Front Page Titles (by Subject) § 3.—: The Inflation of 1835 and 1836. - A History of Banking in all the Leading Nations, vol. 1 (U.S.A.)
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§ 3.—: The Inflation of 1835 and 1836. - William Graham Sumner, A History of Banking in all the Leading Nations, vol. 1 (U.S.A.) 
A History of Banking in all the Leading Nations; comprising the United States; Great Britain; Germany; Austro-Hungary; France; Italy; Belgium; Spain; Switzerland; Portugal; Roumania; Russia; Holland; The Scandinavian Nations; Canada; China; Japan; compiled by thirteen authors. Edited by the Editor of the Journal of Commerce and Commercial Bulletin. In Four Volumes. (New York: The Journal of Commerce and Commercial Bulletin, 1896). Vol. 1: A History of Banking in the United States.
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The Inflation of 1835 and 1836.
After the commercial crisis of 1837 broke out, a great deal of writing and talking was done in this country in respect to banking and currency. The disputants all traced the trouble to either one or other of the acts of Jackson’s administration; or of the opposition; or of the United States Bank; or to the lack of a United States Bank. Of course party spirit and the desire to win party advantages had a very large share in all these arguments. It is very doubtful, however, if any or all of these events and proceedings had more than a contributory share in producing the result. One of the most important facts, to which leading influence must be attributed, is the great and really irrational importance which was attached by Europeans to the extinguishment of the debt of the United States, and their exaggerated willingness, on that account, to lend their capital in America. There was no removal of the deposits in England, and no lack of a national bank in France. The whole civilized world shared in the convulsion. It seems to have been, when properly regarded, a revulsion in the midst of a great expansion of industrial power, which expansion produced modifications of the industrial organization which could not well take place without some greater or lesser catastrophes.
In England, after 1825, the factory system, which had been growing up for fifty years, had reached a stage of completeness. There was a definite extension in the application of power and machinery to the textile industries. After 1830 began the construction of railroads. The multiplication of joint stock banks, upon which the whole subsequent mischief was charged by a great many English writers, was incidental to this. At that time the banking system of England was carried on very much as that of America was. There were constant expansions and contractions of the circulation, and the writers on financial subjects directed their attention to these fluctuations as the controlling causes of the phenomena which were noticed. There was very general dissatisfaction with the management of the Bank of England, and a strong conviction was felt by the best students of finance that the rules by which it was governed were not adequate or correct. Accordingly, when the bank charter was renewed, in 1832, power was reserved to modify it after 1840. The general principle of management for the Bank, as it was stated to the Committee of 1832, by Horsley Palmer, was, when the exchange was at par, “to invest and retain in securities bearing interest a given proportion of the deposits, and the value received for the notes in circulation, the remainder being held in coin and bullion.” The proportion was two-thirds securities and one-third bullion. In the flood of pamphlets which was produced in the discussion of the following years, this rule was shown to be nugatory. Many interesting and important points in the doctrines of banking and currency were developed in this discussion, and the doctrines were established upon which the Bank act of 1844 was constructed. Among the most important of these doctrines for our present purpose, we may notice the following: An inflation or contraction of the currency does not have that prompt and direct effect upon prices and enterprise which they are popularly supposed to have. We may turn, therefore, with greater confidence to the great extension of production, and the great changes in the industrial organization as real causes.
The increased power in production, with the attendant movements of commerce, stimulated enterprise, or as it is commonly called, speculation. This new impulse was felt in every direction. It constituted a great demand for capital, and it went on inevitably to produce aberrations and extravagances. It also produced a new demand for raw materials, which in the next stage took the shape of new enterprises in opening land and mines.
The most important of all these effects for the United States was a new demand for cotton. Cotton was at that time the commanding article in the foreign trade of the United States. In value it constituted from 35 to 55 per cent. of the exports of the United States, and therefore might be regarded as the chief thing with which we paid for our imports. It was a natural monopoly. Its value rose steadily in spite of a very rapid increase in production. Inasmuch as the facts in this connection will demand our attention frequently as we pursue the history of this period, the following statistics of the production, in million pounds, and of the annual average price, in cents, will be found useful for reference.*
This rise in value of the leading staple product of the country had the most important effects politically as well as industrially and financially. It poured a stream of wealth into the cotton States. New cotton lands were opened and cultivated. Slaves, tools, machinery, and all supplies were in great demand, and for the most part, all had to be bought upon credit. Of course the rate of interest was very high, for there was no free capital in the cotton States. The next consequence was a multiplication of banks, either as institutions for drawing the capital from elsewhere, or as paper-money machines under the constant delusion which attends such circumstances. The great commercial and financial centers of the South, New Orleans, Mobile, Savannah, and Charleston, enjoyed a period of unprecedented prosperity.
