“Who Remembers the Panic of 1819?”

October 17, 2019

George Segal, Depression Breadline, Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, Washington, D.C. Photo by author (c. 2003).

In the United States, a nation full of monuments to fallen soldiers, there are few monuments to fallen fortunes. In fact, to the best of my knowledge, there is exactly one national monument to the history of American economic turbulence: sculptor George Segal’s Depression Breadline (1991) in the second room of the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial in Washington, D.C.[1] With these haggard bronze men waiting outside a windowless, closed door, the National Park Service acknowledges American economic life.

But Depression Breadline is not a memorial to all depressions. It is a commemoration of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1930s government programs designed to “provide enough for those who have too little.”[2] Its title is historically inaccurate; the memorial should be entitled Great Depression Breadline because all economic crises are not the same.

Most of us can remember the Great Recession, the nation’s latest economic catastrophe, which began in 2007 with the bursting of a U.S. housing bubble. Financial institutions, retirement accounts, and even governments around the world became ensnared in a downward spiral of collapsing credit. According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, the Great Recession officially ended a decade ago in June 2009.[3] But this did not mean that everything was immediately back to “normal.” For those who retrained for new jobs, lost their homes, or found themselves crippled by debt, the Great Recession changed their lives forever.

Whereas the nation publicly remembers America’s worst economic catastrophe, and most of us personally remember America’s most recent economic catastrophe, who remembers America’s first economic catastrophe? Who remembers the Panic of 1819?

The hard times of the late 1810s and early 1820s, like the Great Recession, were preceded by an unsustainable real estate boom. During the 1810s, the United States seized lands from Native Americans. The government then resold these lands on credit to white migrants who sought to farm wheat and cotton that, owing to particular environmental conditions and the rise of industrialization, were enjoying record high prices in British markets.

At the same time, the end of the Napoleonic Wars and the War of 1812 left British manufacturers in desperate need of markets for their products. British merchants dumped these items on U.S. markets. This below-cost competition shuttered the young nation’s infant factories and forced urban workers out of their jobs. And there was very little to pay workers with anyway. The United States suffered from a severe shortage of specie—gold and silver coin. In place of metal currency, hundreds of new banks chartered by states and one chartered by the federal government issued large quantities of paper money to enable trade, daily transactions, and enormous federal land sales. In theory, bank notes were backed by specie, but in practice, few coins collected in bank vaults. As long as no one tried to redeem the notes for coin, the paper currency was fine. However, the first installment of payments on the bonds issued to purchase the Louisiana Territory from France came due in 1819. Only coin could legally be used to satisfy this debt.

There was no single panic in 1819, as some would claim occurred in later nineteenth-century financial crises. Instead, a variety of economically troubling forces began to converge. Urban workers were already experiencing the hardships of joblessness when the Second Bank of the United States, which was responsible for servicing the Louisiana debt, began demanding coin in exchange for all the other banks’ paper. This resulted in a contraction of the money supply at exactly the same time that the price of both wheat and cotton plummeted. By 1820, most banks suspended specie payments; some failed outright.

Soon everyone experienced hard times. Purchasers of western lands defaulted on their debts to the federal government, thus threatening the nation’s finances. Congress passed a new law changing the terms of federal land sales to provide leniency for debtors, but this led to political backlash for the single dominant political party. Children of unemployed urban workers starved as local governments’ austerity measures slashed almshouse budgets. Before abandoning their unprofitable farms, northwestern families fed their wheat to their pigs, an effort to recoup some of their hard work by letting the wheat walk to market in the form of pork. After being forcibly migrated to the new Alabama cotton fields and then mortgaged to pay for their own sales, enslaved people harvested increasingly larger cotton crops to prevent their bodily repossession by banks seeking to satisfy the debts of their enslavers. Men and women, old and young, black and white, seemingly rich and obviously poor, North and South, East and West, city and country—the hard times reached everyone.

The hard times in the 1810s and early 1820s looked totally different from Roosevelt’s 1930s. Unlike Roosevelt’s fireside chats, President James Monroe barely mentioned the nation’s economic troubles in his public addresses. The downtrodden of the early republic did not find a federal government concerned about the poor; they found a Washington unable and unwilling to pass legislation ending imprisonment for debt. There was no New Deal on the horizon, just the impoverishment of debtors’ prison for failed businessmen, the punishing labor of the local poor house for penurious families, the sex trade for unemployed women, malnourishment for children, and the auction block for the enslaved.

The effects of the Panic of 1819 were staggering: the creation of new political parties, the expansion of the electorate to all white men, a rare increase in the national debt during peacetime, the rise of sectional identities, a cultural shift toward demonizing the poor, a change in diplomatic and trade relations, new legal support for corporations, and much more.

