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Saturday, September 23, 2023

September 23-24, 2023: AmericanStudying the Panic of 1873: 2023 Connections

[On September 20th, 1873, the New York Stock Exchange closed for ten days, a key moment in the developing economic crisis that came to be known as the Panic of 1873. So for the 150th anniversary of that moment this week I’ve AmericanStudied a handful of Panic contexts, leading up to this weekend post on 2023 echoes of those histories!]

On one overt and two subtle (but perhaps even more important) echoes of the 1870s.

1)      Downturn: As I’ve traced throughout the week’s posts, the Panic and subsequent crash of 1873 spawned many years of intense economic downturn and depression. That era came to be known as the Long Depression, but we’ve had plenty longer since, including the recession that followed the 2008 crash. There’s a lot about 2008 that feels eerily similar to 1873, including the central role of speculation in creating the circumstances for both crashes. And just as (it seems to me) we’ve downplayed the 1870s depression in our collective memories, making it harder to engage with the various contexts I’ve highlighted across this series, I’d argue that we haven’t yet fully grappled with how significant and lasting (perhaps even into our own moment, despite narratives that it ended in 2009) the post-2008 downturn has been. Neither was quite the Great Depression, but that doesn’t mean these weren’t defining downturns in their own right.

2)      Prejudice: One of the most fraught debates of the last decade in American politics and society has been whether “economic anxiety” or white supremacy lies at the root of Donald Trump’s 2016 electoral victory and the broader Trump/MAGA movement. But I would argue that the 1870s reveal quite strikingly that this is a false choice: that in times of economic downturn, white supremacist prejudice and hate toward Americans of color and other minorities simply gain significantly greater purchase over far too many Americans (not that it’s ever far from us, but nonetheless that it becomes even more dominant in these moments). The anti-Chinese American movement had been present before the Panic of 1873 (see the 1871 Los Angeles Chinatown Massacre for one telling piece of evidence), but I honestly don’t know if it would have reached the level of national prominence required to produce the Chinese Exclusion Act without the decade’s economic crisis.

3)      Labor: As I wrote in Thursday’s post, I don’t believe there’s nearly enough connection drawn (including by me until I was researching this week’s series) between the first genuinely national labor action, the Great Railroad Strike of 1877, and the Panic of 1873 and its aftermaths. There would be various important effects of thinking through those interconnected histories, but an important one would be to recognize the influential and inspiring role that organized labor can play in responding to economic crises and offering workers and all Americans an alternative vision of solidarity and community. Which makes it anything but a coincidence that we’re in the midst of the most significant series of labor actions that the nation has seen in a long time, if not indeed since the late 19th century. Given the hugely meaningful successes and progress which that late 19th century labor movement achieved, it’s fair to say that this 2023 echo offers some real hope amidst so many more painful such parallels.

Next series starts Monday,


PS. What do you think?

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