The effect of the arbitrary redistributions of currency and capital which went on from 1833 to 1837 were to throw the domestic exchanges into the utmost confusion. “Even the monstrous anomaly was presented of bills being sold at a loss in Philadelphia upon New Orleans while at New Orleans bills on Philadelphia were also sold at a loss.” The rates of exchange were doubled and the banks made great profits. This was what drew such large amounts of northern and eastern capital into the banks of the Southwest.*
The Erie canal had proved a relative success, and had certainly been very useful in opening up access to the western country. It was imitated first in Pennsylvania, then in Maryland, and later in Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois. The southern and southwestern States also adopted plans of internal improvement. For all these things capital was necessary, and capital was just what was wanting. State bonds were issued in order to obtain this capital in the East and in Europe. They met with a sale which was amazing, considering the basis on which they rested. As long as this lasted there was great apparent prosperity in all the improvement States. Wages were raised to such an extent that labor was drawn away from the cultivation of the land. The historian of Illinois says that in 1837 nothing was exported from that State; everything from abroad was paid for by the borrowed money expended in the State.†
The residents of the cities shared in this prosperity through the operations of commerce and finance, and the distribution of the new capital to the manufacturing industries. The valuation of real estate advanced in all the cities with great rapidity. The valuation of real and personal estate in New York city and county was, in 1830, $125 millions; in 1836, it was $309 millions. It did not reach $300 millions again until 1851.
The people of the western improvement States had become convinced that without any taxation or other annoyance to themselves they were about to see the land around them very greatly increased in value; and every one was eager to get possession of as much of it as he could possibly acquire. In 1836, owing to the great land and town lot speculation which had then reached Illinois, it was supposed that all the towns of any note would soon become cities, and that other uninhabited towns, laid out only for speculation, would immediately become thriving, populous and wealthy, and the town-lot market would be established. “Chicago had been for some time only one great market town” for town lots.* The eastern people, however, were likewise led to adopt this notion of the prospective value of the new land. The sales of public land had been from $2 millions to $3 millions a year. In 1833 they rose to $4.9 millions; in 1834, $6 millions; in 1835, $15.9 millions; in 1836, $25.1 millions. They fell, in 1837, to $7 millions; in 1838, $4.3 millions; 1839, $6.4 millions; and 1840, $2.7 millions. These sales were made in 1835 and 1836 for the notes of the banks of the western States.
In the President’s message of 1836 the operation was described as follows: “The banks loaned out their notes to speculators, they were paid to the receivers, and immediately returned to the banks to be lent out again and again, being mere instruments to transfer to speculators the most valuable public lands, and pay the government by a credit on the books of the banks. Those credits on the books of some of the western banks, usually called deposits, were greatly beyond their immediate means of payment, and were rapidly increasing. Indeed each speculation furnished means for another; for, no sooner had one individual or company paid in the notes, than they were immediately lent to another for a like purpose, and the banks were extending their business and their issues so largely as to alarm considerate men, and rendered it doubtful whether these bank credits, if permitted to accumulate, would ultimately be of the least value to the government.”
On the 11th of July, 1836, the Secretary of the Treasury issued an order, afterwards known as the “Specie Circular,” in the name of the President, ordering the receivers to accept nothing in payment of public lands but gold and silver, or, in proper cases, Virginia scrip. The chief motive was declared to be “to discourage the ruinous extension of bank issues and bank credit.” This order was denounced by all those who were interested in the prevailing inflation and by all the believers in the “credit system.”
