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America's First Great Depression: Economic Crisis and Political Disorder after the Panic of 1837 1st Edition

4.3 out of 5 stars 16 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0801450334
ISBN-10: 0801450330
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Editorial Reviews


"Alasdair Roberts tells a wide-ranging story of the depression that  began in 1837 with lucidity, emphasizing the role of global financial markets and finding plenty of analogies to the economic problems of today."--Daniel Walker Howe, Pulitzer-Prize-winning author of What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848

"Roberts does students of the period a service by thinking outside of the normal constraints to conjure a broad and international view of the decade that followed the Jackson presidency." -- Peter Rousseau, EH.net

"The parallels between pre-industrial America's 1837 financial crisis and that of our own time are particularly strong. The beauty of Roberts' book is that the reader can see the entire arc of the crisis, from beginning to end, in a historical context--something that studies of the 2008 event will lack for many years to come. Roberts nicely combines narrative history with analysis. His book is accessible to both the expert and the novice in economic history. Highly recommended." - Forefront Magazine, Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland.

"America's First Great Depression is astute, compelling, concise, original, relevant, transatlantic, well-written, and witty. No ellipses and no exaggerations."-Robert E. Wright, Nef Family Chair of Political Economy, Augustana College, South Dakota, author of One Nation Under Debt and Fubarnomics

"For the first 50 years after achieving independence, Americans had every reason to believe theirs to be the most fortunate of nations. Then came the Panic of 1837, which caused a hopelessness rendered worse by the optimism that had preceded it and resulted in a crisis that lasted until 1848. . . . Alasdair Roberts reveals how this disaster led to epochal shifts in policy and culture, and his lively narrative and commitment to character ensure that the human cost is never out of sight. Roberts is especially keen to demonstrate how this mid-19th century ordeal relates to America's current woes. The 'hard times' of the 1830s led to financial ruin for state governments, a near-cessation of federal aid, and an outbreak of violent protests in many major cities."-Publishers Weekly (30 January 2012)

"Alasdair Roberts's poignant yet balanced account of the financial, economic, and political crises of the 1830s and 1840s provides us with a distant mirror reflecting our current travails. By not knowing and learning from history, we continue to make the same mistakes our ancestors did. If you want to complete your education, America's First Great Depression is a good place to begin."-Richard Sylla, Henry Kaufman Professor of the History of Financial Institutions and Markets, New York University, coauthor of A History of Interest Rates

"Roberts examines the financial, political, and social upheavals that occurred in the United States in the decade following the Panic of 1837, which he calls the First Great Depression. The years leading up to the panic, he says, were a time of boom marked by geographic expansion, the near elimination of the national debt, states borrowing large sums for improvement projects, and land values that appeared to be rising without end. He explains that the panic caused a deep economic depression that resulted in loan defaults by nine states, federal gridlock, a breakdown of law and order, a loss of faith in banks, and a slow recovery for the U.S. economy, which came back only after the Mexican War. Parallels to the country's current economic recession are clear throughout the text, and Roberts makes explicit comparisons in his conclusion. This timely book will be of great use not just to students of economic history but also to readers who wish to find
historical precedent for today's uncertain, turbulent times."-Library Journal

"Roberts's book is based on careful archival research that is quite uncommon in the study of public administration anywhere. . . . He dubbed his method the macrodynamics of administrative development, which is somewhat visible in Leonard White's four-volume administrative history and, more important, acknowledges the need of attention for both human agency and institutional context. . . . The book is well written and in my view an attractive example of how administrative history informs the present."-American Review of Public Administration

"America's First Great Depression is an intriguing history of American financial policy in the 1830s and 1840s. Alasdair Roberts's contention that international financial considerations shaped U.S. policymaking is well sustained, the writing is sprightly, and the argument is nicely documented with a wealth of judiciously culled evidence."-Richard R. John, Columbia University, author of Network Nation: Inventing American Telecommunications

"America's First Great Depression is a lucid, highly readable examination of the panic of 1837 and the decade of economic, political and social upheaval that followed."  Journal of American History, March 2013

About the Author

Alasdair Roberts is Jerome L. Rappaport Professor of Law and Public Policy at Suffolk University Law School. He is the author of The Logic of Discipline: Global Capitalism and the New Architecture of Government, The Collapse of Fortress Bush: The Crisis of Authority in American Government, and Blacked Out: Government Secrecy in the Information Age. He is also a Fellow of the National Academy of Public Administration and coeditor of the journal Governance.


