EH.net is owned and operated by the Economic History Association
with the support of other sponsoring organizations.

The Great Wave: Price Revolutions and the Rhythm of History

Author(s):Fischer, David Hackett
Reviewer(s):Munro, John H.

Published by EH.NET (February 1999)

David Hackett Fischer, The Great Wave: Price Revolutions and the Rhythm of

History. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1996. xvi + 536.

$35 (hardcover), ISBN: 019505377X. $16.95 (paperback), ISBN: 019512121X.

Reviewed for EH.NET by John H. Munro, Department of Economics, University of

Toronto.

Let me begin on a positive note. This is indeed a most impressive work: a

vigorous, sweeping, grandiose, and contentious, though highly entertaining,

portrayal of European and North American economic history, from the High Middle

Ages to the present, viewed through the lens of “long-wave” secular price-

trends. Indeed its chief value may well lie in the controversies that it is

bound to provoke, particularly from economists, to inspire new avenues of

research in economic history

, especially in price history. The author contends that, over the past eight

centuries, the European economy has experienced four major “price-

revolutions,” whose inflationary forces ultimately became economically and

socially destructive, with adverse consequences that provoked various complex

reactions whose “resolutions” in turn led to more harmonious, prosperous, and

“equitable” economic and social conditions during intervening eras of “price

equilibria”. These four price-revolutions are rather too neatly set out as the

following: (1) the later- medieval, from c.1180-c.1350; (2) the far better

known 16th-Century Price-Revolution, atypically dated from c.1470 to c.1650,

(3) the inflation of the Industrial Revolution era, from c.1730 to 1815; and

(4) the 20th century price-revolution, conveniently dated from 1896 to 1996

(when he published the book).

Though I am probably more sympathetic

to the historical concept of

“long-waves” than the majority of economists, I do agree with many opponents of

this concept that such long-waves are exceptionally difficult to define and

explain in any mathematically convincing models, which are certainly not

supplied here. For reasons to be explored in the course of this review, I

cannot accept his depictions, analysis

, and explanations for any of them. This will not surprise Prof. Fischer, who

is evidently not an admirer of the economics profession. He is particularly

hostile to those of us deemed to be “monetarists,” evidently used as a

pejorative term. After rejecting not only the “monetarist” but also the

“Malthusian,

neo-Classical, agrarian, environmental, and historicist” models, for their

perceived deficiencies in explaining inflations, and after condemning

economists and historians alike for imposing rigid models in attempting to

unravel the mysteries of European and North American economic history,

Fischer himself imposes an exceptionally rigid and untenable model for all four

of his so-called price-revolutions, containing in fact selected Malthusian and

monetarist elements from these supposedly rejected models.

In essence, the Fischer model contends that all of his four long-wave

inflations manifested the following six-part consecutive chain of causal and

consequential factors, inducing new causes, etc., into the next part of the

chain. First, each inflationary long-wave began with a prosperity created from

the preceding era of price-equilibrium, one promoting a population growth that

inevitably led to an expansion in aggregate demand that in turn outstripped

aggregate supply, thus — according to his model

– causing virtually ALL prices to rise. Evidently his model presupposes that

all sectors of the economy, in all historical periods under examination, came

to suffer from Malthusian-Ricardian diminishing

returns and rising marginal costs, etc. Second, in each and every such era,

after some indefinite lapse of time, and after the general population had

become convinced that rising prices constituted a persistent and genuine trend,

the “people” demanded and

received from their governments an increase in the money supply to

“accommodate” the price rises. As Fischer specifically comments on p. 83: “in

every price-revolution, one finds evidence of frantic efforts to expand the

money supply, after people have discovered that prices are rising in a secular

way.” Third, and invariably, in his view, that subsequent and continuous growth

in the money supply served only to fuel and thus aggravate the already existing

inflation. He never explains, however, for any of

the four long-waves, why those increases in money stocks were always in excess

of the amount required “to accommodate inflation”. Fourth, with such

money-stock increases, the now accelerating inflation ultimately produced a

steadily worsening impoverishment of the masses, aggravated malnutrition,

generally deteriorating biological conditions, and a breakdown of family

structures and the social order, with increasing incidences of crime and social

violence: i.e., with a rise in consumer prices that outstripped generally

sticky wages in each and every era, and with a general transfer of wealth from

the poorer to richer strata of society. Fifth, ultimately all these negative

forces produced economic and social crises that finally brought the

inflationary forces to a halt,

producing a fall in population and thus (by his model) in prices, declines that

subsequently led to a new era of “price-equilibrium,” along with concomitant

re-transfers of wealth and income from the richer to the poorer strata of

society

(where such wealth presumably belonged). Sixth, after some period of economic

prosperity and social harmony, this vicious cycle would recommence, i.e., when

these favorable conditions succeeded in promoting a new round of incessant

population growth, which inevitably sparked those same inflationary forces to

produce yet another era of price-revolution, continuing until it too had run

its course.

While many economic historians, using more structured Malthusian-Ricardian type

models, have also provided a similarly bleak portrayal of

demographically-related upswings and downswings of the European economy,

most have argued that this bleak cycle was broken with the economic forces of

the modern Industrial Revolution era. Fischer evidently does not. Are we the

reforecondemned, according to his view, to suffer these never-ending bleak

cycles– economic history according to the Myth of Sisyphus, as it were?

Perhaps not, if government leaders were to listen to the various nostrums set

forth in the final chapter,

political recommendations on which I do not feel qualified to comment.

Having engaged in considerable research, over the past 35 years, on European

monetary, price, and wage histories from the 13th to 19th centuries, I am,

however, rather more qualified

to comment on Fischer’s four supposed long-waves. Out of respect for the

author’s prodigious labors in producing this magnum opus, one that is bound to

have a major impact on the historical profession, especially in covering such a

vast temporal and spatial range, I feel duty-bound to provide detailed

criticisms of his analyses of these secular price trends, with as much

statistical evidence as I can readily muster. Problematic in each is defining

their time span,

i.e., the onset and termination of inflations. If many medievalists may concur

that his first long- wave did begin in the 1180s, few would now agree that it

ended as late as the Black Death of 1348-50. On the contrary,

the preceding quarter-century (1324-49) was one of very severe deflation,

certainly in both Tuscany (Herlihy 1966) and England. In the latter, the

Phelps Brown and Hopkins “basket of consumables” price index (1451-75 =

100) fell 47%: from 165 in 1323 (having been as high as 216 in 1316, with the

Great Famine) to just 88 in 1346. Conversely, while most early-modern

historians would agree that the 16th-Century Price Revolution generally ended

in the 1650s (certainly in England), few if any would date its commencement so

early as the 1470s. To be sure, in both the Low Countries and England, a

combination of coinage debasements, civil wars, bad harvests, and other

supply-shocks did produce a short-term rise in prices from the later 1470s to

the early 1490s; but thereafter their basket-of-consumables price-indices

resumed their deflationary downward trend for another three decades (Munro

1981, 1983). In both of these regions and in Spain as well (Hamilton 1934), the

sustained rise in the general price level, lasting over a century, did not

commence until c.1520.

For Fischer’s third inflationary long-wave, of the Industrial Revolution era,

his periodization is much less contentious, though one might mark its

commencement in the late 1740s rather than the early 1730s.

The last and most recent wave is, however, by far more the most controversial

in its character. Certainly a long upswing in world prices did begin in 1896,

and lasted until the 1920s; but can we really pretend that this so neatly

defined century of 1896 to 1996 truly encompasses any form of long wave when we

consider the behavior of prices from the 1920s?

Are we to pretend that the horrendous deflation of the ensuing Great Depression

era was just a temporary if unusual aberration that deviated from this

particular century long (saeclum) secular tend? Fischer, in fact,

very

rarely ever discusses deflation, ignoring those of the 14th century and most

of the rest. Instead, he views the three periods intervening between his price-

revolutions as much more harmonious eras of price-equilibria: i.e. 1350-1470;

1650 – 1730; 1820 –

1896; and he suggests that we are now entering a fourth such era. In my own

investigations of price and monetary history from the 12th century, prices rise

and fall,

with varying degrees of amplitude; but they rarely if ever remain stable,

“in equilibrium”.

Certainly “equilibrium” is not a word that I would apply to the first of these

eras, from 1350 to 1470: not with the previously noted, very stark deflation of

c.1325 – 48, followed by an equally drastic inflation that ensued from the

Black Death over

the next three decades, well documented for England, Flanders (Munro 1983,

1984), France, Tuscany (Herlihy 1966),

and Aragon-Navarre (Hamilton 1936). Thus, in England, the mean quinquennial PB

& H index rose 64%: from 88 in 1340-44 to 145 in 1370-74, fal ling sharply

thereafter, by 29%, to 103 in 1405-09; after subsequent oscillations, it fell

even further to a final nadir of 87 in 1475-79 (when,

according to Fischer, the next price-revolution was now under way). For

Flanders, a similarly constructed price index of quinquennial means

(1450-74 = 100: Munro 1984), commencing only in 1350, thereafter rose 170%:

from 59 in 1350-4 to 126 in 1380-84, reflecting an inflation aggravated by

coinage debasements that England had not experienced, indeed none at all since

1351. Thereafter, the Flemish price index plunged 32%, reaching a temporary

nadir of 88 in 1400-04; but after a series of often severe price oscillations,

aggravated by warfare and more coin debasements, it rose to a peak of 138 in

1435-9; subsequent ly it fell another 31%, reaching its 15th century nadir of

95 in 1465-9 (before rising and then falling again, as noted earlier).

Implicit in these observations is the quite pertinent criticism that Fischer

has failed to use, or use properly, these and many other price

indices–especially the well-constructed Vander Wee index (1975), for the

Antwerp region, from 1400 to 1700, so important in his study; and the Rousseaux

and Gayer-Rostow-Schwarz indices for the 19th century (Mitchell &

Deane 1962). On the other hand, he has relied far too much on the dangerously

faulty d’Avenel price index (1894-1926) for medieval and early-modern France.

Space limitations, and presumably the reader’s patience, prevent me from

engaging in similar analyses of price trends

over the ensuing centuries, to indicate further disagreements with Fischer’s

analyses, except to note one more quarter-century of deflation during a

supposed era of price equilibrium: that of the so-called Great Depression era

of 1873 to 1896, at least within England, when the PB&H price index fell from

1437 to 947, a decline of 34% that was unmatched, for quarter-century periods

in English economic history, since the two stark deflations of the second and

fourth quarters of the 14th century. (The Rousseaux index fell from 42.5% from

127 in 1873 to 73 in 1893).