The people at the time did not know what to call their experiences. Much later, after other nationwide economic catastrophes, someone invented the term the “panic of 1819”; it’s a misnomer.[4] Despite economists’ focus on the specie suspensions and bank failures, there was no single identifiable “panic” or financial crisis. Few used the term “panic” in the 1810s and 1820s to refer to the credit crunch.[5] No one had yet invented the concepts of “the business cycle” or “the economy.”[6] And the Panic of 1819 did not exactly fit the business cycle model developed in the twentieth century. Even if the Panic of 1819 did conform to the model, we would have no way of knowing, because the federal government did not yet collect the kind of statistics used as indicators to measure more recent recessions and depressions.[7]

In 1919, a decade before the Great Depression, the centennial of the Panic of 1819 seems to have passed without notice. A hundred years later, we aren’t doing much better. Aside from a roundtable at the July 2019 annual meeting of the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic and the publication of Andrew H. Browning’s important new book entitled The Panic of 1819: The First Great Depression, the bicentennial has passed so far without much notice. Nonetheless, the Panic of 1819 was a hugely significant event. Whether defined narrowly as a financial crisis (by economists), broadly as a depression (by historians), or even more confusingly as both, the influence of the Panic of 1819 can be seen in every subfield of U.S. history. And yet, despite its influence on political, cultural, social, financial, economic, diplomatic, and legal history, few remember it.

Economic events are not all the same. By recognizing that panics and depressions are different and distinct historic events, we can see change in economic life over time. The business cycle is an economist’s model that makes capitalism appear timeless and immutable. But historians know that capitalism changed over time. Economic history is not just an ever-repeating cycle. Context matters.

We haven’t built many memorials to panics, recessions, or depressions, but maybe we should. Monuments to the cataclysmic events of American capitalism, like the Panic of 1819, would remind us in good times that economic life is far from stable and in bad times that we have survived previous catastrophes. As the National Council for Public History’s just-released Inclusive Historian’s Handbook explains, “monuments can bind us together and fortify our communities in the face of tragedy or uncertainty.”[8] The absence of economic monuments denies the public a community focus. When hard times return, as they surely will, we have no place for collective remembrance. As historian Scott Sandage’s Born Losers taught us, after the Panic of 1819, Americans started blaming individuals for their financial failures despite larger societal causes. We still collectivize success and personalize failure.

This is not fair; moreover, it leads to inaccurate history. I learned in my research on my book The Many Panics of 1837: People, Politics, and the Creation of a Transatlantic Financial Crisis that panicked people in turn wrote themselves out of the history of the Panic of 1837 to create a more palatable and more pragmatic story for political, financial, and personal purposes. Blamed but invisible, people are often erased from economic history, even though economic history affects everyone. Our lack of monumentation of economic catastrophe allows the continued erasure of the memory of both collective causes and individual experiences.

To remember that U.S. economic power has always come with significant costs, we need to write the past struggles of economic life into the historical landscape. Taken together, national monuments to past panics, recessions, and depressions would help us see the enormous economic changes of U.S. history: the end of slavery, the urbanization and later deindustrialization of American work, the rise of widespread investment in the stock market, the expansion of consumer credit, the creation of social safety nets like unemployment and social security, and much more. If people could visit monuments to economic catastrophe, they would see their own struggles with employment, solvency, credit, and survival as a part of history worth remembering. And, the next time we face the painful busting of a financial bubble, we could all point to our monuments memorializing survival of past economic catastrophes instead of pointing fingers at one another.

Who remembers the Panic of 1819? We all should.

Jessica Lepler is an associate professor of history at the University of New Hampshire. Her first book, The Many Panics of 1837: People, Politics, and the Creation of a Transatlantic Financial Crisis (Cambridge, 2013), was a co-winner of the James H. Broussard Best First Book Prize from the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic (SHEAR). She is a co-founder of the SHEAR Second-Book Writers’ Workshop. Her second book is an exploration of attempts to build a canal across Lake Nicaragua in the 1820s. In Fall 2019, she holds a semester-long research fellowship from the UNH Provost’s Faculty Scholars Program to work on this book.

[1] Robert Yoskowitz, “Out in Front: Three Approaches to the Public Sculpture of George Segal,” The Princeton University Library Chronicle, 73 (Spring 2012): 463–79, esp. 470–74.

[2] For the text of the inscription see http://stationstart.com/2010/04/fdr04/.

[3] “Business Cycle Dating Committee,National Bureau of Economic Research, Sept. 20, 2010, https://www.nber.org/cycles/sept2010.html.

[4] This term may first have been used in 1837 when a letter referenced in a newspaper refers to “The great pressure and panic of 1819.” “From the Tawanda (Pa) Democrat. Extract of a Letter from the Hon. A. H. Read,” New Hampshire Patriot and State Gazette, Sept. 11, 1837, p. 1. By the 1890s, the term “panic of 1819” appeared in newspapers without the term pressure, but the “p” was not yet capitalized like a proper noun. See for example, “In Dolce Far Niente. Yet They Think They Work like Galley Slaves,” Knoxville Journal, Feb. 25, 1894, p. 12.

[5] Although I am very grateful for Browning’s new volume and have found it very helpful in describing the events of the late 1810s and early 1820s in this essay, I disagree with Browning’s interpretation of my findings about the use of the word “panic” in 1837. Plenty of primary sources from 1837 employ this term, but the proper noun “The Panic of 1837” did not appear until much later. Andrew H. Browning, The Panic of 1819: The First Great Depression (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2019), 183.

[6] Timothy Mitchell, “Fixing the Economy,” Cultural Studies, 12 (no.1, 1998), 82–101.

[7] For the history of statistics in the early republic, see Patricia Cline Cohen, A Calculating People: The Spread of Numeracy in Early America (New York, 1999).  

[8] Seth C. Bruggeman, “Memorials and Monuments,” The Inclusive Historian’s Handbook, July 18, 2019, https://inclusivehistorian.com/memorials-and-monuments/.