It is well worthy of notice that the whole of the great surplus which was at this time piled up in the treasury, that is, in the deposit banks, could be accounted for by the increased revenue from the sale of public lands. The outcry against the circular was so great that, in spite of the great administration majority, a bill was passed to supersede it. In form it specified what currency might be received for payments to the United States, but it included bank notes, provided that they were payable and paid in specie, and that the banks whose notes were taken issued no notes under five, later under ten, and later still under twenty dollars. These restrictions were idle because every one of the banks in question satisfied them, and they furnished no guarantee against the evils complained of. Jackson filed this bill unsigned, in the Secretary of State’s office, at eleven and three-quarters p. m., March 3, 1837. As he had not had it ten days it was not a law. A similar circular had heen issued in 1828; as there was then no active speculation, very little notice was taken of it.*
In April, 1835, a treasury circular forbade the payment out of the treasury of any notes under five dollars after September 30, 1835. February 22, 1836, another circular forbade the payment of any notes out of the treasury of a less denomination than ten dollars after May 1st. Congress superseded these circulars by an act of April 14, 1836, that no bank note under ten dollars should be paid out after that date, and that after March 3, 1837, no note under twenty dollars should be either given or taken by the United States Treasury or Post Office Department, and all notes given or taken must be payable in specie on the spot. This act was passed without a contest and with great unanimity. In 1835, the following States allowed no notes under five dollars: Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, Georgia, Tennessee, Louisiana, North Carolina, Indiana, Kentucky, Maine, New York, New Jersey, and Alabama. Connecticut had none under three dollars. In Mississippi and Illinois, “it is understood that bills under five dollars have not recently been issued.” Missouri had no bank of issue. The specie in the country was estimated at sixty-four millions.†
From the time that the State banks began to be used as the depositories of the public money, the amount which they held went on steadily increasing. On the 1st of June, 1836, there were about eighty of these banks, with a capital of $46.4 millions. They held public money to the amount of $41 millions. Their loans were $71.2 millions, and domestic exchange, $37.1 millions. Their circulation was $27.9 millions, their private deposits $16 millions, and their specie $10.4 millions.
Jackson had himself proposed in his first message that, after the public debt was paid, the surplus revenue of the federal government should be distributed to the States. Clay and Calhoun, however, took up this project, the former especially aiming to distribute the proceeds of the public lands as such, or to regard the surplus revenue as due to the sales of lands. At the session of 1835-36, Clay introduced a bill to distribute the net proceeds of the lands after taking out ten per cent. for the ten new States. Calhoun had constitutional scruples about distribution, and proposed an amendment to the Constitution to authorize it. He also introduced a bill to regulate the public deposits, and there was another bill for distributing the surplus revenue. The land bill passed the Senate but was tabled in the House. The distribution bill and the deposit bill were consolidated into one, and passed by the Senate, June 17th, 38 to 6. On the 20th of June, in the House, an effort was made to divide the bill so as to separate the regulation of the deposits from the distribution, but the effort failed. As the bill then stood, the surplus was to be divided as a gift to the States. This could not pass the House. It was changed into a plan for “depositing” it with them, subject to recall. In this shape the bill passed, 155 to 38. It provided, at the same time, for the regulation of the deposit banks, for which up to this time there had been no law, in respect to the reception and use of the public money in the future, and also for the distribution of the great treasury surplus then in their hands. There was to be in each State a deposit bank, if a bank could be found which would fulfill the prescribed conditions. Each of these banks was to redeem all its notes in specie and to issue no notes for less than five dollars after July 4, 1836. The other provisions of law as to the bank notes receivable and payable, which already existed, were repeated. If the public deposits in any bank should ever exceed one-fourth of the capital in the bank, it was to pay two per cent. on the excess; and it was to give collateral security for the deposit, if the Secretary called for it. No transfers were to be made from bank to bank by the Secretary, except as the convenience of the treasury should require, and then he was to transfer from one deposit bank to the next nearest, and so on. This was intended to prevent him from redistributing the deposits arbitrarily or by favoritism, and it revoked entirely that power to arbitrate between banks which the Secretaries had gradually assumed by advancing precedents from Hamilton down.*
All the surplus money in the treasury, January 1, 1837, over $5 millions was to be deposited with the States, in the proportion of their membership in the electoral college, in four installments,—January, April, July, and October, 1837. The States were to give for these deposits negotiable certificates of deposit, payable to the Secretary or his assigns, on demand. If the Secretary should negotiate any certificate, it was to bear five per cent. interest from the date of assignment; while not assigned, the certificates bore no interest. This large sum of money must therefore be withdrawn from the loans in which the banks had invested it, within a year, and be paid over to the States, most of which were eager to get and use it in their internal improvements.
