THE COMMERCIAL CRISIS OF 1837
THE COMMERCIAL CRISIS OF 1837
The decade from 1830 to 1840 is the most important and interesting in the history of the United States. The political, social, and industrial forces which were in action were grand, and their interaction produced such complicated results, that it is difficult to obtain a just and comprehensive view of their relations and influences. In the first place, the United States advanced between the second war with England and 1830 to a position of full and high standing in the family of nations. The security and stability of the government were accepted as established. England and France, on the other hand, just before and after 1830, were involved in social and political troubles of an alarming kind. By contrast, the United States, with a rapidly increasing population, expanding production and trade, a contented people, and a surplus revenue offered great attractions to both laborers and capital. At the same time the pride of the Americans in their country produced self-reliance, energy, and enterprise which laughed at difficulties. New means of transportation by steamboats and canals were opening up the country and assuring to the population the advantages of a new and unbounded continent. Production therefore offered high returns to both labor and capital.
The advantages of a new country were credited to the political institutions of democracy, and increasing prosperity, due to the fresh resources brought within reach, was held to be proof of the truth of the political dogmas entertained by the workers. A sort of boyish exuberance, compounded of inexperience, ignorance, and fearless enterprise, marked politics as well as industry. Jackson's election in 1828 brought to power a party which had been produced by these circumstances.
The war debt of 1812 became payable in the years after 1824 and was distributed over the period down to 1835. With growth and increasing prosperity, the revenue increased with such rapidity that the debt could be paid almost as fast as it became payable. The chief purposes for which the Bank of the United States had been founded in 1816 were to provide a sound and uniform paper currency convertible with specie, of uniform value throughout the Union, and to act as fiscal agent for the government, holding the revenue wherever collected and disbursing the expenditures wherever they were to be made. The interest of the government and the people was the motive, and the bank charter was a contract with the Bank to perform the services for specified considerations. One of the considerations was the right of the Bank to use the deposits as loanable capital. The government was not bound to keep any balance over expenditure, but the revenue was so large that the Bank came to hold annually increasing average deposits of from five to eight or nine millions of public money, which it used for profit. From this vicious arrangement two consequences followed: first, public attention was directed to the deposits, not as existing for the public service, but for the profit of the Bank; and, second, the public considered itself entitled to claim something of the Bank besides true business credit, in the matter of discounts.
Jackson opened the war on the Bank publicly in his first message. Sharp correspondence had been going on already between the Secretary of the Treasury and the Bank, which had reached such a point that the Secretary had referred to the removal of the deposits as a power in his hands to coerce the Bank. Generally speaking, the state of the Bank and the state of the currency were satisfactory in 1830, but the Bank had begun in 1827 to issue branch drafts which stimulated credit and soon produced mischief. Of the war on the Bank it is not necessary to speak in detail. In December, 1881, Clay was nominated for President by the National Republicans, and he and his friends determined to bring on the question of the re-charter of the Bank as a campaign issue. The re-charter was passed by Congress and vetoed by the President in 1832. The issue in the campaign was thus made up between the personal popularity of Jackson and of the Bank. The former won an overwhelming victory which he construed to mean that the people had weighed the question of re-chartering the Bank and had decided against it.
In September, 1833, he removed the deposits from the National Bank on his own responsibility, and placed them in selected state banks which would agree to keep one-third of their note circulation in coin, redeem all notes on demand, and issue no notes under a five-dollar denomination. This was to be an experiment. In the meantime the administration was eagerly pressing on the extinction of the public debt. The consequences were such as to prove that, however popular such a policy may be, it may easily be carried too far. The public deposits were loaned by the Bank to merchants, then recalled and paid to the public creditors, and then reinvested by them, so that the money market was subjected to recurrent and sudden shocks. The withdrawal and transfer of the deposits constituted another and more violent operation of the same kind, so that there was a crisis and panic in the spring of 1834. The eight or nine millions of public deposits were a continual source of mischief to the money market. By the contraction of the Bank of the United States to pay the deposits, and the contraction of the state banks to put themselves within the rule for receiving the same, the currency, in the summer of 1834, was perhaps better than ever before. The coinage act of June, 1834, turned the standard over from silver to gold.
The deposit banks were urged to discount freely so as to satisfy the public with the change. Banks were organized in great numbers all over the country to take the place of the great Bank and to get a share in the profits of handling the public money. On January 1, 1835, the debt was all paid and the government had no further use for its surplus revenue. There was but one correct and straightforward course to pursue in such a case and that was to lower taxes so as not to collect any surplus, but this the Compromise Act forbade. The surplus revenue was the greatest annoyance to the protectionists who wanted to keep duties high for “incidental protection,” and they proposed scheme after scheme for distributing the lands, or the proceeds of the lands, or, finally, the surplus revenue itself, so as to cut down the revenue without reducing the import duties.