My criticisms of Fischer’s temporal depictions of both inflationary long-waves

and intervening eras of supposed price equilibria are central to my objections

to his anti-monetarist explanations for them, or rather to his

misrepresentation of the monetarist case, a viewpoint he admittedly shares with

a great number of other historians, especially those who have found

Malthusian-Ricardian type models to be more seductively plausible explanations

of

inflation. Certainly, too many of my students, in reading the economic history

literature on Europe before the Industrial Revolution era, share that beguiling

view, turning a deaf ear to the following arguments: namely, that (1) a growth

in population cannot by itself,

without complementary monetary factors, cause a rise in all prices, though

certainly it often did lead to a rise in the relative prices of grain,

timber, and other natural-resource based commodities subject to diminishing

return and supply

inelasticities; and thus (2) that these simplistic demographic models involve

a fatal confusion between a change in the relative prices of individual

commodities and a rise in the overall price-level. Some clever students have

challenged that admonition,

however,

with graphs that seek to demonstrate, with intersecting sets of aggregate

demand and supply curves, that a rise in population is sufficient to explain

inflation. My response is the following. First, all of the historical prices

with which Fischer and my students are dealing

(1180-1750) are in terms of silver-based moneys-of-account, in the traditional

pounds, shillings, and pence, tied to the region’s currently circulating silver

penny, or similar such coin, while prices expressed in terms of the gold-based

Florentine florin behaved quite differently over the long periods of time

covered in this study. Indeed we should expect such a difference in price

behavior with a change in the bimetallic ratio from about 10:1 in 1400 to about

16:1 in 1650,

which obviously reflects the fall in the relative value or purchasing power of

silver — an issue virtually ignored in Fischer’s book. Second, the shift, in

this student graph, from the conjunction of the Aggregate Demand and Supply

schedules,

from P1.Q1

and P2.Q2, requires a compensatory monetary expansion in order to achieve the

transaction values indicated for the two price levels: from 17,220,000 pounds

and 122,960,000 pounds, which increase in the volume of payments had to come

from either increased

money stocks and/or flows. Even if changes in demographic and other real

variables, shared responsibility for inflation by inducing changes in those

monetary variables, we are not permitted to ignore those variables in

explaining historical inflations.

Admittedly, from the 12th to the 18th centuries, to the modern Industrial

Revolution era, correlations between demographic and price movements are often

apparent. But why do so few historians consider the alternative proposition

that much more profound, deeper economic forces might have induced a complex

combination of general economic growth, monetary expansion, and a rise in

population, together (so that such apparent statistical relationships would

have adverse Durbin-Watson statistics to indicate significant serial

correlation)? Furthermore, if population growth is the inevitable root cause of

inflation, and population decline the purported cause of deflation, how do such

models explain why the drastic depopulations of the 14th-century Black Death

were

followed by three decades of severe inflation in most of western Europe?

Conversely, why did late 19th-century England experience the above-noted

deflation while its population grew from 23.41 million in 1873 (PB&H at 1437)

to 30.80 million in 1896 (PB&H

at 947)?

Nor is Fischer correct in asserting that, in each and every one of his four

price-revolutions, an increase in money supplies followed rather than preceded

or accompanied the rises in the price-level. For an individual country or

region, however

, one might argue that a rise in its own price level, as a consequence of a

transmitted rise in world or at least continental prices would have quickly —

and not after the long-time lags projected in Fischer’s analysis — produced an

increase in money supplies to satisfy the economic requirements for that rise

in national/regional prices. Fischer, however, fails to offer any theoretical

analysis of this phenomenon, and makes no reference to any of the well-known

publications on the Monetary Approach to the Balance of Payments [by Frenkel

and Johnson (1976), McCloskey and Zecher (1976), Dick and Floyd (1985, 1992);

Flynn (1978) and D. Fisher (1989), for the Price Revolution era itself]. In

essence,

and with some necessary repetition, this thesis contends:

(1) that a rise in world price levels, initially arising from increases in

world monetary stocks, is transmitted to most countries through the mechanisms

of international commerce (in commodities, services, labor) and finance

(capital flows); and (2) that monetized metallic (coin) stocks and other

elements constituting M1 will be endogenously distributed among all countries

and/or regions in order to accommodate the consequent rise in the domestic

price levels, (3) without involving those international bullion flows that the

famous Hume “price- specie flow” mechanism postulates to be the consequences of

inflation-induced changes in national trade balances.

In any event, the historical evidence clearly demonstrates that, for each of

Fischer’s European-based price-revolutions, an increase in European monetary

stocks and flows always preceded the inflations. For the first,

the price-revolution of the “long-13th century” (c.1180-c.1325), Ian Blanchard

(1996) has recently demonstrated that within England its elf,

specifically in Cumberland-Northumberland, a very major silver mining boom had

commenced much earlier, c.1135-7, peaking in the 1170s, with annual silver

outputs that were “ten times more than had been produced in the whole of

Europe” for any year in

the past seven centuries. By the 1170s,

and thus still before evident signs of general inflation or a marked

demographic upswing, an even greater silver mining boom had begun in the Harz

Mountains region of Saxony, which continued to pour out vast quantities of

silver until the early 14th century. For this same

“Commercial Revolution” era, we must also consider the accompanying financial

revolution, also evident by the 1180s, in Genoa and Lombardy; and though one

may debate the impact that their deposit-

and-transfer banking and foreign-exchange banking had upon aggregate European

money supplies,

these institutional innovations undoubtedly did at least increase the volume of

monetary flows, and near the beginning, not the middle, of this first

documented

long-wave.

For the far better known 16th-Century Price Revolution, Fischer seems to pose a

much greater threat to traditional monetary explanations, especially in so

quixotically dating its commencement in the 1470s, rather than in the 1520s.

Certainly Fischer and many other critics are on solid grounds in challenging

what had been, from the time of Jean Bodin (1566-78) to Earl Hamilton

(1928-35), the traditional monetary explanation for the origins of the Price

Revolution: namely, the influx of Spanish

American treasure. But not until after European inflation was well underway,

not until the mid-1530s, were any significant amounts of gold or silver being

imported

(via Seville); and no truly large imports of silver are recorded before the

early 1560s (a

mean of 83,374 kg in 1561-55: TePaske 1983), when the mercury amalgamation

process was just beginning to effect a revolution in Spanish-American mining.

Those undisputed facts, however, in no way undermine the so-called

“monetarist” case; for Fischer, and far too many other economic historians,

have ignored the multitude of other monetary forces in play since the 1460s.

The first and least important factor was the Portuguese export of gold from

West Africa (Sao Jorge) beginning as a trickle in the 1460s;

rising to 170 kg per annum by 1480, and peaking at 680 kg p.a. in the late

1490s (Wilks 1993). Far more important was the Central European silver mining

boom, which began in the 1460s, at the very nadir of the West European

deflation, which had thus raised the purchasing power of silver and so

increased the profit incentive to seek out new silver sources: as a

technological revolution in both mechanical and chemical engineering.

According to John Nef (1941, 1952), when this German-based mining boom reached

its peak in the mid 1530s, it had augmented Europe’s silver outputs more than

five-fold, with an annual production that ranged from a minimum of 84,200 kg

fine silver to a maximum of 91,200 kg — and thus well in excess of any amounts

pouring into Seville before the mid-1560s. My own statistical compilations,

limited to just the major mines, indicate a rise in quinquennial mean

fine-silver outputs from 12,356 kg in 1470-74 to 55,025 kg in 1534-39 (Munro

1991). In England, 25-year mean mint outputs rose

from 18,932 kg silver in 1400-24 to 33,655 kg in 1475-99 to 59,090 kg in

1500-24; and then to 305,288 kg in 1550-74 (i.e., after Henry VIII’s

“Great Debasement”); in the southern Low Countries, those means go from 54,444

kg in 1450-74 to 280,958 kg in 15 50-74 (Challis 1992; Munro 1983,

1991).

In my view, however, equally important and probably even more important was the

financial revolution that had begun in or by the 1520s with legal sanctions for

and then legislation on full negotiability, and the contemporary establishment

of effective secondary markets (especially the Antwerp Bourse) in fully

negotiable bills and rentes, i.e., heritable government annuities; and the

latter owed their universal and growing popularity, compared with other forms

of public debt, to papal bulls (1425,

1455) that had exonerated them from any taint of usury. To give just one

example of a veritable explosion in this form of public credit (which thus

reduced the relative demand for gold and silver coins), an issue that Fischer

almost completely ignores: the annual volume of transactions in Spanish

heritable juros rose from 5 million ducats (of 375 maravedis) in 1515 to 83

million ducats in the 1590s (Vander Wee 1977). Thus we need not call upon

Spanish-American bullion imp orts to explain the monetary origins of the

European Price Revolution, though their importance in aggravating and

accelerating the extent of inflation from the 1550s need hardly be questioned,

especially, as Frank Spooner (1972) has so aptly demonstrated,

even anticipated arrivals of Spanish treasure fleets would induce German and

Genoese bankers to expand credit issues by some multiples of the perceived

bullion values. Fischer, by the way, comments (p. 82) that: “the largest

proportionate increases in Spanish prices occurred during the first half of

the sixteenth century — not the second half, when American treasure had its

greatest impact.” This is simply untrue: from 1500-49, the Spanish composite

price index rose 78.5%; from 1550-99, it rose by another 92.1% (Hamilton

1934).

Changes in money stocks or other monetary variables do not, however,

provide the complete explanation for the actual extent of inflation in this or

in any other era. Even if every inflationary price trend that I have

investigate d, from the 12th to 20th centuries, has been preceded or

accompanied by some form of monetary expansion, in none was the degree of

inflation directly proportional to the observed rate of monetary expansion,

with the possible exception of the post World War I hyperinflations.

Consider this proposition in terms of the oft-maligned, conceptually limited,

but still heuristically useful monetary equation MV = Py [in which real y = Y/P

= C + I + G+ (X-M)]; or, better, in terms of the Cambridge “real cash

balances” approach: M = kPy [in which k = the proportion of real NNI (Py) that

the public chooses to hold in real cash balances, reflecting the constituent

elements of Keynesian liquidity preference]. Some Keynesian economists would

contend that an increase in M, or in the rate of growth of money stocks, would

be accompanied by some

offsetting rise in y (i.e. real NNI), whether exogenously created or

endogenously induced by related forces of monetary expansion, and also by some

decline in the income velocity of money, with a reduced need to economize on

the use of money. Since mathematically V = 1/k, they would similarly posit

that an expansion in M,

or its rate of growth, would have led, ceteris paribus — without any change in

liquidity preference, to a fall

in (nominal) interest rates, and thus, by the consequent reduction in the

opportunity costs of holding cash balances, to the necessarily corresponding

rise in k (i.e., an increase in the demand for real cash balances; see Keynes

1936, pp. 306-07). Sometimes, but only very rarely, have changes in these two

latter variables y and V (1/k) fully offset an increase in M; and thus such

increases in money stocks have also resulted, in most historical instances, in

some non-proportional degree of inflation: a rising P, as measured by some

suitable price index, such as the Phelps Brown and Hopkins

basket-of-consumables. [Other economists,

it must be noted, would contend that, in any event, the traditional Keynesian

model is really not applicable to such long-term

phenomena as Fischer’s price-revolutions.

