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A Monetary History of the United States, 1867-1960

Author(s):Friedman, Milton
Schwartz, Anna Jacobson
Reviewer(s):Rockoff, Hugh

Milton Friedman and Anna Jacobson Schwartz, A Monetary History of the United States, 1867-1960. Princeton: Princeton University Press (for the National Bureau of Economic Research), 1963. xxiv + 860 pp.

Review Essay by Hugh Rockoff, Department of Economics, Rutgers University.

On Monetarist Economics and the Economics of a Monetary History

A Monetary History of the United States, 1867-1960 by Milton Friedman and Anna J. Schwartz is surely one of the most important books in economic history, and indeed, in all of economics, written in the twentieth century. It has had a profound impact on the way economists think about monetary theory and policy. And it is still one of the most frequently cited books in economics. To some extent, it has suffered the fate of most classics: it is often cited, but seldom read. In the course of preparing this review essay, I have been repeatedly struck by the difference between what people think Friedman and Schwartz say, and what they actually say. Below I try to set out some of the reasons for the enormous impact of A Monetary History, and some of the reasons why there is such a large gap between (to subvert the title of Axel Leijonhufvud’s fine book on Keynes) “Monetarist Economics and the Economics of A Monetary History.”

The main point of A Monetary History is that “money matters: ” The quantity of money is an independent and controllable force that strongly influences the economy. This view, which is now accepted, at least in some measure, by most economists is very different from the view that prevailed when A Monetary History was published. At that time the professional consensus considered monetary policy ineffective. The job of central bankers was to keep interest rates as low as possible as long as unemployment was a problem. Following this policy would mean, however, only that investment might be bit higher than it would otherwise be and unemployment a bit lower. And although inflation might be countered with higher interest rates, the presumption was that monetary policy would have little impact. The rate of unemployment and the behavior of costs, particularly wage rates, largely determined the rate of inflation. Controlling labor unions was important for controlling inflation; monetary policy was at best a secondary consideration. The main tool for keeping the economy on an even keel was fiscal policy. It was a development in the real world, of course, the growing problem of inflation in the 1960s and 1970s, that was the main factor overturning the Keynesian orthodoxy. But A Monetary History was a powerful voice for restoring to monetary policy some of its former prestige. How did Friedman and Schwartz persuade the majority of the profession that money matters? The basic methodology of A Monetary History is to highlight “natural experiments,” occasions when the stock of money changed for reasons unrelated to the current state of the economy, so that we can then attribute the corresponding changes in the economy to changes in money.

Friedman and Schwartz offer an impressive array of case studies. To convey a sense of their approach, let me cite three of their most famous examples: (1) the contrast between 1879-1896 and 1896-1914 in terms of the behavior of the price level; (2) the contrast between World War I and World War II in terms of the behavior of the price level; and (3) the impact of restrictive actions taken by the Federal Reserve system in 1937.

(1) Prices (the NNP deflator) fell -0.93 percent per year between 1879, when the United States returned to the gold standard, and 1896, when the deflation came to an end, and then rose 2.08 percent per year between 1897 and 1914. The stock of money behaved in a similar way. Money per unit of output (money divided by real NNP) rose 2.99 percent per year from 1879 to 1896, and then rose 4.23 percent per year between 1897 and 1914. The acceleration in money growth was the result of the flow of new gold, much of it from the mines of South Africa. (High-powered money rose 3.49 percent per year between 1879 and 1896 and 4.83 percent per year between 1897 and 1914.) To be sure, the intense searches for new gold mines and new ways of refining gold ore that were rewarded when the mines of the Rand became productive and the cyanide process for refining it had been perfected, had been encouraged by rising real price of gold before 1896. But these events long preceded the post-1896 inflation. The correlation between rising money supplies and rising prices after 1896, Friedman and Schwartz argue, must be chance or must reflect a causal connection running from money to prices.

(2) Surprisingly, prices rose more in World War I than in World War II, and by about the same magnitude in World War I as in, to go outside the strict boundaries of A Monetary History, the Civil War. Yet measured in almost any conventional way (length of war, casualties, government deficits, etc.) World War I was a much smaller war for the United States than the Civil War or World War II. The monetary facts, however, are roughly in line with the inflation facts. From 1914 to 1920 money per unit of output rose 8.45 percent per year while the price level rose 10.84 percent per year. From 1939 to 1948 money per unit of output rose 7.90 percent per year while the price level rose 6.65 percent per year.

As these figures indicate, money cannot explain everything. The difference in inflation in the two wars exceeds the difference in the rate of growth of money per unit of output. Nevertheless, the striking fact is that the rate of inflation and the rate of growth of money per unit of output were broadly similar in the two wars. One would have expected, based on the degree of mobilization, far more money growth and inflation in World War II.

Part of the reason that the United States could “get away with” slower monetary growth in World War II was that the deposit-reserve ratio of the banking system was lower during World War II. The government, therefore, received a larger share of the revenues produced by increases in the stock of money. High-powered money, the main channel through which the government acquires seigniorage, rose 10.78 percent per year in World War II compared with 12.25 percent per year in World War I. Friedman and Schwartz conclude that the correlation between prices and money per unit of output suggests causation running from money to prices, rather than the common effect of some third factor, such as the intensity of the mobilization.

(3) One of the most famous and most hotly debated examples offered by Friedman and Schwartz is the 1937-1938 recession. In early 1937 the Federal Reserve doubled the required reserve ratios of the banking system with the purpose of immobilizing reserves and preventing future inflation. After some months, this action was followed by declines in the stock of money and real output. Money fell -0.37 percent between 1937 and 1938 while prices fell -0.50 percent, and real output fell -8.23 percent. High-powered money, responding to other forces, rose by 7.95 percent during the same year. Friedman and Schwartz conclude that the correlation between the decline in the stock of money and the decline in economic activity must have resulted from chance or from causation running from money to economic activity.

These case studies, I should note, arose in three different institutional regimes. In case (1) the United States was on the gold standard, and there was no central bank. In case (2) the Federal Reserve was constrained by the need to finance large wartime government deficits, and had to follow the Treasury’s lead. In case (3) the Federal Reserve was relatively independent, and could follow its own judgments about appropriate monetary policy. Drawing examples from different institutional environments strengthens the argument. In each case there is a rough correlation between monetary changes and changes in the economy, yet the factors determining the supply of money are very different. This suggests that the proposition “money matters,” represents a fundamental economic relationship, and is not the adventitious result of some particular set of institutional arrangements.

None of these “natural experiments” or the many others cited in A Monetary History, was conducted in a laboratory. Many variables were changing, and it is always possible, although not always easy, to construct an alternative explanation based on some other key factor. An extensive literature, for example, has grown up elaborating and contesting the Friedman-Schwartz interpretation of case (3), and attributing the 1937 downturn to other factors, such as fiscal policy. But for someone seeking to overturn A Monetary History, contesting one of these explanations is only the beginning. What gives weight to Friedman and Schwartz’s argument is the multiplicity of examples. So far, I would argue, none of Friedman and Schwartz’s critics has been able to forge an alternative explanation – whether based on fiscal policy, or labor union militancy, or technological change, or whatever – that fits all of the examples explored in A Monetary History. Indeed, to my way of thinking, the major advances since A Monetary History, have been the attempts by Brunner and Meltzer, Bernanke, and others to enrich the picture of how disturbances in the financial sector, and in particular the banking sector, affect the rest of the economy, rather than attempts to explain macroeconomic events from totally different perspectives.

Perhaps the greatest mystery is not that the Friedman-Schwartz methodology was persuasive, but rather that despite the enormous impact of A Monetary History, few economists use its methodology. Typically, when an economist attempts to persuade other economists, the first step is to feed the numbers through the computer and in the process strip away the historical circumstances that adhere to them.

Friedman and Schwartz’s interpretation of the Great Depression is both figuratively and literally at the heart of their book. The detailed discussion occupies about 30 percent of the total, and the episode is referred to by way of contrast in discussions of other episodes. Princeton University Press later issued this section as a separate volume, The Great Contraction.

Their point, as most college students of economics now know (or should know), is that the Great Depression could have been greatly ameliorated by better monetary policy. Today, only a few dyed-in-the-wool Keynesians reject any causal role for monetary policy, although many economic historians would place the major blame for the Depression on other factors, and relegate bad monetary policy to a secondary role. The Friedman-Schwartz interpretation of the Depression was crucial, moreover, to the revival of confidence in market-based economics. The Great Depression, and the way it was interpreted by Keynesian economists, convinced a generation of American intellectuals that only socialism (or near-socialism) could save the American economy from periodic economic meltdowns. If Great Depressions could be prevented through timely actions by the monetary authority (or by a monetary rule), as Friedman and Schwartz contended, then the case for market economies was measurably stronger.

It has been objected that Friedman and Schwartz don’t prove that monetary forces caused the Great Depression. They merely describe the Great Depression in great detail as if monetary forces were the causal factor. This objection is true, but not as decisive as it might seem at first glance. From the point of view of proving the importance of money, the Depression is merely another period, although a particularly revealing one, in which to search for natural experiments. It provides additional evidence, such as the case of the doubling of required reserve ratios in 1937 discussed above, and other episodes, but this one short period by itself cannot prove anything.

Friedman and Schwartz are doctors writing up the results of a detailed clinical examination of a patient who entered the hospital on the verge of death. Their observation that the patient was suffering from a bacterial infection is not by itself proof that the infection caused the patient’s illness. The fact that other patients with the same symptoms and the same infection have been seen at other hospitals in other places and at other times is what makes their argument persuasive. And it is the evidence taken as a whole that makes the prescription offered by Drs. Friedman and Schwartz, that the patient should have been given a strong dose of antibiotics (high-powered money), appear so sensible.

Perhaps the most misunderstood aspect of A Monetary History is the way that Friedman and Schwartz treat Nonmonetary factors. Their approach is to assume a “real” business cycle, which is then pushed a pulled by monetary factors. I use the term “real” with some trepidation. What Friedman and Schwartz have in mind is the sort of cycle described by Wesley C. Mitchell, Arthur Burns, and other scholars at the National Bureau of Economic Research in work that preceded A Monetary History, rather than what now goes by the name “real business cycle.” Yet there is a family resemblance worth stressing. Friedman and Schwartz, unfortunately for us, say little about the sources of this cycle, although at times they make some interesting observations about the tendency of good harvests in the United States to occur at the same time as bad harvests in Europe, and a few other factors. Nevertheless, it is clear that various supply-side shocks including technological shocks that now appear important to macroeconomists would fit easily into the Nonmonetary cycle that forms the backdrop for Friedman and Schwartz’s analysis.

The real cycles in which Friedman and Schwartz impound other factors are often forgotten when economic historians recount “monetarist” interpretations of historical episodes. I have heard economic historians claim that Friedman and Schwartz “say” that the recession of 1937 was caused by the doubling of reserve requirements in 1937. In fact, they write the following.

“Consideration of the effects of monetary policy [the increase in required reserve ratios] on the stock of money certainly strengthens the case for attributing an important role to monetary changes as a factor that significantly intensified the severity of the decline and also probably caused it to occur earlier than otherwise” (p. 544).

Similarly, I have heard economic historians claim that Friedman and Schwartz say that money caused the Great Depression, or that the stock market crash did not cause the Great Depression. In fact their statements on both points are more circumspect, and assume a Nonmonetary contraction of some magnitude. Of the stock-market crash Friedman and Schwartz write that “… its [the stock market crash’s] occurrence must have helped to deepen the contraction in economic activity. It changed the atmosphere within which businessmen and others were making their plans, and spread uncertainty where dazzling hopes of a new era had prevailed” (p. 306).

The crucial turning point in the Depression, according to Friedman and Schwartz, was late 1930 or early 1931, when they thought the contraction might have come to an end in the absence of the banking crises. But they acknowledge that even so, the contraction of the early 1930s “would have ranked as one of the more severe contractions on record” (p. 306).

In their counterfactual discussion of the effects of an open market purchase of $1 billion, they conclude that if undertaken between January 1930 and October 1930 the open market purchase would have “reduced the magnitude of any crisis that did occur and hence the magnitude of its aftereffects” (p.393). If undertaken between September 1931 and January 1932, the open market purchase would have produced a change in the monetary tide and as a result “the economic situation could hardly have deteriorated so rapidly and sharply as it did” (p. 399).

In discussing the banking panic of 1907, to give an earlier example, Friedman and Schwartz conclude that “There can be little doubt that the banking panic served to intensify and deepen the contraction: its occurrence coincides with a notable change in both the statistical indicators and the qualitative comment. If it had been completely avoided, the contraction would almost surely have been milder” (p. 163).

In short, Friedman and Schwartz tried to show that good monetary policy – best of all, as Friedman argued elsewhere, a monetary rule – would make the world a better place; they never promised a rose garden.

Although the central thesis is “money matters,” Friedman and Schwartz follow a large number of closely related threads. These range from the determinants of the greenback price of gold after the Civil War, to the relative effects of mild inflation and mild deflation on long-term economic growth, to the effects of deposit insurance on the stability of the banking system, and so on. Their discussions of these episodes are invariably intelligent, and often at variance with what was the conventional wisdom at the time they wrote. Not only do these discussions help us to understand these particular episodes; they also increase our confidence in their central thesis. They convince us that we are reading economic historians of outstanding ability who have explored every nook and cranny of American monetary history.

As most readers of A Monetary History recognize the book also succeeds in part because of how well it is written. Friedman and Schwartz employ a style that might be called high-NBER. It is written for the intelligent lay person. No special knowledge of statistics is required to read it, and no equations appear in the text, although there is an appendix on the determinants of the stock of money that uses equations. The quantity theory of money never appears in algebraic form. The sentences flow in magisterial fashion, and yet one is aware that the authors have thought about what they are discussing and are eager to make sure that the reader understands. In many ways their book, with its myriad of examples and its telling analogies, is the most similar, among all the classics of economics, to The Wealth of Nations. One can’t help but feel that the former lecturer on rhetoric would have approved of Friedman and Schwartz’s polished yet straightforward style.

For all these reasons, my choice for the most significant book in the field of economic history in the twentieth century is A Monetary History of the United States, 1867-1960 by Milton Friedman and Anna J. Schwartz.

Annotated References:

There is a large and growing literature on A Monetary History. Here I will mention just a few sources that I have found particularly useful.

Bernanke, Ben S., Nonmonetary Effects of the Financial Crisis in Propagation of the Great Depression. American Economic Review. Vol. 73 (3): 257-76, June 1983.

Bordo, Michael D., editor, Money, History, and International Finance: Essays in Honor of Anna J. Schwartz. National Bureau of Economic Research Conference Report series. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989. (This volume, a Festschrift for Anna J. Schwartz, contains a number of relevant essays, including one by Bordo that focuses explicitly on the contributions of A Monetary History.)

Brunner, Karl and Allan H. Meltzer, “Money and Credit in the Monetary Transmission Process.” American Economic Review. Vol. 78 (2): 446-51, May 1988.

Hammond, J. Daniel, Theory and Measurement: Causality Issues in Milton Friedman’s Monetary Economics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1996. (Hammond discusses all of the Friedman-Schwartz work on money focussing on methodological issues and the large volume of criticism their work generated).

Leijonhufvud, Axel, On Keynesian Economics and the Economics of Keynes: A Study in Monetary Theory. New York: Oxford University Press, 1968.

Lucas, Robert E, Jr., “Review of Milton Friedman and Anna J. Schwartz’s A Monetary History of the United States, 1867-1960.” Journal of Monetary Economics. Vol. 34 (1): 5-16, August 1994. (Lucas lays out what he considers the most important contributions of A Monetary History.)

Miron, Jeffrey A., “Empirical Methodology in Macroeconomics: Explaining the Success of Friedman and Schwartz’s A Monetary History of the United States, 1867-1960. Journal of Monetary Economics. Vol. 34 (1): 17-25, August 1994. (Miron explains why members of the younger generation of macroeconomists, even those not trained at Chicago, found A Monetary History so persuasive.)

Steindl, Frank G., Monetary Interpretations of the Great Depression. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995. (Steindl provides a useful overview, which compares and contrasts the Friedman-Schwartz interpretation of the Great Depression with the interpretations offered by other monetary historians.)

Temin, Peter, Did Monetary Forces Cause the Great Depression? New York: Norton, 1976 and Temin, Peter, Lessons from the Great Depression. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1989. (Temin presents a detailed and extremely skeptical reading of the Friedman-Schwartz interpretation of the Great Depression.)

Subject(s):Macroeconomics and Fluctuations
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII

Current Federal Reserve Policy under the Lens of Economic History: Essays to Commemorate the Federal Reserve System’s Centennial

Editor(s):Humpage, Owen F.
Reviewer(s):Hausman, Joshua K.

Published by EH.Net (September 2016)

Owen F. Humpage, editor, Current Federal Reserve Policy under the Lens of Economic History: Essays to Commemorate the Federal Reserve System’s Centennial. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015. xxi + 386 pp. $110 (hardback), ISBN: 978-1-107-09909-8.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Joshua K. Hausman, School of Public Policy, University of Michigan.

This volume is a festschrift for Michael Bordo; it contains sixteen papers presented in December 2012 at the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland. The conference, organized with the help of Barry Eichengreen, Hugh Rockoff, and Eugene N. White, celebrated both Michael Bordo’s work and the Federal Reserve System’s centennial. It brought together leading economic historians and macroeconomists, and they produced a collection of fascinating papers.

The volume is made more than a collection of papers by the introduction, the first chapter, and the last two chapters. The substantial introduction by Owen F. Humpage (the book’s editor and senior economic advisor in the research department at the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland) summarizes each of the papers in the volume and draws out their common themes. (For further summary of the work in this volume, see Williamson 2016.) The first chapter by Barry Eichengreen, “The Uses and Misuses of Economic History,” argues for both the usefulness and potential limitations of historical analogies for informing public policy. It is an ideal first chapter, since the relevance of history to current macroeconomic policy is a more or less explicit theme of all the papers in this collection.

The second-to-last chapter, “Monetary Regimes and Policy on a Global Scale: The Oeuvre of Michael D. Bordo,” by Hugh Rockoff and Eugene N. White summarizes Michael Bordo’s lifetime of work. It is a testament to Bordo’s work that this summary doubles as a review of the causes of the Great Depression, the proper role(s) of a central bank, the operation of the Gold Standard and Bretton Woods system, and the changing frequency of financial crises. Rockoff and White do a particularly nice job of reminding readers of Bordo’s work on the history of economic thought. They make a persuasive argument that Bordo’s attention to past generations of economists was often fruitful; for instance, Bordo’s important 1980 Journal of Political Economy paper on the determinants of price responses to monetary policy shocks grew out of earlier work on the thinking of John Elliot Cairnes (Bordo 1975).

The book fittingly concludes with a short essay by Bordo, “Reflections on the History and Future of Central Banking.” Bordo argues that central banks should confine the use of monetary policy tools to targeting the traditional, pre-2008, goals of low inflation and short-run macroeconomic stability. In the event of a financial crisis, central banks should act as a lender-of-last resort, but should not engage in bailouts of insolvent institutions. Other financial stability concerns, in particular asset prices, are best addressed with different tools. This argument is grounded in history: Bordo argues that macroeconomic outcomes have been best when central banks have acted in this way.

The body of the book contains twelve academic papers. The first, by Marvin Goodfriend (“Federal Reserve Policy Today in Historical Perspective”) traces both the development of transparency in Federal Reserve communication and the Federal Reserve’s focus on inflation. Relatedly, the second paper, by Allan H. Meltzer (“How and Why the Fed Must Change in Its Second Century”), marshals history to argue in favor of rules-based monetary policy.

The next two papers consider the lender-of-last-resort aspect of monetary policy. Mark A. Carlson and David C. Wheelock (“The Lender of Last Resort: Lessons from the Fed’s First 100 Years”) review the history of the Fed as a lender of a last resort; most novel may be the discussion of Fed actions between 1970 and 2000, and the ways in which these foreshadowed those during the 2008 financial crisis. Jon Moen and Ellis Tallman (“Close but Not a Central Bank: The New York Clearing House and Issues of Clearing House Loan Certificates”) reevaluate the effectiveness of clearing house loan certificates for liquidity provision during the pre-Fed National Banking Era (1863-1913). They argue that the New York Clearing House and its clearing house loan certificates were unable to provide the liquidity necessary to effectively address banking crises.

Forrest Capie and Geoffrey Wood (“Central Bank Independence: Can It Survive a Crisis?”) consider how the inevitable strains of a crisis affect central bank independence. Their conclusion is pessimistic. In reviewing the recent history of the Bank of England and the Federal Reserve, they conclude that the 2008 crisis has reduced monetary policy independence.

The next two papers by Peter L. Rousseau (“Politics on the Road to the U.S. Monetary Union”) and Harold James (“U.S. Precedents for Europe”) consider the long and often messy process through which the U.S. achieved political, fiscal, and monetary union. Rousseau draws an optimistic lesson from this history for Europe today, arguing that forces like those that brought about union in the U.S. are at work in Europe. By contrast, James is pessimistic, concluding that “American history shows how difficult and obstacle-filled is the path to federalism” (p. 192).

Christopher M. Meissner in his paper “The Limits of Bimetallism” is also interested in historical parallels to Europe’s current problems. He makes the intriguing — and convincing — argument that France’s transition from bimetallism to the Gold Standard was an example of policymakers’ mistaken belief in the sustainability of the status quo. He concludes that for analogous reasons “European Monetary Union as established in 1999 is very likely to face the fate of bimetallism” (p. 214).

In their essay “The Reserve Pyramid and Interbank Contagion during the Great Depression,” Kris James Mitchener and Gary Richardson consider an often-ignored aspect of the early 1930s financial crisis: interbank deposit flows. Using a remarkable new dataset, they show that in the early 1930s these deposit flows transmitted shocks to financial centers.

John Landon-Lane in his paper “Would Large-Scale Asset Purchases Have Helped in the 1930s? An Investigation of the Responsiveness of Bond Yields from the 1930s to Changes in Debt Levels” considers a counterfactual question: suppose that the Fed had undertaken quantitative easing in the 1930s; what would the effects have been? To answer this question, Landon-Lane examines the relationship between interest rates and large changes in outstanding debt. He concludes that the effect on interest rates of quantitative easing in the 1930s would have been similar to the effect of quantitative easing in recent years.

The final two academic papers relate to an important strand of Michael Bordo’s work: comparison of the U.S. and Canada. Ehsan U. Choudhri and Lawrence L. Schembri’s contribution (“A Tale of Two Countries and Two Booms, Canada and the United States in the 1920s and 2000s: The Roles of Monetary and Financial Stability Policies”) compares U.S. and Canadian monetary policy in the 1920s and 2000s. The description of Canadian monetary policy in the 1920s before there was a central bank will be useful for many. Angela Redish (“It Is History but It’s No Accident: Differences in Residential Mortgage Markets in Canada and the United States”) traces the current large differences between the U.S. and Canadian mortgage markets to differing institutional responses to the Great Depression.

This very brief review of the papers in this volume illustrates the diversity of topics considered. The diversity of methods is also noteworthy, ranging from a formal monetary model to cross-sectional econometrics and narrative evidence. This volume thus serves not only as a superb review of current lessons from monetary history, but also as an introduction to methods used by macroeconomic historians. This will be useful to students and practitioners alike.


Bordo, Michael David. 1975. “John E. Cairnes on the Effects of the Australian Gold Discoveries, 1851-73: An Early Application of the Methodology of Positive Economics,” History of Political Economy, 7:3, pp. 337-359.

Bordo, Michael David. 1980. “The Effects of Monetary Change on Relative Commodity Prices and the Role of Long-Term Contracts,” Journal of Political Economy, 88:6, pp. 1088-1109.

Williamson, Stephen D. 2016. “Current Federal Reserve Policy under the Lens of Economic History: A Review Essay,” Journal of Economic Literature, 54:3, pp. 922-934.

Joshua K. Hausman is assistant professor of public policy and economics at the University of Michigan. He is currently working on understanding the role of agriculture in the initial recovery from the Great Depression.

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Subject(s):Financial Markets, Financial Institutions, and Monetary History
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):19th Century
20th Century: Pre WWII
20th Century: WWII and post-WWII

The Economic History of Mexico

The Economic History of Mexico

Richard Salvucci, Trinity University



This article is a brief interpretive survey of some of the major features of the economic history of Mexico from pre-conquest to the present. I begin with the pre-capitalist economy of Mesoamerica. The colonial period is divided into the Habsburg and Bourbon regimes, although the focus is not really political: the emphasis is instead on the consequences of demographic and fiscal changes that colonialism brought.  Next I analyze the economic impact of independence and its accompanying conflict. A tentative effort to reconstruct secular patterns of growth in the nineteenth century follows, as well as an account of the effects of foreign intervention, war, and the so-called “dictatorship” of Porfirio Diaz.  I then examine the economic consequences of the Mexican Revolution down through the presidency of Lázaro Cárdenas, before considering the effects of the Great Depression and World War II. This is followed by an examination of the so-called Mexican Miracle, the period of import-substitution industrialization after World War II. The end of the “miracle” and the rise of economic instability in the 1970s and 1980s are discussed in some detail. I conclude with structural reforms in the 1990s, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and slow growth in Mexico since then. It is impossible to be comprehensive and the references appearing in the citations are highly selective and biased (where possible) in favor of English-language works, although Spanish is a must for getting beyond the basics. This is especially true in economic history, where some of the most innovative and revisionist work is being done, as it should be, by historians and economists in Mexico.[2]


Where (and What) is Mexico?

For most of its long history, Mexico’s boundaries have been shifting, albeit broadly stable. Colonial Mexico basically stretched from Guatemala, across what is now California and the Southwestern United States, and vaguely into the Pacific Northwest.  There matters stood for more than three centuries[3]. The big shock came at the end of the War of 1847 (“the Mexican-American War” in U.S. history). The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (1848) ended the war, but in so doing, ceded half of Mexico’s former territory to the United States—recall Texas had been lost in 1836. The northern boundary now ran on a line beginning with the Rio Grande to El Paso, and thence more or less west to the Pacific Ocean south of San Diego. With one major adjustment in 1853 (the Gadsden Purchase or Treaty of the Mesilla) and minor ones thereafter, because of the shifting of the Rio Grande, there it has remained.

Prior to the arrival of the Europeans, Mexico was a congeries of ethnic and city states whose own boundaries were unstable. Prior to the emergence of the most powerful of these states in the fifteenth century, the so-called Triple Alliance (popularly “Aztec Empire”), Mesoamerica consisted of cultural regions determined by political elites and spheres of influence that were dominated by large ceremonial centers such as La Venta, Teotihuacan, and Tula.

While such regions may have been dominant at different times, they were never “economically” independent of one another. At Teotihuacan, there were living quarters given over to Olmec residents from the Veracruz region, presumably merchants. Mesoamerica was connected, if not unified, by an ongoing trade in luxury goods and valuable stones such as jade, turquoise and precious feathers. This was not, however, trade driven primarily by factor endowments and relative costs. Climate and resource endowments did differ significantly over the widely diverse regions and microclimates of Mesoamerica. Yet trade was also political and ritualized in religious belief. For example, calling the shipment of turquoise from the (U.S.) Southwest to Central Mexico the outcome of market activity is an anachronism. In the very long run, such prehistorical exchange facilitated the later emergence of trade routes, roads, and more technologically advanced forms of transport. But arbitrage does not appear to have figured importantly in it.[4]

In sum, what we call “Mexico” in a modern sense is not of much use to the economic historian with an interest in the country before 1870, which is to say, the great bulk of its history. In these years, specificity of time and place, sometimes reaching to the village level, is an indispensable prerequisite for meaningful discussion. At the very least, it is usually advisable to be aware of substantial regional differences which reflect the ethnic and linguistic diversity of the country both before and after the arrival of the Europeans. There are fully ten language families in Mexico, and two of them, Nahuatl and Quiché, number over a million speakers each.[5]


Trade and Tribute before the Europeans

In the codices or deerskin folded paintings the Europeans examined (or actually commissioned), they soon became aware of a prominent form of Mesoamerican economic activity: tribute, or taxation in kind, or even labor services. In the absence of anything that served as money, tribute was forced exchange. Tribute has been interpreted as a means of redistribution in a nonmonetary economy. Social and political units formed a basis for assessment, and the goods collected included maize, beans, chile and cotton cloth. It was through the tribute the indigenous “empires” mobilized labor and resources. There is little or no evidence for the existence of labor or land markets to do so, for these were a European import, although marketplaces for goods existed in profusion.

To an extent, the preconquest reliance on barter economies and the absence of money largely accounts for the ubiquity of tribute. The absence of money is much more difficult to explain and was surely an obstacle to the growth of productivity in the indigenous economies.

The tribute was a near-universal attribute of Mesoamerican ceremonial centers and political empires. The city of Teotihuacan (ca. 600 CE, with a population of 125,000 or more) in central Mexico depended on tribute to support an upper stratum of priests and nobles while the tributary population itself lived at subsistence. Tlatelolco (ca 1520, with a population ranging from 50 to 100 thousand) drew maize, cotton, cacao, beans and precious feathers from a wide swath of territory that broadly extended from the Pacific to Gulf coasts that supported an upper stratum of priests, warriors, nobles, and merchants. It was this urban complex that sat atop the lagoons that filled the Valley of Mexico that so awed the arriving conquerors.