With the increase of banks and bank issues speculation began. It became marked in the spring of 1885 and went on increasing for two years. Cotton was rising in price, for the new machinery, and new means of transportation in England, together with the extension of joint stock banks there, had given a great stimulus to the cotton manufacturer. There was an increasing demand for the raw material. It followed that the cities in which the exchange and banking of all this industry were carried on also enjoyed great prosperity. Railroads were just being introduced and ships were needed to transport the products. Thus from natural causes the period was one of immense industrial development. The great need for carrying it on was capital, and the political incidents which brought about or encouraged the bank expansion may be regarded as accidental. The combination of the two in fact, however, produced a wild speculation. The banks furnished credit, not capital, and being restrained by usury laws from exerting through the rate of discount the proper check upon an inflated or speculative market they embarked with the business community on a course where all landmarks were soon lost.
No sooner, however, was this condition of the commercial and banking community well established than a new shock was given by another political interference. The administration had now advanced to the point of desiring to establish a specie currency for the country. The object was laudable and the means taken were proper, but, following as they did in the train of the events already mentioned, they produced new confusion. In 1836 various acts were passed to bring about a specie currency, and in July of that year the Secretary of the Treasury ordered the receivers of public money to take only gold and silver for lands. The circumstances warranted this order. The sales of lands had risen from two or three to twenty-four million dollars in a year, and the amount was paid in the notes of “banks” which deserved no credit. If the nation was not to be swindled out of the lands the measure was necessary. It then became necessary for the purchasers of land to carry specie to the West and vast amounts of it accumulated in the offices of the receivers, or were transferred at great trouble and expense to deposit banks. The specie was obtained from the eastern banks, and inasmuch as the whole existing system had pushed them to the utmost limit of expansion, these demands for specie were embarrassing. Two points here deserve notice. It is strange to see what a superstition about “specie” had taken possession of the public mind. It was regarded as a good thing to have, but too good to use. A specie dollar was regarded as an excuse for its owner to print and circulate from three to twenty paper ones, but it was not regarded as having any other use. The withdrawal of the specie basis from an inflated paper was no doubt a serious blow to the whole fabric, but, if the paper had not been redundant the transfer of specie to the West could only have forced an importation of so much more. This superstition about specie also prevented any demand upon the banks for specie for any purpose. Such a demand was regarded as a kind of social or business crime. Hence the “convertibility” of the notes was a polite fiction. The second point worth noticing is that the bank advocates continually talked about “the credit system” when they meant the system of issuing credit bank notes; and they grew eloquent about the advantages of credit, as if those advantages could only be won by using worthless bank notes and not by lending gold or silver or capital in any form.
We are not yet, however, at the end of the political acts which threw the money market into convulsions. The opposition succeeded, in the summer of the presidential election year, 1836, in passing an act to deposit with the states the surplus over a balance of five millions in the Treasury on January 1,1837. The amount was thirty-seven millions. This sum was scattered in eighty-nine deposit banks all over the country. Its distribution was, therefore, controlled by local pressure and political favoritism, not by the needs of the government (for it did not need the money at all) or by the demand and supply of capital. The banks had regarded it as a permanent deposit and had loaned it in aid of the various public and private enterprises which were being pushed on every hand at such a rate that labor was said to be drawn away from agriculture so that the country was importing bread stuffs. It was now to be withdrawn and transferred once more, and this time it was said that, if these “deposits” were such an advantage, the states ought to have it, and could then, as well as the banks, be called on to give back the money whenever it might be needed. The deposit took place in 1837, in three installments, January, April, and July, and amounted to twenty-eight millions. The fourth installment was never paid. The money was all squandered or worse.
The charter of the Bank of the United States was to expire on the 3d of March, 1836. One year before that time the directors ordered the “exchange committee” to loan the capital, as fast as it should be released, on stocks, so as to prepare for winding up. From this resolution dates the subsequent history of the Bank, for the exchange committee consisted of the President and two directors selected by him, to whose hands the whole business of the Bank was hereby entrusted. The branches were sold and the capital gradually released throughout 1835, but in February, 1836, an act was suddenly passed by the Pennsylvania legislature to charter the United States Bank of Pennsylvania, continuing the old Bank. The act was said to have been obtained by bribery, but investigation failed to prove it. The most open bribery was on the face of it, for it provided for several pet local schemes of public improvement, for a bonus and loans to the state by the Bank, and for abolishing taxes — provisions which secured the necessary support to carry it.
