Washington Weathered a Terrible Economy and Great Power Rivalry Before ... in 1842



Alasdair Roberts is the Rappaport Professor of Law and Public Policy at Suffolk University Law School in Boston. His book "America's First Great Depression: Economic Crisis and Political Disorder" will be published by Cornell University Press in April.

On March 9, 1842, a young Charles Dickens arrived in Washington D.C. He was lionized in the city, as he had been everywhere since landing in Boston seven weeks earlier.  Senators William C. Rives of Virginia and Nathanial P. Tallmadge of New York gave him a personal tour of the Capitol. Former president John Quincy Adams entertained him on a Sunday afternoon. President John Tyler honored him at a White House levee. "Mr. Dickens receives the best hospitalities in Washington," the Alexandria Gazette reported on March 17, "and is delighted with almost everything that he sees in our country."

But not exactly everything. Americans were infuriated when Dickens's travel diary American Notes was published seven months later. Dickens had repaid kindness with "petty malice," one reviewer complained. About Congress, Dickens said that he saw within it "the lowest of all scrambling fights ... [and] Dishonest Faction in its most depraved and most unblushing form." President Tyler, he added, "looked worn and anxious" after only a year in office. "And well he might," Dickens added, "being at war with everybody."

Dickens had not seen Washington in the best of times. In March 1842, the United States was suffering through the fifth year of an economic crisis that began with the collapse of a speculative boom in the fall of 1837. Across the country, economic distress was producing so much political and social upheaval that some feared for the future of the republic. The United States was "like the ocean when convulsed by some terrible storm," said Senator Henry Clay, "agitated upon its whole surface, and at its lowest depths."

The economic decline caused chaos within state governments. During the boom, many borrowed heavily from Europe to pay for ill-conceived canal, railroad and highway projects. When toll revenues plummeted, states could not pay their bills. In 1841-42, eight of the twenty-six states (and one territory, Florida) defaulted on their loans.  European creditors were outraged. The United States, declared London banker Anthony de Rothschild, was "the most blasted & the most stinking country in the world."

The country was rife with unrest. In Philadelphia, unemployment fed antagonisms between American-born, Irish and black workers. An 1842 riot was stopped only after the militia was called out. Parts of Philadelphia "took for the time the appearance of a military cantonment." In Rhode Island, worker unrest fueled an outright rebellion against the state government, which was put down after Governor Samuel King declared martial law with the aid of federal troops in June 1842. In New York's Hudson Valley, meanwhile, distressed farmers were encouraged to wage "guerilla warfare" against sheriffs attempting to foreclose on their property.

Popular anger was also expressed at the ballot box. Voting rights had been extended substantially during the preceding twenty years. But it took an economic crisis to drive voters to the polls. In 1840, voter turnout rose to a record 80 percent. Almost 40 percent of votes in that election were cast by first-time voters. This was bad news for Democratic President Martin Van Buren and his allies on Capitol Hill. In November 1840, Whigs claimed the White House and majorities in both chambers of Congress.

Unfortunately, there was little unity among Whigs. President William Henry Harrison died after a month in office and was replaced by Tyler, a former Democrat who had been put on the ticket to woo Southern voters. Tyler vetoed two attempts led by Clay to address the economic crisis by restoring the Bank of the United States, and in September 1841 most of his Cabinet resigned in protest. Whigs in Congress denounced him as a traitor to the party.

In the following months, Whig fratricide intensified. According to the Compromise of 1833, federal tariffs were to be reduced substantially in June 1842. Southerners had waited a decade for the hated taxes to be removed. But now trade had declined so much that the federal Treasury was empty. Distressed Northern manufacturers were also pleading to have the compromise unwound. Congress was deadlocked. Disgust with the "confusion and tumult" on Capitol Hill pervaded the press.

Legislators "are doing more to bring republican institutions into disrepute," the Baltimore Clipper complained on March 15, 1842—the very day of Tyler's levee for Dickens—"than could be effected by all the monarchical writers of Europe ... [M]embers indulge in paltry disputes about questions of order, or indulge in vile political harangues." It got even worse when Tyler vetoed two bills to preserve tariffs.  By the summer of 1842, Whigs in the House of Representatives were pressing for impeachment.

The economic crisis had implications for foreign policy as well. The United States was continually engaged in skirmishes with Britain as the two countries jostled for territory and access to new markets. But the cash-starved U.S. government could not keep up with British military expenditure. Even modest attempts at military expansion were tainted: only two weeks after Dickens' arrival in Washington, the newly-commissioned steamer Missouriran aground on the Potomac, killing sixteen sailors. Military weakness aggravated the humiliation already felt by Americans because of state defaults. The two nations, Nicholas Biddle said in 1843, were "in the worst possible humor with each other, [and] ready, with only a little more provocation, to go to war."

Dickens might have visited the United States at one of the lowest points in its short history. The crisis that had begun as a financial panic in 1837 was still metastasizing. What had begun as a problem within the banking community was now a fiscal problem for state and federal governments, a law and order problem for local authorities, a problem of unity between the North and South, and even a diplomatic and military problem between the United States and Britain. It would be another six years before Americans could say with confidence that the crisis was behind them.

One hundred and seventy years later, the United States is once again in the fifth year of an economic downturn that began with the collapse of a speculative boom. Obviously, circumstances are different today.  We have devices (including a central bank) for avoiding outright depression, and there is no risk of war with a superpower. Still, there are similarities. Once again, a financial crisis has metastasized into something more complex and difficult to manage. Politics has become angrier and more turbulent. This is not a time for launching ambitious schemes. Today, as in March 1842, the challenge is simply to weather the storm.

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