While the characterization of tribute as both a corvée and a tax in kind to support nonproductive populations is surely correct, its persistence in altered (i.e., monetized) form under colonial rule does suggest an important question. The tributary area of the Mexica (“Aztec” is a political term, not an ethnic one) broadly comprised a Pacific slope, a central valley, and a Gulf slope. These embrace a wide range of geographic features ranging from rugged volcanic highlands (and even higher snow-capped volcanoes) to marshy, humid coastal plains. Even today, travel through these regions is challenging. Lacking both the wheel and draught animals, the indigenous peoples relied on human transport, or, where possible, waterborne exchange. However we measure the costs of transportation, they were high. In the colonial period, they typically circumscribed the subsistence radius of markets to 25 to 35 miles. Under the circumstances, it is not easy to imagine that voluntary exchange, particularly between the coastal lowlands and the temperate to cold highlands and mountains, would be profitable for all but the most highly valued goods. In some parts of Mexico–as in the Andean region—linkages of family and kinship bound different regions together in a cult of reciprocal economic obligations. Yet absent such connections, it is not hard to imagine, for example, transporting woven cottons from the coastal lowlands to the population centers of the highlands could become a political obligation rather than a matter of profitable, voluntary exchange. The relatively ambiguous role of markets in both labor and goods that persisted into the nineteenth century may perhaps derive from just this combination of climatic and geographical characteristics. It is what made voluntary exchange under capitalistic markets such a puzzlingly problematic answer to the ordinary demands of economic activity.


[See the relief map below for the principal physical features of Mexico.]


[See the political map below for Mexican states and state capitals.]




Used by permission of the University of Texas Libraries, The University of Texas at Austin.


“New Spain” or Colonial Mexico: The First Phase

Mexico was established by military conquest and civil war. In the process, a civilization with its own institutions and complex culture was profoundly modified and altered, if not precisely destroyed, by the European invaders. The catastrophic elements of conquest, including the sharp decline of the existing indigenous population, from perhaps 25 million to fewer than a million within a century due to warfare, disease, social disorganization and the imposition of demands for labor and resources should nevertheless not preclude some assessment, however tentative, of its economic level in 1519, when the Europeans arrived.[6]

Recent thinking suggests that Spain was far from poor when it began its overseas expansion. If this were so, the implications of the Europeans’ reactions to what they found on the mainland of Mexico (not, significantly in the Caribbean, and, especially, in Cuba, where they were first established) is important. We have several accounts of the conquest of Mexico by the European participants, of which Bernal Díaz del Castillo is the best known, but not the only one. The reaction of the Europeans was almost uniformly astonishment by the apparent material wealth of Tenochtitlan. The public buildings, spacious residences of the temple precinct, the causeways linking the island to the shore, and the fantastic array of goods available in the marketplace evoked comparisons to Venice, Constantinople, and other wealthy centers of European civilization. While it is true that this was a view of the indigenous elite, the beneficiaries of the wealth accumulated from numerous tributaries, it hardly suggests anything other than a kind of storied opulence. Of course, the peasant commoners lived at subsistence and enjoyed no such privileges, but then so did the peasants of the society from which Bernal Díaz, Cortés, Pedro de Alvarado and the other conquerors were drawn. It is hard to imagine that the average standard of living in Mexico was any lower than that of the Iberian Peninsula. The conquerors remarked on the physical size and apparent robust health of the people whom they met, and from this, scholars such as Woodrow Borah and Sherburne Cook concluded that the physical size of the Europeans and the Mexicans was about the same. Borah and Cook surmised that caloric intake per individual in Central Mexico was around 1,900 calories per day, which certainly seems comparable to European levels.[7]

Certainly, the technological differences with Europe hampered commercial exchange, such as the absence of the wheel for transportation, metallurgy that did not include iron, and the exclusive reliance on pictographic writing systems. Yet by the same token, Mesoamerican agricultural technology was richly diverse and especially oriented toward labor-intensive techniques, well suited to pre-conquest Mexico’s factor endowments. As Gene Wilken points out, Bernardo de Sahagún explained in his General History of the Things of New Spain that the Nahua farmer recognized two dozen soil types related to origin, source, color, texture, smell, consistency and organic content.  They were expert at soil management.[8] So it is possible not only to misspecify, but to mistake the technological “backwardness” of Mesoamerica relative to Europe, and historians routinely have.

The essentially political and clan-based nature of economic activity made the distribution of output somewhat different from standard neoclassical models. Although no one seriously maintains that indigenous civilization did not include private property and, in fact, property rights in humans, the distribution of product tended to emphasize average rather than marginal product. If responsibility for tribute was collective, it is logical to suppose that there was some element of redistribution and collective claim on output by the basic social groups of indigenous society, the clans or calpulli.[9] Whatever the case, it seems clear that viewing indigenous society and economy as strained by population growth to the point of collapse, as the so-called “Berkeley school” did in the 1950s, is no longer tenable. It is more likely that the tensions exploited by the Europeans to divide and conquer their native hosts and so erect a colonial state on pre-existing native entities were mainly political rather than socioeconomic. It was through the assistance of native allies such as the Tlaxcalans, as well as with the help of previously unknown diseases such as smallpox that ravaged the indigenous peoples, that the Europeans were able to place a weakened Tenochtitlan under siege and finally defeat it.


Colonialism and Economic Adjustment to Population Decline

With the subjection first of Tenochtitlan and Tlatelolco and then of other polities and peoples, a process that would ultimately stretch well into the nineteenth century and was never really completed, the Europeans turned their attention to making colonialism pay. The process had several components: the modification or introduction of institutions of rule and appropriation; the introduction of new flora and fauna that could be turned to economic use; the reorientation of a previously autarkic and precapitalist economy to the demands of trade and commercial exploitation; and the implementation of European fiscal sovereignty. These processes were complex, required much time, and were, in many cases, only partly successful. There is considerable speculation regarding how long it took before Spain (arguably a relevant term by the mid-sixteenth century) made colonialism pay. The best we can do is present a schematic view of what occurred. Regional variations were enormous: a “typical” outcome or institution of colonialism may well have been an outcome visible in central Mexico. Moreover, all generalizations are fragile, rest on limited quantitative evidence, and will no doubt be substantially modified eventually. The message is simple: proceed with caution.

The Europeans did not seek to take Mesoamerica as a tabula rasa. In some ways, they would have been happy to simply become the latest in a long line of ruling dynasties established by decapitating native elites and assuming control. The initial demand of the conquerors for access to native labor in the so-called encomienda was precisely that, with the actual task of governing be left to the surviving and collaborating elite: the principle of “indirect rule.”[10] There were two problems with this strategy: the natives resisted and the natives died. They died in such large numbers as to make the original strategy impracticable.

The number of people who lived in Mesoamerica has long been a subject of controversy, but there is no point in spelling it out once again. The numbers are unknowable and, in an economic sense, not really important. The population of Tenochtitlan has been variously estimated between 50 and 200 thousand individuals, depending on the instruments of estimation.  As previously mentioned, some estimates of the Central Mexican population range as high as 25 million on the eve of the European conquest, and virtually no serious student accepts the small population estimates based on the work of Angel Rosenblatt. The point is that labor was abundant relative to land, and that the small surpluses of a large tributary population must have supported the opulent elite that Bernal Díaz and his companions described.

By 1620, or thereabouts, the indigenous population had fallen to less than a million according to Cook and Borah. This is not just the quantitative speculation of modern historical demographers. Contemporaries such as Jerónimo de Mendieta in his Historia eclesiástica Indiana (1596) spoke of towns formerly densely populated now witness to “the palaces of those former Lords ruined or on the verge of. The homes of the commoners mostly empty, roads and streets deserted, churches empty on feast days, the few Indians who populate the towns in Spanish farms and factories.” Mendieta was an eyewitness to the catastrophic toll that European microbes and warfare took on the native population. There was a smallpox epidemic in 1519-20 when 5 to 8 million died. The epidemic of hemorrhagic fever in 1545 to 1548 was one of the worst demographic catastrophes in human history, killing 5 to 15 million people. And then again in 1576 to 1578, when 2 to 2.5 million people died, we have clear evidence that land prices in the Valley of Mexico (Coyoacán, a village outside Mexico City, as the reconstructed Tenochtitlán was called) collapsed. The death toll was staggering. Lesser outbreaks were registered in 1559, 1566, 1587, 1592, 1601, 1604, 1606, 1613, 1624, and 1642. The larger point is that the intensive use of native labor, such as the encomienda, had to come to an end, whatever its legal status had become by virtue of the New Laws (1542). The encomienda or the simple exploitation of massive numbers of indigenous workers was no longer possible. There were too few “Indians” by the end of the sixteenth century.[11]

As a result, the institutions and methods of economic appropriation were forced to change. The Europeans introduced pastoral agriculture – the herding of cattle and sheep – and the use of now abundant land and scarce labor in the form of the hacienda while the remaining natives were brought together in “villages” whose origins were not essentially pre- but post-conquest, the so-called congregaciones, at the same time that the titles to now-vacant lands were created, regularized and “composed.”[12] (Land titles were a European innovation as well). Sheep and cattle, which the Europeans introduced, became part of the new institutional backbone of the colony. The natives would continue to rely on maize for the better part of their subsistence, but the Europeans introduced wheat, olives (oil), grapes (wine) and even chickens, which the natives rapidly adopted. On the whole, the results of these alterations were complex. Some scholars argue that the native diet improved even in the face of their diminishing numbers, a consequence of increased land per person and of greater variety of foodstuffs, and that the agricultural potential of the colony now called New Spain was enhanced. By the beginning of the seventeenth century, the combined indigenous, European immigrant, and new mixed blood populations could largely survive on the basis of their own production. The introduction of sheep lead to the introduction and manufacture of woolens in what were called obrajes or manufactories in Puebla, Querétaro, and Coyoacán. The native peoples continued to produce cottons (a domestic crop) under the stimulus of European organization, lending, and marketing. Extensive pastoralism, the cultivation of cereals and even the incorporation of native labor then characterized the emergence of the great estates or haciendas, which became a characteristic rural institution through the twentieth century, when the Mexican Revolution put an end to many of them. Thus the colony of New Spain continued to feed, clothe and house itself independent of metropolitan Spain’s direction. Certainly, Mexico before the Conquest was self-sufficient. The extent to which the immigrant and American Spaniard or creole population depended on imports of wine, oil and other foodstuffs and textiles in the decades immediately following the conquest is much less clear.

At the same time, other profound changes accompanied the introduction of Europeans, their crops and their diseases into what they termed the “kingdom” (not colony, for constitutional reasons) of New Spain.[13] Prior to the conquest, land and labor had been commoditized, but not to any significant extent, although there was a distinction recognized between possession and ownership.  Scholars who have closely examined the emergence of land markets after the conquest—mainly in the Valley of Mexico—are virtually unanimous in this conclusion. To the extent that markets in labor and commodities had emerged, it took until the 1630s (and later elsewhere in New Spain) for the development to reach maturity. Even older mechanisms of allocation of labor by administrative means (repartimiento) or by outright coercion persisted. Purely economic incentives in the form of money wages and prices never seemed adequate to the job of mobilizing resources and those with access to political power were reluctant to pay a competitive wage. In New Spain, the use of some sort of political power or rent-seeking nearly always accompanied labor recruitment. It was, quite simply, an attempt to evade the implications of relative scarcity, and renders the entire notion of “capitalism” as a driving economic force in colonial Mexico quite inexact.


Why the Settlers Resisted the Implications of Scarce Labor

The reasons behind this development are complex and varied. The evidence we have for the Valley of Mexico demonstrates that the relative price of labor rose while the relative price of land fell even when nominal movements of one or the other remained fairly limited. For instance, the table constructed below demonstrates that from 1570-75 through 1591-1606, the price of unskilled labor in the Valley of Mexico nearly tripled while the price of land in the Valley (Coyoacán) fell by nearly two thirds. On the whole, the price of labor relative to land increased by nearly 800 percent. The evolution of relative prices would have inevitably worked against the demanders of labor (Europeans and increasingly, creoles or Americans of largely European ancestry) and in favor of the supplier (native labor, or people of mixed race generically termed mestizo). This was not of course what the Europeans had in mind and by capture of legal institutions (local magistrates, in particularly), frequently sought to substitute compulsion for what would have been costly “free labor.” What has been termed the “depression” of the seventeenth century may well represent one of the consequences of this evolution: an abundance of land, a scarcity of labor, and the attempt of the new rulers to adjust to changing relative prices. There were repeated royal prohibitions on the use of forced indigenous labor in both public and private works, and thus a reduction in the supply of labor. All highly speculative, no doubt, but the adjustment came during the central decades of the seventeenth century, when New Spain increasingly produced its own woolens and cottons, and largely assumed the tasks of providing itself with foodstuffs and was thus required to save and invest more.  No doubt, the new rulers felt the strain of trying to do more with less.[14]


Years Land Price Index Labor Price Index (Labor/Land) Index
1570-1575 100 100 100
1576-1590 50 143 286
1591-1606 33 286 867


Source: Calculated from Rebecca Horn, Postconquest Coyoacan: Nahua-Spanish Relations in Central Mexico, 1519-1650 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997), p. 208 and José Ignacio Urquiola Permisan, “Salarios y precios en la industria manufacturer textile de la lana en Nueva España, 1570-1635,” in Virginia García Acosta, (ed.), Los precios de alimentos y manufacturas novohispanos (México, DF: CIESAS, 1995), p. 206.


The overall role of Mexico within the Hapsburg Empire was in flux as well. Nothing signals the change as much as the emergence of silver mining as the principal source of Mexican exportables in the second half of the sixteenth century. While Mexico would soon be eclipsed by Peru as the most productive center of silver mining—at least until the eighteenth century—the discovery of significant silver mines in Zacatecas in the 1540s transformed the economy of the Spanish empire and the character of New Spain’s as well.




Silver Mining

While silver mining and smelting was practiced before the conquest, it was never a focal point of indigenous activity. But for the Europeans, Mexico was largely about silver mining. From the mid- sixteenth century onward, it was explicitly understood by the viceroys that they were to do all in their power to “favor the mines,” as one memorable royal instruction enjoined. Again, there has been much controversy of the precise amounts of silver that Mexico sent to the Iberian Peninsula. What we do know certainly is that Mexico (and the Spanish Empire) became the leading source of silver, monetary reserves, and thus, of high-powered money. Over the course of the colonial period, most sources agree that Mexico provided nearly 2 billion pesos (dollars) or roughly 1.6 billion troy ounces to the world economy. The graph below provides a picture of the remissions of all Mexican silver to both Spain and to the Philippines taken from the work of John TePaske.[15]


Since the population of Mexico under Spanish rule was at most 6 million people by the end of the colonial period, the kingdom’s silver output could only be considered astronomical.

This production has to be considered in both its domestic and international dimensions. From a domestic perspective, the mines were what a later generation of economists would call “growth poles.” They were markets in which inputs were transformed into tradable outputs at a much higher rate of productivity (because of mining’s relatively advanced technology) than Mexico’s other activities. Silver thus became Mexico’s principal exportable good, and remained so well into the late nineteenth century.  The residual claimants on silver production were many and varied.  There were, of course the silver miners themselves in Mexico and their merchant financiers and suppliers. They ranged from some of the wealthiest people in the world at the time, such as the Count of Regla (1710-1781), who donated warships to Spain in the eighteenth century, to individual natives in Zacatecas smelting their own stocks of silver ore.[16] While the conditions of labor in Mexico’s silver mines were almost uniformly bad, the compensation ranged from above market wages paid to free labor in the prosperous larger mines  of the Bajío and the North to the use of forced village  labor drafts in more marginal (and presumably less profitable) sites such as Taxco. In the Iberian Peninsula, income from American silver mines ultimately supported not only a class of merchant entrepreneurs in the large port cities, but virtually the core of the Spanish political nation, including monarchs, royal officials, churchmen, the military and more. And finally, silver flowed to those who valued it most highly throughout the world. It is generally estimated that 40 percent of Spain’s American (not just Mexican, but Peruvian as well) silver production ended up in hoards in China.

Within New Spain, mining centers such as Guanajuato, San Luis Potosí, and Zacatecas became places where economic growth took place rapidly, in which labor markets more readily evolved, and in which the standard of living became obviously higher than in neighboring regions. Mining centers tended to crowd out growth elsewhere because the rate of return for successful mines exceeded what could be gotten in commerce, agriculture and manufacturing. Because silver was the numeraire for Mexican prices—Mexico was effectively on a silver standard—variations in silver production could and did have substantial effects on real economic activity elsewhere in New Spain. There is considerable evidence that silver mining saddled Mexico with an early case of “Dutch disease” in which irreducible costs imposed by the silver standard ultimately rendered manufacturing and the production of other tradable goods in New Spain uncompetitive. For this reason, the expansion of Mexican silver production in the years after 1750 was never unambiguously accompanied by overall, as opposed to localized prosperity. Silver mining tended to absorb a disproportional quantity of resources and to keep New Spain’s price level high, even when the business cycle slowed down—a fact that was to impress visitors to Mexico well into the nineteenth century. Mexican silver accounted for well over three-quarters of exports by value into the nineteenth century as well. The estimates vary widely, for silver was by no means the only, or even the most important source of revenue to the Crown, but by the end of the colonial era, the Kingdom of New Spain probably accounted for 25 percent of the Crown’s imperial income.[17] That is why reformist proposals circulating in governing circles in Madrid in the late eighteenth century fixed on Mexico. If there was any threat to the American Empire, royal officials thought that Mexico, and increasingly, Cuba, were worth holding on to. From a fiscal standpoint, Mexico had become just that important.[18]


“New Spain”: The Second Phase                of the Bourbon “Reforms”

In 1700, the last of the Spanish Hapsburgs died and a disputed succession followed. The ensuring conflict, known as the War of Spanish Succession, came to an end in 1714. The grandson of French king Louis XIV came to the Spanish throne as King Philip V. The dynasty he represented was known as the Bourbons. For the next century of so, they were to determine the fortunes of New Spain. Traditionally, the Bourbons, especially the later ones, have been associated with an effort to “renationalize” the Spanish empire in America after it had been thoroughly penetrated by French, Dutch, and lastly, British commercial interests.[19]

There were at least two areas in which the Bourbon dynasty, “reformist” or no, affected the Mexican economy. One of them dealt with raising revenue and the other was the international position of the imperial economy, specifically, the volume and value of trade. A series of statistics calculated by Richard Garner shows that the share of Mexican output or estimated GDP taken by taxes grew by 167 percent between 1700 and 1800. The number of taxes collected by the Royal Treasury increased from 34 to 112 between 1760 and 1810. This increase, sometimes labelled as a Bourbon “reconquest” of Mexico after a century and a half of drift under the Hapsburgs, occurred because of Spain’s need to finance increasingly frequent and costly wars of empire in the eighteenth century. An entire array of new taxes and fiscal placemen came to Mexico. They affected (and alienated) everyone, from the wealthiest merchant to the humblest villager. If they did nothing else, the Bourbons proved to be expert tax collectors.[20]

The second and equally consequential change in imperial management lay in the revision and “deregulation” of New Spain’s international trade, or the evolution from a “fleet” system to a regime of independent sailings, and then, finally, of voyages to and from a far larger variety of metropolitan and colonial ports. From the mid-sixteenth century onwards, ocean-going trade between Spain and the Americas was, in theory, at least, closely regulated and supervised. Ships in convoy (flota) sailed together annually under license from the monarchy and returned together as well. Since so much silver specie was carried, the system made sense, even if the flotas made a tempting target and the problem of contraband was immense. The point of departure was Seville and later, Cadiz. Under pressure from other outports in the late eighteenth century, the system was finally relaxed. As a consequence, the volume and value of trade to Mexico increased as the price of importables fell. Import-competing industries in Mexico, especially textiles, suffered under competition and established merchants complained that the new system of trade was too loose. But to no avail. There is no measure of the barter terms of trade for the eighteenth century, but anecdotal evidence suggests they improved for Mexico. Nevertheless, it is doubtful that these gains could have come anywhere close to offsetting the financial cost of Spain’s “reconquest” of Mexico.[21]

On the other hand, the few accounts of per capita real income growth in the eighteenth century that exist suggest little more than stagnation, the result of population growth and a rising price level. Admittedly, looking for modern economic growth in Mexico in the eighteenth century is an anachronism, although there is at least anecdotal evidence of technological change in silver mining, especially in the use of gunpowder for blasting and excavating, and of some productivity increase in silver mining. So even though the share of international trade outside of goods such as cochineal and silver was quite small, at the margin, changes in the trade regime were important. There is also some indication that asset income rose and labor income fell, which fueled growing social tensions in New Spain. In the last analysis, the growing fiscal pressure of the Spanish empire came when the standard of living for most people in Mexico—the native and mixed blood population—was stagnating. During periodic subsistence crisis, especially those propagated by drought and epidemic disease, and mostly in the 1780s, living standards fell. Many historians think of late colonial Mexico as something of a powder keg waiting to explode. When it did, in 1810, the explosion was the result of a political crisis at home and a dynastic failure abroad. What New Spain had negotiated during the Wars of Spanish Succession—regime change– provide impossible to surmount during the Napoleonic Wars (1794-1815). This may well be the most sensitive indicator of how economic conditions changed in New Spain under the heavy, not to say clumsy hand, of the Bourbon “reforms.”[22]


The War for Independence, the Insurgency, and Their Legacy

The abdication of the Bourbon monarchy to Napoleon Bonaparte in 1808 produced a series of events that ultimately resulted in the independence of New Spain. The rupture was accompanied by a violent peasant rebellion headed by the clerics Miguel Hidalgo and José Morelos that, one way or another, carried off 10 percent of the population between 1810 and 1820. Internal commerce was largely paralyzed. Silver mining essentially collapsed between 1810 and 1812 and a full recovery of mining output was delayed until the 1840s. The mines located in zones of heavy combat, such as Guanajuato and Querétaro, were abandoned by fleeing workers. Thus neglected, they quickly flooded.

At the same time, the fiscal and human costs of this period, the Insurgency, were even greater.[23] The heavy borrowings in which the Bourbons engaged to finance their military alliances left Mexico with a considerable legacy of internal debt, estimated at £16 million at Independence. The damage to the fiscal, bureaucratic and administrative structure of New Spain in the face of the continuing threat of Spanish reinvasion (Spain did not recognize the Independence of Mexico (1821)) in the 1820s drove the independent governments into foreign borrowing on the London market to the tune of £6.4 million in order to finance continuing heavy military outlays. With a reduced fiscal capacity, in part the legacy of the Insurgency and in part the deliberate effort of Mexican elites to resist any repetition Bourbon-style taxation, Mexico defaulted on its foreign debt in 1827. For the next sixty years, through a serpentine history of moratoria, restructuring and repudiation (1867), it took until 1884 for the government to regain access to international capital markets, at what cost can only be imagined. Private sector borrowing and lending continued, although to what extent is currently unknown. What is clear is that the total (internal plus external) indebtedness of Mexico relative to late colonial GDP was somewhere in the range of 47 to 56 percent.[24]

This was, perhaps, not an insubstantial amount for a country whose mechanisms of public finance were in what could be mildly termed chaotic condition in the 1820s and 1830s as the form, philosophy, and mechanics of government oscillated from federalist to centralist and back into the 1850s.  Leaving aside simple questions of uncertainty, there is the very real matter that the national government—whatever the state of private wealth—lacked the capacity to service debt because national and regional elites denied it the means to do so. This issue would bedevil successive regimes into the late nineteenth century, and, indeed, into the twentieth.[25]

At the same time, the demographic effects of the Insurgency exacted a cost in terms of lost output from the 1810s through the 1840s. Gaping holes in the labor force emerged, especially in the fertile agricultural plains of the Bajío that created further obstacles to the growth of output. It is simply impossible to generalize about the fortunes of the Mexican economy in this period because of the dramatic regional variations in the Republic’s economy. A rough estimate of output per head in the late colonial period was perhaps 40 pesos (dollars).[26] After a sharp contraction in the 1810s, income remained in that neighborhood well into the 1840s, at least until the eve of the war with the United States in 1846. By the time United States troops crossed the Rio Grande, a recovery had been under way, but the war arrested it. Further political turmoil and civil war in the 1850s and 1860s represented setbacks as well. In this way, a half century or so of potential economic growth was sacrificed from the 1810s through the 1870s. This was not an uncommon experience in Latin America in the nineteenth century, and the period has even been called The Stage of the Great Delay.[27] Whatever the exact rate of real per capita income growth was, it is hard to imagine it ever exceeded two percent, if indeed it reached much more than half that.


Agricultural Recovery and War

On the other hand, it is clear that there was a recovery in agriculture in the central regions of the country, most notably in the staple maize crop and in wheat. The famines of the late colonial era, especially of 1785-86, when massive numbers perished, were not repeated. There were years of scarcity and periodic corresponding outbreaks of epidemic disease—the cholera epidemic of 1832 affected Mexico as it did so many other places—but by and large, the dramatic human wastage of the colonial period ceased, and the death rate does appear to have begun to fall. Very good series on wheat deliveries and retail sales taxes for the city of Puebla southeast of Mexico City show a similarly strong recovery in the 1830s and early 1840s, punctuated only by the cholera epidemic whose effects were felt everywhere.[28]

Ironically, while the Panic of 1837 appears to have at least hit the financial economy in Mexico hard with a dramatic fall in public borrowing (and private lending), especially in the capital,[29] an incipient recovery of the real economy was ended by war with the United States. It is not possible to put numbers on the cost of the war to Mexico, which lasted intermittently from 1846 to 1848, but the loss of what had been the Southwest under Mexico is most often emphasized. This may or may not be accurate. Certainly, the loss of California, where gold was discovered in January 1848, weighs heavily on the historical imaginations of modern Mexicans. There is also the sense that the indemnity paid by the United States–$15 million—was wholly inadequate, which seems at least understandable when one considers that Andrew Jackson offered $5 million to purchase Texas alone in 1829.

It has been estimated that the agricultural output of the Mexican “cession” as it was called in 1900, was nearly $64 million, and that the value of livestock in the territory was over $100 million. The value of gold and silver produced was about $35 million. Whether it is reasonable to employ the numbers in estimating the present value of output relative to the indemnity paid is at least debatable as a counterfactual, unless one chooses to regard this as the annuitized value on a perpetuity “purchased” from Mexico at gunpoint, which seems more like robbery than exchange.  In the long run, the loss may have been staggering, but in the short run, much less so. The northern territories Mexico lost had really yielded very little up until the War. In fact, the balance of costs and revenues to the Mexican government may well have been negative.[30]

Whatever the case, the decades following the war with the United States until the beginning of the administration of Porfirio Díaz (1876) are typically regarded as a step backward. The reasons are several. In 1850, the government essentially went broke. While it is true that its financial position had disintegrated since the mid-1830s, 1850 marked a turning point. The entire indemnity payment from the United States was consumed in debt service, but this made no appreciable dent in the outstanding principal, which hovered around 50 million pesos (dollars).  The limits of debt sustainability had been reached: governing was turned into a wild search for resources, which proved fruitless. Mexico continued to sell of parts of its territory, such as the Treaty of the Mesilla (1853), or Gadsden Purchase, whose proceeds largely ended up in the hands of domestic financiers rather than foreign creditors’.[31] Political divisions, if anything, terrible before the war with the United States, turned catastrophic. A series of internal revolts, uprisings and military pronouncements segued into yet another violent civil war between liberals and conservatives—now a formal party—the so-called Three Years’ War (1856-58). In 1862, frustrated by Mexico’s suspension of foreign debt service, Great Britain, Spain and France seized Veracruz. A Hapsburg prince, Maximilian, was installed as Mexico’s second “emperor.” (Agustín de Iturbide was the first). While only the French actively prosecuted the war within Mexico, and while they never controlled more than a very small part of the country, the disruption was substantial. By 1867, with Maximillian deposed and the French army withdrawn, the country required serious reconstruction. [32]


Juárez, Díaz and the Porfiriato: authoritarian development.

To be sure, the origins of authoritarian development in nineteenth century Mexico were not with Porfirio Díaz, as is often asserted. Their beginnings actually went back several decades earlier, to the last presidency of Santa Anna, generally known as the Dictatorship (1853-54). But Santa Anna was overthrown too quickly, and now for the last time, for much to have actually occurred. A ministry for development (Fomento) had been created, but the Liberal revolution of Ayutla swept Santa Anna and his clique away for good. Serious reform seems to have begun around 1870, when the Finance Minister was Matías Romero. Romero was intent on providing Mexico with a modern Treasury, and on ending the hand-to- mouth financing that had mostly characterized the country’s government since Independence, or at least since the mid-1830s. So it is appropriate to pick up with the story here. Where did Mexico stand in 1870?[33]

The most revealing data that we have on the state of economic development come from various anthropometric and cost of living studies by Amilcar Challu, Aurora Gómez Galvarriato, and Moramay López Alonso.[34] Their research overlaps in part, and gives a fascinating picture of Mexico in the long run, from 1735 to 1940. For the moment, let us look at the period leading up to 1867, when the French withdrew from Mexico. If we look at the heights of the “literate” population, Challu’s research suggests that the standard of living stagnated between 1750 and 1840. If we look at the “illiterate” population, there was a consistent decline until 1850. Since the share of the illiterate population was clearly larger, we might infer that living standards for most Mexicans declined after 1750, however we interpret other quantitative and anecdotal evidence.