During the year 1836 the money market was very stringent. The enterprises, speculations, and internal improvements demanded continual new supplies of capital. The amount of securities exported grew greater and greater and kept the foreign exchanges depressed. American importing houses contracted larger and longer debts to foreign agents. The money market in England became very stringent likewise, and these long credits became harder and harder to carry. Three English houses, Willson, Wildes, and Wiggins, had become especially engaged in these American credits which they found it necessary to curtail. The winter was one of continual stringency, aggravated by popular discontent, riots, and trades-union disturbances, arising from high prices and high rents. The failures commenced on the fourth of March, 1837, the day that Van Buren was inaugurated, in Mississippi and Louisiana. Hermann, Briggs & Co., of New Orleans, failed, with liabilities said to be from four to eight millions. As soon as this was known in New York, their correspondents, J. L. & S. Joseph & Co. failed. The first break in the expanded fabric of credit therefore came in connection with cotton. The price had advanced so much during the last three or four years as to draw many thousands of persons who had no capital into cotton production, but the profits were so great that a good crop or two would pay for all the capital. The planters of Mississippi especially had accordingly organized themselves into banking corporations and issued notes as the easiest way to borrow the capital they wanted. From 1830 to 1839 the banking capital of Mississippi increased from three to seventy-five millions, which of course represented one credit built upon another, on renewed and extended debt, as the old planters bought more slaves and took up more land instead of paying for the old, or as new settlers came in. Mississippi was therefore indebted to the Northeast for the redemption of their immense bank debt, or for the capital bought with it. The high rates for money in England and this country at last checked the rise in cotton in 1836. Bad harvests and high prices for food fell in with a glut of manufactured cotton, and when cotton began to fall ruin was certain. As soon as the revulsion came it ran through the whole speculative system. The new suburbs which had been laid out in every city and village never came to anything.
Western lands lost all speculative value, and railroad and canal stock fell with rapidity.
The first resort for help was to Mr. Biddle. The calamity most apprehended was a shipment of specie, and the effort was to gain an extension of credit or the substitution of a better for a less known credit. The Bank of the United States had high credit in Europe, and indeed all over the world. Ultimately payment must be made by crops yet to be produced or forwarded. Biddle entered into an agreement with the New York banks which seems to have been only partially carried out, but he sold post notes payable one year from date at Barny's in London. He received one hundred and twelve and one-half for these, specie being at one hundred and seven. The bonds were discounted in England at five per cent. United States Bank stock was at one hundred and twenty.
The situation in England was so serious that all seemed to depend on remittances from the United States. The Bank of England extended aid to “the three W's” to the extent of five hundred thousand pounds on a guarantee made up in the city, and opened a credit of two million pounds for the United States Bank, if one-half the amount should be shipped in specie. To this condition the United States Bank would not agree. The proposition attributed to the Bank of the United States a strength which it did not possess. The management of the Bank of England in this and the two following years was bad, and did much to enhance the mischief in both countries. France participated in the distress although there had been no speculation there.
A delegation of New York merchants was sent to Washington on May 3 to ask the President to recall the specie circular, to defer the collection of duty bonds, and to call an extra session of Congress. In their address to him they sum up the situation: in six months at New York, real estate had shrunk forty millions; in two months two hundred and fifty firms had failed, and stocks had shrunk twenty millions; merchandise had fallen thirty per cent, and within a few weeks twenty thousand persons had been thrown out of employment.
Early in May three banks at Buffalo failed. On May 8, the Dry Dock Bank (New York) failed. On the tenth all the New York City banks suspended. The militia were under arms and there were fears of a riot. On the eleventh the Philadelphia banks suspended, because the New York banks had, and because, although they had plenty of specie for themselves, they had not enough for the whole “Atlantic seaboard.” They said, however, that they were debtors, on balance, to New York. As the news spread through the country, the banks, with few exceptions, suspended. It was one of the notions born of the bank war that the United States Bank was guilty of oppression when it called on state banks for their balances, and the state banks had practiced “leniency” towards each other. Bank statements of the period show enormous sums as due to and from other banks. This was what carried them all down together, for one could not stand alone unless its debits and credits were with the same banks.
During the summer the governors of several states called extra sessions of the legislatures. The President had refused to recall the specie circular, or to call an extra session of Congress, but the embarrassments of the Treasury forced him to do the latter. The collection of duty bonds was deferred and the revenue thereby cut off, The public money was in the suspended banks, and the Treasury, nominally possessed of forty millions, at the very time when part of this sum was being paid to the states, had to drag along from day to day by the use of drafts on its collectors for the small sums received or by chance left over in their hands since the suspension. As notes under five dollars had been forbidden by nearly all the states, and as specie was at ten per cent premium, all small change disappeared, and the towns were flooded with notes and tickets for small sums, issued by municipalities, corporations, and individuals.
The most interesting fact connected with this commercial credit is that New York and Philadelphia took opposite policies in regard to it, and thus offered, in their differing experience, an experimental test of those policies. The New York legislature passed an act allowing suspension for one year. The New York policy then was to contract liabilities and prepare for resumption at the date fixed. The Philadelphia policy, in which Mr. Biddle was the leader, was to wait without active exertions for things to get better. In his letter of May 13 to Adams, Biddle said that the Bank could have gone on without trouble, but that consideration for the rest forced him to go with them. What especially moved him was that, if the Pennsylvania banks had not suspended, Pennsylvanians would have had to do business with a better currency than. the New Yorkers, which would have been unfair. Mr. Biddle knew perfectly well that the exchanges would arrange all that. He was an adept at writing plausible letters. The truth, which was not known until four years later, was that the capital of the Bank had never been withdrawn from the stock loans, that the chief officers of the Bank were plundering it, and that suspension was not more welcome to any institution in the country than to the great Bank. The jealousy between New York and Philadelphia was very great at this time. Mr. Biddle's personal vanity seems to have been greatly flattered when, in March, he was called on by the New Yorkers to help them. He was still the leading financier of the country. The business men could not spare him, even if the government had thrown him off. There seems also to be some evidence that he hoped that a great and universal revulsion would force the general government to re-charter his Bank. The success of his post notes in England and France was another source of gratified vanity to him. In his theory of banking he was one of those who believe that the redemption of the bank note is effected by the merchandise. Hence banking was, for him, an art by which the banker regulated commerce through expansions and contractions of the circulation according to the circumstances which he might observe in the market.
