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.
Click the image to enlarge.

American Scenes

1839 Engraving of Northampton, Massachusetts, based on a drawing by W. H. Bartlett (photo: Susan Barsy)

While I was out of town over Thanksgiving, I bought this hand-colored engraving in an antique shop in Milwaukee.  I’m not even sure why.  Partly because the print is so old—1839—and was made at a time when printed pictures were still something of a rarity.  This picture is a steel-engraved print to which color was added by hand after its printing.  It shows the town of Northampton, Massachusetts, a place that I see through this print for the first time.

Back when the print was made, ‘media,’ as we call it now, was at a simpler stage.  There were newspapers (without illustrations).  There were letters (which circulated privately).  Photographs were just coming into being, but they were laborious to make and couldn’t be reproduced—every photographic image was unique and singular, bound to metal or glass of some kind.  So this type of engraving, which was becoming increasingly viable as a ‘mass medium,’ was a spectacular technological breakthrough, enabling printers and artists to share visual information with a broad audience for the first time.  Short of traveling, looking at an engraving or lithograph was about the only way a person could glimpse a place far away.

This picture of Northampton was printed in London by George C. Virtue (1794-1868), whose publishing company specialized in such scenes.  He worked with the artist, William Henry Bartlett (1809-1854), also English, who traveled widely, depicting the sights, landscapes, and peoples of America, Europe, and the Middle East.  Various engravers then had the job of rendering Bartlett’s drawings; in the case of the Northampton print, the engraver credited was one “R. Sands.”  Virtue published black-and-white versions of the etchings in books, the most famous of these being the 1840 volume, American Scenery.  The engravings were exotic in that they depicted places most viewers had never seen.  Bartlett’s subjects included large American cities and the most famous US buildings (such as the White House and the Capitol), as well as many small towns and other spots of scenic interest.

How soothing yet tantalizing such limited glimpses would be!  Imagine if this were the whole of my knowledge of Northampton: a prosperous place, with decent buildings—a wide verandah to lounge on, a steeple to contemplate, birds fluttering on the baluster, noble trees like something out of a Longfellow poem.  A pink house gleaming at the end of the green.

Click on image to enlarge.

The Nullifiers and Cliven Bundy

Nullification . . . despotism (1833 lithograph by Endicott & Swett)Not fifty years had passed before some Americans grew restive under the federal Union.

Back then, in 1832, the unhappy ones were called “nullifiers.”  They hailed from South Carolina, and their leader was the redoubtable John C. Calhoun, a senator and out-going Vice President with a good head on his shoulders and plenty of determination.  (In the cartoon above, he is the central figure, reaching for the despot’s crown.)

The nullifiers argued that because the states had existed before the federal Union, the states had the right to “nullify,” or say no to, a federal law.  Nullifiers believed that the states, which had ratified the Constitution, retained a kind of sovereignty, despite having empowered the federal government and established the Constitution as “the supreme law of the land.”

The down-side of federalism

By the 1830s, Americans were having to grapple with the fact that, under the federal system, their point of view would sometimes be in the minority.  Congress would sometimes craft federal laws that defied individual interests or the interests of individual states.  The preferences of a state or region could be perennially disregarded unless it could persuade a majority to share its view.

Slave states, in particular, became deathly afraid that, if slave-holding became a minority interest, the federal government could legislate slavery out of existence.

So radicals in South Carolina got busy inventing a school of thought that would justify their disobeying federal laws they didn’t like.  As it happened, a political controversy over tariffs rather than slavery furnished their first test case.

Unhappy radicals nullify a federal law

The uproar came over what they called “the tariff of abominations.”  Battles over tariff policy were to 19th-century politics what tax issues are to Americans now.  In the first century or so of the country’s existence, tariffs, not internal taxes, supplied most of the federal government’s revenue.

Tariffs protected America’s developing economy, which, though burgeoning, was in danger of being cannabalized by mature economic powers like England.  So the US imposed many tariffs on imports, both manufactured goods and commodities.  Congress drafted and debated tariff legislation every few years, occasioning intense negotiations and bad feelings.

Inevitably, tariffs affected southern and northern interests differently.  Tariffs forced southerners, who engaged mainly in agriculture, to pay more for manufactured goods or imports they needed, whereas northerners benefited from the protection given to their emerging industries and to internal trade.  In the long term, the South stood to benefit from more goods being produced domestically, but it was not inclined to see it that way.  The system of tariffs imposed through federal legislation in 1828 and again in 1832 roused the radicals to defy the so-called “Tariff of Abominations.”

South Carolina’s nullifiers got serious and, on November 24, 1832, used their majority in the state legislature to pass a Nullification Ordinance declaring the national tariff law void.  Their action posed a threat to the entire federal system, for what would remain of the Union if every state were allowed to defy a law it didn’t like?

Andrew Jackson, who was president at the time, might have been thought sympathetic to the nullifiers.  After all, he was a Southern slave-holder who opposed certain forms of centralized power, such as a national bank.  His response to South Carolina, however, was swift and uncompromising: he had Congress pass a Force Bill, empowering him to enforce the federal law by military means if necessary.  In the meantime, Henry Clay obtained some concessions in the tariff legislation that made it easier for South Carolina to retreat from its dangerous position without losing face.  Jackson never had to use the power the Force Bill gave him.  The crisis passed.

Nullification’s baleful legacy

The desire to break free of federalism’s limits continued to disorder the political culture of the Palmetto State.  Its radicals never disavowed the anti-federalist temptation.  Their principles were still doing damage a generation later, when fire-eaters in South Carolina were the first to take their state out of the Union, claiming that this was every state’s right.  Eleven states eventually followed their lead.  It took the Civil War and four years of bloodshed to lay to rest the nullifiers’ dangerous doctrines.

When I hear of Cliven Bundy and others who do not wish to abide by federal law, I hear the echoes of the nullifiers.  These are Americans ignorant of the tragic consequences of the doctrines they mouth.  Federalism, however imperfect, has secured to every American benefits that never would have been attained under a weaker system.  Cliven Bundy subverts the values of the flag that he loves to wave.  “From the many, one?”  He’s forgotten what that means.

Image: An 1833 lithograph by Endicott and Swett correctly envisions the consequences of nullification’s doctrines.  Calhoun and other nullifiers mount a pyramid at whose base lie two slain figures, draped in the American flag and the motto “E Pluribus Unum.”  They represent the Constitution and the Union.  At right is Andrew Jackson, pulling down the nullifier who would ascend from nullification to treason.  The kneeling figures at left are modestly circumstanced Southerners, forced to endure whatever may come of the nullifiers’ rash and self-serving deeds.  Beyond the top step of the pyramid, labeled Disunion, lies Anarchy.


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