López Alonso confines her work to the period after the 1840s. From 1850 through 1890, her work generally corroborates Challu’s. The period after the Mexican War was clearly a difficult one for most Mexicans, and the challenge that both Juárez and Díaz faced was a macroeconomy in frank contraction after 1850. The regimes after 1867 were faced with stagnation.

The real wage study of by Amilcar Challu and Aurora Gómez Galvarriato, when combined with the existing anthropometric work, offers a pretty clear correlation between movements in real wages (down) and height (falling). [35]

It would then appear growth from the 1850s through the 1870s was slow—if there was any at all—and perhaps inferior to what had come between the 1820s and the 1840s. Given the growth of import substitution during the Napoleonic Wars, roughly 1790-1810, coupled with the commercial opening brought by the Bourbons’   post-1789 extension of “free trade” to Mexico, we might well see a pattern of mixed performance (1790-1810), sharp contraction (the 1810s), rebound and recovery, with a sharp financial shocks coming in the mid-1820s and mid -1830s (1820s-1840s), and stagnation once more (1850s-1870s). Real per capita output oscillated, sometimes sharply, around an underlying growth rate of perhaps one percent; changes in the distribution of income and wealth are more or less impossible to identify consistently, because studies conflict.

Far less speculative is that the foundations for modern economic growth were laid down in Mexico during the era of Benito Juárez. Its key elements were the creation of a secular, bourgeois state and secular institutions embedded in the Constitution of 1857. The titanic ideological struggles between liberals and conservatives were ultimately resolved in favor of a liberal, but nevertheless centralizing form of government under Porfirio Diáz. This was the beginning of the end of the Ancien Regime. Under Juárez, corporate lands of the Church and native villages were privatized in favor of individual holdings and their former owners compensated in bonds. This was effectively the largest transfer of land title since the late sixteenth century (not including the war with the United States) and it cemented the idea of individual property rights. With the expulsion of the French and the outright repudiation of the French debt, the Treasury was reorganized along more modern lines. The country got additional breathing room by the suspension of debt service to Great Britain until the terms of the 1825 loans were renegotiated under the Dublán Convention (1884). Equally, if not more important, Mexico now entered the railroad age in 1876, nearly forty years after the first tracks were laid in Cuba in 1837. The educational system was expanded in an attempt to create at least a core of literate citizens who could adopt the tools of modern finance and technology. Literacy still remained in the neighborhood of 20 percent, and life expectancy at birth scarcely reached 40 years of age, if that. Yet by the end of the Restored Republic (1876), Mexico had turned a corner. There would be regressions, but the nineteenth century had finally arrived, aptly if brutally signified by Juárez’ execution of Maximilian in Querétaro in 1867.[36]

Porfirian Mexico

Yet when Díaz came to power, Mexico was, in many ways, much as it had been a century earlier. It was a rural, agrarian nation whose primary agricultural output per person was maize, followed by wheat and beans. These were produced on haciendas and ranchos in Jalisco, Guanajuato, Michoacán, Mexico, Puebla as well as Oaxaca, Veracruz, Aguascalientes, Chihuahua and Sonora. Cotton, which with great difficulty had begun to supply a mechanized factory regime (first in spinning, then weaving) was produced in Oaxaca, Yucatán, Guerrero and Chiapas as well as in parts of Durango and Coahuila. Domestic production of raw cotton rarely sufficed to supply factories in Michoacán, Querétaro, Puebla and Veracruz, so imports from the Southern United States were common. For the most part, the indigenous population lived on maize, beans, and chile, producing its own subsistence on small, scattered plots known as milpas. Perhaps 75 percent of the population was rural, with the remainder to be found in cities like Mexico, Guadalajara, San Luis Potosí, and later, Monterrey. Population growth in the Southern and Eastern parts of the country had been relatively slow in the nineteenth century. The North and the center North grew more rapidly.  The Center of the country, less so. Immigration from abroad had been of no consequence.[37]

It is a commonplace to see the presidency of Porfirio Díaz (1876-1910) as a critical juncture in Mexican history, and this would be no less true of economic or commercial history as well. By 1910, when the Díaz government fell and Mexico descended into two decades of revolution, the first one extremely violent, the face of the country had been changed for good. The nature and effect of these changes remain not only controversial, but essential for understanding the subsequent evolution of the country, so we should pause here to consider some of their essential features.

While mining and especially, silver mining, had long held a privileged place in the economy, the nineteenth century had witnessed a number of significant changes. Until about 1889, the coinage of gold, silver, and copper—a very rough proxy for production given how much silver had been illegally exported—continued on a steadily upward track. In 1822, coinage was about 10 million pesos. By 1846, it had reached roughly 15 million pesos. There was something of a structural break after the war with the United States (its origins are unclear), and coinage continued upward to about 25 million pesos in 1888. Then, the falling international price of silver, brought on by large increases in supply elsewhere, drove the trend after 1889 sharply downward. By 1909-10, coinage had collapsed to levels previously unrecorded since the 1820s, although in 1904 and 1905, it had skyrocketed to nearly 45 million pesos.[38]

It comes as no surprise that these variations in production corresponded to sharp changes in international relative prices. For example, the market price of silver declined sharply relative to lead, which in turn encountered a large increase in Mexican production and a diversification into other metals including zinc, antinomy, and copper. Mexico left the silver standard (for international transactions, but continued to use silver domestically) in 1905, which contributed to the eclipse of this one crucial industry, which would never again have the status it had when Díaz became president in 1876, when precious metals represented 75 percent of Mexican exports by value. By the time he had decamped in exile to Paris, precious metals accounted for less than half of all exports.

The reason for this relative decline was the diversification of agricultural exports that had been slowly occurring since the 1870s. Coffee, cotton, sugar, sisal and vanilla were the principal crops, and some regions of the country such as Yucatán (henequen) and Durango and Tamaulipas (cotton) supplied new export crops.


Railroads and Infrastructure

None of be of this would have occurred without the massive changes in land tenure that had begun in the 1850s, but most of all, without the construction of railroads financed by the migration of foreign capital to Mexico under Díaz. At one level, it is a well-known story of social savings, which were substantial in Mexico because the terrain was difficult and the alternative modes of carriage few. One way or another, transportation has always been viewed as an “obstacle” to Mexican economic development. That must be true at some level, although recent studies (especially by Sandra Kuntz) have raised important qualifications. Railroads may not have been gateways to foreign dependency, as historians once argued, but there were limits to their ability to effect economic change, even internally. They tended to enlarge the internal market for some commodities more than others. The peculiarities of rate-making produced other distortions, while markets for some commodities were inevitably concentrated in major cities or transshipment points which afforded some monopoly power to distributors even as a national market in basic commodities became more of a reality. Yet, in general, the changes were far reaching.[39]

Conventional figures confirm conventional wisdom. When Díaz assumed the presidency, there were 660 km (410 miles) of track. In 1910, there were 19,280 km (about 12,000 miles). Seven major lines linked the cities of Mexico, Veracruz, Acapulco, Juárez, Laredo, Puebla, Oaxaca. Monterrey and Tampico in 1892. The lines were built by foreign capital (e.g., the Central Mexicano was built by the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe), which is why resolving the long-standing questions of foreign debt service were critical. Large government subsidies on the order of 3,500 to 8,000 pesos per km were granted, and financing the subsidies amounted to over 30 million pesos by 1890. While the railroads were successful in creating more of a national market, especially in the North, their finances were badly affected by the depreciation of the silver peso, given that foreign liabilities had to be liquidated in gold.

As a result, the government nationalized the railroads in 1903. At the same time, it undertook an enormous effort to construct infrastructure such as drainage and ports, virtually all of which were financed by British capital and managed by “Don Porfirio’s contactor,” Sir Weetman Pearson.  Between railroads, ports, drainage works and irrigation facilities, the Mexican government borrowed 157 million pesos to finance costs.[40]

The expansion of the railroads, the build-out of infrastructure and the expansion of trade would have normally increased output per capita. Any data we have prior to 1930 are problematic, and before 1895, strictly speaking, we have no official measures of output per capita at all. Most scholars shy away from using levels of GDP in any form, other than for illustrative purposes.  Aside from the usual problems attending national income accounting, Mexico presents a few exceptional challenges. In peasant families, where women were entrusted with converting maize into tortilla, no small job, the omission of their value added from GDP must constitute a sizeable defect in measured output. Moreover, as the commercial radius of Mexican agriculture expanded rapidly as railroads, roads, and later, highways spread extensively, growth rates represented increased commercialization rather than increased growth. We have no idea how important this phenomenon was, but it is worth keeping in mind when we look at very rapid growth rates after 1940.

There are various measures of cumulative growth during the Porfiriato. By and large, the figure from 1900 through 1910 is around 23 percent, which is certainly higher than rates achieved during the nineteenth century, but nothing like what was recorded after 1940. In light of declining real wages, one can only assume that the bulk of “progress” flowed to the recipients of property income. This may well have represented a reversal of trends in the nineteenth century, when some argue that property income contracted in the wake of the Insurgency[41].

There was also significant industrialization in Mexico during the Porfiriato. Some industry, especially textiles, had its origins in the 1840s, but its size, scale and location altered dramatically by the end of the nineteenth century. For example, the cotton textile industry saw the number of workers, spindles and looms more than double from the late 1870s to the first decade of the nineteenth century. Brewing and its associated industry, glassmaking, became well established in Monterrey during the 1890s. The country’s first iron and steel mill, Fundidora Monterrey, was established there as well in 1903. Other industries, such as papermaking and cigarettes followed suit. By the end of the Porfiriato, over 10 percent of Mexico’s output was certainly industrial.[42]


From Revolution to “Miracle”

The Mexican Revolution (1910-1940) began as a political upheaval provoked by a crisis in the presidential succession when Porfirio Díaz refused to leave office in the wake of electoral defeat after signaling his willingness to do so in a famous pubic interview of 1908.[43] It was also the result of an agrarian uprising and the insistent demand of Mexico’s growing industrial proletariat for a share of political power. Finally, there was a small (fewer than 10 percent of all households) but upwardly mobile urban middle class created by economic development under Díaz whose access to political power had been effectively blocked by the regime’s mechanics of political control. Precisely how “revolutionary” were the results of the armed revolt—which persisted largely through the 1910s and peaked in a civil war in 1914-1915—has long been contentious, but is only tangentially relevant as a matter of economic history. The Mexican Revolution was no Bolshevik movement (of course, it predated Bolshevism by seven years) but it was not a purely bourgeois constitutional movement either, although it did contain substantial elements of both.

From a macroeconomic standpoint, it has become fashionable to argue that the Revolution had few, if any, profound economic consequences. It seems as if the principal reason was that revolutionary factions were interested in appropriating rather than destroying the means of production. For example, the production of crude oil peaked in Mexico in 1915—at the height of the Revolution—because crude oil could be used as a source of income to the group controlling the wells in Veracruz state. This was a powerful consideration.[44]

Yet in another sense, the conclusion that the Revolution had slight economic effects is not only facile, but obviously wrong. As the demographic historian Robert McCaa showed, the excess mortality occasioned by the Revolution was larger than any similar event in Mexican history other than the conquest in the sixteenth century. There has been no attempt made to measure the output lost by the demographic wastage (including births that never occurred), yet even the effect on the population cohort born between 1910 and 1920 is plain to see in later demographic studies.  [45]

There is also a subtler question that some scholars have raised. The Revolution increased labor mobility and the labor supply by abolishing constraints on the rural population such as debt peonage and even outright slavery. Moreover, the Revolution, by encouraging and ultimately setting into motion a massive redistribution of previously privatized land, contributed to an enlarged supply of that factor of production as well. The true impact of these developments was realized in the 1940s and 1950s, when rapid economic growth began, the so-called Mexican Miracle, which was characterized by rates of real growth of as much as 6 percent per year (1955-1966). Whatever the connection between the Revolution and the Miracle, it will require a serious examination on empirical grounds and not simply a dogmatic dismissal of what is now regarded as unfashionable development thinking: import substitution and inward-oriented growth.[46]

The other major consequence of the Revolution, the agrarian reform and the creation of the ejido, or land granted by the Mexican state to rural population under the authority provided it by the revolutionary Constitution on 1917 took considerable time to coalesce, and were arguably not even high on one of the Revolution’s principal instigators, Francisco Madero’s, list of priorities. The redistribution of land to the peasantry in the form of possession if not ownership – a kind of return to real or fictitious preconquest and colonial forms of land tenure – did peak during the avowedly reformist, and even modestly radical presidency of Lázaro Cárdenas (1934-1940) after making only halting progress under his predecessors since the 1920s. From 1940 to 1965, the cultivated area in Mexico grew at 3.7 percent per year and the rise in productivity in basic food crops was 2.8 percent per year.

Nevertheless, the long-run effects of the agrarian reform and land redistribution have been predictably controversial. Under the presidency of Carlos Salinas (1988-1994) the reform was officially declared over, with no further land redistribution to be undertaken and the legal status of the ejido definitively changed. The principal criticism of the ejido was that, in the long run, it encouraged inefficiently small landholding per farmer and, by virtue of its limitations on property rights, made agricultural credit difficult for peasants to obtain.[47]

There is no doubt these are justifiable criticisms, but they have to be placed in context. Cárdenas’ predecessors in office, Alvaro Obregón (1924-1928) and Plutarco Elías Calles (1928-1932) may well have preferred a more commercial model of agriculture with larger, irrigated holdings. But it is worth recalling that one of the original agrarian leaders of the Revolution, Emiliano Zapata, had an uneasy relationship with Madero, who saw the Revolution in mostly political terms, from the start and quickly rejected Madero’s leadership in favor of restoring peasant lands in his native state of Morelos.  Cárdenas, who was in the midst of several major maneuvers that would require widespread popular support—such as the expropriation of foreign oil companies operating in Mexico in March 1938—was undoubtedly sensitive to the need to mobilize the peasantry on his behalf. The agrarian reform of his presidency, which surpassed that of any other, needs to be considered in those terms as well as in terms of economic efficiency.[48]

Cárdenas’ presidency also coincided with the continuation of the Great Depression. Like other countries in Latin America, Mexico was hard hit by the Great Depression, at least through the early 1930s.  All sorts of consumer goods became scarcer, and the depreciation of the peso raised the relative price of imports. As had happened previously in Mexican history (1790-1810, during the Napoleonic Wars and the disruption of the Atlantic trade), in the medium term domestic industry was nevertheless given a stimulus and import substitution, the subsequent core of Mexico’s industrialization program after World War II, was given a decisive boost. On the other hand, Mexico also experienced the forced “repatriation” of people of Mexican descent, mostly from California, of whom 60 percent were United States citizens. The effects of this movement—the emigration of the Revolution in reverse—has never been properly analyzed. The general consensus is that World War II helped Mexico to prosper. Demand for labor and materials from the United States, to which Mexico was allied, raised real wages and incomes, and thus boosted aggregate demand. From 1939 through 1946, real output in Mexico grew by approximately 50 percent. The growth in population accelerated as well as the country began to move into the later stages of the demographic transition, with a falling death rate, while birth rates remained high.[49]


From Miracle to Meltdown: 1950-1982  

The history of import substitution manufacturing did not begin with postwar Mexico, but few countries (especially in Latin America) became as identified with the policy in the 1950s, and with what Mexicans termed the emergence of “stabilizing development.” There was never anything resembling a formal policy announcement, although Raúl Prebisch’s 1949 manifesto, “The Economic Development of Latin America and its Principal Problems” might be regarded as supplying one. Prebisch’s argument, that a directed change in the composition of imports toward capital goods to facilitate domestic industrialization was, in essence, the basis of the policy that Mexico followed. Mexico stabilized the nominal exchange rate at 12.5 pesos to the dollar in 1954, but further movement in the real exchange rate (until the 1970s) were unimportant. The substantive bias of import substitution in Mexico was a high effective rate of protection to both capital and consumer goods. Jaime Ros has calculated these rates in 1960 ranged between 47 and 85 percent, and between 33 and 109 percent in 1980. The result, in the short to intermediate run, was very rapid rates of economic growth, averaging 6.5 percent in 1950 through 1973. Other than Brazil, which also followed an import substitution regime, no country in Latin America experienced higher rates of growth. Mexico’s was substantially above the regional average. [50]

[See the historical graph of population growth in Mexico through 2000 below]


Source: Essentially, Estadísticas Históricas de México (various editions since 1999; the most recent is 2014) (Accessed July 20, 2016)


But there were unexpected results as well. The contribution of labor to GDP growth was 14 percent. Capital’s contribution was 53 percent, and the remainder, total factor productivity (TFP) 28 percent.[51] As a consequence, while Mexico’s growth occurred through the accumulation of capital, the distribution of income became extremely skewed. The ratio of the top 10 percent of household income to the bottom 40 percent was 7 in 1960, and 6 in 1968. Even supporters of Mexico’s development program, such as Carlos Tello, conceded that it probable that it was the organized peasants and workers experienced an effective improvement of their relative position. The fruits of the Revolution were unevenly distributed, even among the working class.[52]

By “organized” one means such groups as the most important labor union in the country, the CTM (Confederation of Mexican Workers) or the nationally recognized peasant union, the CNC, both of which formed two of the three organized sectors of the official government party, the PRI, or Party of the Institutional Revolution that was organized in 1946. The CTM in particular was instrumental in supporting the official policy of import substitution, and thus benefited from government wage setting and political support. The leaders of these organizations became important political figures in their own right. One, Fidel Velázquez, as both a federal senator and the head of the CTM from 1941 to his death in 1997. The incorporation of these labor and peasant groups into the political system offered the government both a means of control and a guarantee of electoral support. They became pillars of what the Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa famously called “the perfect dictatorship” of the PRI from 1946 to 2000, during which the PRI held a monopoly of the presidency and the important offices of state. In a sense, import substitution was the economic ideology of the PRI.[53]

Labor and economic development during the years of rapid growth is, like many others, a debated subject. While some have found strong wage growth, others, looking mostly at Mexico City, have found declining real wages. Beyond that, there is the question of informality and a segmented labor market. Were workers in the CTM the real beneficiaries of economic growth, while others in the informal sector (defined as receiving no social security payments, meaning roughly two-thirds of Mexican workers) did far less well? Obviously, the attraction of a segmented labor market model can address one obvious puzzle: why would industry substitute capital for labor, as it obviously did, if real wages were not rising? Postulating an informal sector that absorbed the rapid influx of rural migrants and thus held nominal wages steady while organized labor in the CTM got the benefit of higher negotiated wages, but in so doing, limited their employment is an attractive hypothesis, but would not command universal agreement. Nothing has been resolved, at least for the period of the “Miracle.” After Mexico entered a prolonged series of economic crises in the 1980s—here labelled as “meltdown”—the discussion must change, because many hold that the key to relative political stability and the failure of open unemployment to rise sharply can be explained by falling real wages.

The fiscal basis on which the years of the Miracle were constructed was conventional, not to say conservative.[54] A stable nominal exchange rate, balanced budgets, limited public borrowing, and a predictable monetary policy were all predicated on the notion that the private sector would react positively to favorable incentives. By and large, it did. Until the late 1960s, foreign borrowing was considered inconsequential, even if there was some concern on the horizon that it was starting to rise. No one foresaw serious macroeconomic instability. It is worth consulting a brief memorandum from Secretary of State Dean Rusk to President Lyndon Johnson (Washington, December 11, 1968) –to get some insight into how informed contemporaries viewed Mexico. The instability that existed was seen as a consequence of heavy-handedness on the part of the PRI and overreaction in the security forces. Informed observers did not view Mexico’s embrace of import-substitution industrialization as a train wreck waiting to happen. Historical actors are rarely so prescient.[55]


Slowing of the Miracle and Echeverría

The most obvious problems in Mexico were political. They stemmed from the increasing awareness that the limits of the “institutional revolution” had been reached, particularly regarding the growing democratic demands of the urban middle classes. The economic problem, which was far from obvious, was that import substitution had concentrated income in the upper 10 per cent of the population, so that domestic demand had begun to stagnate. Initially at least, public sector borrowing could support a variety of consumption subsidies to the population, and there were also efforts to transfer resources out of agriculture via domestic prices for staples such as maize. Yet Mexico’s population was also growing at the rate of nearly 3 percent per year, so that the long term prospects for any of these measures were cloudy.

At the same time, growing political pressures on the PRI, mostly dramatically manifest in the army’s violent repression of student demonstrators at Tlatelolco in 1968 just prior to the Olympics, had convinced some elements in the PRI, people like Carlos Madrazo, to argue for more radical change. The emergence of an incipient guerilla movement in the state of Guerrero had much the same effect. The new president, Luis Echeverría (1970-76), openly pushed for changes in the distribution of income and wealth, incited agrarian discontent for political purposes, dramatically increased government spending and borrowing, and alienated what had typically been a complaisant, if not especially friendly private sector.

The country’s macroeconomic performance began to deteriorate dramatically. Inflation, normally in the range of about 5 percent, rose into the low 20 percent range in the early 1970s. The public sector deficit, fueled by increasing social spending, rose from 2 to 7 percent of GDP. Money supply growth now averaged about 14 percent per year. Real GDP growth had begun to slip after 1968 and in the early 1970s, in deteriorated more, if unevenly. There had been clear convergence of regional economies in Mexico between 1930 and 1980 because of changing patterns of industrialization in the northern and central regions of the country.  After 1980, that process stalled and regional inequality again widened. [56]

While there is a tendency to blame Luis Echeverria for all or most of these developments, this forgets that his administration coincided with the First OPEC oil shock (1973) and rapidly deteriorating external conditions. Mexico had, as yet, not discovered the oil reserves (1978) that were to provide a temporary respite from economic adjustment after the shock of the peso devaluation of 1976—the first change in its value in over 20 years. At the same time, external demand fell, principally transmitted from the United States, Mexico’s largest trading partner, where the economy had fallen into recession in late 1973. Yet it seems reasonable to conclude that the difficult international environment, while important in bring Mexico’s “miracle” period to a close, was not helped by Echeverría’s propensity for demagoguery, of the loss of fiscal discipline that had long characterized government policy, at least since the 1950s. The only question to be resolved was to what sort of conclusion the period would come. The answer, unfortunately, was disastrous.[57]


Meltdown: The Debt Crisis, the Lost Decade and After

In contemporary parlance, Mexico had passed from “stabilizing” to “shared” development under Echeverría. But the devaluation of 1976 from 12.5 to 20.5 pesos to the dollar suggested that something had gone awry. One might suppose that some adjustment in course, especially in public spending and borrowing, would have occurred. But precisely the opposite occurred. Between 1976 and 1979, nominal federal spending doubled. The budget deficit increased by a factor of 15. The reason for this odd performance was the discovery of crude oil in the Gulf of Mexico, perhaps unsurprising in light of the spiking prices of the 1970s (the oil shocks of 1973-74, 1978-79), but nevertheless of considerable magnitude. In 1975, Mexico’s proven reserves were 6 billion barrels of oil. By 1978, they had increased to 40 billion. President López Portillo set himself to the task of “administering abundance” and Mexican analysts confidently predicted crude oil at $100 a barrel (when it stood at $37 in current prices in 1980). The scope of the miscalculation was catastrophic. At the same time, encouraged by bank loan pushing and effectively negative real rates of interest, Mexico borrowed abroad. Consumption subsidies, while vital in the face of slowing import substitution, were also costly, and when supported by foreign borrowing, unsustainable, but foreign indebtedness doubled between 1976 and 1979, and even further thereafter.

Matters came to a head in 1982. By then, Mexico’s foreign indebtedness was estimated at over $80 billion dollars, an increase from less than $20 billion in 1975. Real interest rates had begun to rise in the United States in mid-1981, and with Mexican borrowing tied to international rates, debt service rapidly increased. Oil revenue, which had come to constitute the great bulk of foreign exchange, followed international crude prices downward, driven in large part by a recession that had begun in the United States in mid-1981. Within six months, Mexico, too, had fallen into recession. Real per capital output was to decline by 8 percent in 1982.  Forced to sharply devalue, the real exchange rate fell by 50 percent in 1982 and inflation approached 100 percent. By the late summer, Finance Minister Jesus Silva Herzog admitted that the country could not meet an upcoming payment obligation, and was forced to turn to the US Federal Reserve, to the IMF, and to a committee of bank creditors for assistance. In late August, in a remarkable display of intemperance, President López Portillo nationalized the banking system. By December 20, 1982, Mexico’s incoming President, Miguel de la Madrid (1982-88) appeared, beleaguered, on the cover of Time Magazine framed by the caption, “We are in an Emergency.”  It was, as the saying goes, a perfect storm, and with it, the Debt Crisis and the “Lost Decade” in Mexico had begun. It would be years before anything resembling stability, let alone prosperity, was restored. Even then, what growth there was a pale imitation of what had occurred during the decades of the “Miracle.”


The 1980s

The 1980s were a difficult decade.[58]  After 1981, annual real per capita growth would not reach 4 percent again until 1989, and in 1986, it fell by 6 percent. In 1987, inflation reached 159 percent. The nominal exchange rate fell by 139 percent in 1986-1987. By the standards of the years of stabilizing development, the record of the 1980s was disastrous. To complete the devastation, on September 19, 1985, the worst earthquake in Mexican history, 7.8 on the Richter Scale, devastated large parts of central Mexico City and killed 5 thousand (some estimates run as high as 25 thousand), many of whom were simply buried in mass graves. It was as if a plague of biblical proportions had struck the country.

Massive indebtedness produced a dramatic decline in the standard of living as structural adjustment occurred. Servicing the debt required the production of an export surplus in non-oil exports, which in turn, required a reduction in domestic consumption. In an effort to surmount the crisis, the government implemented an agreement between organized labor, the private sector, and agricultural producers called the Economic Solidarity Pact (PSE). The PSE combined an incomes policy with fiscal austerity, trade and financial liberalization, generally tight monetary policy, and debt renegotiation and reduction. The centerpiece of the “remaking” of the previously inward orientation of the domestic economy was the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA, 1993) linking Mexico, the United States, and Canada. While average tariff rates in Mexico had fallen from 34 percent in 1985 to 4 percent in 1992—even before NAFTA was signed—the agreement was generally seen as creating the institutional and legal framework whereby the reforms of Miguel de la Madrid and Carlos Salinas (1988-1994) would be preserved. Most economists thought its effects would be relatively larger in Mexico than in the United States, which generally appears to have been the case. Nevertheless, NAFTA has been predictably controversial, as trade agreements are wont to be. The political furor (and, in some places, euphoria) surrounding the agreement have faded, but never entirely disappeared. In the United States in particular, NAFTA is blamed for deindustrialization, although pressure on manufacturing, like trade liberalization itself, was underway long before NAFTA was negotiated. In Mexico, there has been much hand wringing over the fate of agriculture and small maize producers in particular. While none of this is likely to cease, it is nevertheless the case that there has been a large increase in the volume of trade between the NAFTA partners. To dismiss this is, quite plainly, misguided, even where sensitive and well organized political constituencies are concerned. But the legacy of NAFTA, like most everything in Mexican economic history, remains unsettled.


Post Crisis: No Miracles

Still, while some prosperity was restored to Mexico by the reforms of the 1980s and 1990s, the general macroeconomic results have been disappointing, not to say mediocre. The average real compensation per person in manufacturing in 2008 was virtually unchanged from 1993 according to the Instituto Nacional De Estadística  Geografía e Informática, and there is little reason to think the compensation has improved at all since then. It is generally conceded that per capita GDP growth has probably averaged not much more than 1 percent a year. Real GDP growth since NAFTA according to the OECD has rarely reached 5 percent and since 2010, it has been well below that.