The first effect of the opposite courses taken by New York and Philadelphia was very favorable to his views. The southern trade was transferred from New York to Philadelphia. Southern notes were at a discount of twenty or twenty-five per cent. Receiving these notes from the merchants, the Bank employed them through Bevan and Humphreys in buying cotton. This operation began in July and was intended to move the cotton to Europe in order to meet the post notes of the Bank when they should become due. The firm of Biddle and Humphreys was also formed and established at Liverpool as the agent of this operation. In the extension of the transaction cotton was bought and paid for by drafts on Bevan and Humphreys of Philadelphia, which drafts were discounted by the Bank. Biddle and Humphreys, having sold the cotton, remitted the proceeds to Mr. Jandon, former cashier of the Bank, sent to England as its agent in July. To all this it must be added that the Bank assumed the function of securing, for its producers, a good or fair price for cotton. Jandon's instructions were to protect the interests of the bank, and “of the country at large.”
If the Bank had simply been a strong, sound bank, intent on earning profits, it would have sent two or three millions to Europe, selling exchange at one hundred and twelve, and would not have suspended. The rest of the story would then have been very different for all concerned. The arrival in June of a ship in England with one hundred thousand dollars specie sufficed to sustain American credit and to revive American securities. When the credit of a debtor is tainted, nothing revives it like payment.
The extra session of Congress met on September 4. The fourth installment of the State Deposit Fund was postponed until January 1, 1839, but it was locked up in the suspended banks and, as the former installments had been drawn from the better banks, the balance due was all in the worst banks of the country, those of the southwestern states. As they had loaned it to their customers, it was, in fact, amongst the people of those states. A law was passed to institute suit against these banks unless they paid on demand, or gave bonds to do so in three installments before July 1, 1839. There were only six deposit banks then paying specie; one was new, four had not suspended, and one had resumed. Power to call on the states for the funds “deposited” with them was taken from the Secretary of the Treasury and held by Congress. Interest-bearing Treasury notes were provided for one year, to meet expenses, and an extension of nine months was given on duty bonds. At this session the sub-treasury system was brought forward as an administration measure. It split the party. The “bank democrats” (state bank interest which joined the Jackson party in 1832 to break down the United States Bank) went into opposition. The advocates of the “credit system” said the sub-treasury scheme, by giving the government control of the specie in the country, would give it control of all credit. Meanwhile Benton said that the eighty million specie in the country was its bulwark against adversity, and the Locofocos said that any one who exported specie was a British hireling. So that there was a fine confusion of financial notions.
In the fall the English money market became much easier, and the same tendency appeared here. Specie at New York was at about seven per cent premium, but steadily declining. Prices of breadstuffs remained very high (flour nine dollars to nine dollars and a half at New York) and the stagnation of industry was complete. Migration to the West was large.
On August 18 the New York banks called a convention of banks to deliberate on resumption. The Philadelphia banks frustrated the proposition by refusing. A convention met in October but adjourned without action until April. On the 7th of April the New York banks had assets two and a half times their liabilities, excluding real estate, and were creditors of the Philadelphia banks for $1,200,000. They had reduced their liabilities from $25,400,000 on January 1, 1837 to $12,900,000 on January 1, 1838, and the foreign exchanges were favorable.
The bank convention met April 1, 1838, and voted by states to resume January 1, 1839, without precluding an earlier day. New York and Mississippi alone voted nay, the former because the date was too remote; the latter because it was too early. New England joined Philadelphia and Baltimore for the later day. Mr. Biddle published another letter in which he blamed the rigor of the contraction at New York; he wanted to remain “prepared to resume but not resuming,” and looked to Congress to do the work. The exchange between New York and Philadelphia was then four and a half per cent against the latter. The southwestern exchanges were growing worse On May 1, the Philadelphia banks resolved to pay specie for demands under one dollar. The Bank of England engaged to send one million pounds in specie to support resumption, and did send one hundred thousand pounds, but then receded from the undertaking; its stock of specie was now very large and increasing. The New York banks resumed during the first week in May, the Boston and New England banks generally at the same time. Specie was coming into New York. On May 31 Congress repealed the specie circular, whereupon Mr. Biddle published another letter saying that since Congress had acted, he saw his way to resumption and would “coöperate.” The Bank had, at this time, over thirteen millions loaned on “bills receivable,” that is, on securities put in the teller's drawer, as cash to replace cash taken out.