Keynes himself, in considering “how changes in the quantity of money affect

prices… in the long run,” said, in the General Theory (1936, p. 306):

“This is a question for historical generalisation rather than for

pure theory.”]

For the 16th-century Price Revolution, therefore, the interesting question now

becomes: not why did it occur so early (i.e., before significant influxes of

Spanish American bullion); but rather why so late — so many decades after the

onset of the Central European silver-copper mining boom?

Since that boom had commenced in the 1460s, precisely when late-medieval

Europe’s population was at its nadir, perhaps 50% below the 1300 peak, and just

after the Hundred Years’ War had ended, and just

after the complex network of overland continental trade routes between Italy

and NW Europe had been successfully restored, one might contend that in such an

economy with so much “slack” in under-utilized resources, especially land, and

with elastic supplies for so many commodities, both the monetary expansion and

economic recovery of the later 15th century , preceding any dramatic

demographic recovery, permitted an increase in y proportional to the growth of

M, without the onset of diminishing returns an d without significant inflation,

before the 1520s By that decade, however, the monetary expansion had become

all the more powerful: with the peak of the Central European silver-mining

boom and with the rapid increase in the use of negotiable, transferable

credit instruments; and, furthermore, with the Ottoman conquest of the Mamluk

Sultanate (1517), which evidently diverted some considerable amounts of

Venetian silver exports from the Levant to the Antwerp market.

The role of the income-velocity of money

is far more problematic. According to Keynesian expectations, velocity should

have fallen with such increases in money stocks. Yet three eminent economic

historians — Harry Miskimin

(1975), Jack Goldstone (1984), and Peter Lindert (1985) — have sought

to explain England’s16th-century Price Revolution by a very contrary thesis:

of increased money flows (or reductions in k) that were induced by demographic

and structural economic changes, involving interalia(according to their

various models) disproportionate changes in urbanization, greater

commercialization of the rural sectors, far more complex commercial and

financial networks, changes in dependency ratios, etc. The specific

circumstances so portrayed, however, apart from the demographic, are largely

peculiar to 16th- century England and thus do not so convincingly explain the

very similar patterns of inflation in the 16th-century Low Countries, which had

undergone most of these structural economic changes far earlier. Certainly

these velocity model s cannot logically be applied to Fischer’s three other

inflationary long-waves. Indeed, in an article implicitly validating Keynesian

views, Nicholas Mayhew (1995) has contended that the income-velocity of money

has always fallen with an expansion in money stocks, from the medieval to

modern eras, with this one anomalous exception of the 16th-century Price

Revolution. Perhaps, for this one era,

we have misspecified V (or k) by misspecifiying M: i.e., by not properly

including increased issues of negotiable credit; or perhaps institutional

changes in credit (as Goldstone and Miskimin both suggest) did have as dramatic

an effect on V as on M. Furthermore, an equally radical change in the coined

money supply (certainly in England), from one that had been principally gold

to one which, precisely from the 1520s, became largely and then almost entirely

silver, may provide the solution to the velocity paradox: in that the

transactions velocity attached to small value silver coins, of 1d., is

obviously far higher

velocity than that for gold coins valued at 80d and 120d. Except for a brief

reference to Mayhew’s article in the lengthy bibliography, Fischer virtually

ignores such velocity issues

(and thus changes in the demand for real cash balances) throughout his

eight-century survey of secular price trends.

Finally, Fischer’s thesis that population growth was responsible for this the

most famous Price Revolution (and all other inflationary long waves) is hardly

credible, especially if he insists on dating its inception the 1470s. For most

economic historians (Vander Wee 1963; Blanchard 1970;

Hatcher 1977, 1986; Campbell 1981; Harvey 1993) contend that, in NW Europe,

late-medieval demographic decline continued into the early 16th-century;

and that England’s population in 1520 was no more than 2.25 million,

compared to estimates ranging from a minimum of 4.0 to a maximum of 6.0 or even

7.0 million around 1300, the upper bounds being favored by most historians. How

– even if the demographic model were to be theoretically acceptable — could

a modest population growth from such a very low level in the 1520s, reaching

perhaps 2.83 million in 1541, and peaking at 5.39 million in 1656, have been

the fundamental cause of persistent, European wide-inflation, already underway

in the 1520s?

According to Fischer, the ensuing, intervening price-equilibrium

(c.1650-c.1730) involved no discernible monetary contraction, and similarly,

his next inflationary long-wave (c.1730-1815) began well before any monetary

expansion became — in his view — manifestly evident. The monetary and price

data, suggest otherwise, however, incomplete though they may be. Thus, the data

complied by Bakewell, Cross, TePaske, and many others on silver mining at

Potosi (Peru) and Zacatecas (Mexico) indicate that their combined outputs fell

from a mean of 178,692 kg in 1636-40 to one of 101,534 kg in 1661-5, rising to

a mean of 156,497 kg in 1681-5

[partially corresponding to guesstimates of European bullion imports, which

Morineau (1985) extracted fr om Dutch gazettes]; but then sharply falling once

more, and even further, to a more meager mean of 95,842 kg in 1696-1700. During

this same era, the Viceroyalty of Peru’s domestically-

retained share of silver-based public revenues rose from 54% to 96%

(T ePaske 1981); the combined silver exports of the Dutch and English East

India Companies to Asia (Chaudhuri 1968; Gaastra 1983) increased from a

decennial mean of 17,293 kg in 1660-69 to 73,687 kg in 1700-09, while English

mint outputs in terms of fine sil ver (Challis 1992) fell from a mean of 19,400

kg in 1660-64 (but 23,781 kg in 1675-79) to one of just 430.4 kg in 1690-94,

i.e., preceding the Great Recoinage of 1696-98. From the early 18th century,

however, European silver exports to Asia were well more

than offset by a dramatic rise in Spanish-American, and especially Mexican

silver production: for the latter (with evidence from new or previously

unrecorded mines: assembled by Bakewell 1975, 1984; Garner 1980,

1987; Coatsworth 1986, and others), aggregate production more than doubled

from a mean of 129,878 kg in 1700-04 to one of 305,861 kg in 1745-49.

Possibly even more important, especially with England’s currency shift from a

silver to a gold standard, was a veritable explosion in aggregate

Latin-American gold production: from a decennial mean of just 863.90 kg in

1691-1700

zooming to 16,917.4 kg in 1741-50 (TePaske 1998). Within Europe itself, as

Blanchard (1989) has demonstrated, Russian silver mining outputs, ultimately

responsible for perhaps 7%

of Europe’s total stocks,

rose from virtually nothing in the late 1720s to peak at 33,000 kg per annum in

the late 1770s, falling to 18,000 kg in the early 1790s then rising to 21,000

kg per year in the later 1790s.

Finally, even though changes in annual mint outputs are not valid indicators

of changes in coined money supplies, let alone of changes in M1,

the fifty-year means of aggregate values of English mint outputs (silver and

gold: Challis 1992) do provide interesting signals of longer-term monetary

changes: a fall from an annual mean of 348,829 pounds in 1596-1645 to one of

275,403 pounds in 1646-95, followed by a rise, with more than a full recovery,

to an annual mean of 369,644 pounds in 1700-49 (thus excluding the Great

Recoinage of 1696-98). Meanwhile, if the earlier Price Revolution had indeed

peaked in 1645-49, with the quinquennial mean PB&H index at 680, falling to a

nadir of 579 in 1690-94, the fluctuations in the first half of the 18th-century

do not demonstrate any clear inflationary trend, with the mean PB&H index

(briefly peaking at 635 in 1725-9) stalled at virtually the same former level,

581, in 1745-49. Thereafter, of course,

for the second half of the 18th century, the trend is very strongly and

incessantly upward, with almost a

doubling in PB&H index, to 1093 in 1795-9.

Whatever one may wish to deduce from all these diverse data sets, we are

certainly not permitted to conclude, as does Fischer, that inflation preceded

monetary expansion, and did so consistently. Such a view becomes all the more

untenable when the radical changes in English and banking and credit

institutions, following the establishment of the Bank of England in 1694-97,

are taken into account: the consequent introduction and rapid expansion in

legal-tender paper bank note issues (with prior informal issues by London’s

Goldsmith banks), and more especially fully negotiable,

transferable, and discountable Exchequer bills, government annuities,

inland bills and promissory notes, whose veritable explosion in circulation

from the 1760s, with the proliferation of English country-banks, hardly

requires any further elaboration, even if these issues are given short shrift

in Fischer’s book. In view of such complex changes in Britain’s financial and

monetary structures,

subsequent data on coinage outputs have even more limited utility in

estimating money stocks. But we may note that aggregate mined outputs of

Mexican silver more than doubled, from a quinquennial mean of 305,861 kg in

1745-49 to 619,495 kg in 1795-99, while those of Peru more than tripled, from

34,318 kg in 1735-39 (no data for the 1740s) to 126,354 kg in 1795-99 (Garner

1980, 1987; Bakewell 1975, 1984; J.

Fisher, 1975).

Having earlier considered the so-called and misconstrued

“price-equilibrium” of 182 0-1896, let us now finally examine the inception of

the fourth and final long-wave commencing in 1896. Fischer again contends that

population growth was the “prime mover,” despite the fact that Britain’s own

intrinsic growth rate had been falling from its

1821 peak [from 1.75 to 1.31 in 1865, the last year given in Wrigley-Davies-

Oppen-Schofield (1997)]. For evidence he cites an assertion in Colin McEvedy

and Richard Jones, Atlas of World Population History (1978) to the effect that

world population, having increased by 35% from 1850 to 1900,

increased a further 53% by 1950. Are we therefore to believe that such growth

was itself responsible for a 45.2% rise in, for this era, the better structured

Rousseaux price-index [base 100 = (1865cp +1885cp)/2]: from 73 in 1896 to 106

[while the PB&H index rose from 947 in 1896 to 1021 in 1913]?

As for the role of monetary factors in the commencement of this fourth long

wave, Fischer observes (p. 184) that “the rate of growth in gold production

throughout the world was roughly the same before and after 1896.” This

undocumented assertion, about an international economy whose commerce and

finance was now based upon the gold standard, is not quite accurate.