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 264 pages
  • Publisher: Cornell University Press; 1 edition (April 17, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0801450330
  • ISBN-13: 978-0801450334
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 0.8 x 9.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (16 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,199,326 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Eric Mayforth on August 21, 2012
Format: Hardcover
When Americans think of a time of extreme economic distress, they naturally think of the Great Depression, which by this time has overshadowed the severe panics and depressions of the nineteenth century to the point that they are all but forgotten. But those early panics are worth studying both from an economic point of view and for their larger effects on American history. Alasdair Roberts examines the terrible times of the late 1830s and early 1840s in "America's First Great Depression."

In the mid-1830s, very easy credit led to a real estate boom followed by a subsequent crash (sound familiar?). Individual state governments at the time also discovered that they had bumped up against a limit because they borrowed far too much to fund internal improvements, much as our federal government is about to bump up against a limit due to being severely overextended due to unsustainable spending on entitlements.

Several state governments defaulted, and years passed before European investors got over their wariness about buying American bonds. Roberts describes how integrated the U.S. was into the British economy then, and suggests that we are entering a period in which, like in the nineteenth century, our economy will be less self-contained and more vulnerable to foreign developments.

The Panic of 1837 and its aftermath were deeply traumatic to America, with wide-ranging effects--there was much soul-searching as the depression affected our military readiness and foreign policy (there were a few war scares with the British during those years), led to political volatility, and caused episodes of severe social unrest. Roberts asserts that "the depression years became a long, painful test of the federal government's capacity to manage sectional and class conflict.
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Format: Hardcover
"Those who don't know history are doomed to repeat it" is no truer spoken than in this case - a booming real estate market; easy credit; excessive and increasing debt incurred on internal state improvements - then the bubble burst, banks literally disappear; states repudiate and/or cannot pay their debt; the federal government is incapable of taking effective or decisive action.
Sound familiar?
Occurring in 1837, the aftermath of this panic was traumatic, not only for Americans but also for Europeans, who, as investors, took years to get over their uneasiness about buying American bonds. There was severe social unrest in the United States then and the government's capacity to manage these conflicts was severely tested. This depression affected everything, including the country's ability to defend itself both at home and abroad. Until the beginnings of economic recovery in the early to mid-1840's, there was much uncertainty and the U.S. economy did not recover until after the Mexican War in 1848.
This is a relevant book that should serve as a warning to what happens when; a well-written story not just of economic depression but how these policies rebounded around the globe.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I expected more in the way of an economic analysis in order to compare the depressions of 1836, 1875, 1893, 1928 and the present mini-depression. This book approached the question in a more general manner. Still interesting reading and does touch on Friedman's assertion that depressions are caused by the money supply.
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Format: Kindle Edition
"Any order is a balancing act of extreme precariousness."
Walter Benjamin

"Any order is a balancing act of extreme precariousness."
Walter Benjamin

How is an economic recession different from an economic depression? There are economic measurements (often quite arbitrary) that define the difference, but they often exclude the political and sociological dimensions of economic depressions. Recessions occur much more frequently and are linked to the rise and fall of capital markets. In most cases, recessions present political and economic management problems for ruling elites, but they are often not problems of historical magnitude.

An economic depression on the other hand is a very serious problem for the state and the international economic order. Depressions have a huge and lasting impact that resonates through the system of rule, forcing elites out and in many cases creating new elites. All of this is usually in the context of explosive social struggles that redefine the relationships between classes in society. Depressions can be triggers for social revolution, reaction and war (obviously, the most notable is the economic depression that follows from the crash of 1929).

So it was with great interest that I found out that the United States had a depression from 1937 to 1848 (dovetailing nicely with the rise of the European revolutions of 1848- in France, Germany, Poland, Italy, and the Austrian Empire). I am particularly interested in this era of American history because it was the time when the modern United States was taking shape, before the great convulsions of the civil war that went from 1861 to 1865.
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