After the adjournment of Congress on July 9 there was a much better feeling, especially on account of the defeat of the sub-treasury bill, and on July 10, Governor Ritner of Pennsylvania published a proclamation requiring the banks to resume on August 13, and to pay and withdraw all notes under five dollars. On July 23 a bank convention composed of delegates from the middle states met at Philadelphia. It was agreed to resume on August 13. The Philadelphia banks were obliged to contract very suddenly and money was very dear there. As soon as they resumed there were demands on them from New York, exchange being against them. This caused excitement and indignation. The banks generally declared dividends as soon as they resumed. Elsewhere, here and in England, money was easy and the times rapidly improving. There was, however, a feverish and uncertain market for cotton. Biddle and Humphreys were carrying an immense stock, and buyers and sellers differed as to prices.
On December 10, 1838, Biddle published another letter to Adams in which he reviewed his policy of the last two years, and withdrew the Bank from all its former public activity. He says: “It abdicates its involuntary power.” He defended the cotton speculations, saying that he had saved the great staple of our country from being sacrificed, by introducing a new competitor into the market. Here then was a buyer who had gone into the market on purpose to “bull” some one else's property. His fate could not be very doubtful. At this same time the Liverpool market was very dull and the spinners were curtailing their demands because the supply was under the control of speculators. It was true, as was asserted, that the crop was short, but the buyers took this for a speculator's story, and, anticipating a break in the corner and a fall in price, they refused to buy. The speculation no doubt unduly depressed the price. The southwestern agents of the Bank of the United States were offering advances of from two to five cents above the market price to secure consignments to Biddle and Humphreys, and Mr. Jandon, because he had lost instead of winning confidence, was paying ruinous rates for money to carry on his operations.
During the winter most of the southern and western banks resumed, at least nominally, but as the spring of 1839 approached the southern exchanges again fell and many of the banks suspended again. On March 29 Biddle resigned the presidency of the Bank, saying that he left it strong and prosperous. The stock fell from one hundred and sixteen to one hundred and twelve, but soon recovered. The money market became stringent again, influenced by fears of the South.
In March, by speculative sales, by the diminution of stock, and by the real shortness of the crop, cotton was forced up one and one-fourth pence at Liverpool, and Biddle and Humphreys sold out their entire stock. The net profit was six hundred thousand dollars. This was regarded as a great triumph, and as a complete vindication of Biddle's policy. In July, 1839, the Bank of the United States paid a semi-annual dividend of four per cent — its last one.
The success of the cotton speculation led to a plan for renewing it on a grander scale. On June 6, an unsigned circular was published at New York, which proposed a scheme for advancing three-fourths of the value at fourteen cents on all cotton consigned to Biddle and Humphreys.
They were to “hold on until prices vigorously rally.” The agent, Mr. Wilder, declared that this had nothing to do with the United States Bank, so far as he knew. It was, however, a scheme of the Bank. The Southwestern notes were falling lower and lower, and the post notes issued in the Southwest the year before were now falling due, and were not paid. The pressure of this fell on Philadelphia, where money was up to fifteen per cent and the banks were curtailing. The news from England was also bad. Cotton was down two cents. The specie of the Bank of England was rapidly declining and money was at five per cent. The arrangements from this side in 1837 had simply consisted in renewals or extensions, and as yet few payments had been made. Stocks, etc., were sent over, but they fell upon a glutted and stringent market and the prices declined. These securities therefore did not furnish means of payment, and specie shipments were found to be necessary. The Bank of the United States had prevented any shipment of specie by offering all the bills demanded at one hundred and nine and a half, and Mr. Jandon had been obliged to adopt the most reckless means to meet these bills. In August he wrote to Biddle and Humphreys to supply him with money at any sacrifice of cotton. “Life or death to the Bank of the United States is the issue.” The Bank here urged Bevan and Humphreys to direct their agents to meet Jandon's demands and the Bank assumed the loss. In August the Bank sent an agent to New York, to draw all the bills he could sell on Hottinguer at Paris, to draw the proceeds in specie from the New York banks, and to ship it to meet the bills, the object being to force the New York banks to suspend in order that their example might again be quoted. The Bank also sold its post notes at a discount of eighteen per cent per annum in Boston, New York, Baltimore, and smaller places, and gathered up capital to meet the emergency at Philadelphia caused by the failure of the Southern remittances. The money markets in all these cities were very stringent until October. On the ninth of that month the Bank of the United States failed on drafts from New York, and on the tenth the news was received that the drafts on Hottinguer had been protested. He had given notice that he would not pay unless he was covered, and the drafts arrived before the specie did. Jandon succeeded in getting Rothschild to take up the bills. The amount was seven million francs.
The banks south and west of New York and some of the Rhode Island banks now suspended again. Specie at Philadelphia was at one hundred and seven to one hundred and seven and one-half. United States Bank stock at seventy. On October 15, it was at eighty, and sold at New York at one-fourth premium. Scarcely any New York City notes were in circulation.