According to assiduously calculated estimates in Eichengreen

and McLean

(1994), decennial mean world gold outputs, having fallen from 185,900 kg in

1850-9 to 135,000 kg in 1880-9 (largely accompanying the aforementioned 44%

fall in the Rousseaux composite index from 128 in 1872 to 72 in 1895),

thereafter soared to

a mean of 255,600 kg in 1890-9 — their graph of annualized data shows that

the bulk of this increased output occurred after 1896 — virtually doubling to

an annual mean of 513,900 kg in 1900-14.

World War I, of course, effectively ended the international gold-standard era,

since the Gold- Exchange Standard of 1925-6 was rather different from the older

system; and the post-war era ushered in a radically new monetary world of fiat

paper currencies, whose initial horrendous manifestation came in the hyper

inflations of Weimar Germany, Russia, and most Central European countries, in

the early 1920s. For this post-war economy, Fischer does admit that monetary

factors often had some considerable importance in influencing price trends; but

his analyses, even of the post-war radical, paper-fuelled hyperinflations, are

not likely to satisfy most economists, either for the inter-war or Post World

War II eras, up to the present day.

This review, long as it is, cannot possibly do full justice to an eight-century

study of this scope and magnitude. So far I have neglected to consider his

often fascinating analyses of the social consequences of inflation over these

many centuries, except for brief allusions in the introduction, where I

indicated his deeply hostile views to persistent inflation for its inevitably

insidious consequences: the impoverishment of the masses, growing malnutrition,

the spread of killer-diseases, increased crime and violence in general, and a

breakdown of the social order, etc.

While some of

the evidence for the latter seems plausible, I do have some concluding quarrels

with his use of real wage indices. Much of our available nominal money-wage

evidence comes from institutional sources on daily wages, which, by their very

nature, tend to be fixed over long periods of time [as Adam Smith noted in the

Wealth of Nations (Cannan ed.

1937, p. 74), “sometimes for half a century together”). Therefore, for such

wage series, real wages rose and fell with the consumer price index, as

measured by, for example, our Phelps Brown and Hopkins basket-of-consumables

index. Its chief problem (as opposed to the better constructed Vander Wee

index for Brabant) is that its components, for long periods, constitute fixed

percentages of the total composite index,

irrespective of changes in relative prices for, say, grains; and they thus do

not reflect the consumers’ ability to make cost-saving substitutions.

Secondly, they are necessarily based on daily wage rates, without any

indication of total annual money incomes; thirdly, the great majority of

money-wage earners in pre-modern Europe earned not day rates but piece-work

wages, for which evidence is extremely scant.

But more important, before the 18th century (or even later), a majority of the

European population did not live by money wages; and most wage-earners had

supplementary forms of income, especially agricultural, that helped insulate

them to some degree from sharp rises in food prices. If rising food prices hurt

many wage-earners, they also benefited ma ny peasants,

especially those with customary tenures and fixed rentals who could thereby

capture some of the economic rent accruing on their lands with such price

increases. It may be simplistic to note that there are always gainers and

losers with both inflation and deflation — but even more simplistic to focus

only on the latter in times of inflation, and especially simplistic to focus on

a real wage index based on the PB&H index. And if deflation is so beneficial

for the masses, why, during the deflationary period in later 17th and early

18th century England, do we find, along with a rise in this real-wage index, a

rise in the death rate from 23.68/1000 in 1626 to 32.14/1000 in 1681,

thereafter falling slightly but rising again to an ultimate peak of

37.00/1000 in 1725 (admittedly an era of anomalous disease-related

mortalities), when the PB&H real-wage index stood at 60 —

some 24% higher than the RWI of 36 for 1626? One of the many imponderables yet

to be considered, though one might ponder that sometimes high real wages

reflect labor shortages from dire conditions, rather than general prosperity

and more equitable wealth and income distributions, as Fischer suggests.

Finally, Fischer’s argument that inflationary price-revolutions were always

especially harmful to the lower classes by leading to rising interest rates is

sometimes but not universally true, even if rational creditors should have

raised rates to protect themselves from inflation. Thus, for the Antwerp money

market in the 16th century,

the meticulous evidence compiled by Vander Wee (1964, 1977) shows that

nominal interest rates fell over this entire period [from 20% in 1515 to 9% in

1549 to 5% in 1561; and on the riskier short term loans to the Habsburg

government, from a mean of 19.5

% in 1506-10 to one of 12.3% in 1541-45 to 9.63% in 1561-55]. In the next

price-revolution, during the later 18th century, nominal interest rates did

rise during periods of costly warfare, i.e., with an increasing risk premium;

but real interest rates actually fell because of the increasing tempo of

inflation (Turner 1984), more so than did real wages for most industrial

workers.

LIST OF REFERENCES CITED:

Georges d’Avenel, Histoire economique de la propriete, des salaires, des

denrees, et tous les prix

en general, depuis l’an 1200 jusqu’en l’an 1800,

7 vols. (Paris, 1894-1926).

Peter Bakewell, Silver Mining and Society in Colonial Mexico: Zacatecas,

1546-1700 (Cambridge, 1972).

Peter Bakewell, “Registered Silver Production in the Potosi District, 1550

- 1735,” Jahrbuch fur Geschichte von Staat, Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft

Lateinamerikas, 12 (1975), 67-103.

Peter Bakewell, “Mining in Colonial Spanish America,” in Leslie Bethell,

ed., The Cambridge History of Latin America, Vol. II: Colonial Latin Amer ica

(Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1984), 105-51.

Peter Bakewell, ed., Mines of Silver and Gold in the Americas, Variorum Series:

An Expanding World: The European Impact on World History, 1450 –

1800 (London, 1997):

Ian Blanchard,

Russia’s ‘Age of Silver': Precious-Metal Production and Economic Growth in the

Eighteenth Century (Routledge: London and New York,

1989).

Ian Blanchard, “Population Change, Enclosure, and the Early Tudor Economy,”

Economic History Review, 2nd ser. 23 (19 70), 427-45.

Ian Blanchard, “Lothian and Beyond: The Economy of the ‘English Empire’ of

David I,” in Richard Britnell and John Hatcher, eds., Progress and Problems in

Medieval England (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press,

1996), pp. 23-45.

Michael Bordo, “Explorations in Monetary History: A Survey of the

Literature,” Explorations in Economic History, 23 (1986), 339-415.

Bruce Campbell, “The Population of Early Tudor England: A Re-evaluation of the

1522 Muster Returns and the 1524 and 1 525 Lay Subsidies,” Journal of

Historical Geography, 7 (1981), 145-54.

Christopher Challis, “Lord Hastings to the Great Silver Recoinage, 1464 –

1699,” in Christopher E. Challis, ed., A New History of the Royal Mint

(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

, 1992), pp. 179-397; C.E. Challis,

“Appendix 1. Mint Output, 1220-1985,” pp. 673-698.

John Coatsworth, “The Mexican Mining Industry in the Eighteenth Century,”

in Nils Jacobsen and Hans- Jurgen Puhle, eds., The Economies of Mexico and Peru

during the La te Colonial Period, 1760 – 1810 (Berlin 1986), pp. 26-45.

Harry Cross, “South American Bullion Production and Export, 1550-1750,” in John

Richards, ed., Precious Metals in the Later Medieval and Early Modern Worlds

(Durham, 1983), Appendix II, p. 422.

T revor Dick and John Floyd, Canada and the Gold Standard: Balance of Payments

Adjustment under Fixed Exchange Rates, 1871 – 1913 (Cambridge and New York:

Cambridge University Press, 1992).

Barry Eichengreen and Ian W. McLean, “The Supply of Gold Under the

pre-1914 Gold Standard,” The Economic History Review, 2nd ser., 47:2 (May

1994),

288-309.

John Fisher, “Silver Production in the Viceroyalty of Peru, 1776-1824,”

Hispanic American Historical Review, 55:1 (1975), 25-43.

Douglas Fisher, “The Price Revolution: A Monetary Interpretation,” Journal of

Economic History, 49 (December 1989), 883 – 902.

John Floyd, World Monetary Equilibrium: International Monetary Theory in an

Historical-Institutional Context (Philadelphia, 1985).

Dennis Flynn, “A New Perspective on the Spanish Price Revolution: The Monetary

Approach to the Balance of Payments,” Explorations in Economic History, 15

(1978), 388-406.

Jacob Frenkel and Harry G. Johnson, eds., The Monetary Approach to the Balance

of Payments (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1976),

especially Jacob Frenkel and Harry Johnson, “The Monetary Approach to the

Balance of Payments: Essential Concepts and Historical Origins,” pp. 21-45;

Harry Johnson, “The Monetary Approach to Balance-of-Payments Theory,” pp.

147-

67; Donald N. McCloskey and J. Richard Zecher, “How the Gold Standard Worked,

1880-1913,” pp. 357-85.

FS. Gaastra, “The Exports of Precious Metal from Europe to Asia by the Dutch

East India Company, 1602-1795 A.D.,” in John F. Richards, ed.,

Precious Metals in the Medieval and Early Modern Worlds(Durham, N.C.,

1983), pp. 447-76.

Richard Garner, “Long-term Silver Mining Trends in Spanish America: A

Comparative Analysis of Peru and Mexico,” American Historical Review, 67:3

(1987), 405-30.

Richard Garner,

“Silver Production and Entrepreneurial Structure in 18th-Century Mexico,”

Jahrbuch fur Geschichte von Staat, Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft

Lateinamerikas,17 (1980), 157-85.

Jack Goldstone, “Urbanization and Inflation: Lessons from the English Price

Revolution of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries,” American Journal of

Sociology, 89 (1984), 1122 – 60.

Earl Hamilton, American Treasure and the Price Revolution in Spain,

1501-1650 (Cambridge, Mass., 1934; reissued 1965).

Earl Hamilton, Money, Prices, and Wages in Valencia, Aragon, and Navarre,

1351 – 1500 (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1936).

Barbara Harvey, Living and Dying in England, 1100 – 1540 (Oxford: Oxford

University Press, 1993).

John Hatcher, Plague, Population, and the English Economy, 1348-1530

(Studies in Economic History series, London, 1977).

John Hatcher, “Mortality in the Fifteenth Century: Some New Evidence,”

Economic History Review, 39 (Feb. 1986), 19-38.

David Herlihy, Medieval and Renaissance Pistoia: The

Social History of an Italian Town, 1200-1430 (New Haven and London, 1966).

John Maynard Keynes, The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money

(London, 1936).

Peter Lindert, “English Population, Wages, and Prices: 1541 – 1913,” The

Journal of Interdisciplinary History, 15 (Spring 1985), 609 – 34.

Nicholas Mayhew, “Population, Money Supply, and the Velocity of Circulation in

England, 1300 – 1700,” Economic History Review, 2nd ser.,

48:2 (May 1995), 238-57.