Source: (Accessed July 21, 2016). The vertical scale cuts the horizontal axis at 1982


For virtually everyone in Mexico, the question is why, and the answers proposed include virtually any plausible factor: the breakdown of the political system after the PRI’s historic loss of presidential power in 2000; the rise of China as a competitor to Mexico in international markets; the explosive spread of narcoviolence in recent years, albeit concentrated in the states of Sonora, Sinaloa, Tamaulipas, Nuevo León and Veracruz; the results of NAFTA itself; the failure of the political system to undertake further structural economic reforms and privatizations after the initial changes of the 1980s, especially regarding the national oil monopoly, Petroleos Mexicanos (PEMEX); the failure of the border industrialization program (maquiladoras) to develop substantive backward linkages to the rest of the economy. This is by no means an exhaustive list of the candidates for poor economic performance. The choice of a cause tends to reflect the ideology of the critic.[59]

Yet it seems that, at the end of the day, the reason why post-NAFTA Mexico has failed to grow comes down to something much more fundamental: a fear of growing, embedded in the belief that the collapse of the 1980s and early 1990s (including the devastating “Tequila Crisis” of 1994-1995, which resulted in a another enormous devaluation of the peso after an initial attempt to contain the crisis was bungled)  was so traumatic and costly as to render event modest efforts to promote growth, let alone the dirigisme of times past, as essentially unwarranted. The central bank, the Banco de México (Banxico) rules out the promotion of economic growth as part of its remit—even as a theoretical proposition, let alone as a goal of macroeconomic policy– and concerns itself only with price stability. The language of its formulation is striking. “During the 1970s, there was a debate as to whether it was possible to stimulate economic growth via monetary policy.  As a result, some governments and central banks tried to reduce unemployment through expansive monetary policy.  Both economic theory and the experience of economies that tried this prescription demonstrated that it lacked validity. Thus, it became clear that monetary policy could not actively and directly stimulate economic activity and employment. For that reason, modern central banks have as their primary goal the promotion of price stability” (translation mine). Banxico is not the Fed: there is no dual mandate in Mexico.[60]

The Mexican banking system has scarcely made things easier. Private credit stands at only about a third of GDP. In recent years, the increase in private sector savings has been largely channeled to government bonds, but until quite recently, public sector deficits were very small, which is to say, fiscal policy has not been expansionary. If monetary and fiscal policy are both relatively tight, if private credit is not easy to come by, and if growth is typically presumed to be an inevitable concomitant to economic stability for which no actor (other than the private sector) is deemed responsible, it should come as no surprise that economic growth over the past two decades has been lackluster.  In the long run, aggregate supply determines real GDP, but in the short run, nominal demand matters: there is no point in creating productive capacity to satisfy demand that does not exist. And, unlike during the period of the Miracle and Stabilizing Development, attention to demand since 1982 has been limited, not to say off the table completely. It may be understandable, but Mexico’s fiscal and monetary authorities seem to suffer from what could be termed, “Fear of Growth.” For better or worse, the results are now on display. After its current (2016) return to a relatively austere budget, it remains to be seen how the economic and political system in contemporary Mexico handles slow economic growth. For that would now seem to be, in a basic sense, its largest challenge for the future.

[1] I am grateful to Ivan Escamilla and Robert Whaples for their careful readings and thoughtful criticisms.

[2] The standard reference work is Sandra Kuntz Ficker, (ed), Historia económica general de México. De la Colonia a nuestros días (México, DF: El Colegio de Mexico, 2010).

[3] Oscar Martinez, Troublesome Border (rev. ed., University of Arizona Press: Tucson, AZ, 2006) is the most helpful general account in English.

[4] There are literally dozens of general accounts of the pre-conquest world. A good starting point is Richard E.W. Adams, Prehistoric Mesoamerica (3d ed., University of Oklahoma Press: Norman, OK, 2005). More advanced is Richard E.W. Adams and Murdo J. Macleod, The Cambridge History of the Mesoamerican Peoples: Mesoamerica. (2 parts, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000).

[5] Nora C. England and Roberto Zavala Maldonado, “Mesoamerican Languages” Oxford Bibliographies

(Accessed July 10, 2016)

[6] For an introduction to the nearly endless controversy over the pre- and post-contact population of the Americas, see William M. Denevan (ed.), The Native Population of the Americas in 1492 (2d rev ed., Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1992).

[7] Sherburne F Cook and Woodrow Borah, Essays in Population History: Mexico and California (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1979), p. 159.

[8]Gene C. Wilken, Good Farmers Traditional Agricultural Resource Management in Mexico and Central America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987), p. 24.

[9] Bernard Ortiz de Montellano, Aztec Medicine Health and Nutrition (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1990).

[10] Bernardo García Martínez, “Encomenderos españoles y British residents: El sistema de dominio indirecto desde la perspectiva novohispana”, in Historia Mexicana, LX: 4 [140] (abr-jun 2011), pp. 1915-1978.

[11] These epidemics are extensively and exceedingly well documented. One of the most recent examinations is Rodofo Acuna-Soto, David W. Stahle, Matthew D. Therrell , Richard D. Griffin,  and Malcolm K. Cleaveland, “When Half of the Population Died: The Epidemic of Hemorrhagic Fevers of 1576 in Mexico,” FEMS Microbiology Letters 240 (2004) 1–5. (http://, accessed July 10, 2016.) See in particular the exceptional map and table on pp. 2-3.

[12] See in particular, Bernardo García Martínez. Los pueblos de la Sierrael poder y el espacio entre los indios del norte de Puebla hasta 1700 (Mexico, DF: El Colegio de México, 1987) and Elinor G.K. Melville, A Plague of Sheep: Environmental Consequences of the Conquest of Mexico (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997).

[13] J. H. Elliott, “A Europe of Composite Monarchies,” Past & Present 137 (The Cultural and Political Construction of Europe): 48–71; Guadalupe Jiménez Codinach, “De Alta Lealtad: Ignacio Allende y los sucesos de 1808-1811,” in Marta Terán and José Antonio Serrano Ortega, eds., Las guerras de independencia en la América Española (La Piedad, Michoacán, MX: El Colegio de Michoacán, 2002), p. 68.

[14] Richard Salvucci, “Capitalism and Dependency in Latin America,” in Larry Neal and Jeffrey G. Williamson, eds., The Cambridge History of Capitalism (2 vols.), New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 1: pp. 403-408.

[15] Source: TePaske Page, (Accessed July 19, 2016)

[16]  Edith Boorstein Couturier, The Silver King: The Remarkable Life of the Count of Regla in Colonial Mexico (Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press, 2003).  Dana Velasco Murillo, Urban Indians in a Silver City: Zacatecas, Mexico, 1546-1810 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2015), p. 43. The standard work on the subject is David Brading, Miners and Merchants in Bourbon Mexico, 1763-1810 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1971) But also see Robert Haskett, “Our Suffering with the Taxco Tribute: Involuntary Mine Labor and Indigenous Society in Central New Spain,” Hispanic American Historical Review, 71:3 (1991), pp. 447-475. For silver in China see (accessed July 13, 2016). For the rents of empire question, see Michael Costeloe, Response to Revolution: Imperial Spain and the Spanish American Revolutions, 1810-1840 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986).

[17] This is an estimate. David Ringrose concluded that in the 1780s, the colonies accounted for 45 percent of Crown income, and one would suppose that Mexico would account for at least about half of that. See David R. Ringrose, Spain, Europe and the ‘Spanish Miracle’, 1700-1900 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996), p. 93; Mauricio Drelichman, “The Curse of Moctezuma: American Silver and the Dutch Disease,” Explorations in Economic History 42:3 (2005), pp. 349-380.

[18] José Antonio Escudero, El supuesto memorial del Conde de Aranda sobre la Independencia de América) México, DF: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, 2014) (, accessed July 13, 2016)

[19] Allan J. Kuethe and Kenneth J. Andrien, The Spanish Atlantic World in the Eighteenth Century. War and the Bourbon Reforms, 1713-1796 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014) is the most recent account of this period.

[20] Richard J. Salvucci, “Economic Growth and Change in Bourbon Mexico: A Review Essay,” The Americas, 51:2 (1994), pp. 219-231; William B Taylor, Magistrates of the Sacred: Priests and Parishioners in Eighteenth Century Mexico (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 1996), p. 24; Luis Jáuregui, La Real Hacienda de Nueva España. Su Administración en la Época de los Intendentes, 1786-1821 (México, DF: UNAM, 1999), p. 157.

[21] Jeremy Baskes, Staying AfloatRisk and Uncertainty in Spanish Atlantic World Trade, 1760-1820 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2013); Xabier Lamikiz, Trade and Trust in the Eighteenth-century Atlantic World: Spanish Merchants and their Overseas Networks (Suffolk, UK: The Boydell Press., 2013). The starting point of all these studies is Clarence Haring, Trade and Navigation between Spain and the Indies in the Time of the Hapsburgs (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1918).

[22] The best, and indeed, virtually unique starting point for considering these changes in their broadest dimensions   are the joint works of Stanley and Barbara Stein: Silver, Trade, and War (2003); Apogee of Empire (2004), and Edge of Crisis (2010), All were published by Johns Hopkins University Press and do for the Spanish Empire what Laurence Henry Gipson did for the First British Empire.

[23] The key work is María Eugenia Romero Sotelo, Minería y Guerra. La economía de Nueva España, 1810-1821 (México, DF: UNAM, 1997)

[24] Calculated from José María Luis Mora, Crédito Público ([1837] México, DF: Miguel Angel Porrúa, 1986), pp. 413-460. Also see Richard J. Salvucci, Politics, Markets, and Mexico’s “London Debt,” 1823-1887 (NY: Cambridge University Press, 2009).

[25] Jesús Hernández Jaimes, La Formación de la Hacienda Pública Mexicana y las Tensiones Centro -Periferia, 1821-1835  (México, DF: El Colegio de México, 2013). Javier Torres Medina, Centralismo y Reorganización. La Hacienda Pública Durante la Primera República Central de México, 1835-1842 (México, DF: Instituto Mora, 2013). The only treatment in English is Michael P. Costeloe, The Central Republic in Mexico, 1835-1846 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993).

[26] An agricultural worker who worked full time, 6 days a week, for the entire year (a strong assumption), in Central Mexico could have expected cash income of perhaps 24 pesos. If food, such as beans and tortilla were added, the whole pay might reach 30. The figure of 40 pesos comes from considerably richer agricultural lands around the city of Querétaro, and includes as an average income from nonagricultural employment as well, which was higher.  Measuring Worth would put the relative historic standard of living value in 2010 prices at $1.040, with the caveat that this is relative to a bundle of goods purchased in the United States. (

[27]The phrase comes from Guido di Tella and Manuel Zymelman. See Colin Lewis, “Explaining Economic Decline: A review of recent debates in the economic and social history literature on the Argentine,” European Review of Latin American and Caribbean Studies, 64 (1998), pp. 49-68.

[28] Francisco Téllez Guerrero, De reales y granos. Las finanzas y el abasto de la Puebla de los Angeles, 1820-1840 (Puebla, MX: CIHS, 1986). Pp. 47-79.

[29]This is based on an analysis of government lending contracts. See Rosa María Meyer and Richard Salvucci, “The Panic of 1837 in Mexico: Evidence from Government Contracts” (in progress).

[30] There is an interesting summary of this data in U.S Govt., 57th Cong., 1 st sess., House, Monthly Summary of Commerce and Finance of the United States (September 1901) (Washington, DC: GPO, 1901), pp. 984-986.

[31] Salvucci, Politics and Markets, pp. 201-221.

[32] Miguel Galindo y Galindo, La Gran Década Nacional o Relación Histórica de la Guerra de Reforma, Intervención Extranjera, y gobierno del archiduque Maximiliano, 1857-1867 ([1902], 3 vols., México, DF: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1987).

[33] Carmen Vázquez Mantecón, Santa Anna y la encrucijada del Estado. La dictadura, 1853-1855 (México, DF: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1986).

[34] Moramay López-Alonso, Measuring Up: A History of Living Standards in Mexico, 1850-1950 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2012);  Amilcar Challú and Auroro Gómez Galvarriato, “Mexico’s Real Wages in the Age of the Great Divergence, 1730-1930,” Revista de Historia Económica 33:1 (2015), pp. 123-152; Amílcar E. Challú, “The Great Decline: Biological Well-Being and Living Standards in Mexico, 1730-1840,” in Ricardo Salvatore, John H. Coatsworth, and Amilcar E. Challú, Living Standards in Latin American History: Height, Welfare, and Development, 1750-2000 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010), pp. 23-67.

[35]See Challú and Gómez Galvarriato, “Real Wages,” Figure 5, p. 101.

[36] Luis González et al, La economía mexicana durante la época de Juárez (México, DF: 1976).

[37] Teresa Rojas Rabiela and Ignacio Gutiérrez Ruvalcaba, Cien ventanas a los países de antaño: fotografías del campo mexicano de hace un siglo) (México, DF: CONACYT, 2013), pp. 18-65.

[38] Alma Parra, “La Plata en la Estructura Económica Mexicana al Inicio del Siglo XX,” El Mercado de Valores 49:11 (1999), p. 14.

[39] Sandra Kuntz Ficker, Empresa Extranjera y Mercado Interno: El Ferrocarril Central Mexicano (1880-1907) (México, DF: El Colegio de México, 1995).

[40] Priscilla Connolly, El Contratista de Don Porfirio. Obras públicas, deuda y desarrollo desigual (México, DF: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1997).

[41] Most notably John Tutino, From Insurrection to Revolution in Mexico: Social Bases of Agrarian Violence, 1750-1940 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1986). p. 229. My growth figures are based on the INEGI, Estadísticas Historicas de México, 2014) (, Accessed July 15, 2016).

[42] Stephen H. Haber, Industry and Underdevelopment: The Industrialization of Mexico, 1890-1940 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1989); Aurora Gómez-Galvarriato, Industry and Revolution: Social and Economic Change in the Orizaba Valley (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013).

[43] There are literally dozens of accounts of the Revolution. The usual starting point, in English, is Alan Knight, The Mexican Revolution (reprint ed., 2 vols., Lincoln, NE: 1990).

[44] This argument has been made most insistently in Armando Razo and Stephen Haber, “The Rate of Growth of Productivity in Mexico, 1850-1933: Evidence from the Cotton Textile Industry,” Journal of Latin American Studies 30:3 (1998), pp. 481-517.

[45]Robert McCaa, “Missing Millions: The Demographic Cost of the Mexican revolution,” Mexican Studies/Estudios Mexicanos 19:2 (Summer 2003): 367-400; Virgilio Partida-Bush, “Demographic Transition, Demographic Bonus, and Ageing in Mexico, “ Proceedings of the United Nations Expert Group Meeting on Social and Economic Implications of Changing Population Age Structures. ( (Accessed July 15, 2016), pp. 287-290.

[46] An implication of the studies of Alan Knight, and of Clark Reynolds, The Mexican Economy: Twentieth Century Structure and Growth (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1971).

[47] An interesting summary of revisionist thinking on the nature and history of the ejido appears in Emilio Kuri, “La invención del ejido, Nexos, January 2015.

[48]Alan Knight, “Cardenismo: Juggernaut or Jalopy?” Journal of Latin American Studies, 26:1 (1994), pp. 73-107.

[49] Stephen Haber, “The Political Economy of Industrialization,” in Victor Bulmer-Thomas, John Coatsworth, and Roberto Cortes-Conde, eds., The Cambridge Economic History of Latin America (2 vols., New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 2:  537-584.

[50]Again, there are dozens of studies of the Mexican economy in this period. Ros’ figures come from “Mexico’s Trade and Industrialization Experience Since 1960: A Reconsideration of Past Policies and Assessment of Current Reforms,” Kellogg Institute (Working Paper 186, January 1993). For a more general study, see Juan Carlos Moreno-Brid and Jaime Ros, Development and Growth in the Me3xican Economy. A Historical Perspective (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009). A recent Spanish language treatment is Enrique Cárdenas Sánchez, El largo curso de la economía mexicana. De 1780 a nuestros días (México, DF: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 2015). A view from a different perspective is Carlos Tello, Estado y desarrollo económico. México 1920-2006 (México, DF, UNAM, 2007).

[51]André A. Hoffman, Long Run Economic Development in Latin America in a Comparative Perspective: Proximate and Ultimate Causes (Santiago, Chile: CEPAL, 2001), p. 19.

[52]Tello, Estado y desarrollo, pp. 501-505.

[53] Mario Vargas Llosa, “Mexico: The Perfect Dictatorship,” New Perspectives Quarterly 8 (1991), pp. 23-24.

[54] Rafael Izquierdo, Política Hacendario del Desarrollo Estabilizador, 1958-1970 (México, DF: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1995. The term stabilizing development was itself termed by Izquierdo as a government minister.

[55]See Foreign Relations of the United States, 1964-1968. Mexico and Central America (Accessed July 15, 2016).

[56] José Aguilar Retureta, “The GDP Per Capita of the Mexican Regions (1895:1930): New Estimates, Revista de Historia Económica, 33: 3 (2015), pp. 387-423.

[57] For a contemporary account with a sense of the immediacy of the end of the Echeverría regime, see “Así se devaluó el peso,” Proceso, November 13, 1976.

[58] The standard account is Stephen Haber, Herbert Klein, Noel Maurer, and Kevin Middlebrook, Mexico since 1980 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008). A particularly astute economic account is Nora Lustig, Mexico: The Remaking of an Economy (2d ed., Washington, DC: The Brookings Institution, 1998).  But also Louise E. Walker, Waking from the Dream. Mexico’s Middle Classes After 1968 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2013).

[59] See, for example, Jaime Ros Bosch, Algunas tesis equivocadas sobre el estancamiento económico de México (México, DF: El Colegio de México, 2013).

[60] La Banca Central y la Importancia de la Estabilidad Económica  June 16, 2008.  (, Accessed July 15, 2016.). Also see Brian Winter, “This Man is Brilliant: So Why Doesn’t Mexico’s Economy Grow Faster?” Americas Quarterly ( (Accessed July 21, 2016)



Hall of Mirrors: The Great Depression, the Great Recession, and the Uses — and Misuses — of History

Author(s):Eichengreen, Barry
Reviewer(s):Rockoff, Hugh

Published by EH.Net (February 2016)

Barry Eichengreen, Hall of Mirrors: The Great Depression, the Great Recession, and the Uses — and Misuses — of History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015. vi + 512 pp. $30 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-19-939200-1.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Hugh Rockoff, Department of Economics, Rutgers University.
Barry Eichengreen knows as much or more about the financial history of the Great Depression as any living economic historian, and it shows in this splendid new book which compares the Great Recession with the Great Depression. The U.S. story, on which I will focus here, is the centerpiece, but as might be expected from Eichengreen, what happened in the rest of the world is also explored in detail. Eichengreen’s thesis is straightforward. In 2008 the United States, and with it the rest of the world, was headed for another Great Depression. Thanks to strong doses of monetary and fiscal stimulus, and lender-of-last-resort operations, especially in the United States, a second Great Depression was averted. Ideas were important: Much of the success can be attributed to John Maynard Keynes, Milton Friedman, and Anna Schwartz, and the lessons they drew from the Great Depression. But there was a downside to success. Because of the severity of the crisis in the 1930s the financial system underwent a massive reform that put it in a tough but effective straightjacket. The Great Recession was milder; politicians and lobbyists who opposed strict regulation regrouped, and the reforms were moderate at best. The Great Depression and the Great Recession were separated by eighty years, a long period of financial stability produced, according to Eichengreen, by New Deal financial reforms. But, he concludes, because the damage done by deregulation was only partly undone, “we are likely to see another such crisis in less than eighty years (p. 387).”

The analysis in the book is rigorous. Nevertheless, Eichengreen has written a book that can be read by policy makers, journalists, and the famous, and hopefully numerous, intelligent layperson. There are no charts, tables, or equations. Indeed, it would make a good textbook for an undergraduate course on the financial crisis. Eichengreen writes clearly. And he has sprinkled the text with biographical snippets that both inform and entertain. We meet William Jennings Bryan in the 1920s when he is using his oratorical skills to sell real estate in Florida; and we meet Charles Dawes, prominent banker, Vice President, Nobel Peace Prize winner (for his work on German Reparations), and composer of the melody for “It’s All in the Game.”

To make his case that the two crises were similar except for actions taken by governments, Eichengreen recounts both crises and identifies one parallel after another. The 1920s had Charles Ponzi; we had Bernie Madoff. In the 1920s the head of the Bank of England, Montagu Norman, was given, perhaps unconsciously, to “constructive ambiguity” (p. 23); we had Alan Greenspan. The 1920s witnessed the Florida land boom; we had subprime mortgages. Charles Dawes’s bank got needed assistance from the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, but the Guardian Group in Detroit was allowed to fail; we had Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers. And this is just a taste. Eichengreen adds many, many more. Indeed, the parallels come so thick and fast that one is reminded of the phrase Albert Einstein used to describe two distant particles that were thought to be entangled: “spooky action at a distance.”

The book is divided into four parts. Part I, “The Best of Times,” consists of six chapters that cover the 1920s and the first decade of our century.  Here we learn (without attempting to be exhaustive) about real estate booms in the twenties, the attempt after World War I to reconstruct the gold standard, the repeated attempts to solve the German reparations problem, the Smoot-Hawley tariff, and the U.S. Stock market bubble. Then Eichengreen turns to our era and describes financial deregulation, the subprime mortgage boom, the expansion of the shadow banking sector, and the spread of this type of banking to Europe. Eichengreen doesn’t present new, controversial interpretations of events. Rather he presents conclusions based on careful readings of the available literature including the latest work by economic historians. What is new is the web of parallels he draws between the two crises. Others, of course, have noted the similarities, not the least Ben Bernanke as he wrestled with the crisis; but no one has created such a large catalog of parallels.

In Part II, “The Worst of Times,” nine chapters in all, we learn first about the stock market crash in 1929, the banking crises of 1930-33, and the spread of the Great Depression to Europe. Then he turns to the Great Recession: Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, AIG and all that, and the spread of the crisis to Europe.

In the seven chapters of Part III, “Toward Better Times,” we learn about Roosevelt’s attempts to revive the economy: the National Industrial Recovery Act, the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, Federal Reserve Policy in the 1930s, and Roosevelt’s conflicted ideas about budget deficits. European responses to the crisis are also discussed at length, and Japan’s Korekiyo Takahashi is celebrated as the finance minister who got it right. Takahashi, aided it must be said by costly Japanese military adventures, authorized a heavy dose of money-financed deficit spending and the result was the best economic performance among the industrial nations. Eichengreen then turns to our crisis: zero interest rates, quantitative easing, bailouts, and the fiscal stimulus. The argument is usually that what the government did helped, but more should have been done.

In Part IV, “Avoiding the Next Time,” Eichengreen focusses particularly on Dodd-Frank and the Euro. His main efforts are directed at explaining why so little was done to prevent another crisis. A number of potential reforms get favorable mentions: consolidation of regulatory agencies, higher capital requirements for financial institutions, and regulations that limit risk taking. But Eichengreen doesn’t rank possible reforms or explain in detail how they would work. Here I wanted Eichengreen to go on a bit, and tell us more about his ideas on what should have and presumably still can be done to prevent another crisis. His approach to Glass-Steagall is an example of his above the fray stance toward regulation. Eichengreen mentions Glass-Steagall, and the separation of commercial from investment banking many times — one chapter is titled “Shattered Glass.” He rejects the argument made mostly forcefully by Andrew Ross Sorkin (2012) — although it is one that must have occurred to many observers — that ending the separation of commercial and investment banking didn’t have much to do with causing the crisis. After all, Merrill Lynch, Bear Stearns, and Lehman brothers were not branches of commercial banks when they went off the rails. And AIG was an insurance company. Eichengreen tells us that ending Glass Steagall was “indicative of a trend” (p. 424), which it surely was, but he seems to feel that it was more than that. Here I would have liked to learn more about Eichengreen’s ideas about how ending Glass-Steagall undermined the system. Did it create moral hazard, because firms knew they could merge with a bank if they got in trouble? Or was it some other mechanism? And more urgently, I would have liked to have read more about Eichengreen’s views on how high a priority restoring Glass-Steagall should be, and where the lines should be drawn.

Comment and Conclusion

Eichengreen’s book is a synthesis. It pulls together an enormous body of studies by economic historians, policy makers, and journalists. Specialists in financial history will be familiar with many parts of the story. But I doubt there are any who will not learn a great deal from reading Eichengreen’s account. While I was persuaded by most of Eichengreen’s arguments I did have a recurring concern about how far we can go as social scientists, as opposed to policy advocates, in making assertions about what would have happened if alternative policies had been followed on the basis of two observations. It is one thing to claim that without aggressive monetary and fiscal actions and bailouts we might have ended up in another Great Depression.  And for me, as I suspect for most of us, that possibility justifies much of what was done. Even, say, a one-third chance of another Great Depression makes pulling out the stops worthwhile. But that claim is very different from the claim that we would have ended up in a Great Depression if less had been done. The truth is that we can’t be sure what path the economy would have followed if less had been done, or where we would be today.

Consider the following table which shows unemployment after four financial panics. When you compare 2008 only with 1930, it seems clear that we did a lot a better after the panic of 2008, and the things we did in 2008 “worked” at least up to a point: We avoided a Great Depression. On the other hand, we did, arguably, worse after 2008 than after the panic of 1907 when help for the economy was provided mainly through the circumscribed lender-of last-resort actions undertaken by J.P. Morgan.  And we did almost exactly the same as after the crisis of 1893, when only some limited stimulus came well after the crisis in the form of gold inflows and spending on the Spanish-American War. In fact, the 2008 and 1893 unemployment rates are so similar that it looks like another case of “spooky action at a distance.”

2008 1930 1907 1893
-1 4.6 2.9 2.5 4.3
0 5.8 8.9 3.1 6.8
1 9.3 15.7 7.5 9.3
2 9.6 22.9 5.7 8.5
3 8.9 20.9 5.9 9.3
4 8.1 16.2 7.0 8.5
5 7.4 14.4 5.9 7.8
6 6.2 10.0 5.7 5.9
7 5.3 9.2 8.5 5.0

Source: Historical Statistics of the United States, Millennial Edition: Volume 2, Work and Welfare, series Ba475 for 1893, 1907, and 1930 (pp. 2-82 and 2-83), and the standard Bureau of Labor Statistics series for 2008.

My point is not that 1893 is necessarily a better analog than 1930. One could argue the point, but I don’t think we know. Constructing a counterfactual macroeconomic history of a financial crisis and recession is essentially an exercise in forecasting, and we economists are just not very good at macroeconomic forecasting. We are in the position, I believe, of physicians in days gone by: we have some drugs that experience tells us sometimes relieve pain and suffering. But how they work and why they work in some cases and not in others, and what the long-run side effects are – we have some ideas we can discuss, or more likely debate, but the bottom line is that we don’t know.

(If we were entangled with the Depression of 1890s, we would want to know what happened in 1901 the year that corresponds to 2016. Among other things, 1901 began with a slide on the stock market of about 9%. Sound familiar?! Despite a spring rally the market finished the year off by about the same percentage. By the way, this is just an observation; I am not giving investment advice.)

Many excellent books and articles have been written about the financial crisis of 2008 and there will undoubtedly be many more. Gary Gorton’s papers and books and Ben Bernanke’s memoir immediately spring to mind, but the list of good books and articles is already a long one. There is nothing like a financial crisis to concentrate the minds of economists. However, if financial history is not your thing, and you want to read just one book about the financial crisis, you couldn’t do better than Hall of Mirrors.


Andrew Ross Sorkin, “Reinstating an Old Rule Is Not a Cure for Crisis” New York Times, May 21, 2012.

Hugh Rockoff is Distinguished Professor of Economics at Rutgers University and a Research Associate with the National Bureau of Economic Research.

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Subject(s):Financial Markets, Financial Institutions, and Monetary History
Macroeconomics and Fluctuations
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII
20th Century: WWII and post-WWII

Strained Relations: U.S. Foreign-Exchange Operations and Monetary Policy in the Twentieth Century

Author(s):Bordo, Michael D.
Humpage, Owen F.
Schwartz, Anna J.
Reviewer(s):Edison, Hali J.

Published by EH.Net (August 2015)

Michael D. Bordo, Owen F. Humpage and Anna J. Schwartz, Strained Relations: U.S. Foreign-Exchange Operations and Monetary Policy in the Twentieth Century.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015. x + 442 pp. $97.50 (cloth), ISBN: 978-0-226-05148-2.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Hali J. Edison, International Monetary Fund.

This book is clearly destined to become a classic, leaving a mark on future research on foreign-exchange operations. In 1990, Michael Bordo (Rutgers University and NBER) and Anna Schwartz (NBER) began their collaboration to document the evolution of U.S. intervention. Ten years later, Owen Humpage of the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland joined the team. Regrettably, in 2012, before the book was finalized Anna Schwartz passed away.

The book explores the evolution of foreign-exchange intervention in the United States in the twentieth century. During this period, the United States transitioned from participating in the international gold standard regime to fixed exchange rates (“dollar standard”) and finally to a regime of floating exchange rates. Policymakers around the world during this period grappled with the choice of exchange rate regime, the role of monetary policy, and international capital mobility — often referred to as the trilemma. The book traces the changes in U.S. institutional arrangements and policymakers’ thinking to the economic and political events drawing extensively from Federal Reserve documents.

Chapter 1 lays out the plan of the book. It starts by describing how attitudes about foreign-exchange intervention and monetary policy evolved over the decades and how this was eventually reflected in theories of intervention and institutional arrangements.

Chapter 2 explains that the model for modern foreign-exchange-market operations can be linked to the operations under the gold standard. The authors argue that the historical evolution of exchange-market operations before 1934 yields important insights into understanding modern-day practices. For instance, the chapter illustrates early uses of secrecy, sterilization, and forward transactions, all of which became important methods of modern intervention.