This suspension was the real catastrophe of the speculative period which preceded. A great and general liquidation now began. Perhaps as many as two hundred of these banks never resumed. The stagnation of industry lasted for three or four years. The public improvements so rashly begun were suspended or abandoned. The states were struggling with the debts contracted. Some repudiated; some suspended the payment of interest. The New England states and New York escaped all the harsher features of this depression and emerged from it first. In proportion as we go further south and west we find the distress more intense and more prolonged. The recovery was never marked by any distinct point of time, but came gradually and imperceptibly.
The credit of the Bank of the United States bore up wonderfully under the shock of its second suspension. Its friends were ready to attribute its misfortunes to conspiracies, jealousy, or any other cause but its own faults.
They did not indeed know its internal history. It might have recovered if it had not been ruined from within. The cotton speculations showed a loss, in the summer of 1840, after saddling the Bank with all possible charges, of $630,000 for the speculators. The legislature of Pennsylvania ordered the banks to resume January 15, 1841. On the first of January, 1841, a statement of the assets of the Bank was made, when it appeared that they consisted of a mass of doubtful and worthless securities. The losses to date were over five millions, according to the report of the directors, but over seventeen millions, taking the stocks at their market value. The Bank resumed January 15, with the other Philadelphia banks, and the great Bank loaned the state four hundred thousand dollars, agreeing to loan as much more. In twenty days the Philadelphia banks lost eleven millions in specie, of which six millions were taken from the Bank of the United States. On February 4 the Bank failed for the third and last time. Its final failure was said to be due to stock jobbers. Suits were at once begun in such numbers that all hope of ever resuscitating it had to be abandoned. Its deposits, when it failed, were one million one hundred thousand dollars and its notes in circulation two million eight hundred thousand dollars. Twenty-seven millions out of the thirty-five of its capital were held in Europe. The stock, in March, 1841, was at seventeen. A committee of the stockholders reported in April, showing the internal history of the Bank for five years. This brought out from Mr. Biddle six letters of explanation, defense, and recrimination, which are valuable chiefly for the further insight they give into the history. As to the winding up of the Bank it is very difficult to obtain information. Private inquiries lead to the following results. Three trusts were constituted: one for the city banks to which the Bank owed five or six millions; one for the note-holders and depositors; and one for the other creditors. The city banks, the note-holders, and the depositors were ultimately paid in full. The other claims were bought up by one or two persons who took the assets. What they made of them is not matter of history.
The attempt of the Pennsylvania banks to resume in January, 1841, had been the signal for similar attempts in the other states. The banks on the seaboard as far south as South Carolina generally resumed, and in the Western and Gulf states some took the same step. All were indebted to the Northeast, and were asked to pay as soon as they said they were ready to pay. Like the Philadelphia banks they succumbed to this demand. The Virginia banks held out until April, when the suspension was once more universal south of New York.
All the states except New Hampshire, Vermont, Rhode Island, Connecticut, and Delaware had debts, amounting in all to nearly two hundred millions. The Southern States had generally contracted these debts to found banks. The Middle and Western States had contracted debts for public works. In the former case the profits of the banks were expected to cover the interest on the debt. In the latter case the works were expected to be remunerative in a short time, and the interest was provided for in the meantime by bank dividends (on stocks owned by the state, which only constituted another debt), by taxes on banks, and by royalties. Both schemes were plausible and might have been successful if managed with good judgment and moderation. Under the actual circumstances they were subject to political control, the methods of which were reckless and ignorant. The consequence was that when credit collapsed and the English market no longer absorbed the state stocks with avidity, the states found themselves heavily indebted, bound to pay large interest charges, and without the anticipated revenue. The state banks of the South had loaned their borrowed capital to legislators and politicians, and had no assets but “suspended debt.” The improvement states had become heavily indebted to their own banks and depended on bank dividends to pay interest. The state banks all held state stocks as assets, and when these declined in value, the banks became insolvent. Thus the banking system was interlocked with the state finances and with the mania for improvements unwisely planned and attempted without reference to the capital at command. The aversion to taxation was very strong, and as taxation was delayed, one state after another defaulted on its interest. The delinquent states were Pennsylvania (which laid taxes in 1840, but inadequate to meet the deficiency), Michigan (of which the Bank of the United States held two millions in bonds not paid for when it failed), Mississippi (of which the same bank held five millions in bonds the obligation of which was disputed and never met), Indiana (whose debt was one-fifth of the total valuation), Illinois, Louisiana, Maryland and Arkansas, and Florida territory — total amount, one hundred and eleven millions. In five years the Bank of the United States gave to Pennsylvania three millions, subscribed nearly half a million to public improvements by corporations, and loaned the state eight and one-half millions. In 1857–1858 Pennsylvania sold out her works, which had cost thirty-five millions, for eleven millions. The bonds deposited in New York to secure circulation had a par value of four and six-tenths millions, but were worth only one and six-tenths millions on the first of January, 1843. As early as March, 1841, this decline caused a panic in “Safety Fund” and “Free Bank” notes at New York.
