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Thursday, January 3, 2019

January 3, 2019: 2019 Anniversaries: The Panic of 1819

[There are a number of significant anniversaries in 2019, so for this New Year’s series I’ll highlight a handful of such historical anniversaries. Leading up to a special weekend post featuring exclusive AmericanStudier predictions on the year ahead!]
On its 200th anniversary, a short-term and a long-term legacy of America’s first post-independence financial crisis.
I could pretend to be an economic historian and get all technical here about the causes of the Panic of 1819, the new nation’s first economic disaster and the start of a depression that lasted more than two years. But you’re my friends, and I wouldn’t lie to y’all like that; I imagine many of you know at least as much about such economic histories and factors as I do (and as ever, I’d welcome responses and additions in comments!). Not to mention, and as usual with such economic crises, the causes seem to have been multiple and spread across many years: from the 1815 eruption of an Indonesian volcano and the worldwide Year Without a Summer it produced; to the January 1817 creation of the Second Bank of the United States and its subsequent neo-federalist economic policies; to the January 1819 collapse of the cotton market, with the value of that staple crop dropping more than 25% in a single day. That last event directly precipitated the Panic, but the others (and many others as well) reveal that economic crisis had been on its way for quite some time by that point.
The Panic and the more than two years of depression that followed left a number of lasting legacies in American society and culture, but none was more striking than the move toward Jacksonian America. Andrew Jackson may not have been elected president until 1828, but both his general emphasis on expanding democracy to more (white) working and lower class Americans and his specific opposition to the Second Bank of the United States can be traced directly to the Panic’s origins and effects. Moreover, Jackson’s opponent in both that 1828 and the controversial 1824 presidential election (as well as the 1826 midterms in between), John Quincy Adams, was in many ways an embodiment of neo-federalism and the elitist attitudes and policies that had helped precipitated the Panic. I wrote in that last hyperlinked post about how the 1824 presidential election signaled the beginning of the end of the “Era of Good Feelings,” but certainly the 1819-1821 depression had a role in play in the end of that relatively calm and apolitical period as well. Out of that economic crisis, among other factors such as racism toward Native Americans, arose a democratizing movement led by one of the most vitriolic and angry voices in American presidential and political history.
While Jackson was perhaps its most immediate and overt legacy, the Panic also produced broader social changes that have endured long beyond the administration or life of Old Hickory. For one thing, the depression’s drastic and destructive effects led to significant new public social programs: specifically, Congress passed the 1820 Land Act and the 1821 Relief for Public Land Debtors Act, to ease the burden on existing landowners and allow for new ownership; and more broadly, for the first time state and local governments created classification systems (such as able-bodied vs. disabled) in order to better assess who needed public support most urgently. Even more broadly, out of the depression came the nation’s first significant moves toward public education, with Massachusetts starting the first public high school, English High School, in 1821. Whatever we say about Jacksonian Democracy, or the democratization of American Christianity, or any other such contemporary phenomenon, perhaps the most widespread and genuine democratizing element in American society and history has been public education, and it too began in earnest in the 1820s, one more legacy of the Panic of 1819.
Last anniversary tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Anniversaries you’d highlight or predictions you’d share?

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