Panic of 1819

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For the 1962 economic history book by Murray Rothbard, see The Panic of 1819.

The Panic of 1819 was the first major financial crisis in the United States[1], which occurred during the end of the Era of Good Feelings. The new nation faced a depression in the late 1780s (which led directly to the establishment of the dollar and, perhaps indirectly, to the calls for a Constitutional Convention), and another severe economic downturn in the late 1790s following the Panic of 1797. In those earlier crises, however, the primary cause of economic turmoil originated in the broader Atlantic economy.[2] These crises and others that resulted from international conflicts such as the Embargo Act and War of 1812, caused widespread foreclosures, bank failures, unemployment, and a slump in agriculture and manufacturing. However, things would change for the US economy after the Second Bank of the United States was founded in 1816,[3] in response to the spread of bank notes across United States from private banks, due to inflation brought on by the debt following the war.[4] In contrast, the causes of the Panic of 1819 largely originated within the U.S. economy. The panic marked the end of the economic expansion that had followed the War of 1812 and ushered in new financial policies that would shape economic development.

The Panic of 1819 is also the title of a book of economic history by Murray Rothbard.

Inflation and the Bank of the United States

From its inception, the Second Bank of the United States launched a massive inflation of money and credit. Lax about insisting on the required payments of its capital in specie, the Bank failed to raise the $7 million legally required to be subscribed in specie. During 1817 and 1818, its specie never rose above $2.5 million and at the peak of its initial expansion, BUS specie was $21.8 million. Thus, in a scant year and a half of operation, the BUS added a net of $19.2 million to the money supply.

The expansionary operations of the BUS impelled an inflationary expansion of state banks on top of the enlargement of the central bank. The number of incorporated state banks rose from 232 in 1816 to 338 in 1818, with Kentucky alone chartering 40 new banks in the 1817–18 legislative session. The estimated total money supply in the nation rose from $67.3 million in 1816 to $94.7 million in 1818, a rise of 40.7 percent in two years. Most of this increase was supplied by the BUS. This enormous expansion of money and credit impelled a full-scale inflationary boom throughout the country.

Starting in July 1818, the government and the BUS began to see what dire straits they were in; the enormous inflation of money and credit, aggravated by the massive fraud, had put the BUS in danger of going under and illegally failing to maintain specie payments. Over the next year, the BUS began a series of enormous contractions, forced curtailment of loans, contractions of credit in the south and west, refusal to provide uniform national currency by redeeming its shaky branch notes at par, and at last, seriously enforcing the requirement that its debtor banks redeem in specie. These heroic actions, along with the ouster of President William Jones, managed to save the BUS, but the contraction of money and credit swiftly brought to the United States its first widespread economic and financial depression. The first nationwide "boom-bust" cycle had arrived in the United States, ignited by rapid and massive inflation and quickly succeeded by contraction of money and credit. Banks failed, and private banks curtailed their credits and liabilities and suspended specie payments in most parts of the country.

The notes and deposits of the BUS fell from $21.8 million in June 1818 to $11.5 only a year later. The money supply contributed by the BUS was thereby contracted by no less than 47.2 percent in one year. The number of incorporated banks at first remained the same, and then fell rapidly from 1819 to 1822, dropping from 341 in mid-1819 to 267 three years later. Total notes and deposits of state banks fell from an estimated $72 million in mid-1818 to $62.7 million a year later, a drop of 14 percent in one year. Adding the fact that the U.S. Treasury contracted total treasury notes from $8.81 million to zero during this period, the total money supply was $103.5 million in 1818, and $74.2 million in 1819, producing a contraction in one year of 28.3 percent.

The result of the contraction was a rash of defaults, bankruptcies of business and manufacturers, and a liquidation of unsound investments during the boom. Prices in general plummeted: the index of export staples fell from 158 in November 1818 to 77 in June 1819, an annualized drop of 87.9 percent in seven months. In the famous charge of the Jacksonian hard money economist and historian William M. Gouge, by its precipitate and dramatic contraction "the Bank was saved, and the people were ruined."

During the panic of 1819, obstacles and intimidation were often the lot of those who attempted to press the banks to fulfill their contractual obligations to pay in specie. Thus, Maryland and Pennsylvania engaged in almost bizarre inconsistency. Maryland, on February 15, 1819, enacted a law “to compel . . . banks to pay specie for their notes, or forfeit their charters.” Yet, two days after this seemingly tough action, it passed another law relieving banks of any obligation to redeem notes held by professional money brokers, the major force ensuring such redemption. The latter act was supposed “to relieve the people of this state . . . from the evil arising from the demands made on the banks of this state for gold and silver by brokers.” Pennsylvania followed suit a month later. In this way, these states could claim to be enforcing contract and property rights while trying to prevent the most effective means of such enforcement.

Banks south of Virginia largely went off specie payment during the Panic of 1819, and in Georgia at least general suspension continued almost continuously down to the 1830s. One customer complained during 1819 that in order to collect in specie from the largely state-owned Bank of Darien in Georgia, he was forced to swear before a justice of the peace, five bank directors, and the bank cashier, that each and every note he presented to the bank was his own and that he was not a “money broker” or an agent for anyone else. Furthermore, he was forced to pay a fee of $1.36 on each note in order to obtain the specie to which he was entitled.

In North Carolina, furthermore, banks were not penalized by the legislature for suspending specie payments to brokers, though they were for suspending payments to other depositors. Thus encouraged, the three leading banks of North Carolina met in June 1819 and agreed not to pay specie to brokers or their agents. Their notes, however, immediately fell to a 15 percent discount outside the state. In the course of this partial default, of course, the banks continued to require their own debtors to pay them at par in specie.

Many states permitted banks to suspend specie payments during the panic.[5] Four Western states (Tennessee, Kentucky, Illinois, and Missouri) established state-owned banks, issuing fiat paper. They were backed by legal tender provisions in the states, and sometimes by legal prohibition against depreciating the notes. And yet, all these experiments, born in high hopes, came quickly to grief as the new paper depreciated rapidly to negligible value. The projects had to be swiftly abandoned. Later, the greenbacks circulated as fiat paper in the North during and after the Civil War. Yet, in California, the people refused to accept the greenbacks and continued to use gold as their money.[6]


  1. Skaggs, Neil T. (1997). "Crisis of 1819". In Glasner, David; Cooley, Thomas F., eds. Business cycles and depressions: an encyclopedia. New York: Garland Publishing. pp. 124–25. ISBN 0824009444. 
  2. Morris, Richard B. (1987) The forging of the Union, 1781-1789.
  3. Rothbard, Murray N. The Panic of 1819
  4. Second Bank of the United States/Portrait Gallery
  5. Murray Rothbard. The Mystery of Banking (pdf), Second edition, p. 198-206. Referenced 2013-07-07.
  6. Murray N. Rothbard. What has government done to our money?, p. 66-67. Referenced 2013-04-12.