Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The Panic of 1837 (5)

It was so impossible that such a state of things could long continue that the prospect of revulsion was present to the minds of considerate men before it actually came. None, however, had correctly anticipated its severity. A concurrence of circumstances inadequate of themselves to produce such widespread and calamitous embarrassments tended so greatly to aggravate them that they can not be overlooked in considering their history. Among these may be mentioned, as most prominent, the great loss of capital sustained by our commercial emporium in the fire of December, 1835, a loss the effects of which were underrated at the time because postponed for a season by the great facilities of credit then existing; the disturbing effects in our commercial cities of the transfers of the public moneys required by the deposit law of June, 1836, and the measures adopted by the foreign creditors of our merchants to reduce their debts and to withdraw from the United States a large portion of our specie.

It has since appeared that evils similar to those suffered by ourselves have been experienced in Great Britain, on the Continent, and indeed, throughout the commercial world, and that in other countries as well as in our own they have been uniformly preceded by an undue enlargement of the boundaries of trade, prompted, as with us, by unprecedented expansions of the systems of credit. A reference to the amount of banking capital and the issues of paper credits put in circulation in Great Britain, by banks and in other ways, during the years 1834,1835, and 1836 will show an augmentation of the paper currency there as much disproportioned to the real wants of trade as in the United States. With this redundancy of the paper currency there arose in that country also a spirit of adventurous speculation embracing the whole range of human enterprise.

Aid was profusely given to projected improvements; large investments were made in foreign stocks and loans; credits for goods were granted with unbounded liberality to merchants in foreign countries, and all the means of acquiring and employing credit were put in active operation and extended in their effects to every department of business and to every quarter of the globe. The reaction was proportioned in its violence to the extraordinary character of the events which preceded it. The commercial community of Great Britain were subjected to the greatest difficulties, and their debtors in this country were not only suddenly deprived of accustomed and expected credits, but called upon for payments which in the actual posture of things here could only be made through a general pressure and at the most ruinous sacrifices.

In view of these facts it would seem impossible for sincere inquirers after truth to resist the conviction that the causes of the revulsion in both countries have been substantially the same. Two nations, the most commercial in the world, enjoying but recently the highest degree of apparent prosperity and maintaining with each other the closest relations, are suddenly, in a time of profound peace and without any great national disaster, arrested in their career and plunged into a state of embarrassment and distress. In both countries we have witnessed the same redundancy of paper money and other facilities of credit; the same spirit of speculation; the same partial successes; the same difficulties and reverses, and at length nearly the same overwhelming catastrophe. The most material difference between the results in the two countries has only been that with us there has also occurred an extensive derangement in the fiscal affairs of the Federal and State Governments, occasioned by the suspension of specie payments by the banks.

To be continued: The Panic of 1837 (6)

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