Harry Miskimin, “Population Growth and

the Price Revolution in England,”

Journal of European Economic History, 4 (1975), 179-85. Reprinted in his Cash,

Credit and Crisis in Europe, 1300 – 1600 (London: Variorum Reprints,

1989), no. xiv.

B.R. Mitchell and Phyllis Deane, eds. Abstract of British Historical

Statistics (Cambridge, 1962)

John Munro, “Mint Outputs, Money, and Prices in late-Medieval England and the

Low Countries,” in Eddy Van Cauwenberghe and Franz Irsigler, ed.,

Munzpragung, Geldumlauf und Wechselkurse / Minting, Monetary Circulation and

Exchange Rates, (Trierer Historische Forschungen, Vol. VIII, Trier,

1984), pp. 31-122.

John Munro, “Bullion Flows and Monetary Contraction in Late-Medieval England

and the Low Countries,” in John F. Richards, ed., Precious Metals in the

Medieval and Early Modern Worlds (Durham, N.C., 1983), pp. 97-158.

John Munro, “The Central European Mining Boom, Mint Outputs, and Prices in the

Low Countries and England, 1450 – 1550,” in Eddy H.G. Van Cauwenberghe,

ed., Money, Coins, and Commerce: Essays in

the Monetary History of Asia and Europe (From Antiquity to Modern Times)

(Leuven: Leuven University Press,

1991), pp. 119-83.

John Nef, “Silver Production in Central Europe, 1450-1618,” Journal of

Political Economy, 49 (1941), 575-91.

John Nef, “Mining

and Metallurgy,” in M.M. Postan, ed., Cambridge Economic History, Vol. II:

Trade and Industry in the Middle Ages (Cambridge, 1952),

pp. 456-93. Reprinted without changes, in the 2nd revised edn. of The Cambridge

Economic History of Europe, Vol. II, edited by M.M. Postan and Edward Miller

(Cambridge, 1987), pp. 691-761.

E.H. Phelps Brown and Sheila V. Hopkins, “Seven Centuries of en Centuries of

the Prices of Consumables Compared with B Building Wages,” Economica, 22

(August 1955), and “Sevuilders” Wage-

Rates,” Economica, 23 (Nov. 1956),

reprinted E.H. Phelps Brown and Sheila V. Hopkins, A Perspective of Wages and

Prices (London, 1981), containing additional statistical appendices not

provided in the original publication.

Frank Spooner, The International Economy and Monetary Movements in France,

1493-1725 (Cambridge, Mass., 1972)

John TePaske, “New World Silver, Castile, and the Philippines, 1590-1800 A.D.,”

in John F. Richards, ed., Precious Metals in the Medieval and Early Modern

Worlds (Durham, N.C.

, 1983), pp. 424-446.

John TePaske, “New World Gold Production in Hemispheric and Global Perspective,

1492 – 1810,” in Clara Nunez, ed., Monetary History in Global Perspective, 1500

- 1808, Papers presented to Session B-6 of the Twelfth International Eco nomic

History Congress (Seville, 1998), pp. 21-32.

Michael Turner, Enclosures in Britain, 1750 – 1830, Studies in Economic History

Series (London, 1984).

Herman Vander Wee, Growth of the Antwerp Market and the European Economy,

14th to 16th Centuries,

3 Vols. (The Hague, 1963). Vol. I: Statistics; Vol.

II: Interpretation, 374-427; and Vol. III: Graphs.

Herman Vander Wee, “Monetary, Credit, and Banking Systems,” in E.E. Rich and

Charles Wilson, eds., The Cambridge Economic History of Europe, Vol. V:

T he Economic Organization of Early Modern Europe(Cambridge, 1977), chapter V,

pp. 290-393.

Herman Vander Wee, “Prijzen en lonen als ontwikkelingsvariabelen: Een

vergelijkend onderzoek tussen Engeland en de Zuidelijke Nederlanden,

1400-1700,” in Album aan geboden aan Charles Verlinden ter gelegenheid van zijn

dertig jaar professoraat (Gent, 1975), pp. 413-47; reissued in English

translation (without the tables) as “Prices and Wages as Development Variables:

A Comparison Between England and the Southern Net herlands,

1400-1700,” Acta Historiae Neerlandicae, 10 (1978), 58-78.

Ivor Wilks, “Wangara, Akan, and the Portuguese in the Fifteenth and Sixteenth

Centuries,” in Ivor Wilks, ed., Forests of Gold: Essays on the Akan and the

Kingdom of Asante (Athens, Ohio

, 1993), pp. 1-39.

E.A. Wrigley, R.S. Davies, J.E. Oeppen, and R.S. Schofield, English Population

History from Family Reconstitution, 1580- 1837 (Cambridge and New York:

Cambridge University Press, 1997).

Subject(s):Macroeconomics and Fluctuations
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
Time Period(s):General or Comparative

Economic History Classics

Selections for 2006

During 2006 EH.NET published a series of “Classic Reviews.” Modeled along the lines of our earlier Project 2000 and Project 2001 series, reviewers were asked to “reintroduce” each of the books to the profession, “explaining its significance at the time of publication and why it has endured as a classic.” Each review summarizes the book’s key findings, methods and arguments, as it puts it into the larger context and discusses any weaknesses.

This year’s selections are (alphabetically by author):

Selection Committee

  • Gareth Austin, London School of Economics
  • Ann Carlos, University of Colorado
  • John Murray, University of Toledo
  • Lawrence Officer, University of Illinois at Chicago
  • Cormac Ó Gráda, University College Dublin
  • Peter Scott, University of Reading
  • Catherine Schenk, University of Glasgow
  • Pierre van der Eng, Australian National University
  • Jenny Wahl, Carleton College

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).

Adaptability

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)

1820

Capital

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

Pennsylvania

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.

Trivoli, George. The Suffolk Bank: A Study of a Free-Enterprise Clearing System. London: The Adam Smith Institute, 1979.

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.

Slavery in the United States

Jenny Bourne, Carleton College

Slavery is fundamentally an economic phenomenon. Throughout history, slavery has existed where it has been economically worthwhile to those in power. The principal example in modern times is the U.S. South. Nearly 4 million slaves with a market value estimated to be between $3.1 and $3.6 billion lived in the U.S. just before the Civil War. Masters enjoyed rates of return on slaves comparable to those on other assets; cotton consumers, insurance companies, and industrial enterprises benefited from slavery as well. Such valuable property required rules to protect it, and the institutional practices surrounding slavery display a sophistication that rivals modern-day law and business.

THE SPREAD OF SLAVERY IN THE U.S.

Not long after Columbus set sail for the New World, the French and Spanish brought slaves with them on various expeditions. Slaves accompanied Ponce de Leon to Florida in 1513, for instance. But a far greater proportion of slaves arrived in chains in crowded, sweltering cargo holds. The first dark-skinned slaves in what was to become British North America arrived in Virginia — perhaps stopping first in Spanish lands — in 1619 aboard a Dutch vessel. From 1500 to 1900, approximately 12 million Africans were forced from their homes to go westward, with about 10 million of them completing the journey. Yet very few ended up in the British colonies and young American republic. By 1808, when the trans-Atlantic slave trade to the U.S. officially ended, only about 6 percent of African slaves landing in the New World had come to North America.

Slavery in the North

Colonial slavery had a slow start, particularly in the North. The proportion there never got much above 5 percent of the total population. Scholars have speculated as to why, without coming to a definite conclusion. Some surmise that indentured servants were fundamentally better suited to the Northern climate, crops, and tasks at hand; some claim that anti-slavery sentiment provided the explanation. At the time of the American Revolution, fewer than 10 percent of the half million slaves in the thirteen colonies resided in the North, working primarily in agriculture. New York had the greatest number, with just over 20,000. New Jersey had close to 12,000 slaves. Vermont was the first Northern region to abolish slavery when it became an independent republic in 1777. Most of the original Northern colonies implemented a process of gradual emancipation in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, requiring the children of slave mothers to remain in servitude for a set period, typically 28 years. Other regions above the Mason-Dixon line ended slavery upon statehood early in the nineteenth century — Ohio in 1803 and Indiana in 1816, for instance.

TABLE 1
Population of the Original Thirteen Colonies, selected years by type

1750 1750 1790 1790 1790 1810 1810 1810 1860 1860 1860

State

White Black White Free Slave White Free Slave White Free Slave
Nonwhite Nonwhite Nonwhite
108,270 3,010 232,236 2,771 2,648 255,179 6,453 310 451,504 8,643 - Connecticut
27,208 1,496 46,310 3,899 8,887 55,361 13,136 4,177 90,589 19,829 1,798 Delaware
4,200 1,000 52,886 398 29,264 145,414 1,801 105,218 591,550 3,538 462,198 Georgia
97,623 43,450 208,649 8,043 103,036 235,117 33,927 111,502 515,918 83,942 87,189 Maryland
183,925 4,075 373,187 5,369 - 465,303 6,737 - 1,221,432 9,634 - Massachusetts
26,955 550 141,112 630 157 182,690 970 - 325,579 494 - New Hampshire
66,039 5,354 169,954 2,762 11,423 226,868 7,843 10,851 646,699 25,318 - New Jersey
65,682 11,014 314,366 4,682 21,193 918,699 25,333 15,017 3,831,590 49,145 - New York
53,184 19,800 289,181 5,041 100,783 376,410 10,266 168,824 629,942 31,621 331,059 North Carolina
116,794 2,872 317,479 6,531 3,707 786,804 22,492 795 2,849,259 56,956 - Pennsylvania
29,879 3,347 64,670 3,484 958 73,214 3,609 108 170,649 3,971 - Rhode Island
25,000 39,000 140,178 1,801 107,094 214,196 4,554 196,365 291,300 10,002 402,406 South Carolina
129,581 101,452 442,117 12,866 292,627 551,534 30,570 392,518 1,047,299 58,154 490,865 Virginia
934,340 236,420 2,792,325 58,277 681,777 4,486,789 167,691 1,005,685 12,663,310 361,247 1,775,515 United States

Source: Historical Statistics of the U.S. (1970), Franklin (1988).

Slavery in the South

Throughout colonial and antebellum history, U.S. slaves lived primarily in the South. Slaves comprised less than a tenth of the total Southern population in 1680 but grew to a third by 1790. At that date, 293,000 slaves lived in Virginia alone, making up 42 percent of all slaves in the U.S. at the time. South Carolina, North Carolina, and Maryland each had over 100,000 slaves. After the American Revolution, the Southern slave population exploded, reaching about 1.1 million in 1810 and over 3.9 million in 1860.

