Panicking in 1837

black & white lithograph of a society in distress and disorder

Though a vestige of the distant past, Edward W Clay’s drawing of a demoralized and stricken society is as crisp and familiar as if it were drawn yesterday, because it encapsulates enduring American fears.  Created in 1837, soon after the end of Andrew Jackson’s presidency, the print depicts the social and psychological effects of an economic and political crisis then gripping the United States.  The print implicitly condemns Old Hickory’s rule, whose responsibility is invoked in a surreal fashion, his hat, spectacles, and pipe framing the word ‘Glory’ in the sky.

The individuals and crowds depicted personify both the causes of the economic collapse and its consequences, which included a souring of the national mood, blighted prospects, and various kinds of degradation and ugliness.

The unstable figures at left set the tone, a homeless woman lying with her child on the ground, composing a perverted “Holy Family” with the gentleman-turned-souse standing over her.  Tipsy and threatening to topple over entirely, he grasps a gin bottle, for which she reaches out eagerly.  Their homelessness and lack of propriety are shocking, even pitiful, yet they are not to be pitied, for, in the artist’s eyes, this class of people, shown gathered under the ‘Loco-Foco’ tent, had partly caused the economic catastrophe.

The Loco-Focos were extreme Democrats who demanded that the government have nothing to do with banking or the money supply.  They were the kind of angry down-and-outs who, just months earlier, had attacked landlords and the largest flour merchants in New York City, blaming them for the ruinously high prices that had driven them out-of-doors and left them hungry.  The Flour Riot, during which 6,000 protesters caused an estimated $60 million in damage, crystallized the class divisions and hatred that had intensified in tough times.

Also under the Loco-Foco tent is a black man dressed in some sort of military uniform.  Scowling and inscrutable, with a smoke dangling from his lips, he is armed and appears ready to do battle against property.  A flour barrel at right is still marked at $14, an astronomical price.  A scroll lying on the ground bears ‘Popular Sayings,’ among which is ‘Our sufferings is intolerable.’

The other principal figures in the print are more sympathetic.  They exude respectability (despite the fact that they have no shoes).  At right are two skilled craftsman, one of whom is begging, their useless tools emblems of stagnant industry.  Next to them is a barefoot seaman, possibly a mulatto, who, lacking other alternatives, is in danger of being re-enslaved, a white man with a whip standing over him.  A well-dressed mother with her son approach a fat bond broker, begging some change.

The background shows chaos gripping a prosperous city.  Rapid economic expansion had preceded the Panic of 1837, when a radical changes in the nation’s monetary policy caused a dreadful collapse.  Jackson’s destruction of the Bank of the United States (a forerunner of today’s Federal Reserve) had increased local banks’ issuance of paper currency not backed by specie (gold), a situation that was a nightmare to regulate.  Jackson responded with an executive order (the infamous Specie Circular) requiring that specie be used for certain transactions.  This further devalued paper money and set off a demand for gold coin that banks couldn’t meet.  Many collapsed.

The dislocation and hardship the Panic brought on caused a ground-swell of anti-government feeling and resentment toward bankers and the wealthy.  The political ‘establishment’ shown here isn’t suffering: the military is marching down the street, the sheriff’s office is buzzing.  On the far shore stand a busy alms-house and spanking-new prison.  Though the customs house is idle, the flow of imports at a standstill, plenty of patronage workers remain on its payroll.  These loungers look down from its safe confines.  Meanwhile, a crowd frantically forces its way into a bank, despite a sign announcing ‘No Specie Payments Made Here.’  Anti-semitism infuses the prominence given ‘Shylock Graspall,’ whose pawn-shop is busy.

All this when the nation was just 61 years of age!  From the perspective of the 2016 presidential election, Americans may conclude that little has changed.

Image from this source.
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