Pennsylvania now entered on another experiment which threatened to ruin her remaining banks as the reckless demands on the Bank of the United States had helped to ruin that institution. On May 3, 1841, the legislature passed, over a veto, a “Relief Act.” The object was to secure a loan of three millions from the banks. The Act allowed them to issue that amount in small notes which they were to subscribe to a five per cent loan. They were to redeem the notes in five per cent stock on demand in amounts over one hundred dollars. The stocks were then at eighty and specie at seven per cent premium.
The best financial writer in the country at that time (Gouge) said of this Act: Pennsylvania, “after having borrowed as much as she could in the old-fashioned way from banks and brokers, and domestic and foreign capitalists, resolved to extort a loan of a dollar a head from every washerwoman and woodsawyer and everybody else within her limits who had a dollar to lend. But as washerwomen and woodsawyers and other dollar people cannot long dispense with the use of their funds, it was necessary to give these certificates of loan in a circulating form, so that the burden might be shifted from one to another day by day, or, if necessary, two or three times a day.”
The summer of 1841 was marked by intense distress in Pennsylvania. A table of the best investment stocks of Philadelphia shows a shrinkage between August, 1838, and August, 1841, from sixty million to three and one-half millions. The wages class was exposed to the bitterest poverty and distress. The Pennsylvanians attributed the trouble to the want of a protective tariff. For a time, in the autumn, the Relief notes seemed to act beneficially. The banks took them and they circulated at par with the rest of the state currency. In January, 1842, the Girard Bank failed, and about the same time the Pennsylvania and three others less important, and by March a crisis was reached worse than anything which had preceded. A bill was suddenly passed by the legislature commanding immediate resumption. An amendment was proposed that the banks should no longer be bound to receive the Relief notes, although the state should do so. The amendment was afterwards withdrawn, but the Relief notes were ruined. They fell, some to seventy-five and some to fifty in state currency and then became merchandise, after six months and three days of use. Capital was now not to be had at four per cent per month, but this bankruptcy had cleared the situation. The eleven banks which had not failed agreed to resume on March 18. The exchanges with New York turned in favor of Philadelphia. The years 1842 and 1843 were years of great depression. The banks throughout the west and south were liquidating, after which they either perished or resumed. From 1843 a new sound and healthy development of industry and credit began. The recovery, however, was very slow, and banks sprang up again sooner and faster than anything else.
The total amount of Relief notes issued in Pennsylvania was two and one tenth millions. In January, 1843, the amount outstanding was, of depreciated $639,834, of specie value (issued by banks which had resumed) $240,801. Bicknell's Reporter said: “If any one can devise an immediate plan whereby the people can get rid of about $700,000 of paper trash, he will be entitled to the name of a public benefactor.” In February, 1843, the Legislature ordered the Treasurer to cancel $100,000 of Relief notes at once and $100,000 monthly until all were destroyed, but in June, 1848, there were still $684,521 out.
This is certainly a melancholy story of the way in which people who enjoy the most exceptional chances of wealth and prosperity can squander them by ignorance of political economy and recklessness in political management. Banks were regarded as means of borrowing capital, not as institutions for lending it. If there was anywhere a group of needy speculators, they secured a bank charter, elected themselves directors, gave their notes for the stock, printed a lot of bank notes, loaned the notes to themselves, and went out and with the notes bought the capital they wanted. Bank after bank failed with an immense circulation afloat and no assets but the notes of its directors, who had failed too. When the United States had thirty or forty millions surplus on hand and these banks could get the custody and handling of it for an indefinite period, because the country had no need for it, it can readily be understood why banks multiplied. The banks were encouraged to lend this deposit freely to the public, which they were by no means loath to do, for that was the only way to gain a profit on it. They lent it, not once but two or three times over. The New York bank commissioners pointed out the danger of a system in which the borrower came directly into contact with the bank which issued the currency. If a man was eager to borrow and pay high interest and the bank had only to print the notes to accommodate him, there was every stimulus to over-issue. If the borrower engaged in any enterprise he raised the price of everything he bought. When he became engaged in his enterprise and wanted more capital, he went back to the bank more eager and more ready to pay high interest than ever, and the operation was repeated. In 1836, on the top of the inflation, the rates for money were twelve and fifteen per cent throughout the year, with a very tight money market. The banks and the business community could not throw the blame on each other. They stimulated each other and went on in their folly hand in hand. The penalties, however, were not fairly distributed. The banks “suspended,” as they called it; that is, when asked to pay their debts, they said they would not; and they enjoyed a complete immunity in this respect, while people outside who could not pay had to fail.
I have tried, within the limits to which I am bound, to show how many elements were combined in this period and how they were all interwoven. There are the political elements, the tariff element, the movement of population to the new land, the fiscal operations of the general government, the revolution in the coinage, the mania for public improvements, the reckless creation of state debts, and the war on the United States Bank. Any one of these might have accounted for a financial crisis in an old country, and the fact that the catastrophe produced by all combined was not greater here is a striking proof of the vitality of the country and the wonderful advantages which it was wasting.