TABLE 2
Population of the South 1790-1860 by type

Year White Free Nonwhite Slave
1790 1,240,454 32,523 654,121
1800 1,691,892 61,575 851,532
1810 2,118,144 97,284 1,103,700
1820 2,867,454 130,487 1,509,904
1830 3,614,600 175,074 1,983,860
1840 4,601,873 207,214 2,481,390
1850 6,184,477 235,821 3,200,364
1860 8,036,700 253,082 3,950,511

Source: Historical Statistics of the U.S. (1970).

Slave Ownership Patterns

Despite their numbers, slaves typically comprised a minority of the local population. Only in antebellum South Carolina and Mississippi did slaves outnumber free persons. Most Southerners owned no slaves and most slaves lived in small groups rather than on large plantations. Less than one-quarter of white Southerners held slaves, with half of these holding fewer than five and fewer than 1 percent owning more than one hundred. In 1860, the average number of slaves residing together was about ten.

TABLE 3
Slaves as a Percent of the Total Population
selected years, by Southern state

1750 1790 1810 1860
State Black/total Slave/total Slave/total Slave/total
population population population population
Alabama 45.12
Arkansas 25.52
Delaware 5.21 15.04 5.75 1.60
Florida 43.97
Georgia 19.23 35.45 41.68 43.72
Kentucky 16.87 19.82 19.51
Louisiana 46.85
Maryland 30.80 32.23 29.30 12.69
Mississippi 55.18
Missouri 9.72
North Carolina 27.13 25.51 30.39 33.35
South Carolina 60.94 43.00 47.30 57.18
Tennessee 17.02 24.84
Texas 30.22
Virginia 43.91 39.14 40.27 30.75
Overall 37.97 33.95 33.25 32.27

Sources: Historical Statistics of the United States (1970), Franklin (1988).

TABLE 4
Holdings of Southern Slaveowners
by states, 1860

State Total Held 1 Held 2 Held 3 Held 4 Held 5 Held 1-5 Held 100- Held 500+
slaveholders slave slaves Slaves slaves slaves slaves 499 slaves slaves
AL 33,730 5,607 3,663 2,805 2,329 1,986 16,390 344 -
AR 11,481 2,339 1,503 1,070 894 730 6,536 65 1
DE 587 237 114 74 51 34 510 - -
FL 5,152 863 568 437 365 285 2,518 47 -
GA 41,084 6,713 4,335 3,482 2,984 2,543 20,057 211 8
KY 38,645 9,306 5,430 4,009 3,281 2,694 24,720 7 -
LA 22,033 4,092 2,573 2,034 1,536 1,310 11,545 543 4
MD 13,783 4,119 1,952 1,279 1,023 815 9,188 16 -
MS 30,943 4,856 3,201 2,503 2,129 1,809 14,498 315 1
MO 24,320 6,893 3,754 2,773 2,243 1,686 17,349 4 -
NC 34,658 6,440 4,017 3,068 2,546 2,245 18,316 133 -
SC 26,701 3,763 2,533 1,990 1,731 1,541 11,558 441 8
TN 36,844 7,820 4,738 3,609 3,012 2,536 21,715 47 -
TX 21,878 4,593 2,874 2,093 1,782 1,439 12,781 54 -
VA 52,128 11,085 5,989 4,474 3,807 3,233 28,588 114 -
TOTAL 393,967 78,726 47,244 35,700 29,713 24,886 216,269 2,341 22

Source: Historical Statistics of the United States (1970).

Rapid Natural Increase in U.S. Slave Population

How did the U.S. slave population increase nearly fourfold between 1810 and 1860, given the demise of the trans-Atlantic trade? They enjoyed an exceptional rate of natural increase. Unlike elsewhere in the New World, the South did not require constant infusions of immigrant slaves to keep its slave population intact. In fact, by 1825, 36 percent of the slaves in the Western hemisphere lived in the U.S. This was partly due to higher birth rates, which were in turn due to a more equal ratio of female to male slaves in the U.S. relative to other parts of the Americas. Lower mortality rates also figured prominently. Climate was one cause; crops were another. U.S. slaves planted and harvested first tobacco and then, after Eli Whitney’s invention of the cotton gin in 1793, cotton. This work was relatively less grueling than the tasks on the sugar plantations of the West Indies and in the mines and fields of South America. Southern slaves worked in industry, did domestic work, and grew a variety of other food crops as well, mostly under less abusive conditions than their counterparts elsewhere. For example, the South grew half to three-quarters of the corn crop harvested between 1840 and 1860.

INSTITUTIONAL FRAMEWORK

Central to the success of slavery are political and legal institutions that validate the ownership of other persons. A Kentucky court acknowledged the dual character of slaves in Turner v. Johnson (1838): “[S]laves are property and must, under our present institutions, be treated as such. But they are human beings, with like passions, sympathies, and affections with ourselves.” To construct slave law, lawmakers borrowed from laws concerning personal property and animals, as well as from rules regarding servants, employees, and free persons. The outcome was a set of doctrines that supported the Southern way of life.

The English common law of property formed a foundation for U.S. slave law. The French and Spanish influence in Louisiana — and, to a lesser extent, Texas — meant that Roman (or civil) law offered building blocks there as well. Despite certain formal distinctions, slave law as practiced differed little from common-law to civil-law states. Southern state law governed roughly five areas: slave status, masters’ treatment of slaves, interactions between slaveowners and contractual partners, rights and duties of noncontractual parties toward others’ slaves, and slave crimes. Federal law and laws in various Northern states also dealt with matters of interstate commerce, travel, and fugitive slaves.

Interestingly enough, just as slave law combined elements of other sorts of law, so too did it yield principles that eventually applied elsewhere. Lawmakers had to consider the intelligence and volition of slaves as they crafted laws to preserve property rights. Slavery therefore created legal rules that could potentially apply to free persons as well as to those in bondage. Many legal principles we now consider standard in fact had their origins in slave law.

Legal Status Of Slaves And Blacks

By the end of the seventeenth century, the status of blacks — slave or free — tended to follow the status of their mothers. Generally, “white” persons were not slaves but Native and African Americans could be. One odd case was the offspring of a free white woman and a slave: the law often bound these people to servitude for thirty-one years. Conversion to Christianity could set a slave free in the early colonial period, but this practice quickly disappeared.

Skin Color and Status

Southern law largely identified skin color with status. Those who appeared African or of African descent were generally presumed to be slaves. Virginia was the only state to pass a statute that actually classified people by race: essentially, it considered those with one quarter or more black ancestry as black. Other states used informal tests in addition to visual inspection: one-quarter, one-eighth, or one-sixteenth black ancestry might categorize a person as black.

Even if blacks proved their freedom, they enjoyed little higher status than slaves except, to some extent, in Louisiana. Many Southern states forbade free persons of color from becoming preachers, selling certain goods, tending bar, staying out past a certain time of night, or owning dogs, among other things. Federal law denied black persons citizenship under the Dred Scott decision (1857). In this case, Chief Justice Roger Taney also determined that visiting a free state did not free a slave who returned to a slave state, nor did traveling to a free territory ensure emancipation.

Rights And Responsibilities Of Slave Masters

Southern masters enjoyed great freedom in their dealings with slaves. North Carolina Chief Justice Thomas Ruffin expressed the sentiments of many Southerners when he wrote in State v. Mann (1829): “The power of the master must be absolute, to render the submission of the slave perfect.” By the nineteenth century, household heads had far more physical power over their slaves than their employees. In part, the differences in allowable punishment had to do with the substitutability of other means of persuasion. Instead of physical coercion, antebellum employers could legally withhold all wages if a worker did not complete all agreed-upon services. No such alternate mechanism existed for slaves.

Despite the respect Southerners held for the power of masters, the law — particularly in the thirty years before the Civil War — limited owners somewhat. Southerners feared that unchecked slave abuse could lead to theft, public beatings, and insurrection. People also thought that hungry slaves would steal produce and livestock. But masters who treated slaves too well, or gave them freedom, caused consternation as well. The preamble to Delaware’s Act of 1767 conveys one prevalent view: “[I]t is found by experience, that freed [N]egroes and mulattoes are idle and slothful, and often prove burdensome to the neighborhood wherein they live, and are of evil examples to slaves.” Accordingly, masters sometimes fell afoul of the criminal law not only when they brutalized or neglected their slaves, but also when they indulged or manumitted slaves. Still, prosecuting masters was extremely difficult, because often the only witnesses were slaves or wives, neither of whom could testify against male heads of household.

Law of Manumission

One area that changed dramatically over time was the law of manumission. The South initially allowed masters to set their slaves free because this was an inherent right of property ownership. During the Revolutionary period, some Southern leaders also believed that manumission was consistent with the ideology of the new nation. Manumission occurred only rarely in colonial times, increased dramatically during the Revolution, then diminished after the early 1800s. By the 1830s, most Southern states had begun to limit manumission. Allowing masters to free their slaves at will created incentives to emancipate only unproductive slaves. Consequently, the community at large bore the costs of young, old, and disabled former slaves. The public might also run the risk of having rebellious former slaves in its midst.

Antebellum U.S. Southern states worried considerably about these problems and eventually enacted restrictions on the age at which slaves could be free, the number freed by any one master, and the number manumitted by last will. Some required former masters to file indemnifying bonds with state treasurers so governments would not have to support indigent former slaves. Some instead required former owners to contribute to ex-slaves’ upkeep. Many states limited manumissions to slaves of a certain age who were capable of earning a living. A few states made masters emancipate their slaves out of state or encouraged slaveowners to bequeath slaves to the Colonization Society, which would then send the freed slaves to Liberia. Former slaves sometimes paid fees on the way out of town to make up for lost property tax revenue; they often encountered hostility and residential fees on the other end as well. By 1860, most Southern states had banned in-state and post-mortem manumissions, and some had enacted procedures by which free blacks could voluntarily become slaves.

Other Restrictions

In addition to constraints on manumission, laws restricted other actions of masters and, by extension, slaves. Masters generally had to maintain a certain ratio of white to black residents upon plantations. Some laws barred slaves from owning musical instruments or bearing firearms. All states refused to allow slaves to make contracts or testify in court against whites. About half of Southern states prohibited masters from teaching slaves to read and write although some of these permitted slaves to learn rudimentary mathematics. Masters could use slaves for some tasks and responsibilities, but they typically could not order slaves to compel payment, beat white men, or sample cotton. Nor could slaves officially hire themselves out to others, although such prohibitions were often ignored by masters, slaves, hirers, and public officials. Owners faced fines and sometimes damages if their slaves stole from others or caused injuries.

Southern law did encourage benevolence, at least if it tended to supplement the lash and shackle. Court opinions in particular indicate the belief that good treatment of slaves could enhance labor productivity, increase plantation profits, and reinforce sentimental ties. Allowing slaves to control small amounts of property, even if statutes prohibited it, was an oft-sanctioned practice. Courts also permitted slaves small diversions, such as Christmas parties and quilting bees, despite statutes that barred slave assemblies.