The creation of the Exchange Stabilization Fund (ESF) in the United States is described in Chapter 3. This chapter was written by Anna Schwartz and maintains the same rich details as contained in her 1963 seminal book with Milton Friedman, A Monetary History of the United States, 1867-1960. It clarifies the role of the ESF and elaborates on the institutional arrangements. Two key features of the ESF are that it is under exclusive control of the U.S. Secretary of the Treasury and is self-financing, such that ESF funding is outside of the congressional appropriation process.

After outlining the background of the institutional arrangements, chapters 4 through 6 discuss the evolution of U.S. foreign-exchange operations since the end of World War II. Each of the chapters captures a distinct episode, describing the economic and political developments and the evolution of institutional arrangements. Chapters 5 and 6 also evaluate the effectiveness of U.S. intervention, drawing heavily from the methodology laid out in research conducted by the authors.

Chapter 4 focuses on the Bretton Woods era from 1944 to 1973. During this period countries attempted to maintain par values for their currencies, promote free cross-border financial flows, and achieve domestic macroeconomic objectives such as full employment. Intervention was one of the policy instruments used to achieve these objectives. According to the authors, intervention may have been successful in the sense that it delayed the disintegration of the Bretton Woods system but it did not fix the problem: Current account surplus countries did not want to undermine their domestic macroeconomic objectives to maintain fixed exchange rates.

Chapter 5 covers the foreign-exchange-market operations during the early float period (1973 to 1981). On March 12, 1973, the Bretton Woods era fixed-exchange-rate system ended. During much of the period, policymakers viewed that foreign-exchange markets were subject to bouts of disorder, requiring intervention to direct the exchange rate along a path they viewed consistent with their domestic policy objectives. The chapter describes the evolution of the institutional arrangement, including the Federal Reserve’s swap line with the U.S. Treasury, known as the warehousing facility.

Chapter 6 considers the currency operations and the ongoing debates during the Volcker and Greenspan era (1981 to 1997). Early in the period, between 1981 and 1985, the U.S. adopted a minimalist approach that was spearheaded by the U.S. Treasury. As the dollar strengthened in 1985, the United States assumed an activist approach, intervening frequently. The chapter includes details of the 1983 Jurgensen Report, commissioned by G7 officials to study intervention. In addition, it provides a rich discussion of the 1989-1990 conversation within the Federal Reserve of its involvement in U.S. intervention operations, partly reflecting the report from a staff Task Force on System Foreign Exchange Operations. The United States essentially stopped intervening in the mid-1990s, but has never officially ruled out intervention.

Overall, this book describes the evolution of U.S. policy regarding currency-market interventions, the institutional arrangements, and the interaction of currency-market policy with monetary policy. It documents how U.S. intervention and exchange rate policy changed over time, reflecting a learning process. The work leaves open many interesting doors for more analysis that could and should engage future scholars.

Hali J. Edison (, International Monetary Fund, is author of The Effectiveness of Central-Bank Intervention: A Survey of the Literature after 1982 (Special Papers in International Economics, Princeton University Press).

Copyright (c) 2015 by EH.Net. All rights reserved. This work may be copied for non-profit educational uses if proper credit is given to the author and the list. For other permission, please contact the EH.Net Administrator ( Published by EH.Net (August 2015). All EH.Net reviews are archived at

Subject(s):Financial Markets, Financial Institutions, and Monetary History
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII

Monetary Policy and the Onset of the Great Depression: The Myth of Benjamin Strong as Decisive Leader

Author(s):Toma, Mark
Reviewer(s):Smith, Daniel J.

Published by EH.Net (May 2015)

Mark Toma, Monetary Policy and the Onset of the Great Depression: The Myth of Benjamin Strong as Decisive Leader. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013. xix + 214 pp. $115 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-1-137-37254-3.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Daniel J. Smith, Department of Economics, Troy University.

Mark Toma’s short, but dense Monetary Policy and the Onset of the Great Depression: The Myth of Benjamin Strong as a Decisive Leader provides a revisionist history of the Benjamin Strong leadership years at the Fed leading up the Great Depression. Despite the title, the book focuses entirely on this period and doesn’t delve into the actual causes of the Great Depression. Rather than provide a casual explanation of the Great Depression per se, Toma’s project is to convince monetarist and Austrian economists that both of their accepted histories of the Great Depression are empirically unfounded. Thus, Toma argues that mismanaged monetary policy — tightening per the monetarist narrative or loosening per the Austrian narrative — can be ruled out as a causal factor of the Great Depression.

In questioning the Strong decisive leader theory — the theory that Benjamin Strong played a decisive role in the monetary policies of the 1920’s as the President of the influential New York Federal Reserve Bank and that his untimely death ultimately led to the wrong-headed policies that brought on the Great Depression — Toma does not stand alone. Temin (1989, 35), Wheelock (1992), and Brunner and Meltzer (1968) all question the strong leader hypothesis. However, Toma discredits each of their theories and forges a completely new explanation for why Strong’s leadership was not a decisive factor. Toma makes the case that the Fed operated as a self-regulating, decentralized system. According to Toma, this system operated effectively as intended, so the credit for Friedman and Schwartz’s (1963, Ch. 6) description of the 1921-1929 Fed era as the “high tide” of the Fed system should go to the founders of the Fed, not Benjamin Strong.

Overall, the book would have benefitted from a more thorough engagement with the modern literature. Instead of addressing modern developments and more nuanced and refined arguments in the monetarist and Austrian tradition, Toma sets up the book against the narratives of Rothbard (1975) and Friedman and Schwartz (1963).

Modern accounts have certainly built upon and improved upon Rothbard’s America’s Great Depression (e.g., Garrison 1999; White 2012; Eichengreen and Mitchener 2003; Laidler 2003). In addition, modern Austrians have also made sure to note that the monetarist and Austrian narrative aren’t mutually exclusive or contradictory (Horwitz 2012; Selgin 2013). As Eichengreen and Mitchener (2003, 53) put it, “a horse-race is not the appropriate context in which to assess theories of the Great Depression. The Depression was a complex and multifaceted event.” While Toma addresses the distinctive Austrian and monetarist explanation, he does not address this modern synthetic narrative.
On a similar note, monetarists and new Keynesians have also built upon and improved the monetarist account beyond Friedman and Schwartz (1963) (e.g., Romer 1993; Bordo, Erceg, and Evans 2000; Hall and Ferguson 1998). A third explanation, real factor productivity, is left unexamined by Toma (Kehoe and Prescott 2007; Cole and Ohanian 2001; Temin 1976; Gordon and Wilcox 1981). Finally, Toma also leaves out important new developments in the literature on the Great Depression from a comparative institutions framework examining the experiences of other countries during the Great Depression (Bernanke 1995). Toma certainly levies some convincing challenges to the above literature, but by not specifically addressing it in this book he leaves a lot of territory uncovered.

While the book provides a thorough theoretical and empirical case for Toma’s contention, it lacks convincing anecdotal evidence, especially in regard to the Fed’s independence, which does not seem to support Toma’s narrative of Fed self-regulation. Given the difficulties of empirically measuring these types of influences on monetary policy, supplemental anecdotal evidence is necessary (Smith and Boettke, forthcoming).

For instance, the independence of the Fed was undermined immediately during World War I (Hanna 1936; Mehrling 2011, Ch. 2; Eichengreen 1992; Meltzer 2003, Ch. 3). As Friedman and Schwartz (1963, 216) argue, “The Federal Reserve became to all intents and purposes the bond-selling window of the Treasury, using its monetary powers almost exclusively to that end.”  Many early Fed Board members actually held the opinion that the Fed was just “an adjunct of the Treasury Department rather than an independent body” after this encroachment of their independence (Kettl 1986, 25). In fact, the Board meetings were actually held in the Treasury Department and the Secretary of Treasury was the Chairperson of the Board ex officio until the Banking Act of 1935 (Havrilesky 1995, 44; Kettl 1986, 24). According Benjamin Strong, if the Fed did not deliver the desired Treasury support, it would have been “an invitation to Congress to have their power modified — a perfectly unthinkable and most dangerous possibility” (as quoted in Kettl 1986, 26-7).

Pressures from the executive branch, legislative branch, and the Treasury were all exerted on the Fed to provide easy monetary policy even following World War I. The Treasury used its positions on the Fed Board to ensure that the price of government bonds didn’t fall (Eichengreen 1992, 114; Friedman and Schwartz 1963, 223-4, 228; Havrilesky 1995, 44).  For instance, the Secretary of the Treasury, Carter Glass, threatened to have Benjamin Strong removed from office by the President when Strong threatened to raise rates without the approval of the Board (Clifford 1965, 114-6). From the legislative branch, strong pressure from agricultural interests to keep interest rates low resulted in the introduction of an agricultural member on the Board and the inclusion of nine month’s agriculture paper in the rediscounting facilities of the Reserve Banks (Hanna 1936, 623; Meltzer 2003, 114). As Meltzer (2003, 132) summarizes, “Congressmen from agricultural areas, particularly in the South and West, were highly critical of the higher discount rates in those regions. Bills were introduced limiting the System’s [Fed’s] ability to increase rates. The Federal Reserve yielded to this political pressure by lowering discount rates.”
The same pressures that were exerted following World War I remained in place leading into the Great Depression (Meltzer 2003, Ch. 4). The Fed caved into these pressures, expanding the money supply by 34 percent in between June 1922 and June 1927, and another 10 percent in between June 1927 and December 1928 (White 2012, 69).

Toma’s book levies a serious challenge against two strong economic traditions and their interpretations of arguably one of the most important economic events in American economic history. It offers yet another theoretical and empirical factor that scholars of the Great Depression will have to wrestle with in order to advance our understanding of this “Holy Grail of macroeconomics” (Bernanke 1995, 1).

Bernanke, Benjamin (1995). “The Macroeconomics of the Great Depression: A Comparative Approach,” Journal of Money, Credit and Banking 27(1): 1-28.

Bordo, Michael, Christopher Erceg, and Charles Evans (2000). “Money, Sticky Wages and the Great Depression.” American Economics Review 90, 1447-1463.

Brunner, Karl and Allan H. Meltzer (1968). “What Did We Learn from the Monetary Experience of the United States in the Great Depression?” Canadian Journal of Economics 1(2): 334-348.

Clifford, A. Jerome (1965). The Independence of the Federal Reserve System. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Cole, Hal, and Lee Ohanian (2001). “Reexamining the Contribution of Money and Banking Shocks to the Great Depression.” In Benjamin Bernanke and Kenneth Rogoff (Eds.), NBER Macroeconomics Annual 2000, pp. 183-227. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Eichengreen Barry (1992). Golden Fetters: The Gold Standard and the Great Depression, 1919-1939. New York: Oxford University Press.

Eichengreen, Barry and Kris Mitchener (2003). “The Great Depression as a Credit Boom Gone Wrong,” BIS Working Paper No. 137. Available online:

Friedman, Milton and Anna J. Schwartz (1963). A Monetary History of the United States, 1867-1960. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Garrison, Roger (1999). “The Great Depression Revisited,” The Independent Review 3(4): 595-603.

Gordon, Robert J., and James Wilcox (1981). “Monetarist Interpretations of the Great Depression: Evaluation and Critique.” In Karl Brunner (Ed.), The Great Depression Revisited, pp. 49-107. Boston: Martinus Nijhoff, 49-107.

Hall, Thomas E. and J. David Ferguson (1998). The Great Depression: An International Disaster of Perverse Economic Policies. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Hanna, John (1936). “The Banking Act of 1935,” Virginia Law Review 22(6): 617-641.

Havrilesky, Thomas (1995). The Pressures on American Monetary Policy (second edition). Norwell, MA:  Kluwer Academic Publishers

Horwitz, Steven (2012). “What the Austrian Business Cycle Theory Can and Cannot Explain,” Coordination Problem. Available online:

Kehoe, Timothy J., and Edward C. Prescott (2007). “Great Depressions of the Twentieth Century,” In Timothy J. Kehoe and Edward C. Prescott (Eds.), Great Depressions of the Twentieth Century. Minneapolis: Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis.

Kettl, Donald F. (1986). Leadership at the Fed. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Laidler, David (2003). “The Price Level, Relative Prices and Economic Stability: Aspects of the Interwar Debate,” BIS Working Papers, No. 136. Available online:

Mehrling, Perry (2011). The New Lombard Street: How the Fed Became the Dealer of Last Resort. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Meltzer, Allan H. (2003). A History of the Federal Reserve, Volume 1: 1913-1951. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Romer, Christina D. (1993). “The Nation in Depression,” Journal of Economic Perspectives 7(2): 19-39.

Rothbard, Murray (1975). America’s Great Depression. Kansas City: Sheed and Ward, Inc.

Selgin, George (2013). “Booms, Bubbles, Busts, and Bogus Dichotomies,” Alt-M, August 30. Available online:

Smith, Daniel J. and Peter J. Boettke (forthcoming). “An Episodic History of Federal Reserve Independence,” The Independent Review.

Temin, Peter (1976). Did Monetary Forces Cause the Great Depression? New York: W. W. Norton.

Temin, Peter (1989). Lessons from the Great Depression. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Wheelock, David C. (1992). “Monetary Policy in the Great Depression: What the Fed Did, and Why,” Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis Review 74(2): 3-28.

White, Lawrence H. (2012). The Clash of Economic Ideas: The Great Policy Debates and Experiments of the Last Hundred Years. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Daniel J. Smith is an Associate Professor of Economics in the Jonson Center at Troy University.

Copyright (c) 2015 by EH.Net. All rights reserved. This work may be copied for non-profit educational uses if proper credit is given to the author and the list. For other permission, please contact the EH.Net Administrator ( Published by EH.Net (May 2015). All EH.Net reviews are archived at

Subject(s):Financial Markets, Financial Institutions, and Monetary History
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII

The Taylor Rule and the Transformation of Monetary Policy

Editor(s):Koenig, Evan F.
Leeson, Robert
Kahn, George A.
Reviewer(s):Gentle, Paul F.

Published by EH.Net (April 2014)

Evan F. Koenig, Robert Leeson, and George A. Kahn, editors, The Taylor Rule and the Transformation of Monetary Policy. Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press, 2012. xix + 347 pp. $35 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-8179-1404-2.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Paul F. Gentle, NCC British Higher Education (Guangzhou, China).

This book explains the creation and application of the Taylor Rule, one of the most important and well-known rules of monetary policy. The volume includes chapters by Pier Francesco Asso, Ben Benanke, Richard Fisher, Otmar Issing, George Kahn, Evan Koenig, Donald Kohn, Robert Leeson, John Lipsky, Robert Lucas, Edward Nelson, Guillermo Ortiz, Lars Svensson, John Taylor, Michael Woodford and Janet Yellen. These chapters make it very clear that the Taylor Rule is one of the most important monetary policy devices to come along in the last three decades.

The volume provides a detailed history of economic thought, leading up to the Taylor Rule equation, then reviews applications of the Taylor Rule in the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, Japan and other countries.  As the preface explains, “back in the late 1970s and early 1980s, John Taylor and a few others embraced the notion that households and firms are forward-looking in their decision-making and intelligent in forming their expectations, but rejected the view that wages and prices adjust instantaneously to their market-clearing levels” (p. vii).  In Taylor’s view of New Keynesian economics, consumers try to develop rational expectations about the future. Yet due to nominal frictions (sticky prices and sticky wages), market-clearing levels of wages and prices are not reached instantaneously.  “Taylor helped bridge the gap between monetary theory and applied monetary policy when he showed that the set of activist feedback rules consistent with a well-behaved equilibrium includes certain interest-rate rules” (p. xi). Due to the need to see how well different performance rules worked, Taylor “developed the Taylor Curve, which shows efficient combinations of output and inflation variability” (p. x). Keeping unemployment low and inflation low are goals that are especially important given both the Great Depression of the 1930s and the Great Inflation of the 1970s. Many rules or guidelines have been created to deal with these twin concerns.  The Taylor Rule attempts to do this and its results have often been very good, although many economists believe that the Taylor Rule should be used in conjunction with other policy rules.

Here is John Taylor’s expression of his rule:[1]

r = p + .5y + .5(p – 2) + 2

where r = the federal funds rate; p = the rate of inflation over the previous four quarters; and y = the percent deviation of real GDP from a target.

Convertibility of money to a commodity, such as gold, was one of the first rules for monetary policy.  However, now we have fiat money, which needs a rule or rules to govern its growth.  “The Taylor rule synthesized (and provided a compromise between) competing schools of thought in a language devoid of rhetorical passion” (p. 5). The Taylor Rule with its equal weights has the advantage of offering a compromise solution between y-hawks (output hawks) and p-hawks (price hawks).  The rule is intended as a formative guide to policy and actually describes the conduct of U.S. monetary policy during a period of macroeconomic stability.  This fact helped influence the embrace of the Taylor Rule by policy makers.  Federal Reserve Governor Kohn gives a historical perspective of past episodes, suggesting that the Fed acted gradually in a certain period of time, though not at the slower pace as in estimated Taylor rules.  “These rules do not account for changes in the Fed’s inflation target from 1987 to the second half of the 1990s while the Fed was pursuing opportunistic disinflation” (p. 82). And the Fed’s monetary policy deviated from the Taylor Rule, from 2003 to 2006, when the funds rate was kept below Taylor Rule prescription for a long time (p. 83).  Of course that deviation of the Federal Reserve has been criticized by many economists. The deviation resulted in too much credit, which led up to the U.S. housing bubble and its aftermath.

As mentioned previously, there is also the idea of the Taylor Curve (pp. 148-151). The diagram has a vertical axis that denotes the variance of output.  The variance of inflation is shown on the horizontal axis.  The Taylor equation has proven to be more useful for policy than the Taylor Curve.  The Taylor Rule equation provides prescriptions for monetary policy.  Then there’s the “Great Moderation” – the reduced volatility of inflation and output in the decades before the 2008 recession. Some economists argue that such a moderation can by more readily achieved by central bankers, if they try to follow the Taylor equation.  But Taylor also refers to the “Great Deviation” (p.163) – the period when the Taylor Rule was not followed, to the point of a boom, followed by a bust.  Several economists discuss the ideas of inflation forecasts and the Taylor Rule contending that “forecast targeting and instrumental rules (such as the Taylor Rule) are complementary, rather than alternatives” (p. 236).

Lars Svensson argues that the “institutional framework for monetary policy rests on three pillars:  1. There is a mandate for monetary policy from the government or parliamentary, normally to maintain price stability. 2. There is independence for the central bank to conduct monetary policy and fulfill the mandate. 3. There is accountability of the central bank for its policy and decisions (pp. 245 -246).  Taylor has done in his work with these ideas in mind.  According to former Fed chair Ben Bernanke, the influence of Taylor upon “monetary theory and policy has been profound indeed” (p. 277), while the current Fed chair, Janet Yellen, states that Taylor’s work and “his research has affected the way policy makers and economists analyze the economy and approach to monetary policy” (p. 281).

Ultimately, this book is well worth the read.  A large array, of distinguished contributors give the reader a spectrum of viewpoints about the Taylor Rule.  The views of the Fed and many other central banks are given.  The academic side of monetary theory as it relates to the Taylor rule is covered in detail.  Taylor has done his research work in academic settings, government settings and within the commercial areas of financial markets — and from all those perspectives economists in this book have provided valuable analysis and commentary.

1. John B. Taylor, “Cross-Checking ‘Checking in on the Taylor Rule.’” Economics One blog, July 16, 2013,

Paul F. Gentle is the author of articles in Applied Economics, Applied Economics Letters, Economia Internazionale, Banks and Bank Systems and China and World Economy. He has taught at Samford University, Peking University, University of International Business and Economics, and City University of Hong Kong.

Copyright (c) 2014 by EH.Net. All rights reserved. This work may be copied for non-profit educational uses if proper credit is given to the author and the list. For other permission, please contact the EH.Net Administrator ( Published by EH.Net (April 2014). All EH.Net reviews are archived at

Subject(s):Financial Markets, Financial Institutions, and Monetary History
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII

Antebellum Banking in the United States

Howard Bodenhorn, Lafayette College

The first legitimate commercial bank in the United States was the Bank of North America founded in 1781. Encouraged by Alexander Hamilton, Robert Morris persuaded the Continental Congress to charter the bank, which loaned to the cash-strapped Revolutionary government as well as private citizens, mostly Philadelphia merchants. The possibilities of commercial banking had been widely recognized by many colonists, but British law forbade the establishment of commercial, limited-liability banks in the colonies. Given that many of the colonists’ grievances against Parliament centered on economic and monetary issues, it is not surprising that one of the earliest acts of the Continental Congress was the establishment of a bank.

The introduction of banking to the U.S. was viewed as an important first step in forming an independent nation because banks supplied a medium of exchange (banknotes1 and deposits) in an economy perpetually strangled by shortages of specie money and credit, because they animated industry, and because they fostered wealth creation and promoted well-being. In the last case, contemporaries typically viewed banks as an integral part of a wider system of government-sponsored commercial infrastructure. Like schools, bridges, road, canals, river clearing and harbor improvements, the benefits of banks were expected to accrue to everyone even if dividends accrued only to shareholders.

Financial Sector Growth

By 1800 each major U.S. port city had at least one commercial bank serving the local mercantile community. As city banks proved themselves, banking spread into smaller cities and towns and expanded their clientele. Although most banks specialized in mercantile lending, others served artisans and farmers. In 1820 there were 327 commercial banks and several mutual savings banks that promoted thrift among the poor. Thus, at the onset of the antebellum period (defined here as the period between 1820 and 1860), urban residents were familiar with the intermediary function of banks and used bank-supplied currencies (deposits and banknotes) for most transactions. Table 1 reports the number of banks and the value of loans outstanding at year end between 1820 and 1860. During the era, the number of banks increased from 327 to 1,562 and total loans increased from just over $55.1 million to $691.9 million. Bank-supplied credit in the U.S. economy increased at a remarkable annual average rate of 6.3 percent. Growth in the financial sector, then outpaced growth in aggregate economic activity. Nominal gross domestic product increased an average annual rate of about 4.3 percent over the same interval. This essay discusses how regional regulatory structures evolved as the banking sector grew and radiated out from northeastern cities to the hinterlands.

Table 1

Number of Banks and Total Loans, 1820-1860

Year Banks Loans ($ millions)
1820 327 55.1
1821 273 71.9
1822 267 56.0
1823 274 75.9
1824 300 73.8
1825 330 88.7
1826 331 104.8
1827 333 90.5
1828 355 100.3
1829 369 103.0
1830 381 115.3
1831 424 149.0
1832 464 152.5
1833 517 222.9
1834 506 324.1
1835 704 365.1
1836 713 457.5
1837 788 525.1
1838 829 485.6
1839 840 492.3
1840 901 462.9
1841 784 386.5
1842 692 324.0
1843 691 254.5
1844 696 264.9
1845 707 288.6
1846 707 312.1
1847 715 310.3
1848 751 344.5
1849 782 332.3
1850 824 364.2
1851 879 413.8
1852 913 429.8
1853 750 408.9
1854 1208 557.4
1855 1307 576.1
1856 1398 634.2
1857 1416 684.5
1858 1422 583.2
1859 1476 657.2
1860 1562 691.9

Sources: Fenstermaker (1965); U.S. Comptroller of the Currency (1931).


As important as early American banks were in the process of capital accumulation, perhaps their most notable feature was their adaptability. Kuznets (1958) argues that one measure of the financial sector’s value is how and to what extent it evolves with changing economic conditions. Put in place to perform certain functions under one set of economic circumstances, how did it alter its behavior and service the needs of borrowers as circumstances changed. One benefit of the federalist U.S. political system was that states were given the freedom to establish systems reflecting local needs and preferences. While the political structure deserves credit in promoting regional adaptations, North (1994) credits the adaptability of America’s formal rules and informal constraints that rewarded adventurism in the economic, as well as the noneconomic, sphere. Differences in geography, climate, crop mix, manufacturing activity, population density and a host of other variables were reflected in different state banking systems. Rhode Island’s banks bore little resemblance to those in far away Louisiana or Missouri, or even those in neighboring Connecticut. Each state’s banks took a different form, but their purpose was the same; namely, to provide the state’s citizens with monetary and intermediary services and to promote the general economic welfare. This section provides a sketch of regional differences. A more detailed discussion can be found in Bodenhorn (2002).

State Banking in New England

New England’s banks most resemble the common conception of the antebellum bank. They were relatively small, unit banks; their stock was closely held; they granted loans to local farmers, merchants and artisans with whom the bank’s managers had more than a passing familiarity; and the state took little direct interest in their daily operations.

Of the banking systems put in place in the antebellum era, New England’s is typically viewed as the most stable and conservative. Friedman and Schwartz (1986) attribute their stability to an Old World concern with business reputations, familial ties, and personal legacies. New England was long settled, its society well established, and its business community mature and respected throughout the Atlantic trading network. Wealthy businessmen and bankers with strong ties to the community — like the Browns of Providence or the Bowdoins of Boston — emphasized stability not just because doing so benefited and reflected well on them, but because they realized that bad banking was bad for everyone’s business.

Besides their reputation for soundness, the two defining characteristics of New England’s early banks were their insider nature and their small size. The typical New England bank was small compared to banks in other regions. Table 2 shows that in 1820 the average Massachusetts country bank was about the same size as a Pennsylvania country bank, but both were only about half the size of a Virginia bank. A Rhode Island bank was about one-third the size of a Massachusetts or Pennsylvania bank and a mere one-sixth as large as Virginia’s banks. By 1850 the average Massachusetts bank declined relatively, operating on about two-thirds the paid-in capital of a Pennsylvania country bank. Rhode Island’s banks also shrank relative to Pennsylvania’s and were tiny compared to the large branch banks in the South and West.

Table 2

Average Bank Size by Capital and Lending in 1820 and 1850 Selected States and Cities

(in $ thousands)



Loans 1850 Capital Loans
Massachusetts $374.5 $480.4 $293.5 $494.0
except Boston 176.6 230.8 170.3 281.9
Rhode Island 95.7 103.2 186.0 246.2
except Providence 60.6 72.0 79.5 108.5
New York na na 246.8 516.3
except NYC na na 126.7 240.1
Pennsylvania 221.8 262.9 340.2 674.6
except Philadelphia 162.6 195.2 246.0 420.7
Virginia1,2 351.5 340.0 270.3 504.5
South Carolina2 na na 938.5 1,471.5
Kentucky2 na na 439.4 727.3

Notes: 1 Virginia figures for 1822. 2 Figures represent branch averages.

Source: Bodenhorn (2002).

Explanations for New England Banks’ Relatively Small Size

Several explanations have been offered for the relatively small size of New England’s banks. Contemporaries attributed it to the New England states’ propensity to tax bank capital, which was thought to work to the detriment of large banks. They argued that large banks circulated fewer banknotes per dollar of capital. The result was a progressive tax that fell disproportionately on large banks. Data compiled from Massachusetts’s bank reports suggest that large banks were not disadvantaged by the capital tax. It was a fact, as contemporaries believed, that large banks paid higher taxes per dollar of circulating banknotes, but a potentially better benchmark is the tax to loan ratio because large banks made more use of deposits than small banks. The tax to loan ratio was remarkably constant across both bank size and time, averaging just 0.6 percent between 1834 and 1855. Moreover, there is evidence of constant to modestly increasing returns to scale in New England banking. Large banks were generally at least as profitable as small banks in all years between 1834 and 1860, and slightly more so in many.

Lamoreaux (1993) offers a different explanation for the modest size of the region’s banks. New England’s banks, she argues, were not impersonal financial intermediaries. Rather, they acted as the financial arms of extended kinship trading networks. Throughout the antebellum era banks catered to insiders: directors, officers, shareholders, or business partners and kin of directors, officers, shareholders and business partners. Such preferences toward insiders represented the perpetuation of the eighteenth-century custom of pooling capital to finance family enterprises. In the nineteenth century the practice continued under corporate auspices. The corporate form, in fact, facilitated raising capital in greater amounts than the family unit could raise on its own. But because the banks kept their loans within a relatively small circle of business connections, it was not until the late nineteenth century that bank size increased.2

Once the kinship orientation of the region’s banks was established it perpetuated itself. When outsiders could not obtain loans from existing insider organizations, they formed their own insider bank. In doing so the promoters assured themselves of a steady supply of credit and created engines of economic mobility for kinship networks formerly closed off from many sources of credit. State legislatures accommodated the practice through their liberal chartering policies. By 1860, Rhode Island had 91 banks, Maine had 68, New Hampshire 51, Vermont 44, Connecticut 74 and Massachusetts 178.

The Suffolk System

One of the most commented on characteristic of New England’s banking system was its unique regional banknote redemption and clearing mechanism. Established by the Suffolk Bank of Boston in the early 1820s, the system became known as the Suffolk System. With so many banks in New England, each issuing it own form of currency, it was sometimes difficult for merchants, farmers, artisans, and even other bankers, to discriminate between real and bogus banknotes, or to discriminate between good and bad bankers. Moreover, the rural-urban terms of trade pulled most banknotes toward the region’s port cities. Because country merchants and farmers were typically indebted to city merchants, country banknotes tended to flow toward the cities, Boston more so than any other. By the second decade of the nineteenth century, country banknotes became a constant irritant for city bankers. City bankers believed that country issues displaced Boston banknotes in local transactions. More irritating though was the constant demand by the city banks’ customers to accept country banknotes on deposit, which placed the burden of interbank clearing on the city banks.3

In 1803 the city banks embarked on a first attempt to deal with country banknotes. They joined together, bought up a large quantity of country banknotes, and returned them to the country banks for redemption into specie. This effort to reduce country banknote circulation encountered so many obstacles that it was quickly abandoned. Several other schemes were hatched in the next two decades, but none proved any more successful than the 1803 plan.

