroeconomic cycles caused the Panic of 1837. Such a rereading was possible, Lepler explains, in part because histories of individual decisions and personal panics had already been obscured.
In keeping with recent histories of capitalism, Lepler’s work persuasively underscores linkages between slavery and capitalism. The Many Panics of 1837 concentrates on three cities: New York, London, and New Orleans. The latter was the fastest-growing American city in the 1830s, and its economy centered on the export of cotton, a crop grown and harvested using slave labor. Cotton growers needed funds to finance the next season’s crops before they received payment for their current harvests, and so New Orleans planters relied on credit extended by New York and London merchants. Within this system of interdependences, falling cotton prices and inaccurate reports of the failure of one New Orleans firm triggered subsequent panics and failures in New York and London.
The Many Panics of 1837 also suggests that Atlantic paradigms are useful and relevant for scholars beyond the early modern period, the era for which Atlantic Studies has tended to flourish. Lepler shows that the Panic of 1837 cannot be understood without recognizing the inter-connectedness of British and American financial markets. Throughout, she carefully traces the movement of credit, people, news, information, and misinformation across the Atlantic and emphasizes the ways in [End Page 421] which communication lags often intensified panic. For example, Lepler explains that events on both sides of the Atlantic increased financial uncertainty in 1836. That year, the Bank of England temporarily stopped discounting American bills of exchange after Londoners misinterpreted a speech by...