Sale, Hire, And Transportation Of Slaves

Sales of Slaves

Slaves were freely bought and sold across the antebellum South. Southern law offered greater protection to slave buyers than to buyers of other goods, in part because slaves were complex commodities with characteristics not easily ascertained by inspection. Slave sellers were responsible for their representations, required to disclose known defects, and often liable for unknown defects, as well as bound by explicit contractual language. These rules stand in stark contrast to the caveat emptor doctrine applied in antebellum commodity sales cases. In fact, they more closely resemble certain provisions of the modern Uniform Commercial Code. Sales law in two states stands out. South Carolina was extremely pro-buyer, presuming that any slave sold at full price was sound. Louisiana buyers enjoyed extensive legal protection as well. A sold slave who later manifested an incurable disease or vice — such as a tendency to escape frequently — could generate a lawsuit that entitled the purchaser to nullify the sale.

Hiring Out Slaves

Slaves faced the possibility of being hired out by their masters as well as being sold. Although scholars disagree about the extent of hiring in agriculture, most concur that hired slaves frequently worked in manufacturing, construction, mining, and domestic service. Hired slaves and free persons often labored side by side. Bond and free workers both faced a legal burden to behave responsibly on the job. Yet the law of the workplace differed significantly for the two: generally speaking, employers were far more culpable in cases of injuries to slaves. The divergent law for slave and free workers does not necessarily imply that free workers suffered. Empirical evidence shows that nineteenth-century free laborers received at least partial compensation for the risks of jobs. Indeed, the tripartite nature of slave-hiring arrangements suggests why antebellum laws appeared as they did. Whereas free persons had direct work and contractual relations with their bosses, slaves worked under terms designed by others. Free workers arguably could have walked out or insisted on different conditions or wages. Slaves could not. The law therefore offered substitute protections. Still, the powerful interests of slaveowners also may mean that they simply were more successful at shaping the law. Postbellum developments in employment law — North and South — in fact paralleled earlier slave-hiring law, at times relying upon slave cases as legal precedents.

Public Transportation

Public transportation also figured into slave law: slaves suffered death and injury aboard common carriers as well as traveled as legitimate passengers and fugitives. As elsewhere, slave-common carrier law both borrowed from and established precedents for other areas of law. One key doctrine originating in slave cases was the “last-clear-chance rule.” Common-carrier defendants that had failed to offer slaves — even negligent slaves — a last clear chance to avoid accidents ended up paying damages to slaveowners. Slaveowner plaintiffs won several cases in the decade before the Civil War when engineers failed to warn slaves off railroad tracks. Postbellum courts used slave cases as precedents to entrench the last-clear-chance doctrine.

Slave Control: Patrollers And Overseers

Society at large shared in maintaining the machinery of slavery. In place of a standing police force, Southern states passed legislation to establish and regulate county-wide citizen patrols. Essentially, Southern citizens took upon themselves the protection of their neighbors’ interests as well as their own. County courts had local administrative authority; court officials appointed three to five men per patrol from a pool of white male citizens to serve for a specified period. Typical patrol duty ranged from one night per week for a year to twelve hours per month for three months. Not all white men had to serve: judges, magistrates, ministers, and sometimes millers and blacksmiths enjoyed exemptions. So did those in the higher ranks of the state militia. In many states, courts had to select from adult males under a certain age, usually 45, 50, or 60. Some states allowed only slaveowners or householders to join patrols. Patrollers typically earned fees for captured fugitive slaves and exemption from road or militia duty, as well as hourly wages. Keeping order among slaves was the patrollers’ primary duty. Statutes set guidelines for appropriate treatment of slaves and often imposed fines for unlawful beatings. In rare instances, patrollers had to compensate masters for injured slaves. For the most part, however, patrollers enjoyed quasi-judicial or quasi-executive powers in their dealings with slaves.

Overseers commanded considerable control as well. The Southern overseer was the linchpin of the large slave plantation. He ran daily operations and served as a first line of defense in safeguarding whites. The vigorous protests against drafting overseers into military service during the Civil War reveal their significance to the South. Yet slaves were too valuable to be left to the whims of frustrated, angry overseers. Injuries caused to slaves by overseers’ cruelty (or “immoral conduct”) usually entitled masters to recover civil damages. Overseers occasionally confronted criminal charges as well. Brutality by overseers naturally generated responses by their victims; at times, courts reduced murder charges to manslaughter when slaves killed abusive overseers.

Protecting The Master Against Loss: Slave Injury And Slave Stealing

Whether they liked it or not, many Southerners dealt daily with slaves. Southern law shaped these interactions among strangers, awarding damages more often for injuries to slaves than injuries to other property or persons, shielding slaves more than free persons from brutality, and generating convictions more frequently in slave-stealing cases than in other criminal cases. The law also recognized more offenses against slaveowners than against other property owners because slaves, unlike other property, succumbed to influence.

Just as assaults of slaves generated civil damages and criminal penalties, so did stealing a slave to sell him or help him escape to freedom. Many Southerners considered slave stealing worse than killing fellow citizens. In marked contrast, selling a free black person into slavery carried almost no penalty.

The counterpart to helping slaves escape — picking up fugitives — also created laws. Southern states offered rewards to defray the costs of capture or passed statutes requiring owners to pay fees to those who caught and returned slaves. Some Northern citizens worked hand-in-hand with their Southern counterparts, returning fugitive slaves to masters either with or without the prompting of law. But many Northerners vehemently opposed the peculiar institution. In an attempt to stitch together the young nation, the federal government passed the first fugitive slave act in 1793. To circumvent its application, several Northern states passed personal liberty laws in the 1840s. Stronger federal fugitive slave legislation then passed in 1850. Still, enough slaves fled to freedom — perhaps as many as 15,000 in the decade before the Civil War — with the help (or inaction) of Northerners that the profession of “slave-catching” evolved. This occupation was often highly risky — enough so that such men could not purchase life insurance coverage — and just as often highly lucrative.

Slave Crimes

Southern law governed slaves as well as slaveowners and their adversaries. What few due process protections slaves possessed stemmed from desires to grant rights to masters. Still, slaves faced harsh penalties for their crimes. When slaves stole, rioted, set fires, or killed free people, the law sometimes had to subvert the property rights of masters in order to preserve slavery as a social institution.

Slaves, like other antebellum Southern residents, committed a host of crimes ranging from arson to theft to homicide. Other slave crimes included violating curfew, attending religious meetings without a master’s consent, and running away. Indeed, a slave was not permitted off his master’s farm or business without his owner’s permission. In rural areas, a slave was required to carry a written pass to leave the master’s land.

Southern states erected numerous punishments for slave crimes, including prison terms, banishment, whipping, castration, and execution. In most states, the criminal law for slaves (and blacks generally) was noticeably harsher than for free whites; in others, slave law as practiced resembled that governing poorer white citizens. Particularly harsh punishments applied to slaves who had allegedly killed their masters or who had committed rebellious acts. Southerners considered these acts of treason and resorted to immolation, drawing and quartering, and hanging.

MARKETS AND PRICES

Market prices for slaves reflect their substantial economic value. Scholars have gathered slave prices from a variety of sources, including censuses, probate records, plantation and slave-trader accounts, and proceedings of slave auctions. These data sets reveal that prime field hands went for four to six hundred dollars in the U.S. in 1800, thirteen to fifteen hundred dollars in 1850, and up to three thousand dollars just before Fort Sumter fell. Even controlling for inflation, the prices of U.S. slaves rose significantly in the six decades before South Carolina seceded from the Union. By 1860, Southerners owned close to $4 billion worth of slaves. Slavery remained a thriving business on the eve of the Civil War: Fogel and Engerman (1974) projected that by 1890 slave prices would have increased on average more than 50 percent over their 1860 levels. No wonder the South rose in armed resistance to protect its enormous investment.

Slave markets existed across the antebellum U.S. South. Even today, one can find stone markers like the one next to the Antietam battlefield, which reads: “From 1800 to 1865 This Stone Was Used as a Slave Auction Block. It has been a famous landmark at this original location for over 150 years.” Private auctions, estate sales, and professional traders facilitated easy exchange. Established dealers like Franklin and Armfield in Virginia, Woolfolk, Saunders, and Overly in Maryland, and Nathan Bedford Forrest in Tennessee prospered alongside itinerant traders who operated in a few counties, buying slaves for cash from their owners, then moving them overland in coffles to the lower South. Over a million slaves were taken across state lines between 1790 and 1860 with many more moving within states. Some of these slaves went with their owners; many were sold to new owners. In his monumental study, Michael Tadman (1989) found that slaves who lived in the upper South faced a very real chance of being sold for profit. From 1820 to 1860, he estimated that an average of 200,000 slaves per decade moved from the upper to the lower South, most via sales. A contemporary newspaper, The Virginia Times, calculated that 40,000 slaves were sold in the year 1830.

Determinants of Slave Prices

The prices paid for slaves reflected two economic factors: the characteristics of the slave and the conditions of the market. Important individual features included age, sex, childbearing capacity (for females), physical condition, temperament, and skill level. In addition, the supply of slaves, demand for products produced by slaves, and seasonal factors helped determine market conditions and therefore prices.

Age and Price

Prices for both male and female slaves tended to follow similar life-cycle patterns. In the U.S. South, infant slaves sold for a positive price because masters expected them to live long enough to make the initial costs of raising them worthwhile. Prices rose through puberty as productivity and experience increased. In nineteenth-century New Orleans, for example, prices peaked at about age 22 for females and age 25 for males. Girls cost more than boys up to their mid-teens. The genders then switched places in terms of value. In the Old South, boys aged 14 sold for 71 percent of the price of 27-year-old men, whereas girls aged 14 sold for 65 percent of the price of 27-year-old men. After the peak age, prices declined slowly for a time, then fell off rapidly as the aging process caused productivity to fall. Compared to full-grown men, women were worth 80 to 90 percent as much. One characteristic in particular set some females apart: their ability to bear children. Fertile females commanded a premium. The mother-child link also proved important for pricing in a different way: people sometimes paid more for intact families.


Source: Fogel and Engerman (1974)

Other Characteristics and Price

Skills, physical traits, mental capabilities, and other qualities also helped determine a slave’s price. Skilled workers sold for premiums of 40-55 percent whereas crippled and chronically ill slaves sold for deep discounts. Slaves who proved troublesome — runaways, thieves, layabouts, drunks, slow learners, and the like — also sold for lower prices. Taller slaves cost more, perhaps because height acts as a proxy for healthiness. In New Orleans, light-skinned females (who were often used as concubines) sold for a 5 percent premium.