The Suffolk Bank was chartered in 1818 and within a year embarked on a novel scheme to deal with the influx of country banknotes. The Suffolk sponsored a consortium of Boston bank in which each member appointed the Suffolk as its lone agent in the collection and redemption of country banknotes. In addition, each city bank contributed to a fund used to purchase and redeem country banknotes. When the Suffolk collected a large quantity of a country bank’s notes, it presented them for immediate redemption with an ultimatum: Join in a regular and organized redemption system or be subject to further unannounced redemption calls.4 Country banks objected to the Suffolk’s proposal, because it required them to keep noninterest-earning assets on deposit with the Suffolk in amounts equal to their average weekly redemptions at the city banks. Most country banks initially refused to join the redemption network, but after the Suffolk made good on a few redemption threats, the system achieved near universal membership.

Early interpretations of the Suffolk system, like those of Redlich (1949) and Hammond (1957), portray the Suffolk as a proto-central bank, which acted as a restraining influence that exercised some control over the region’s banking system and money supply. Recent studies are less quick to pronounce the Suffolk a successful experiment in early central banking. Mullineaux (1987) argues that the Suffolk’s redemption system was actually self-defeating. Instead of making country banknotes less desirable in Boston, the fact that they became readily redeemable there made them perfect substitutes for banknotes issued by Boston’s prestigious banks. This policy made country banknotes more desirable, which made it more, not less, difficult for Boston’s banks to keep their own notes in circulation.

Fenstermaker and Filer (1986) also contest the long-held view that the Suffolk exercised control over the region’s money supply (banknotes and deposits). Indeed, the Suffolk’s system was self-defeating in this regard as well. By increasing confidence in the value of a randomly encountered banknote, people were willing to hold increases in banknotes issues. In an interesting twist on the traditional interpretation, a possible outcome of the Suffolk system is that New England may have grown increasingly financial backward as a direct result of the region’s unique clearing system. Because banknotes were viewed as relatively safe and easily redeemed, the next big financial innovation — deposit banking — in New England lagged far behind other regions. With such wide acceptance of banknotes, there was no reason for banks to encourage the use of deposits and little reason for consumers to switch over.

Summary: New England Banks

New England’s banking system can be summarized as follows: Small unit banks predominated; many banks catered to small groups of capitalists bound by personal and familial ties; banking was becoming increasingly interconnected with other lines of business, such as insurance, shipping and manufacturing; the state took little direct interest in the daily operations of the banks and its supervisory role amounted to little more than a demand that every bank submit an unaudited balance sheet at year’s end; and that the Suffolk developed an interbank clearing system that facilitated the use of banknotes throughout the region, but had little effective control over the region’s money supply.

Banking in the Middle Atlantic Region


After 1810 or so, many bank charters were granted in New England, but not because of the presumption that the bank would promote the commonweal. Charters were granted for the personal gain of the promoter and the shareholders and in proportion to the personal, political and economic influence of the bank’s founders. No New England state took a significant financial stake in its banks. In both respects, New England differed markedly from states in other regions. From the beginning of state-chartered commercial banking in Pennsylvania, the state took a direct interest in the operations and profits of its banks. The Bank of North America was the obvious case: chartered to provide support to the colonial belligerents and the fledgling nation. Because the bank was popularly perceived to be dominated by Philadelphia’s Federalist merchants, who rarely loaned to outsiders, support for the bank waned.5 After a pitched political battle in which the Bank of North America’s charter was revoked and reinstated, the legislature chartered the Bank of Pennsylvania in 1793. As its name implies, this bank became the financial arm of the state. Pennsylvania subscribed $1 million of the bank’s capital, giving it the right to appoint six of thirteen directors and a $500,000 line of credit. The bank benefited by becoming the state’s fiscal agent, which guaranteed a constant inflow of deposits from regular treasury operations as well as western land sales.

By 1803 the demand for loans outstripped the existing banks’ supply and a plan for a new bank, the Philadelphia Bank, was hatched and its promoters petitioned the legislature for a charter. The existing banks lobbied against the charter, and nearly sank the new bank’s chances until it established a precedent that lasted throughout the antebellum era. Its promoters bribed the legislature with a payment of $135,000 in return for the charter, handed over one-sixth of its shares, and opened a line of credit for the state.

Between 1803 and 1814, the only other bank chartered in Pennsylvania was the Farmers and Mechanics Bank of Philadelphia, which established a second substantive precedent that persisted throughout the era. Existing banks followed a strict real-bills lending policy, restricting lending to merchants at very short terms of 30 to 90 days.6 Their adherence to a real-bills philosophy left a growing community of artisans, manufacturers and farmers on the outside looking in. The Farmers and Mechanics Bank was chartered to serve excluded groups. At least seven of its thirteen directors had to be farmers, artisans or manufacturers and the bank was required to lend the equivalent of 10 percent of its capital to farmers on mortgage for at least one year. In later years, banks were established to provide services to even more narrowly defined groups. Within a decade or two, most substantial port cities had banks with names like Merchants Bank, Planters Bank, Farmers Bank, and Mechanics Bank. By 1860 it was common to find banks with names like Leather Manufacturers Bank, Grocers Bank, Drovers Bank, and Importers Bank. Indeed, the Emigrant Savings Bank in New York City served Irish immigrants almost exclusively. In the other instances, it is not known how much of a bank’s lending was directed toward the occupational group included in its name. The adoption of such names may have been marketing ploys as much as mission statements. Only further research will reveal the answer.

New York

State-chartered banking in New York arrived less auspiciously than it had in Philadelphia or Boston. The Bank of New York opened in 1784, but operated without a charter and in open violation of state law until 1791 when the legislature finally sanctioned it. The city’s second bank obtained its charter surreptitiously. Alexander Hamilton was one of the driving forces behind the Bank of New York, and his long-time nemesis, Aaron Burr, was determined to establish a competing bank. Unable to get a charter from a Federalist legislature, Burr and his colleagues petitioned to incorporate a company to supply fresh water to the inhabitants of Manhattan Island. Burr tucked a clause into the charter of the Manhattan Company (the predecessor to today’s Chase Manhattan Bank) granting the water company the right to employ any excess capital in financial transactions. Once chartered, the company’s directors announced that $500,000 of its capital would be invested in banking.7 Thereafter, banking grew more quickly in New York than in Philadelphia, so that by 1812 New York had seven banks compared to the three operating in Philadelphia.

Deposit Insurance

Despite its inauspicious banking beginnings, New York introduced two innovations that influenced American banking down to the present. The Safety Fund system, introduced in 1829, was the nation’s first experiment in bank liability insurance (similar to that provided by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation today). The 1829 act authorized the appointment of bank regulators charged with regular inspections of member banks. An equally novel aspect was that it established an insurance fund insuring holders of banknotes and deposits against loss from bank failure. Ultimately, the insurance fund was insufficient to protect all bank creditors from loss during the panic of 1837 when eleven failures in rapid succession all but bankrupted the insurance fund, which delayed noteholder and depositor recoveries for months, even years. Even though the Safety Fund failed to provide its promised protections, it was an important episode in the subsequent evolution of American banking. Several Midwestern states instituted deposit insurance in the early twentieth century, and the federal government adopted it after the banking panics in the 1930s resulted in the failure of thousands of banks in which millions of depositors lost money.

“Free Banking”

Although the Safety Fund was nearly bankrupted in the late 1830s, it continued to insure a number of banks up to the mid 1860s when it was finally closed. No new banks joined the Safety Fund system after 1838 with the introduction of free banking — New York’s second significant banking innovation. Free banking represented a compromise between those most concerned with the underlying safety and stability of the currency and those most concerned with competition and freeing the country’s entrepreneurs from unduly harsh and anticompetitive restraints. Under free banking, a prospective banker could start a bank anywhere he saw fit, provided he met a few regulatory requirements. Each free bank’s capital was invested in state or federal bonds that were turned over to the state’s treasurer. If a bank failed to redeem even a single note into specie, the treasurer initiated bankruptcy proceedings and banknote holders were reimbursed from the sale of the bonds.

Actually Michigan preempted New York’s claim to be the first free-banking state, but Michigan’s 1837 law was modeled closely after a bill then under debate in New York’s legislature. Ultimately, New York’s influence was profound in this as well, because free banking became one of the century’s most widely copied financial innovations. By 1860 eighteen states adopted free banking laws closely resembling New York’s law. Three other states introduced watered-down variants. Eventually, the post-Civil War system of national banking adopted many of the substantive provisions of New York’s 1838 act.

Both the Safety Fund system and free banking were attempts to protect society from losses resulting from bank failures and to entice people to hold financial assets. Banks and bank-supplied currency were novel developments in the hinterlands in the early nineteenth century and many rural inhabitants were skeptical about the value of small pieces of paper. They were more familiar with gold and silver. Getting them to exchange one for the other was a slow process, and one that relied heavily on trust. But trust was built slowly and destroyed quickly. The failure of a single bank could, in a week, destroy the confidence in a system built up over a decade. New York’s experiments were designed to mitigate, if not eliminate, the negative consequences of bank failures. New York’s Safety Fund, then, differed in the details but not in intent, from New England’s Suffolk system. Bankers and legislators in each region grappled with the difficult issue of protecting a fragile but vital sector of the economy. Each region responded to the problem differently. The South and West settled on yet another solution.

Banking in the South and West

One distinguishing characteristic of southern and western banks was their extensive branch networks. Pennsylvania provided for branch banking in the early nineteenth century and two banks jointly opened about ten branches. In both instances, however, the branches became a net liability. The Philadelphia Bank opened four branches in 1809 and by 1811 was forced to pass on its semi-annual dividends because losses at the branches offset profits at the Philadelphia office. At bottom, branch losses resulted from a combination of ineffective central office oversight and unrealistic expectations about the scale and scope of hinterland lending. Philadelphia’s bank directors instructed branch managers to invest in high-grade commercial paper or real bills. Rural banks found a limited number of such lending opportunities and quickly turned to mortgage-based lending. Many of these loans fell into arrears and were ultimately written when land sales faltered.

Branch Banking

Unlike Pennsylvania, where branch banking failed, branch banks throughout the South and West thrived. The Bank of Virginia, founded in 1804, was the first state-chartered branch bank and up to the Civil War branch banks served the state’s financial needs. Several small, independent banks were chartered in the 1850s, but they never threatened the dominance of Virginia’s “Big Six” banks. Virginia’s branch banks, unlike Pennsylvania’s, were profitable. In 1821, for example, the net return to capital at the Farmers Bank of Virginia’s home office in Richmond was 5.4 percent. Returns at its branches ranged from a low of 3 percent at Norfolk (which was consistently the low-profit branch) to 9 percent in Winchester. In 1835, the last year the bank reported separate branch statistics, net returns to capital at the Farmers Bank’s branches ranged from 2.9 and 11.7 percent, with an average of 7.9 percent.

The low profits at the Norfolk branch represent a net subsidy from the state’s banking sector to the political system, which was not immune to the same kind of infrastructure boosterism that erupted in New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland and elsewhere. In the immediate post-Revolutionary era, the value of exports shipped from Virginia’s ports (Norfolk and Alexandria) slightly exceeded the value shipped from Baltimore. In the 1790s the numbers turned sharply in Baltimore’s favor and Virginia entered the internal-improvements craze and the battle for western shipments. Banks represented the first phase of the state’s internal improvements plan in that many believed that Baltimore’s new-found advantage resulted from easier credit supplied by the city’s banks. If Norfolk, with one of the best natural harbors on the North American Atlantic coast, was to compete with other port cities, it needed banks and the state required three of the state’s Big Six branch banks to operate branches there. Despite its natural advantages, Norfolk never became an important entrepot and it probably had more bank capital than it required. This pattern was repeated elsewhere. Other states required their branch banks to serve markets such as Memphis, Louisville, Natchez and Mobile that might, with the proper infrastructure grow into important ports.

State Involvement and Intervention in Banking

The second distinguishing characteristic of southern and western banking was sweeping state involvement and intervention. Virginia, for example, interjected the state into the banking system by taking significant stakes in its first chartered banks (providing an implicit subsidy) and by requiring them, once they established themselves, to subsidize the state’s continuing internal improvements programs of the 1820s and 1830s. Indiana followed such a strategy. So, too, did Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee and Georgia in different degrees. South Carolina followed a wholly different strategy. On one hand, it chartered several banks in which it took no financial interest. On the other, it chartered the Bank of the State of South Carolina, a bank wholly owned by the state and designed to lend to planters and farmers who complained constantly that the state’s existing banks served only the urban mercantile community. The state-owned bank eventually divided its lending between merchants, farmers and artisans and dominated South Carolina’s financial sector.

The 1820s and 1830s witnessed a deluge of new banks in the South and West, with a corresponding increase in state involvement. No state matched Louisiana’s breadth of involvement in the 1830s when it chartered three distinct types of banks: commercial banks that served merchants and manufacturers; improvement banks that financed various internal improvements projects; and property banks that extended long-term mortgage credit to planters and other property holders. Louisiana’s improvement banks included the New Orleans Canal and Banking Company that built a canal connecting Lake Ponchartrain to the Mississippi River. The Exchange and Banking Company and the New Orleans Improvement and Banking Company were required to build and operate hotels. The New Orleans Gas Light and Banking Company constructed and operated gas streetlights in New Orleans and five other cities. Finally, the Carrollton Railroad and Banking Company and the Atchafalaya Railroad and Banking Company were rail construction companies whose bank subsidiaries subsidized railroad construction.

“Commonwealth Ideal” and Inflationary Banking

Louisiana’s 1830s banking exuberance reflected what some historians label the “commonwealth ideal” of banking; that is, the promotion of the general welfare through the promotion of banks. Legislatures in the South and West, however, never demonstrated a greater commitment to the commonwealth ideal than during the tough times of the early 1820s. With the collapse of the post-war land boom in 1819, a political coalition of debt-strapped landowners lobbied legislatures throughout the region for relief and its focus was banking. Relief advocates lobbied for inflationary banking that would reduce the real burden of debts taken on during prior flush times.

Several western states responded to these calls and chartered state-subsidized and state-managed banks designed to reinflate their embattled economies. Chartered in 1821, the Bank of the Commonwealth of Kentucky loaned on mortgages at longer than customary periods and all Kentucky landowners were eligible for $1,000 loans. The loans allowed landowners to discharge their existing debts without being forced to liquidate their property at ruinously low prices. Although the bank’s notes were not redeemable into specie, they were given currency in two ways. First, they were accepted at the state treasury in tax payments. Second, the state passed a law that forced creditors to accept the notes in payment of existing debts or agree to delay collection for two years.

The commonwealth ideal was not unique to Kentucky. During the depression of the 1820s, Tennessee chartered the State Bank of Tennessee, Illinois chartered the State Bank of Illinois and Louisiana chartered the Louisiana State Bank. Although they took slightly different forms, they all had the same intent; namely, to relieve distressed and embarrassed farmers, planters and land owners. What all these banks shared in common was the notion that the state should promote the general welfare and economic growth. In this instance, and again during the depression of the 1840s, state-owned banks were organized to minimize the transfer of property when economic conditions demanded wholesale liquidation. Such liquidation would have been inefficient and imposed unnecessary hardship on a large fraction of the population. To the extent that hastily chartered relief banks forestalled inefficient liquidation, they served their purpose. Although most of these banks eventually became insolvent, requiring taxpayer bailouts, we cannot label them unsuccessful. They reinflated economies and allowed for an orderly disposal of property. Determining if the net benefits were positive or negative requires more research, but for the moment we are forced to accept the possibility that the region’s state-owned banks of the 1820s and 1840s advanced the commonweal.

Conclusion: Banks and Economic Growth

Despite notable differences in the specific form and structure of each region’s banking system, they were all aimed squarely at a common goal; namely, realizing that region’s economic potential. Banks helped achieve the goal in two ways. First, banks monetized economies, which reduced the costs of transacting and helped smooth consumption and production across time. It was no longer necessary for every farm family to inventory their entire harvest. They could sell most of it, and expend the proceeds on consumption goods as the need arose until the next harvest brought a new cash infusion. Crop and livestock inventories are prone to substantial losses and an increased use of money reduced them significantly. Second, banks provided credit, which unleashed entrepreneurial spirits and talents. A complete appreciation of early American banking recognizes the banks’ contribution to antebellum America’s economic growth.

Bibliographic Essay

Because of the large number of sources used to construct the essay, the essay was more readable and less cluttered by including a brief bibliographic essay. A full bibliography is included at the end.

Good general histories of antebellum banking include Dewey (1910), Fenstermaker (1965), Gouge (1833), Hammond (1957), Knox (1903), Redlich (1949), and Trescott (1963). If only one book is read on antebellum banking, Hammond’s (1957) Pulitzer-Prize winning book remains the best choice.

The literature on New England banking is not particularly large, and the more important historical interpretations of state-wide systems include Chadbourne (1936), Hasse (1946, 1957), Simonton (1971), Spencer (1949), and Stokes (1902). Gras (1937) does an excellent job of placing the history of a single bank within the larger regional and national context. In a recent book and a number of articles Lamoreaux (1994 and sources therein) provides a compelling and eminently readable reinterpretation of the region’s banking structure. Nathan Appleton (1831, 1856) provides a contemporary observer’s interpretation, while Walker (1857) provides an entertaining if perverse and satirical history of a fictional New England bank. Martin (1969) provides details of bank share prices and dividend payments from the establishment of the first banks in Boston through the end of the nineteenth century. Less technical studies of the Suffolk system include Lake (1947), Trivoli (1979) and Whitney (1878); more technical interpretations include Calomiris and Kahn (1996), Mullineaux (1987), and Rolnick, Smith and Weber (1998).

The literature on Middle Atlantic banking is huge, but the better state-level histories include Bryan (1899), Daniels (1976), and Holdsworth (1928). The better studies of individual banks include Adams (1978), Lewis (1882), Nevins (1934), and Wainwright (1953). Chaddock (1910) provides a general history of the Safety Fund system. Golembe (1960) places it in the context of modern deposit insurance, while Bodenhorn (1996) and Calomiris (1989) provide modern analyses. A recent revival of interest in free banking has brought about a veritable explosion in the number of studies on the subject, but the better introductory ones remain Rockoff (1974, 1985), Rolnick and Weber (1982, 1983), and Dwyer (1996).

The literature on southern and western banking is large and of highly variable quality, but I have found the following to be the most readable and useful general sources: Caldwell (1935), Duke (1895), Esary (1912), Golembe (1978), Huntington (1915), Green (1972), Lesesne (1970), Royalty (1979), Schweikart (1987) and Starnes (1931).

References and Further Reading

Adams, Donald R., Jr. Finance and Enterprise in Early America: A Study of Stephen Girard’s Bank, 1812-1831. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1978.

Alter, George, Claudia Goldin and Elyce Rotella. “The Savings of Ordinary Americans: The Philadelphia Saving Fund Society in the Mid-Nineteenth-Century.” Journal of Economic History 54, no. 4 (December 1994): 735-67.

Appleton, Nathan. A Defence of Country Banks: Being a Reply to a Pamphlet Entitled ‘An Examination of the Banking System of Massachusetts, in Reference to the Renewal of the Bank Charters.’ Boston: Stimpson & Clapp, 1831.

Appleton, Nathan. Bank Bills or Paper Currency and the Banking System of Massachusetts with Remarks on Present High Prices. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1856.

Berry, Thomas Senior. Revised Annual Estimates of American Gross National Product: Preliminary Estimates of Four Major Components of Demand, 1789-1889. Richmond: University of Richmond Bostwick Paper No. 3, 1978.

Bodenhorn, Howard. “Zombie Banks and the Demise of New York’s Safety Fund.” Eastern Economic Journal 22, no. 1 (1996): 21-34.

Bodenhorn, Howard. “Private Banking in Antebellum Virginia: Thomas Branch & Sons of Petersburg.” Business History Review 71, no. 4 (1997): 513-42.

Bodenhorn, Howard. A History of Banking in Antebellum America: Financial Markets and Economic Development in an Era of Nation-Building. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Bodenhorn, Howard. State Banking in Early America: A New Economic History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Bryan, Alfred C. A History of State Banking in Maryland. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1899.

Caldwell, Stephen A. A Banking History of Louisiana. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1935.

Calomiris, Charles W. “Deposit Insurance: Lessons from the Record.” Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago Economic Perspectives 13 (1989): 10-30.

Calomiris, Charles W., and Charles Kahn. “The Efficiency of Self-Regulated Payments Systems: Learnings from the Suffolk System.” Journal of Money, Credit, and Banking 28, no. 4 (1996): 766-97.

Chadbourne, Walter W. A History of Banking in Maine, 1799-1930. Orono: University of Maine Press, 1936.

Chaddock, Robert E. The Safety Fund Banking System in New York, 1829-1866. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1910.

Daniels, Belden L. Pennsylvania: Birthplace of Banking in America. Harrisburg: Pennsylvania Bankers Association, 1976.

Davis, Lance, and Robert E. Gallman. “Capital Formation in the United States during the Nineteenth Century.” In Cambridge Economic History of Europe (Vol. 7, Part 2), edited by Peter Mathias and M.M. Postan, 1-69. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978.

Davis, Lance, and Robert E. Gallman. “Savings, Investment, and Economic Growth: The United States in the Nineteenth Century.” In Capitalism in Context: Essays on Economic Development and Cultural Change in Honor of R.M. Hartwell, edited by John A. James and Mark Thomas, 202-29. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994.

Dewey, Davis R. State Banking before the Civil War. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1910.

Duke, Basil W. History of the Bank of Kentucky, 1792-1895. Louisville: J.P. Morton, 1895.

Dwyer, Gerald P., Jr. “Wildcat Banking, Banking Panics, and Free Banking in the United States.” Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta Economic Review 81, no. 3 (1996): 1-20.

Engerman, Stanley L., and Robert E. Gallman. “U.S. Economic Growth, 1783-1860.” Research in Economic History 8 (1983): 1-46.

Esary, Logan. State Banking in Indiana, 1814-1873. Indiana University Studies No. 15. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1912.

Fenstermaker, J. Van. The Development of American Commercial Banking, 1782-1837. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University, 1965.

Fenstermaker, J. Van, and John E. Filer. “Impact of the First and Second Banks of the United States and the Suffolk System on New England Bank Money, 1791-1837.” Journal of Money, Credit, and Banking 18, no. 1 (1986): 28-40.

Friedman, Milton, and Anna J. Schwartz. “Has the Government Any Role in Money?” Journal of Monetary Economics 17, no. 1 (1986): 37-62.

Gallman, Robert E. “American Economic Growth before the Civil War: The Testimony of the Capital Stock Estimates.” In American Economic Growth and Standards of Living before the Civil War, edited by Robert E. Gallman and John Joseph Wallis, 79-115. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.

Goldsmith, Raymond. Financial Structure and Development. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1969.

Golembe, Carter H. “The Deposit Insurance Legislation of 1933: An Examination of its Antecedents and Purposes.” Political Science Quarterly 76, no. 2 (1960): 181-200.

Golembe, Carter H. State Banks and the Economic Development of the West. New York: Arno Press, 1978.

Gouge, William M. A Short History of Paper Money and Banking in the United States. Philadelphia: T.W. Ustick, 1833.

Gras, N.S.B. The Massachusetts First National Bank of Boston, 1784-1934. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1937.

Green, George D. Finance and Economic Development in the Old South: Louisiana Banking, 1804-1861. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1972.

Hammond, Bray. Banks and Politics in America from the Revolution to the Civil War. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1957.

Hasse, William F., Jr. A History of Banking in New Haven, Connecticut. New Haven: privately printed, 1946.

Hasse, William F., Jr. A History of Money and Banking in Connecticut. New Haven: privately printed, 1957.

Holdsworth, John Thom. Financing an Empire: History of Banking in Pennsylvania. Chicago: S.J. Clarke Publishing Company, 1928.

Huntington, Charles Clifford. A History of Banking and Currency in Ohio before the Civil War. Columbus: F. J. Herr Printing Company, 1915.

Knox, John Jay. A History of Banking in the United States. New York: Bradford Rhodes & Company, 1903.

Kuznets, Simon. “Foreword.” In Financial Intermediaries in the American Economy, by Raymond W. Goldsmith. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1958.

Lake, Wilfred. “The End of the Suffolk System.” Journal of Economic History 7, no. 4 (1947): 183-207.

Lamoreaux, Naomi R. Insider Lending: Banks, Personal Connections, and Economic Development in Industrial New England. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Lesesne, J. Mauldin. The Bank of the State of South Carolina. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1970.

Lewis, Lawrence, Jr. A History of the Bank of North America: The First Bank Chartered in the United States. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott & Company, 1882.

Lockard, Paul A. Banks, Insider Lending and Industries of the Connecticut River Valley of Massachusetts, 1813-1860. Unpublished Ph.D. thesis, University of Massachusetts, 2000.

Martin, Joseph G. A Century of Finance. New York: Greenwood Press, 1969.

Moulton, H.G. “Commercial Banking and Capital Formation.” Journal of Political Economy 26 (1918): 484-508, 638-63, 705-31, 849-81.

Mullineaux, Donald J. “Competitive Monies and the Suffolk Banking System: A Contractual Perspective.” Southern Economic Journal 53 (1987): 884-98.

Nevins, Allan. History of the Bank of New York and Trust Company, 1784 to 1934. New York: privately printed, 1934.

New York. Bank Commissioners. “Annual Report of the Bank Commissioners.” New York General Assembly Document No. 74. Albany, 1835.

North, Douglass. “Institutional Change in American Economic History.” In American Economic Development in Historical Perspective, edited by Thomas Weiss and Donald Schaefer, 87-98. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1994.

Rappaport, George David. Stability and Change in Revolutionary Pennsylvania: Banking, Politics, and Social Structure. University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1996.

Redlich, Fritz. The Molding of American Banking: Men and Ideas. New York: Hafner Publishing Company, 1947.

Rockoff, Hugh. “The Free Banking Era: A Reexamination.” Journal of Money, Credit, and Banking 6, no. 2 (1974): 141-67.

Rockoff, Hugh. “New Evidence on the Free Banking Era in the United States.” American Economic Review 75, no. 4 (1985): 886-89.

Rolnick, Arthur J., and Warren E. Weber. “Free Banking, Wildcat Banking, and Shinplasters.” Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis Quarterly Review 6 (1982): 10-19.

Rolnick, Arthur J., and Warren E. Weber. “New Evidence on the Free Banking Era.” American Economic Review 73, no. 5 (1983): 1080-91.

Rolnick, Arthur J., Bruce D. Smith, and Warren E. Weber. “Lessons from a Laissez-Faire Payments System: The Suffolk Banking System (1825-58).” Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis Quarterly Review 22, no. 3 (1998): 11-21.

Royalty, Dale. “Banking and the Commonwealth Ideal in Kentucky, 1806-1822.” Register of the Kentucky Historical Society 77 (1979): 91-107.

Schumpeter, Joseph A. The Theory of Economic Development: An Inquiry into Profit, Capital, Credit, Interest, and the Business Cycle. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1934.

Schweikart, Larry. Banking in the American South from the Age of Jackson to Reconstruction. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1987.

Simonton, William G. Maine and the Panic of 1837. Unpublished master’s thesis: University of Maine, 1971.

Sokoloff, Kenneth L. “Productivity Growth in Manufacturing during Early Industrialization.” In Long-Term Factors in American Economic Growth, edited by Stanley L. Engerman and Robert E. Gallman. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986.

Sokoloff, Kenneth L. “Invention, Innovation, and Manufacturing Productivity Growth in the Antebellum Northeast.” In American Economic Growth and Standards of Living before the Civil War, edited by Robert E. Gallman and John Joseph Wallis, 345-78. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.

Spencer, Charles, Jr. The First Bank of Boston, 1784-1949. New York: Newcomen Society, 1949.

Starnes, George T. Sixty Years of Branch Banking in Virginia. New York: Macmillan Company, 1931.

Stokes, Howard Kemble. Chartered Banking in Rhode Island, 1791-1900. Providence: Preston & Rounds Company, 1902.

Sylla, Richard. “Forgotten Men of Money: Private Bankers in Early U.S. History.” Journal of Economic History 36, no. 2 (1976):

Temin, Peter. The Jacksonian Economy. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1969.

Trescott, Paul B. Financing American Enterprise: The Story of Commercial Banking. New York: Harper & Row, 1963.

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U.S. Comptroller of the Currency. Annual Report of the Comptroller of the Currency. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1931.

Wainwright, Nicholas B. History of the Philadelphia National Bank. Philadelphia: William F. Fell Company, 1953.

Walker, Amasa. History of the Wickaboag Bank. Boston: Crosby, Nichols & Company, 1857.

Wallis, John Joseph. “What Caused the Panic of 1839?” Unpublished working paper, University of Maryland, October 2000.