One of the earliest forms of speculative mania was that in lumber lands in Maine. This culminated in 1834. The center of it was at Bangor, and the town was so crowded with operators that scarcely a shed could be found for shelter.†
Some warning voices were raised early in the progress of the system of inflation. For instance, in the spring of 1835: “A crisis is approaching and is near at hand, to which the panic and pressure of last year will be trifling in comparison. There is a larger sum of money, or rather a larger amount of credit, loaned out in this community, at the present time, than there ever was before. Notwithstanding this extraordinary inflation of the currency the banks continue to discount every note which bears the semblance of responsibility, and as the ‘Journal of Commerce’ observes, ‘everything is dear but money.’ ”‡ In December, 1835, the money market at Philadelphia was very stringent; some political anxiety with reference to relations with France being added to the commercial difficulties. In January Bicknell quoted the rate for capital two per cent. per month and advancing. In the spring of 1836, there was a very great stringency in the money market of the North and East, but there were everywhere great signs of prosperity and business enthusiasm.* Sterling exchange was at 105, par 109.6. At the same time all prices were greatly inflated. The imports were extraordinarily large and included even wheat and flour, as they had in the previous year. The crops had, indeed, not been good, but the whole anomalous condition of things rested upon the fact that a great debt was being contracted in Europe, which depressed the exchange and protected the whole system of inflation here. Everywhere there was a scarcity of money, and a demand for more banks to furnish a supply. One per cent. a month was not considered a high rate in any of the great cities. In April the best commercial paper was quoted at New York at 30 per cent. to 40 per cent. per annum; second rate, at a-half of one per cent. per day. “There is an awful pressure for money in most of the cities.”†
In May, the “Globe” called on the deposit banks to contract loans, demand bank balances, and “check the raging mania for wild speculation and over-trading.” Governor Marcy, of New York, devoted a large part of his message to this subject. “The passion for speculation prevails to an extent heretofore unknown, not only among capitalists, but among merchants and traders. The funds of these capitalists have been withdrawn to some extent from situations in which they afforded accommodation to business men, and they have consequently been obliged to press upon the banks to supply this deficiency in their means. Merchants and others have abstracted from their business a portion of their capitals, and devoted it to speculations in stocks and lands; and have then resorted to the banks for increased accommodations. To these causes I ascribe most of the embarrassment now felt for the want of sufficient bank facilities to conduct successfully our ordinary business concerns. The proposed remedy, judging from the applications, is to double the present number of banks and nearly to treble the amount of banking capital. Before you apply this remedy, in whole or in part, you ought to be well satisfied that it will remove the difficulty, and that the use of it will not leave us in a worse condition than we are at present.”‡
In June, after the distribution law was passed, the money market became still more stringent, because the better banks were preparing to pay the deposits which they held. The Secretary of the Treasury had been directed to “equalize” the distribution of the deposits between the States, and he tried to carry out this delicate and difficult task, connecting it at the same time with an anticipation of the distribution which was to be made in the following year. The law was extremely crude, and seemed to proceed from a notion that the “redistribution” was as simple an operation as carrying bags of money from one room to another. A supplementary act was necessary to put the enterprise in any practicable shape. In the report of the Secretary for 1836 he showed how the undertaking had caused him to be importuned by Congressmen seeking favors for their States or their banks. He had redistributed about $40 millions, withdrawing $18 millions from the States in which the banks had more than their proportionate share. In the last six months of 1836, $22 millions more had been paid in, chiefly where there was an excess before, and this also had been redistributed. Biddle, in a public letter to Adams, November 11, criticized mercilessly these proceedings. Indeed we find it very difficult to understand what was done. The surpluses were in the great cities of the East. The deficiencies (according to the way of looking at the matter) were west of the Alleghanies. But, if it was proposed to transfer any money from the former to the latter, the latter would at once say: We do not want money sent to us from there. If we had any money to spare we would send it there. Give us rather eastern exchange.—This was the point of Biddle’s criticism, and no one was in a better position than he to understand the ignorant blundering of the process which was going on. His mind at once ran over those refined and skillful operations by which he would have made such a redistribution if he had been called on to do it. Even in September, 1836, the local currency at New Orleans was depreciated and the banks had to unite to import specie.*
In the six months before the suspension of 1837, although the amount of the currency was greater than it had ever been before in the United States, yet the scarcity of money was so great that it commanded from one per cent. to three per cent. per month.†
The Financial Revulsion; 1837 to 1842.
[* ] McHenry; The Cotton Trade, 107.
[* ] 1 Raguet’s Register, 66.
[† ] Ford’s Illinois, 196.
[* ] Ford, 181.
[* ] 7 Adams’s Diary, 427.
[† ] Treasury Report, 1835.
[* ] See pages 33, 35, 102.
[† ] Martin, Boston Stock Market, 59.
[‡ ] New York “Evening Post” in 48 Niles, 168.
[* ] 50 Niles, 113.
[† ] 50 Niles, 185, 134.
[‡ ] 2 Hammond, 450.
[* ] Treasury Report, January 8, 1838, page 651.
[† ] Raguet; Currency and Banking, 139.