On the four or five years of inflated prosperity there followed four or five years of the most slow and grinding distress. 1843 is the year of lowest prices in our history, and the year of severest restriction in industry. In 1842 the United States Treasury was under protest and actually bankrupt, and American credit was so low that an agent of the general government who was sent to Europe to try to place a loan of only twelve million dollars there could not do it at all. In that same year, however, out of what income it did have, the general government distributed six hundred thousand dollars, which came from land, amongst the states. As for calling back any of the twenty-eight millions deposited with the states, no effort of the kind was ever made. The states were complaining that the fourth installment, to which they had a right, had never been paid to them. The question is sometimes mooted whether a national debt is a curse or a blessing. There can be no doubt whatever that a national surplus is a curse.
In the years before 1837 there had been a great deal of eloquence spent upon “the credit system.” After 1837 this matter was dropped. By the credit system they meant the multiplication of bank notes which were false promises. The notion was that the system of using these in business gave poor men an easier chance to get rich. At first they were loaned easily at low rates. Then, as prices rose and speculation became active, interest advanced. The “poor men” found themselves forced to submit to more and more ruinous renewals, all the heavier because of the usury law, until they lost all they had ever really owned. The question, then, is how much better off than they were would the poor men of 1830 have been in 1845 if they had gone on slowly earning and saving capital and making no use of credit at all. As it was, the poor men of 1830, after supposing themselves rich in 1836, were all bankrupt in 1845. Such is the course of every inflation of the currency. It is proved by hundreds of instances; and there is no delusion which it seems so hard to stamp out of the minds of men as this, that in business we can make something out of nothing, although we cannot in chemistry or mechanics. Nothing more surely tempts the man without capital to his ruin than the easy credit which accompanies the first stages of inflation.
It is worth while also to reflect for a moment on the results of the two plans for dealing with the crisis: the New York plan and the Philadelphia plan. When an error has been committed in this world, we always have to bear the penalty for it. If we do not like the stripes on one side we can turn and take them on the other, but when nature inflicts penalties for her broken laws we never can squirm out of the way. In this case, then, when the folly had been perpetrated the punishment had to be suffered. The only choice was whether to take it quick and heavy, or light and long. The New Yorkers chose the former way. The contraction was severe and painful while it lasted, but it was soon over. From May, 1838, the New York banks resumed and held on without further default and the New York business recovered and entered upon a new course of growth from that time. The Philadelphians took the other course. They made it easy for the debtors and waited for the storm to blow over. The consequence was that the debts increased still further. The advantage in trade over New York proved shortlived and terribly expensive, for the goods were not paid for. The confusion and distress lasted for four years longer than in New York, and the total loss was very much greater. For the last five years we have been under the same necessity as that which oppressed the country in 1837. We have been following the Philadelphia plan and I may give you my opinion that we have not been wise. I think that we might have escaped three years ago with far less loss, and might have been three years further on the road to new prosperity.
In conclusion let me draw your attention to the lesson of this history in regard to resumption. There was no resumption, you see, until the currency had been reduced to the limits of the actual specie necessity of the country or even below it. Either voluntarily or by bankruptcy the redundant paper had to be withdrawn. Such has been the case in every other instance of resumption that I know of, which has been real and permanent. Applying this to our own present circumstances I ask myself whether the amount of paper now in circulation is in excess of the requirement of the country, and there seems to me every reason to believe that it is. If that is so, resumption cannot be real and permanent until a portion of it has been redeemed and withdrawn. The interest in resumption of the great body of industrious, sober, and thrifty citizens cannot be exaggerated. Renewed prosperity on a solid basis is impossible until after a complete return to specie value. There are those, however, who want to live by anything but honest labor, who find their best chance when prices are fluctuating and currency is continually changing in value. They have schemes and interests which resumption must destroy. They have done all they could to make it fail and they are watchful and eager to see it fail. If it does fail it will be a great national calamity, on account of the authority which it will offer to these prophets of evil if for no other reason. Resumption with us now stands at just that point where the lightest preponderance of force may turn it one way or the other — may insure its success or cause its failure. It is a great gain to get our faces set in the right direction. It arouses the national pride in the success of resumption. It silences opposition and malevolent efforts against it. It makes it very much easier to take the requisite steps to insure success, for they involve no pain at all, nothing but economy and prudence in the national finances; the avoidance, of unnecessary expenditure and the postponement for a time of certain expenditures proper in themselves. If the country needs six hundred million dollars to do its business with, then the withdrawal of a portion of the paper would simply bring gold into circulation, and resumption would be placed beyond a doubt. If the country does not want six hundred million dollars to do its business with, then we cannot sustain specie payments with that amount afloat, and we have still before us more of the experience of 1842 and 1843.
Some counterfeiters were arrested at New York in a garret where they had $20,000 in notes of the “Ottawa Bank” and $800 in specie. They were very indignant — said they were a “bank” and were printing their notes at New York for economy. They came so nearly within the definition of a “bank” current at this time that they escaped on this plea.