Weiss, Thomas. “U.S. Labor Force Estimates and Economic Growth, 1800-1860.” In American Economic Growth and Standards of Living before the Civil War, edited by Robert E. Gallman and John Joseph Wallis, 19-75. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.

Whitney, David R. The Suffolk Bank. Cambridge, MA: Riverside Press, 1878.

Wright, Robert E. “Artisans, Banks, Credit, and the Election of 1800.” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 122, no. 3 (July 1998), 211-239.

Wright, Robert E. “Bank Ownership and Lending Patterns in New York and Pennsylvania, 1781-1831.” Business History Review 73, no. 1 (Spring 1999), 40-60.

1 Banknotes were small demonination IOUs printed by banks and circulated as currency. Modern U.S. money are simply banknotes issued by the Federal Reserve Bank, which has a monopoly privilege in the issue of legal tender currency. In antebellum American, when a bank made a loan, the borrower was typically handed banknotes with a face value equal to the dollar value of the loan. The borrower then spent these banknotes in purchasing goods and services, putting them into circulation. Contemporary law held that banks were required to redeem banknotes into gold and silver legal tender on demand. Banks found it profitable to issue notes because they typically held about 30 percent of the total value of banknotes in circulation as reserves. Thus, banks were able to leverage $30 in gold and silver into $100 in loans that returned about 7 percent interest on average.

2 Paul Lockard (2000) challenges Lamoreaux’s interpretation. In a study of 4 banks in the Connecticut River valley, Lockard finds that insiders did not dominate these banks’ resources. As provocative as Lockard’s findings are, he draws conclusions from a small and unrepresentative sample. Two of his four sample banks were savings banks, which were designed as quasi-charitable organizations designed to encourage savings by the working classes and provide small loans. Thus, Lockard’s sample is effectively reduced to two banks. At these two banks, he identifies about 10 percent of loans as insider loans, but readily admits that he cannot always distinguish between insiders and outsiders. For a recent study of how early Americans used savings banks, see Alter, Goldin and Rotella (1994). The literature on savings banks is so large that it cannot be be given its due here.

3 Interbank clearing involves the settling of balances between banks. Modern banks cash checks drawn on other banks and credit the funds to the depositor. The Federal Reserve system provides clearing services between banks. The accepting bank sends the checks to the Federal Reserve, who credits the sending bank’s accounts and sends the checks back to the bank on which they were drawn for reimbursement. In the antebellum era, interbank clearing involved sending banknotes back to issuing banks. Because New England had so many small and scattered banks, the costs of returning banknotes to their issuers were large and sometimes avoided by recirculating notes of distant banks rather than returning them. Regular clearings and redemptions served an important purpose, however, because they kept banks in touch with the current market conditions. A massive redemption of notes was indicative of a declining demand for money and credit. Because the bank’s reserves were drawn down with the redemptions, it was forced to reduce its volume of loans in accord with changing demand conditions.

4 The law held that banknotes were redeemable on demand into gold or silver coin or bullion. If a bank refused to redeem even a single $1 banknote, the banknote holder could have the bank closed and liquidated to recover his or her claim against it.

5 Rappaport (1996) found that the bank’s loans were about equally divided between insiders (shareholders and shareholders’ family and business associates) and outsiders, but nonshareholders received loans about 30 percent smaller than shareholders. The issue remains about whether this bank was an “insider” bank, and depends largely on one’s definition. Any modern bank which made half of its loans to shareholders and their families would be viewed as an “insider” bank. It is less clear where the line can be usefully drawn for antebellum banks.

6 Real-bills lending followed from a nineteenth-century banking philosophy, which held that bank lending should be used to finance the warehousing or wholesaling of already-produced goods. Loans made on these bases were thought to be self-liquidating in that the loan was made against readily sold collateral actually in the hands of a merchant. Under the real-bills doctrine, the banks’ proper functions were to bridge the gap between production and retail sale of goods. A strict adherence to real-bills tenets excluded loans on property (mortgages), loans on goods in process (trade credit), or loans to start-up firms (venture capital). Thus, real-bills lending prescribed a limited role for banks and bank credit. Few banks were strict adherents to the doctrine, but many followed it in large part.

7 Robert E. Wright (1998) offers a different interpretation, but notes that Burr pushed the bill through at the end of a busy legislative session so that many legislators voted on the bill without having read it thoroughly or at all.

An Economic History of Patent Institutions

B. Zorina Khan, Bowdoin College


Such scholars as Max Weber and Douglass North have suggested that intellectual property systems had an important impact on the course of economic development. However, questions from other eras are still current today, ranging from whether patents and copyrights constitute optimal policies toward intellectual inventions and their philosophical rationale to the growing concerns of international political economy. Throughout their history, patent and copyright regimes have confronted and accommodated technological innovations that were no less significant and contentious for their time than those of the twenty-first century. An economist from the nineteenth century would have been equally familiar with considerations about whether uniformity in intellectual property rights across countries harmed or benefited global welfare and whether piracy might be to the advantage of developing countries. The nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in particular witnessed considerable variation in the intellectual property policies that individual countries implemented, and this allows economic historians to determine the consequences of different rules and standards.

This article outlines crucial developments in the patent policies of Europe, the United States, and follower countries. The final section discusses the harmonization of international patent laws that occurred after the middle of the nineteenth century.


The British Patent System

The grant of exclusive property rights vested in patents developed from medieval guild practices in Europe. Britain in particular is noted for the establishment of a patent system which has been in continuous operation for a longer period than any other in the world. English monarchs frequently used patents to reward favorites with privileges, such as monopolies over trade that increased the retail prices of commodities. It was not until the seventeenth century that patents were associated entirely with awards to inventors, when Section 6 of the Statute of Monopolies (21 Jac. I. C. 3, 1623, implemented in 1624) repealed the practice of royal monopoly grants to all except patentees of inventions. The Statute of Monopolies allowed patent rights of fourteen years for “the sole making or working of any manner of new manufacture within this realm to the first and true inventor…” Importers of foreign discoveries were allowed to obtain domestic patent protection in their own right.

The British patent system established significant barriers in the form of prohibitively high costs that limited access to property rights in invention to a privileged few. Patent fees for England alone amounted to £100-£120 ($585) or approximately four times per capita income in 1860. The fee for a patent that also covered Scotland and Ireland could cost as much as £350 pounds ($1,680). Adding a co-inventor was likely to increase the costs by another £24. Patents could be extended only by a private Act of Parliament, which required political influence, and extensions could cost as much as £700. These constraints favored the elite class of those with wealth, political connections or exceptional technical qualifications, and consciously created disincentives for inventors from humble backgrounds. Patent fees provided an important source of revenues for the Crown and its employees, and created a class of administrators who had strong incentives to block proposed reforms.

In addition to the monetary costs, complicated administrative procedures that inventors had to follow implied that transactions costs were also high. Patent applications for England alone had to pass through seven offices, from the Home Secretary to the Lord Chancellor, and twice required the signature of the Sovereign. If the patent were extended to Scotland and Ireland it was necessary to negotiate another five offices in each country. The cumbersome process of patent applications (variously described as “mediaeval” and “fantastical”) afforded ample material for satire, but obviously imposed severe constraints on the ordinary inventor who wished to obtain protection for his discovery. These features testify to the much higher monetary and transactions costs, in both absolute and relative terms, of obtaining property rights to inventions in England in comparison to the United States. Such costs essentially restricted the use of the patent system to inventions of high value and to applicants who already possessed or could raise sufficient capital to apply for the patent. The complicated system also inhibited the diffusion of information and made it difficult, if not impossible, for inventors outside of London to readily conduct patent searches. Patent specifications were open to public inspection on payment of a fee, but until 1852 they were not officially printed, published or indexed. Since the patent could be filed in any of three offices in Chancery, searches of the prior art involved much time and inconvenience. Potential patentees were well advised to obtain the help of a patent agent to aid in negotiating the numerous steps and offices that were required for pursuit of the application in London.

In the second half of the eighteenth century, nation-wide lobbies of manufacturers and patentees expressed dissatisfaction with the operation of the British patent system. However, it was not until after the Crystal Palace Exhibition in 1851 that their concerns were finally addressed, in an effort to meet the burgeoning competition from the United States. In 1852 the efforts of numerous societies and of individual engineers, inventors and manufacturers over many decades were finally rewarded. Parliament approved the Patent Law Amendment Act, which authorized the first major adjustment of the system in two centuries. The new patent statutes incorporated features that drew on testimonials to the superior functioning of the American patent regime. Significant changes in the direction of the American system included lower fees and costs, and the application procedures were rationalized into a single Office of the Commissioners of Patents for Inventions, or “Great Seal Patent Office.”

The 1852 patent reform bills included calls for a U.S.-style examination system but this was amended in the House of Commons and the measure was not included in the final version. Opponents were reluctant to vest examiners with the necessary discretionary power, and pragmatic observers pointed to the shortage of a cadre of officials with the required expertise. The law established a renewal system that required the payment of fees in installments if the patentee wished to maintain the patent for the full term. Patentees initially paid £25 and later installments of £50 (after three years) and £100 (after seven years) to maintain the patent for a full term of fourteen years. Despite the relatively low number of patents granted in England, between 1852 and 1880 the patent office still made a profit of over £2 million. Provision was made for the printing and publication of the patent records. The 1852 reforms undoubtedly instituted improvements over the former opaque procedures, and the lower fees had an immediate impact. Nevertheless, the system retained many of the former features that had implied that patents were in effect viewed as privileges rather than merited rights, and only temporarily abated expressions of dissatisfaction.

One source of dissatisfaction that endured until the end of the nineteenth century was the state of the common law regarding patents. At least partially in reaction to a history of abuse of patent privileges, patents were widely viewed as monopolies that restricted community rights, and thus to be carefully monitored and narrowly construed. Second, British patents were granted “by the grace of the Crown” and therefore were subject to any restrictions that the government cared to impose. According to the statutes, as a matter of national expediency, patents were to be granted if “they be not contrary to the law, nor mischievous to the State, by raising prices of commodities at home, or to the hurt of trade, or generally inconvenient.” The Crown possessed the ability to revoke any patents that were deemed inconvenient or contrary to public policy. After 1855, the government could also appeal to a need for official secrecy to prohibit the publication of patent specifications in order to protect national security and welfare. Moreover, the state could commandeer a patentee’s invention without compensation or consent, although in some cases the patentee was paid a royalty.

Policies towards patent assignments and trade in intellectual property rights also constrained the market for inventions. Ever vigilant to protect an unsuspecting public from fraudulent financial schemes on the scale of the South Sea Bubble, ownership of patent rights was limited to five investors (later extended to twelve). Nevertheless, the law did not offer any relief to the purchaser of an invalid or worthless patent, so potential purchasers were well advised to engage in extensive searches before entering into contracts. When coupled with the lack of assurance inherent in a registration system, the purchase of a patent right involved a substantive amount of risk and high transactions costs — all indicative of a speculative instrument. It is therefore not surprising that the market for assignments and licenses seems to have been quite limited, and even in the year after the 1852 reforms only 273 assignments were recorded.

In 1883 new legislation introduced procedures that were somewhat simpler, with fewer steps. The fees fell to £4 for the initial term of four years, and the remaining £150 could be paid in annual increments. For the first time, applications could be forwarded to the Patent Office through the post office. This statute introduced opposition proceedings, which enabled interested parties to contest the proposed patent within two months of the filing of the patent specifications. Compulsory licenses were introduced in 1883 (and strengthened in 1919 as “licenses of right”) for fear that foreign inventors might injure British industry by refusing to grant other manufacturers the right to use their patent. The 1883 act provided for the employment of “examiners” but their activity was limited to ensuring that the material was patentable and properly described. Indeed, it was not until 1902 that the British system included an examination for novelty, and even then the process was not regarded as stringent as in other countries. Many new provisions were designed to thwart foreign competition. Until 1907 patentees who manufactured abroad were required to also make the patented product in Britain. Between 1919 and 1949 chemical products were excluded from patent protection to counter the threat posed by the superior German chemical industry. Licenses of right enabled British manufacturers to compel foreign patentees to permit the use of their patents on pharmaceuticals and food products.

In sum, changes in the British patent system were initially unforthcoming despite numerous calls for change. Ultimately, the realization that England’s early industrial and technological supremacy was threatened by the United States and other nations in Europe led to a slow process of revisions that lasted well into the twentieth century. One commentator summed up the series of developments by declaring that the British patent system at the time of writing (1967) remained essentially “a modified version of a pre-industrial economic institution.”

The French Patent System

Early French policies towards inventions and innovations in the eighteenth century were based on an extensive but somewhat arbitrary array of rewards and incentives. During this period inventors or introducers of inventions could benefit from titles, pensions that sometimes extended to spouses and offspring, loans (some interest-free), lump-sum grants, bounties or subsidies for production, exemptions from taxes, or monopoly grants in the form of exclusive privileges. This complex network of state policies towards inventors and their inventions was revised but not revoked after the outbreak of the French Revolution.

The modern French patent system was established according to the laws of 1791 (amended in 1800) and 1844. Patentees filed through a simple registration system without any need to specify what was new about their claim, and could persist in obtaining the grant even if warned that the patent was likely to be legally invalid. On each patent document the following caveat was printed: “The government, in granting a patent without prior examination, does not in any manner guarantee either the priority, merit or success of an invention.” The inventor decided whether to obtain a patent for a period of five, ten or fifteen years, and the term could only be extended through legislative action. Protection extended to all methods and manufactured articles, but excluded theoretical or scientific discoveries without practical application, financial methods, medicines, and items that could be covered by copyright.

The 1791 statute stipulated patent fees that were costly, ranging from 300 livres through 1500 livres, based on the declared term of the patent. The 1844 statute maintained this policy since fees were set at 500 francs ($100) for a five year patent, 1000 francs for a 10 year patent and 1500 for a patent of fifteen years, payable in annual installments. In an obvious attempt to limit international diffusion of French discoveries, until 1844 patents were voided if the inventor attempted to obtain a patent overseas on the same invention. On the other hand, the first introducer of an invention covered by a foreign patent would enjoy the same “natural rights” as the patentee of an original invention or improvement. Patentees had to put the invention into practice within two years from the initial grant, or face a tribunal which had the power to repeal the patent, unless the patentee could point to unforeseen events which had prevented his complying with the provisions of the law. The rights of patentees were also restricted if the invention related to items that were controlled by the French government, such as printing presses and firearms.

In return for the limited monopoly right, the patentee was expected to describe the invention in such terms that a workman skilled in the arts could replicate the invention and this information was expected to be made public. However, no provision was made for the publication or diffusion of these descriptions. At least until the law of April 7 1902, specifications were only available in manuscript form in the office in which they had originally been lodged, and printed information was limited to brief titles in patent indexes. The attempt to obtain information on the prior art was also inhibited by restrictions placed on access: viewers had to state their motives; foreigners had to be assisted by French attorneys; and no extract from the manuscript could be copied until the patent had expired.

The state remained involved in the discretionary promotion of invention and innovation through policies beyond the granting of patents. In the first place, the patent statutes did not limit their offer of potential appropriation of returns only to property rights vested in patents. The inventor of a discovery of proven utility could choose between a patent or making a gift of the invention to the nation in exchange for an award from funds that were set aside for the encouragement of industry. Second, institutions such as the Société d’encouragement pour l’industrie nationale awarded a number of medals each year to stimulate new discoveries in areas they considered to be worth pursuing, and also to reward deserving inventors and manufacturers. Third, the award of assistance and pensions to inventors and their families continued well into the nineteenth century. Fourth, at times the Society purchased patent rights and turned the invention over into the public domain.

The basic principles of the modern French patent system were evident in the early French statutes and were retained in later revisions. Since France during the ancien régime was likely the first country to introduce systematic examinations of applications for privileges, it is somewhat ironic that commentators point to the retention of registration without prior examination as the defining feature of the “French system” until 1978. In 1910 fees remained high, although somewhat lower in real terms, at one hundred francs per year. Working requirements were still in place, and patentees were not allowed to satisfy the requirement by importing the article even if the patentee had manufactured it in another European country. However, the requirement was waived if the patentee could persuade the tribunal that the patent was not worked because of unavoidable circumstances.

Similar problems were evident in the market for patent rights. Contracts for patent assignments were filed in the office of the Prefect for the district, but since there was no central source of information it was difficult to trace the records for specific inventions. The annual fees for the entire term of the patent had to be paid in advance if the patent was assigned to a second party. Like patents themselves, assignments and licenses were issued with a caveat emptor clause. This was partially due to the nature of patent property under a registration system, and partially to the uncertainties of legal jurisprudence in this area. For both buyer and seller, the uncertainties associated with the exchange likely reduced the net expected value of trade.

The Spanish Patent System

French patent laws were adopted in its colonies, but also diffused to other countries through its influence on Spain’s system following the Spanish Decree of 1811. The Spanish experience during the nineteenth century is instructive since this country experienced lower rates and levels of economic development than the early industrializers. Like its European neighbors, early Spanish rules and institutions were vested in privileges which had lasting effects that could be detected even in the later period. The per capita rate of patenting in Spain was lower than other major European countries, and foreigners filed the majority of patented inventions. Between 1759 and 1878, roughly one half of all grants were to citizens of other countries, notably France and (to a lesser extent) Britain. Thus, the transfer of foreign technology was a major concern in the political economy of Spain.

This dependence on foreign technologies was reflected in the structure of the Spanish patent system, which permitted patents of introduction as well as patents for invention. Patents of introduction were granted to entrepreneurs who wished to produce foreign technologies that were new to Spain, with no requirement of claims to being the true inventor. Thus, the sole objective of these instruments was to enhance innovation and production in Spain. Since the owners of introduction patents could not prevent third parties from importing similar machines from abroad, they also had an incentive to maintain reasonable pricing structures. Introduction patents had a term of only five years, with a cost of 3000 reales, whereas the fees of patents for invention varied from 1000 reales for five years, 3000 reales for ten years, and 6000 reales for a term of fifteen years. Patentees were required to work the patent within one year, and about a quarter of patents granted between 1826 and 1878 were actually implemented. Since patents of introduction had a brief term, they encouraged the production of items with high expected profits and a quick payback period, after which monopoly rights expired, and the country could benefit from its diffusion.

The German Patent System

The German patent system was influenced by developments in the United States, and itself influenced legislation in Argentina, Austria, Brazil, Denmark, Finland, Holland, Norway, Poland, Russia and Sweden. The German Empire was founded in 1871, and in the first six years each state adopted its own policies. Alsace-Lorraine favored a French-style system, whereas others such as Hamburg and Bremen did not offer patent protection. However, after strong lobbying by supporters of both sides of the debate regarding the merits of patent regimes, Germany passed a unified national Patent Act of 1877.

The 1877 statute created a centralized administration for the grant of a federal patent for original inventions. Industrial entrepreneurs succeeded in their objective of creating a “first to file” system, so patents were granted to the first applicant rather than to the “first and true inventor,” but in 1936 the National Socialists introduced a first to invent system. Applications were examined by examiners in the Patent Office who were expert in their field. During the eight weeks before the grant, patent applications were open to the public and an opposition could be filed denying the validity of the patent. German patent fees were deliberately high to eliminate protection for trivial inventions, with a renewal system that required payment of 30 marks for the first year, 50 marks for the second year, 100 marks for the third, and 50 marks annually after the third year. In 1923 the patent term was extended from fifteen years to eighteen years.

German patent policies encouraged diffusion, innovation and growth in specific industries with a view to fostering economic development. Patents could not be obtained for food products, pharmaceuticals or chemical products, although the process through which such items were produced could be protected. It has been argued that the lack of restrictions on the use of innovations and the incentives to patent around existing processes spurred productivity and diffusion in these industries. The authorities further ensured the diffusion of patent information by publishing claims and specification before they were granted. The German patent system also facilitated the use of inventions by firms, with the early application of a “work for hire” doctrine that allowed enterprises access to the rights and benefits of inventions of employees.

Although the German system was close to the American patent system, it was in other ways more stringent, resulting in patent grants that were lower in number, but likely higher in average value. The patent examination process required that the patent should be new, nonobvious, and also capable of producing greater efficiency. As in the United States, once granted, the courts adopted an extremely liberal attitude in interpreting and enforcing existing patent rights. Penalties for willful infringement included not only fines, but also the possibility of imprisonment. The grant of a patent could be revoked after the first three years if the patent was not worked, if the owner refused to grant licenses for the use of an invention that was deemed in the public interest, or if the invention was primarily being exploited outside of Germany. However, in most cases, a compulsory license was regarded as adequate.

After 1891 a parallel and weaker version of patent protection could be obtained through a gebrauchsmuster or utility patent (sometimes called a petty patent), which was granted through a registration system. Patent protection was available for inventions that could be represented by drawings or models with only a slight degree of novelty, and for a limited term of three years (renewable once for a total life of six years). About twice as many utility patents as examined patents were granted early in the 1930s. Patent protection based on co-existing systems of registration and examination appears to have served distinct but complementary purposes. Remedies for infringement of utility patents also included fines and imprisonment.

Other European Patent Systems

Very few developed countries would now seriously consider eliminating statutory protection for inventions, but in the second half of the nineteenth century the “patent controversy” in Europe pitted advocates of patent rights against an effective abolitionist movement. For a short period, the abolitionists were strong enough to obtain support for dismantling patent systems in a number of European countries. In 1863 the Congress of German Economists declared “patents of invention are injurious to common welfare;” and the movement achieved its greatest victory in Holland, which repealed its patent legislation in 1869. The Swiss cantons did not adopt patent protection until 1888, with an extension in the scope of coverage in 1907. The abolitionists based their arguments on the benefits of free trade and competition, and viewed patents as part of an anticompetitive and protectionist strategy analogous to tariffs on imports. Instead of state-sponsored monopoly awards, they argued, inventors could be rewarded by alternative policies, such as stipends from the government, payments from private industry or associations formed for that purpose, or simply through the lead time that the first inventor acquired over competitors by virtue of his prior knowledge.

According to one authority, the Netherlands eventually reinstated its patent system in 1912 and Switzerland introduced patent laws in 1888 largely because of a keen sense of morality, national pride and international pressure to do so. The appeal to “morality” as an explanatory factor is incapable of explaining the timing and nature of changes in strategies. Nineteenth-century institutions were not exogenous and their introduction or revisions generally reflected the outcome of a self-interested balancing of costs and benefits. The Netherlands and Switzerland were initially able to benefit from their ability to free-ride on the investments that other countries had made in technological advances. As for the cost of lower incentives for discoveries by domestic inventors, the Netherlands was never vaunted as a leader in technological innovation, and this is reflected in their low per capita patenting rates both before and after the period without patent laws. They recorded a total of only 4561 patents in the entire period from 1800 to 1869 and, even after adjusting for population, the Dutch patenting rate in 1869 was a mere 13.4 percent of the U.S. patenting rate. Moreover, between 1851 and 1865 88.6 percent of patents in the Netherlands had been granted to foreigners. After the patent laws were reintroduced in 1912, the major beneficiaries were again foreign inventors, who obtained 79.3 of the patents issued in the Netherlands. Thus, the Netherlands had little reason to adopt patent protection, except for external political pressures and the possibility that some types of foreign investment might be deterred.

The case was somewhat different for Switzerland, which was noted for being innovative, but in a narrow range of pursuits. Since the scale of output and markets were quite limited, much of Swiss industry generated few incentives for invention. A number of the industries in which the Swiss excelled, such as hand-made watches, chocolates and food products, were less susceptible to invention that warranted patent protection. For instance, despite the much larger consumer market in the United States, during the entire nineteenth century fewer than 300 U.S. patents related to chocolate composition or production. Improvements in pursuits such as watch-making could be readily protected by trade secrecy as long as the industry remained artisanal. However, with increased mechanization and worker mobility, secrecy would ultimately prove to be ineffective, and innovators would be unable to appropriate returns without more formal means of exclusion.

According to contemporary observers, the Swiss resolved to introduce patent legislation not because of a sudden newfound sense of morality, but because they feared that American manufacturers were surpassing them as a result of patented innovations in the mass production of products such as boots, shoes and watches. Indeed, before 1890, American inventors obtained more than 2068 patents on watches, and the U.S. watch making industry benefited from mechanization and strong economies of scale that led to rapidly falling prices of output, making them more competitive internationally. The implications are that the rates of industrial and technical progress in the United States were more rapid, and technological change was rendering artisanal methods obsolete in products with mass markets. Thus, the Swiss endogenously adopted patent laws because of falling competitiveness in their key industrial sectors.

What was the impact of the introduction of patent protection in Switzerland? Foreign inventors could obtain patents in the United States regardless of their domestic legislation, so we can approach this question tangentially by examining the patterns of patenting in the United States by Swiss residents before and after the 1888 reforms. Between 1836 and 1888, Swiss residents obtained a grand total of 585 patents in the United States. Fully a third of these patents were for watches and music boxes, and only six were for textiles or dyeing, industries in which Switzerland was regarded as competitive early on. Swiss patentees were more oriented to the international market, rather than the small and unprotected domestic market where they could not hope to gain as much from their inventions. For instance, in 1872 Jean-Jacques Mullerpack of Basel collaborated with Leon Jarossonl of Lille, France to invent an improvement in dyeing black with aniline colors, which they assigned to William Morgan Brown of London, England. Another Basel inventor, Alfred Kern, assigned his 1883 patent for violet aniline dyes to the Badische Anilin and Soda Fabrik of Mannheim, Germany.

After the patent reforms, the rate of Swiss patenting in the United States immediately increased. Swiss patentees obtained an annual average of 32.8 patents in the United States in the decade before the patent law was enacted in Switzerland. After the Swiss allowed patenting, this figure increased to an average of 111 each year in the following six years, and in the period from 1895 to 1900 a total of 821 Swiss patents were filed in the United States. The decadal rate of patenting per million residents increased from 111.8 for the ten years up to the reforms, to 451 per million residents in the 1890s, 513 in the 1900s, 458 in the 1910s and 684 in the 1920s. U.S. statutes required worldwide novelty, and patents could not be granted for discoveries that had been in prior use, so the increase was not due to a backlog of trade secrets that were now patented.

Moreover, the introduction of Swiss patent laws also affected the direction of inventions that Swiss residents patented in the United States. After the passage of the law, such patents covered a much broader range of inventions, including gas generators, textile machines, explosives, turbines, paints and dyes, and drawing instruments and lamps. The relative importance of watches and music boxes immediately fell from about a third before the reforms to 6.2 percent and 2.1 percent respectively in the 1890s and even further to 3.8 percent and 0.3 percent between 1900 and 1909. Another indication that international patenting was not entirely unconnected to domestic Swiss inventions can be discerned from the fraction of Swiss patents (filed in the U.S.) that related to process innovations. Before 1888, 21 percent of the patent specifications mentioned a process. Between 1888 and 1907, the Swiss statutes included the requirement that patents should include mechanical models, which precluded patenting of pure processes. The fraction of specifications that mentioned a process fell during the period between 1888 and 1907, but returned to 22 percent when the restriction was modified in 1907.

In short, although the Swiss experience is often cited as proof of the redundancy of patent protection, the limitations of this special case should be taken into account. The domestic market was quite small and offered minimal opportunity or inducements for inventors to take advantage of economies of scale or cost-reducing innovations. Manufacturing tended to cluster in a few industries where innovation was largely irrelevant, such as premium chocolates, or in artisanal production that was susceptible to trade secrecy, such as watches and music boxes. In other areas, notably chemicals, dyes and pharmaceuticals, Swiss industries were export-oriented, but even today their output tends to be quite specialized and high-valued rather than mass-produced. Export-oriented inventors were likely to have been more concerned about patent protection in the important overseas markets, rather than in the home market. Thus, between 1888 and 1907, although Swiss laws excluded patents for chemicals, pharmaceuticals and dyes, 20.7 percent of the Swiss patents filed in the United States were for just these types of inventions. The scanty evidence on Switzerland suggests that the introduction of patent rights was accompanied by changes in the rate and direction of inventive activity. In any event, both the Netherlands and Switzerland featured unique circumstances that seem to hold few lessons for developing countries today.

The Patent System in the United States

The United States stands out as having established one of the most successful patent systems in the world. Over six million patents have been issued since 1790, and American industrial supremacy has frequently been credited to its favorable treatment of inventors and the inducements held out for inventive activity. The first Article of the U.S. Constitution included a clause to “promote the Progress of Science and the useful Arts by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.” Congress complied by passing a patent statute in April 1790. The United States created in 1836 the first modern patent institution in the world, a system whose features differed in significant respects from those of other major countries. The historical record indicates that the legislature’s creation of a uniquely American system was a deliberate and conscious process of promoting open access to the benefits of private property rights in inventions. The laws were enforced by a judiciary which was willing to grapple with difficult questions such as the extent to which a democratic and market-oriented political economy was consistent with exclusive rights. Courts explicitly attempted to implement decisions that promoted economic growth and social welfare.

The primary feature of the “American system” is that all applications are subject to an examination for conformity with the laws and for novelty. An examination system was set in place in 1790, when a select committee consisting of the Secretary of State (Thomas Jefferson), the Attorney General and the Secretary of War scrutinized the applications. These duties proved to be too time-consuming for highly ranked officials who had other onerous duties, so three years later it was replaced by a registration system. The validity of patents was left up to the district courts, which had the power to set in motion a process that could end in the repeal of the patent. However by the 1830s this process was viewed as cumbersome and the statute that was passed in 1836 set in place the essential structure of the current patent system. In particular, the 1836 Patent Law established the Patent Office, whose trained and technically qualified employees were authorized to examine applications. Employees of the Patent Office were not permitted to obtain patent rights. In order to constrain the ability of examiners to engage in arbitrary actions, the applicant was given the right to file a bill in equity to contest the decisions of the Patent Office with the further right of appeal to the Supreme Court of the United States.

American patent policy likewise stands out in its insistence on affordable fees. The legislature debated the question of appropriate fees, and the first patent law in 1790 set the rate at the minimal sum of $3.70 plus copy costs. In 1793 the fees were increased to $30, and were maintained at this level until 1861. In that year, they were raised to $35, and the term of the patent was changed from fourteen years (with the possibility of an extension) to seventeen years (with no extensions.) The 1869 Report of the Commissioner of Patents compared the $35 fee for a US patent to the significantly higher charges in European countries such as Britain, France, Russia ($450), Belgium ($420) and Austria ($350). The Commissioner speculated that both the private and social costs of patenting were lower in a system of impartial specialized examiners, than under a system where similar services were performed on a fee-per-service basis by private solicitors. He pointed out that in the U.S. the fees were not intended to exact a price for the patent privilege or to raise revenues for the state – the disclosure of information was the sole price for the patent property right – rather, they were imposed merely to cover the administrative expenses of the Office.

The basic parameters of the U.S. patent system were transparent and predictable, in itself an aid to those who wished to obtain patent rights. In addition, American legislators were concerned with ensuring that information about the stock of patented knowledge was readily available and diffused rapidly. As early as 1805 Congress stipulated that the Secretary of State should publish an annual list of patents granted the preceding year, and after 1832 also required the publication in newspapers of notices regarding expired patents. The Patent Office itself was a source of centralized information on the state of the arts. However, Congress was also concerned with the question of providing for decentralized access to patent materials. The Patent Office maintained repositories throughout the country, where inventors could forward their patent models at the expense of the Patent Office. Rural inventors could apply for patents without significant obstacles, because applications could be submitted by mail free of postage.

American laws employed the language of the English statute in granting patents to “the first and true inventor.” Nevertheless, unlike in England, the phrase was used literally, to grant patents for inventions that were original in the world, not simply within U.S. borders. American patent laws provided strong protection for citizens of the United States, but varied over time in its treatment of foreign inventors. Americans could not obtain patents for imported discoveries, but the earliest statutes of 1793, 1800 and 1832, restricted patent property to citizens or to residents who declared that they intended to become citizens. As such, while an American could not appropriate patent rights to a foreign invention, he could freely use the idea without any need to bear licensing or similar costs that would otherwise have been due if the inventor had been able to obtain a patent in this country. In 1836, the stipulations on citizenship or residency were removed, but were replaced with discriminatory patent fees: foreigners could obtain a patent in the U.S. for a fee of three hundred dollars, or five hundred if they were British. After 1861 patent rights (with the exception of caveats) were available to all applicants on the same basis without regard to nationality.

The American patent system was based on the presumption that social welfare coincided with the individual welfare of inventors. Accordingly, legislators rejected restrictions on the rights of American inventors. However, the 1832 and 1836 laws stipulated that foreigners had to exploit their patented invention within eighteen months. These clauses seem to have been interpreted by the courts in a fairly liberal fashion, since alien patentees “need not prove that they hawked the patented improvement to obtain a market for it, or that they endeavored to sell it to any person, but that it rested upon those who sought to defeat the patent to prove that the plaintiffs neglected or refused to sell the patented invention for reasonable prices when application was made to them to purchase.” Such provisions proved to be temporary aberrations and were not included in subsequent legislation. Working requirements or compulsory licenses were regarded as unwarranted infringements of the rights of “meritorious inventors,” and incompatible with the philosophy of U.S. patent grants. Patentees were not required to pay annuities to maintain their property, there were no opposition proceedings, and once granted a patent could not be revoked unless there was proven evidence of fraud.

One of the advantages of a system that secures property rights is that it facilitates contracts and trade. Assignments provide a straightforward index of the effectiveness of the American system, since trade in inventions would hardly proliferate if patent rights were uncertain or worthless. An extensive national network of licensing and assignments developed early on, aided by legal rulings that overturned contracts for useless or fraudulent patents. In 1845 the Patent Office recorded 2,108 assignments, which can be compared to the cumulative stock of 7188 patents that were still in force in that year. By the 1870s the number of assignments averaged over 9000 assignments per year, and this increased in the next decade to over 12,000 transactions recorded annually. This flourishing market for patented inventions provided an incentive for further inventive activity for inventors who were able to appropriate the returns from their efforts, and also linked patents and productivity growth.

Property rights are worth little unless they can be legally enforced in a consistent, certain, and predictable manner. A significant part of the explanation for the success of the American intellectual property system relates to the efficiency with which the laws were interpreted and implemented. United States federal courts from their inception attempted to establish a store of doctrine that fulfilled the intent of the Constitution to secure the rights of intellectual property owners. The judiciary acknowledged that inventive efforts varied with the extent to which inventors could appropriate the returns on their discoveries, and attempted to ensure that patentees were not unjustly deprived of the benefits from their inventions. Numerous reported decisions before the early courts declared that, rather than unwarranted monopolies, patent rights were “sacred” and to be regarded as the just recompense to inventive ingenuity. Early courts had to grapple with a number of difficult issues, such as the appropriate measure of damages, disputes between owners of conflicting patents, and how to protect the integrity of contracts when the law altered. Changes inevitably occurred when litigants and judiciary both adapted to a more complex inventive and economic environment. However, the system remained true to the Constitution in the belief that the defense of rights in patented invention was important in fostering industrial and economic development.

Economists such as Joseph Schumpeter have linked market concentration and innovation, and patent rights are often felt to encourage the establishment of monopoly enterprises. Thus, an important aspect of the enforcement of patents and intellectual property in general depends on competition or antitrust policies. The attitudes of the judiciary towards patent conflicts are primarily shaped by their interpretation of the monopoly aspect of the patent grant. The American judiciary in the early nineteenth century did not recognize patents as monopolies, arguing that patentees added to social welfare through innovations which had never existed before, whereas monopolists secured to themselves rights that already belong to the public. Ultimately, the judiciary came to openly recognize that the enforcement and protection of all property rights involved trade-offs between individual monopoly benefits and social welfare.

The passage of the Sherman Act in 1890 was associated with a populist emphasis on the need to protect the public from corporate monopolies, including those based on patent protection, and raised the prospect of conflicts between patent policies and the promotion of social welfare through industrial competition. Firms have rarely been charged directly with antitrust violations based on patent issues. At the same time, a number of landmark restraint of trade lawsuits have involved technological innovators. In the early decades of the 20th century these included innovative enterprises such as John Deere & Co., American Can and International Harvester, through to the numerous cases since 1970 against IBM, Xerox, Eastman Kodak and, most recently, Intel and Microsoft. The evidence suggests that, holding other factors constant, more innovative firms and those with larger patent stocks are more likely to be charged with antitrust violations. A growing fraction of cases involve firms jointly charged with antitrust violations that are linked to patent based market power and to concerns about “innovation markets.”

The Japanese Patent System

Japan emerged from the Meiji era as a follower nation which deliberately designed institutions to try to emulate those of the most advanced industrial countries. Accordingly, in 1886 Takahashi Korekiyo was sent on a mission to examine patent systems in Europe and the United States. The Japanese envoy was not favorably impressed with the European countries in this regard. Instead, he reported: ” … we have looked about us to see what nations are the greatest, so that we could be like them; … and we said, `What is it that makes the United States such a great nation?’ and we investigated and we found it was patents, and we will have patents.” The first national patent statute in Japan was passed in 1888, and copied many features of the U.S. system, including the examination procedures.

However, even in the first statute, differences existed that reflected Japanese priorities and the “wise eclecticism of Japanese legislators.” For instance, patents were not granted to foreigners, protection could not be obtained for fashion, food products, or medicines, patents that were not worked within three years could be revoked, and severe remedies were imposed for infringement, including penal servitude. After Japan became a signatory of the Paris Convention a new law was passed in 1899, which amended existing legislation to accord with the agreements of the Convention, and extended protection to foreigners. The influence of the German laws were evident in subsequent reforms in 1909 (petty or utility patents were protected) and 1921 (protection was removed from chemical products, work for hire doctrines were adopted, and an opposition procedure was introduced). The Act of 1921 also permitted the state to revoke a patent grant on payment of appropriate compensation if it was deemed in the public interest. Medicines, food and chemical products could not be patented, but protection could be obtained for processes relating to their manufacture.

The modern Japanese patent system is an interesting amalgam of features drawn from the major patent institutions in the world. Patent applications are filed, and the applicants then have seven years within which they can request an examination. Before 1996 examined patents were published prior to the actual grant, and could be opposed before the final grant; but at present, opposition can only occur in the first six months after the initial grant. Patents are also given for utility models or incremental inventions which are required to satisfy a lower standard of novelty and nonobviousness and can be more quickly commercialized. It has been claimed that the Japanese system favors the filing of a plethora of narrowly defined claims for utility models that build on the more substantive contributions of patent grants, leading to the prospect of an anti-commons through “patent flooding.” Others argue that utility models aid diffusion and innovation in the early stages of the patent term, and that the pre-grant publication of patent specifications also promotes diffusion.

Harmonization of International Patent Laws

Today very few developed countries would seriously consider eliminating statutory protection for intellectual property, but in the second half of the nineteenth century the “patent controversy” pitted advocates of patent rights against an effective abolitionist movement. For a short period the latter group was strong enough to obtain support in favor of dismantling the patent systems in countries such as England, and in 1863 the Congress of German Economists declared “patents of invention are injurious to common welfare.” The movement achieved its greatest victory in Holland, which repealed its patent legislation in 1869. The abolitionists based their arguments on the benefits of free trade and competition and viewed patents as part of a protectionist strategy analogous to tariffs. Instead of monopoly awards to inventors, their efforts could be rewarded by alternative policies, such as stipends from the government, payments from private industry or associations formed for that purpose, or simply through the lead time that the first inventor acquired over competitors by virtue of his prior knowledge.

The decisive victory of the patent proponents shifted the focus of interest to the other extreme, and led to efforts to attain uniformity in intellectual property rights regimes across countries. Part of the impetus for change occurred because the costs of discordant national rules became more burdensome as the volume of international trade in industrial products grew over time. Americans were also concerned about the lack of protection accorded to their exhibits in the increasingly more prominent World’s Fairs. Indeed, the first international patent convention was held in Austria in 1873, at the suggestion of U.S. policy makers, who wanted to be certain that their inventors would be adequately protected at the International Exposition in Vienna that year. It also yielded an opportunity to protest the provisions in Austrian law which discriminated against foreigners, including a requirement that patents had to be worked within one year or risk invalidation. The Vienna Convention adopted several resolutions, including a recommendation that the United States opposed, in favor of compulsory licenses if they were deemed in the public interest. However, the convention followed U.S. lead and did not approve compulsory working requirements.

International conventions proliferated in subsequent years, and their tenor tended to reflect the opinions of the conveners. Their objective was not to reach compromise solutions that would reflect the needs and wishes of all participants, but rather to promote preconceived ideas. The overarching goal was to pursue uniform international patent laws, although there was little agreement about the finer points of these laws. It became clear that the goal of complete uniformity was not practicable, given the different objectives, ideologies and economic circumstances of participants. Nevertheless, in 1884 the International Union for the Protection of Industrial Property was signed by Belgium, Portugal, France, Guatemala, Italy, the Netherlands, San Salvador, Serbia, Spain and Switzerland. The United States became a member in 1887, and a significant number of developing countries followed suit, including Brazil, Bulgaria, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Ceylon, Mexico, Trinidad and Tobago and Indonesia, among others.

The United States was the most prolific patenting nation in the world, many of the major American enterprises owed their success to patents and were expanding into international markets, and the U.S. patent system was recognized as the most successful. It is therefore not surprising that patent harmonization implied convergence towards the American model despite resistance from other nations. Countries such as Germany were initially averse to extending equal protection to foreigners because they feared that their domestic industry would be overwhelmed by American patents. Ironically, because its patent laws were the most liberal towards patentees, the United States found itself with weaker bargaining abilities than nations who could make concessions by changing their provisions. The U.S. pressed for the adoption of reciprocity (which would ensure that American patentees were treated as favorably abroad as in the United States) but this principle was rejected in favor of “national treatment” (American patentees were to be granted the same rights as nationals of the foreign country). This likely influenced the U.S. tendency to use bilateral trade sanctions rather than multilateral conventions to obtain reforms in international patent policies.

It was commonplace in the nineteenth century to rationalize and advocate close links between trade policies, protection, and international laws regarding intellectual property. These links were evident at the most general philosophical level, and at the most specific, especially in terms of compulsory working requirements and provisions to allow imports by the patentee. For instance, the 1880 Paris Convention considered the question of imports of the patented product by the patentee. According to the laws of France, Mexico and Tunisia, such importation would result in the repeal of the patent grant. The Convention inserted an article that explicitly ruled out forfeiture of the patent under these circumstances, which led some French commentators to argue that “the laws on industrial property… will be truly disastrous if they do not have a counterweight in tariff legislation.” The movement to create an international patent system elucidated the fact that intellectual property laws do not exist in a vacuum, but are part of a bundle of rights that are affected by other laws and policies.


Appropriate institutions to promote creations in the material and intellectual sphere are especially critical because ideas and information are public goods that are characterized by nonrivalry and nonexclusion. Once the initial costs are incurred, ideas can be reproduced at zero marginal cost and it may be difficult to exclude others from their use. Thus, in a competitive market, public goods may suffer from underprovision or may never be created because of a lack of incentive on the part of the original provider who bears the initial costs but may not be able to appropriate the benefits. Market failure can be ameliorated in several ways, for instance through government provision, rewards or subsidies to original creators, private patronage, and through the creation of intellectual property rights.

Patents allow the initial producers a limited period during which they are able to benefit from a right of exclusion. If creativity is a function of expected profits, these grants to inventors have the potential to increase social production possibilities at lower cost. Disclosure requirements promote diffusion, and the expiration of the temporary monopoly right ultimately adds to the public domain. Overall welfare is enhanced if the social benefits of diffusion outweigh the deadweight and social costs of temporary exclusion. This period of exclusion may be costly for society, especially if future improvements are deterred, and if rent-seeking such as redistributive litigation results in wasted resources. Much attention has also been accorded to theoretical features of the optimal system, including the breadth, longevity, and height of patent and copyright grants.

However, strongly enforced rights do not always benefit the producers and owners of intellectual property rights, especially if there is a prospect of cumulative invention where follow-on inventors build on the first discovery. Thus, more nuanced models are ambivalent about the net welfare benefits of strong exclusive rights to inventions. Indeed, network models imply that the social welfare of even producers may increase from weak enforcement if more extensive use of the product increases the value to all users. Under these circumstances, the patent owner may benefit from the positive externalities created by piracy. In the absence of royalties, producers may appropriate returns through ancillary means, such as the sale of complementary items or improved reputation. In a variant of the durable-goods monopoly problem, it has been shown that piracy can theoretically increase the demand for products by ensuring that producers can credibly commit to uniform prices over time. Also in this vein, price and/or quality discrimination of non-private goods across pirates and legitimate users can result in net welfare benefits for society and for the individual firm. If the cost of imitation increases with quality, infringement can also benefit society if it causes firms to adopt a strategy of producing higher quality commodities.

Economic theorists who are troubled by the imperfections of intellectual property grants have proposed alternative mechanisms that lead to more satisfactory mathematical solutions. Theoretical analyses have advanced our understanding in this area, but such models by their nature cannot capture many complexities. They tend to overlook such factors as the potential for greater corruption or arbitrariness in the administration of alternatives to patents. Similarly, they fail to appreciate the role of private property rights in conveying information and facilitating markets, and their value in reducing risk and uncertainty for independent inventors with few private resources. The analysis becomes even less satisfactory when producers belong to different countries than consumers. Thus, despite the flurry of academic research on the economics of intellectual property, we have not progressed far beyond Fritz Machlup’s declaration that our state of knowledge does not allow to us to either recommend the introduction or the removal of such systems. Existing studies leave a wide area of ambiguity about the causes and consequences of institutional structures in general, and their evolution across time and region.

In the realm of intellectual property, questions from four centuries ago are still current, ranging from its philosophical underpinnings, to whether patents and copyrights constitute optimal policies towards intellectual inventions, to the growing concerns of international political economy. A number of scholars are so impressed with technological advances in the twenty-first century that they argue we have reached a critical juncture where we need completely new institutions. Throughout their history, patent and copyright regimes have confronted and accommodated technological innovations that were no less significant and contentious for their time. An economist from the nineteenth century would have been equally familiar with considerations about whether uniformity in intellectual property rights across countries harmed or benefited global welfare, and whether piracy might be to the advantage of developing countries. Similarly, the link between trade and intellectual property rights that informs the TRIPS (trade-related aspects of intellectual property rights) agreement was quite standard two centuries ago.

Today the majority of patents are filed in developed countries by the residents of developed countries, most notably those of Japan and the United States. The developing countries of the twenty-first century are under significant political pressure to adopt stronger patent laws and enforcement, even though few patents are filed by residents of the developing countries. Critics of intellectual property rights point to costs, such as monopoly rents and higher barriers to entry, administrative costs, outflows of royalty payments to foreign entities, and a lack of indigenous innovation. Other studies, however, have more optimistic findings regarding the role of patents in economic and social development. They suggest that stronger protection can encourage more foreign direct investment, greater access to technology, and increased benefits from trade openness. Moreover, both economic history and modern empirical research indicate that stronger patent rights and more effective markets in invention can, by encouraging and enabling the inventiveness of ordinary citizens of developing countries, help to increase social and economic welfare.

Patents Statistics for France, Britain, the United States and Germany, 1790-1960
1790 . 68 3 .
1791 34 57 33 .
1792 29 85 11 .
1793 4 43 20 .
1794 0 55 22 .
1795 1 51 12 .
1796 8 75 44 .
1797 4 54 51 .
1798 10 77 28 .
1799 22 82 44 .
1800 16 96 41 .
1801 34 104 44 .
1802 29 107 65 .
1803 45 73 97 .
1804 44 60 84 .
1805 63 95 57 .
1806 101 99 63 .
1807 66 94 99 .
1808 61 95 158 .
1809 52 101 203 .
1810 93 108 223 .
1811 66 115 215 0
1812 96 119 238 2
1813 88 142 181 2
1814 53 96 210 1
1815 77 102 173 10
1816 115 118 206 10
1817 162 103 174 16
1818 153 132 222 18
1819 138 101 156 10
1820 151 97 155 10
1821 180 109 168 11
1822 175 113 200 8
1823 187 138 173 22
1824 217 180 228 25
1825 321 250 304 17
1826 281 131 323 67
1827 333 150 331 69
1828 388 154 368 87
1829 452 130 447 59
1830 366 180 544 57
1831 220 150 573 34
1832 287 147 474 46
1833 431 180 586 76
1834 576 207 630 66
1835 556 231 752 73
1836 582 296 702 65
1837 872 256 426 46
1838 1312 394 514 104
1839 730 411 404 125
1840 947 440 458 156
1841 925 440 490 162
1842 1594 371 488 153
1843 1397 420 493 160
1844 1863 450 478 158
1845 2666 572 473 256
1846 2750 493 566 252
1847 2937 493 495 329
1848 1191 388 583 256
1849 1953 514 984 253
1850 2272 523 883 308
1851 2462 455 752 274
1852 3279 1384 885 272
1853 4065 2187 844 287
1854 4563 1878 1755 276
1855 5398 2046 1881 287
1856 5761 1094 2302 393
1857 6110 2028 2674 414
1858 5828 1954 3455 375
1859 5439 1977 4160 384
1860 6122 2063 4357 550
1861 5941 2047 3020 551
1862 5859 2191 3214 630
1863 5890 2094 3773 633
1864 5653 2024 4630 557
1865 5472 2186 6088 609
1866 5671 2124 8863 549
1867 6098 2284 12277 714
1868 6103 2490 12526 828
1869 5906 2407 12931 616
1870 3850 2180 12137 648
1871 2782 2376 11659 458
1872 4875 2771 12180 958
1873 5074 2974 11616 1130
1874 5746 3162 12230 1245
1875 6007 3112 13291 1382
1876 6736 3435 14169 1947
1877 7101 3317 12920 1604
1878 7981 3509 12345 4200
1879 7828 3524 12165 4410
1880 7660 3741 12902 3960
1881 7813 3950 15500 4339
1882 7724 4337 18091 4131
1883 8087 3962 21162 4848
1884 8253 9983 19118 4459
1885 8696 8775 23285 4018
1886 9011 9099 21767 4008
1887 8863 9226 20403 3882
1888 8669 9309 19551 3923
1889 9287 10081 23324 4406
1890 9009 10646 25313 4680
1891 9292 10643 22312 5550
1892 9902 11164 22647 5900
1893 9860 11600 22750 6430
1894 10433 11699 19855 6280
1895 10257 12191 20856 5720
1896 11430 12473 21822 5410
1897 12550 14210 22067 5440
1898 12421 14167 20377 5570
1899 12713 14160 23278 7430
1900 12399 13710 24644 8784
1901 12103 13062 25546 10508
1902 12026 13764 27119 10610
1903 12469 15718 31029 9964
1904 12574 15089 30258 9189
1905 12953 14786 29775 9600
1906 13097 14707 31170 13430
1907 13170 16272 35859 13250
1908 13807 16284 32735 11610
1909 13466 15065 36561 11995
1910 16064 15269 35141 12100
1911 15593 17164 32856 12640
1912 15737 15814 36198 13080
1913 15967 16599 33917 13520
1914 12161 15036 39892 12350
1915 5056 11457 43118 8190
1916 3250 8424 43892 6271
1917 4100 9347 40935 7399
1918 4400 10809 38452 7340
1919 10500 12301 36797 7766
1920 18950 14191 37060 14452
1921 17700 17697 37798 15642
1922 18300 17366 38369 20715
1923 19200 17073 38616 20526
1924 19200 16839 42584 18189
1925 18000 17199 46432 15877
1926 18200 17333 44733 15500
1927 17500 17624 41717 15265
1928 22000 17695 42357 15598
1929 24000 18937 45267 20202
1930 24000 20888 45226 26737
1931 24000 21949 51761 25846
1932 21850 21150 53504 26201
1933 20000 17228 48807 21755
1934 19100 16890 44452 17011
1935 18000 17675 40663 16139
1936 16700 17819 39831 16750
1937 16750 17614 37738 14526
1938 14000 19314 38102 15068
1939 15550 17605 43118 16525
1940 10100 11453 42323 14647
1941 8150 11179 41171 14809
1942 10000 7962 38514 14648
1943 12250 7945 31101 14883
1944 11650 7712 28091 .
1945 7360 7465 25712 .
1946 11050 8971 21859 .
1947 13500 11727 20191 .
1948 13700 15558 24007 .
1949 16700 20703 35224 .
1950 17800 13509 43219 .
1951 25200 13761 44384 27767
1952 20400 21380 43717 37179
1953 43000 17882 40546 37113
1954 34000 17985 33910 19140
1955 23000 20630 30535 14760
1956 21900 19938 46918 18150
1957 23000 25205 42873 20467
1958 24950 18531 48450 19837
1959 41600 18157 52509 22556
1960 35000 26775 47286 19666

Additional Reading

Khan, B. Zorina. The Democratization of Invention: Patents and Copyrights in American Economic Development. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

Khan, B. Zorina, and Kenneth L. Sokoloff. “Institutions and Technological Innovation during Early Economic Growth, 1790-1930.” NBER Working Paper No. 10966. Cambridge, MA: December 2004. (Available at


Besen, Stanley M., and Leo J. Raskind, “Introduction to the Law and Economics of Intellectual Property.” Journal of Economic Perspectives 5, no. 1 (1991): 3-27.

Bugbee, Bruce. The Genesis of American Patent and Copyright Law. Washington, DC: Public Affairs Press, 1967.

Coulter, Moureen. Property in Ideas: The Patent Question in Mid-Victorian England. Kirksville, MO: Thomas Jefferson Press, 1991

Dutton, H. I. The Patent System and Inventive Activity during the Industrial Revolution, 1750-1852, Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 1984.

Epstein, R. “Industrial Inventions: Heroic or Systematic?” Quarterly Journal of Economics 40 (1926): 232-72.

Gallini, Nancy T. “The Economics of Patents: Lessons from Recent U.S. Patent Reform.” Journal of Economic Perspectives 16, no. 2 (2002): 131–54.

Gilbert, Richard and Carl Shapiro. “Optimal Patent Length and Breadth.” Rand Journal of Economics 21 (1990): 106-12.

Gilfillan, S. Colum. The Sociology of Invention. Cambridge, MA: Follett, 1935.

Gomme, A. A. Patents of Invention: Origin and Growth of the Patent System in Britain, London: Longmans Green, 1946.

Harding, Herbert. Patent Office Centenary, London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1953.

Hilaire-Pérez, Liliane. Inventions et Inventeurs en France et en Angleterre au XVIIIe siècle. Lille: Université de Lille, 1994.

Hilaire-Pérez, Liliane. L’invention technique au siècle des Lumières. Paris: Albin Michel, 2000.

Jeremy, David J., Transatlantic Industrial Revolution: The Diffusion of Textile Technologies between Britain and America, 1790-1830s. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1981.

Khan, B. Zorina. “Property Rights and Patent Litigation in Early Nineteenth-Century America.” Journal of Economic History 55, no. 1 (1995): 58-97.

Khan, B. Zorina. “Married Women’s Property Right Laws and Female Commercial Activity.” Journal of Economic History 56, no. 2 (1996): 356-88.

Khan, B. Zorina. “Federal Antitrust Agencies and Public Policy towards Patents and Innovation.” Cornell Journal of Law and Public Policy 9 (1999): 133-69.

Khan, B. Zorina, “`Not for Ornament': Patenting Activity by Women Inventors.” Journal of Interdisciplinary History 33, no. 2 (2000): 159-95.

Khan, B. Zorina. “Technological Innovations and Endogenous Changes in U.S. Legal Institutions, 1790-1920.” NBER Working Paper No. 10346. Cambridge, MA: March 2004. (available at

Khan, B. Zorina, and Kenneth L. Sokoloff. “‘Schemes of Practical Utility’: Entrepreneurship and Innovation among ‘Great Inventors’ in the United States, 1790-1865.” Journal of Economic History 53, no. 2 (1993): 289-307.

Khan, B. Zorina, and Kenneth L. Sokoloff. “Entrepreneurship and Technological Change in Historical Perspective.” Advances in the Study of Entrepreneurship, Innovation, and Economic Growth 6 (1993): 37-66.

Khan, B. Zorina, and Kenneth L. Sokoloff. “Two Paths to Industrial Development and Technological Change.” In Technological Revolutions in Europe, 1760-1860, edited by Maxine Berg and Kristine Bruland. London: Edward Elgar, London, 1997.

Khan, B. Zorina, and Kenneth L. Sokoloff. “The Early Development of Intellectual Property Institutions in the United States.” Journal of Economic Perspectives 15, no. 3 (2001): 233-46.

Khan, B. Zorina, and Kenneth L. Sokoloff. “Innovation of Patent Systems in the Nineteenth Century: A Comparative Perspective.” Unpublished manuscript (2001).

Khan, B. Zorina, and Kenneth L. Sokoloff. “Institutions and Democratic Invention in Nineteenth-century America.” American Economic Review Papers and Proceedings 94 (2004): 395-401.

Khan, B. Zorina, and Kenneth L. Sokoloff. “Institutions and Technological Innovation during Early Economic Growth: Evidence from the Great Inventors of the United States, 1790-1930.” In Institutions and Economic Growth, edited by Theo Eicher and Cecilia Garcia-Penalosa. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006.

Lamoreaux, Naomi R. and Kenneth L. Sokoloff. “Long-Term Change in the Organization of Inventive Activity.” Science, Technology and the Economy 93 (1996): 1286-92.

Lamoreaux, Naomi R. and Kenneth L. Sokoloff. “The Geography of Invention in the American Glass Industry, 1870-1925.” Journal of Economic History 60, no. 3 (2000): 700-29.

Lamoreaux, Naomi R. and Kenneth L. Sokoloff. “Market Trade in Patents and the Rise of a Class of Specialized Inventors in the Nineteenth-century United States.” American Economic Review 91, no. 2 (2001): 39-44.

Landes, David S. Unbound Prometheus: Technological Change and Industrial Development in Western Europe from 1750 to the Present. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969.

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Citation: Khan, B. “An Economic History of Patent Institutions”. EH.Net Encyclopedia, edited by Robert Whaples. March 16, 2008. URL