Fluctuations in Supply

Prices for slaves fluctuated with market conditions as well as with individual characteristics. U.S. slave prices fell around 1800 as the Haitian revolution sparked the movement of slaves into the Southern states. Less than a decade later, slave prices climbed when the international slave trade was banned, cutting off legal external supplies. Interestingly enough, among those who supported the closing of the trans-Atlantic slave trade were several Southern slaveowners. Why this apparent anomaly? Because the resulting reduction in supply drove up the prices of slaves already living in the U.S and, hence, their masters’ wealth. U.S. slaves had high enough fertility rates and low enough mortality rates to reproduce themselves, so Southern slaveowners did not worry about having too few slaves to go around.

Fluctuations in Demand

Demand helped determine prices as well. The demand for slaves derived in part from the demand for the commodities and services that slaves provided. Changes in slave occupations and variability in prices for slave-produced goods therefore created movements in slave prices. As slaves replaced increasingly expensive indentured servants in the New World, their prices went up. In the period 1748 to 1775, slave prices in British America rose nearly 30 percent. As cotton prices fell in the 1840s, Southern slave prices also fell. But, as the demand for cotton and tobacco grew after about 1850, the prices of slaves increased as well.

Interregional Price Differences

Differences in demand across regions led to transitional regional price differences, which in turn meant large movements of slaves. Yet because planters experienced greater stability among their workforce when entire plantations moved, 84 percent of slaves were taken to the lower South in this way rather than being sold piecemeal.

Time of Year and Price

Demand sometimes had to do with the time of year a sale took place. For example, slave prices in the New Orleans market were 10 to 20 percent higher in January than in September. Why? September was a busy time of year for plantation owners: the opportunity cost of their time was relatively high. Prices had to be relatively low for them to be willing to travel to New Orleans during harvest time.

Expectations and Prices

One additional demand factor loomed large in determining slave prices: the expectation of continued legal slavery. As the American Civil War progressed, prices dropped dramatically because people could not be sure that slavery would survive. In New Orleans, prime male slaves sold on average for $1381 in 1861 and for $1116 in 1862. Burgeoning inflation meant that real prices fell considerably more. By war’s end, slaves sold for a small fraction of their 1860 price.


Source: Data supplied by Stanley Engerman and reported in Walton and Rockoff (1994).

PROFITABILITY, EFFICIENCY, AND EXPLOITATION

That slavery was profitable seems almost obvious. Yet scholars have argued furiously about this matter. On one side stand antebellum writers such as Hinton Rowan Helper and Frederick Law Olmstead, many antebellum abolitionists, and contemporary scholars like Eugene Genovese (at least in his early writings), who speculated that American slavery was unprofitable, inefficient, and incompatible with urban life. On the other side are scholars who have marshaled masses of data to support their contention that Southern slavery was profitable and efficient relative to free labor and that slavery suited cities as well as farms. These researchers stress the similarity between slave markets and markets for other sorts of capital.

Consensus That Slavery Was Profitable

This battle has largely been won by those who claim that New World slavery was profitable. Much like other businessmen, New World slaveowners responded to market signals — adjusting crop mixes, reallocating slaves to more profitable tasks, hiring out idle slaves, and selling slaves for profit. One well-known instance shows that contemporaneous free labor thought that urban slavery may even have worked too well: employees of the Tredegar Iron Works in Richmond, Virginia, went out on their first strike in 1847 to protest the use of slave labor at the Works.

Fogel and Engerman’s Time on the Cross

Carrying the banner of the “slavery was profitable” camp is Nobel laureate Robert Fogel. Perhaps the most controversial book ever written about American slavery is Time on the Cross, published in 1974 by Fogel and co-author Stanley Engerman. These men were among the first to use modern statistical methods, computers, and large datasets to answer a series of empirical questions about the economics of slavery. To find profit levels and rates of return, they built upon the work of Alfred Conrad and John Meyer, who in 1958 had calculated similar measures from data on cotton prices, physical yield per slave, demographic characteristics of slaves (including expected lifespan), maintenance and supervisory costs, and (in the case of females) number of children. To estimate the relative efficiency of farms, Fogel and Engerman devised an index of “total factor productivity,” which measured the output per average unit of input on each type of farm. They included in this index controls for quality of livestock and land and for age and sex composition of the workforce, as well as amounts of output, labor, land, and capital

Time on the Cross generated praise — and considerable criticism. A major critique appeared in 1976 as a collection of articles entitled Reckoning with Slavery. Although some contributors took umbrage at the tone of the book and denied that it broke new ground, others focused on flawed and insufficient data and inappropriate inferences. Despite its shortcomings, Time on the Cross inarguably brought people’s attention to a new way of viewing slavery. The book also served as a catalyst for much subsequent research. Even Eugene Genovese, long an ardent proponent of the belief that Southern planters had held slaves for their prestige value, finally acknowledged that slavery was probably a profitable enterprise. Fogel himself refined and expanded his views in a 1989 book, Without Consent or Contract.

Efficiency Estimates

Fogel’s and Engerman’s research led them to conclude that investments in slaves generated high rates of return, masters held slaves for profit motives rather than for prestige, and slavery thrived in cities and rural areas alike. They also found that antebellum Southern farms were 35 percent more efficient overall than Northern ones and that slave farms in the New South were 53 percent more efficient than free farms in either North or South. This would mean that a slave farm that is otherwise identical to a free farm (in terms of the amount of land, livestock, machinery and labor used) would produce output worth 53 percent more than the free. On the eve of the Civil War, slavery flourished in the South and generated a rate of economic growth comparable to that of many European countries, according to Fogel and Engerman. They also discovered that, because slaves constituted a considerable portion of individual wealth, masters fed and treated their slaves reasonably well. Although some evidence indicates that infant and young slaves suffered much worse conditions than their freeborn counterparts, teenaged and adult slaves lived in conditions similar to — sometimes better than — those enjoyed by many free laborers of the same period.

Transition from Indentured Servitude to Slavery

One potent piece of evidence supporting the notion that slavery provides pecuniary benefits is this: slavery replaces other labor when it becomes relatively cheaper. In the early U.S. colonies, for example, indentured servitude was common. As the demand for skilled servants (and therefore their wages) rose in England, the cost of indentured servants went up in the colonies. At the same time, second-generation slaves became more productive than their forebears because they spoke English and did not have to adjust to life in a strange new world. Consequently, the balance of labor shifted away from indentured servitude and toward slavery.

Gang System

The value of slaves arose in part from the value of labor generally in the antebellum U.S. Scarce factors of production command economic rent, and labor was by far the scarcest available input in America. Moreover, a large proportion of the reward to owning and working slaves resulted from innovative labor practices. Certainly, the use of the “gang” system in agriculture contributed to profits in the antebellum period. In the gang system, groups of slaves perfomed synchronized tasks under the watchful overseer’s eye, much like parts of a single machine. Masters found that treating people like machinery paid off handsomely.

Antebellum slaveowners experimented with a variety of other methods to increase productivity. They developed an elaborate system of “hand ratings” in order to improve the match between the slave worker and the job. Hand ratings categorized slaves by age and sex and rated their productivity relative to that of a prime male field hand. Masters also capitalized on the native intelligence of slaves by using them as agents to receive goods, keep books, and the like.

Use of Positive Incentives

Masters offered positive incentives to make slaves work more efficiently. Slaves often had Sundays off. Slaves could sometimes earn bonuses in cash or in kind, or quit early if they finished tasks quickly. Some masters allowed slaves to keep part of the harvest or to work their own small plots. In places, slaves could even sell their own crops. To prevent stealing, however, many masters limited the products that slaves could raise and sell, confining them to corn or brown cotton, for example. In antebellum Louisiana, slaves even had under their control a sum of money called a peculium. This served as a sort of working capital, enabling slaves to establish thriving businesses that often benefited their masters as well. Yet these practices may have helped lead to the downfall of slavery, for they gave slaves a taste of freedom that left them longing for more.

Slave Families

Masters profited from reproduction as well as production. Southern planters encouraged slaves to have large families because U.S. slaves lived long enough — unlike those elsewhere in the New World — to generate more revenue than cost over their lifetimes. But researchers have found little evidence of slave breeding; instead, masters encouraged slaves to live in nuclear or extended families for stability. Lest one think sentimentality triumphed on the Southern plantation, one need only recall the willingness of most masters to sell if the bottom line was attractive enough.

Profitability and African Heritage

One element that contributed to the profitability of New World slavery was the African heritage of slaves. Africans, more than indigenous Americans, were accustomed to the discipline of agricultural practices and knew metalworking. Some scholars surmise that Africans, relative to Europeans, could better withstand tropical diseases and, unlike Native Americans, also had some exposure to the European disease pool.

Ease of Identifying Slaves

Perhaps the most distinctive feature of Africans, however, was their skin color. Because they looked different from their masters, their movements were easy to monitor. Denying slaves education, property ownership, contractual rights, and other things enjoyed by those in power was simple: one needed only to look at people to ascertain their likely status. Using color was a low-cost way of distinguishing slaves from free persons. For this reason, the colonial practices that freed slaves who converted to Christianity quickly faded away. Deciphering true religious beliefs is far more difficult than establishing skin color. Other slave societies have used distinguishing marks like brands or long hair to denote slaves, yet color is far more immutable and therefore better as a cheap way of keeping slaves separate. Skin color, of course, can also serve as a racist identifying mark even after slavery itself disappears.

Profit Estimates

Slavery never generated superprofits, because people always had the option of putting their money elsewhere. Nevertheless, investment in slaves offered a rate of return — about 10 percent — that was comparable to returns on other assets. Slaveowners were not the only ones to reap rewards, however. So too did cotton consumers who enjoyed low prices and Northern entrepreneurs who helped finance plantation operations.

Exploitation Estimates

So slavery was profitable; was it an efficient way of organizing the workforce? On this question, considerable controversy remains. Slavery might well have profited masters, but only because they exploited their chattel. What is more, slavery could have locked people into a method of production and way of life that might later have proven burdensome.

Fogel and Engerman (1974) claimed that slaves kept about ninety percent of what they produced. Because these scholars also found that agricultural slavery produced relatively more output for a given set of inputs, they argued that slaves may actually have shared in the overall material benefits resulting from the gang system. Other scholars contend that slaves in fact kept less than half of what they produced and that slavery, while profitable, certainly was not efficient. On the whole, current estimates suggest that the typical slave received only about fifty percent of the extra output that he or she produced.

Did Slavery Retard Southern Economic Development?

Gavin Wright (1978) called attention as well to the difference between the short run and the long run. He noted that slaves accounted for a very large proportion of most masters’ portfolios of assets. Although slavery might have seemed an efficient means of production at a point in time, it tied masters to a certain system of labor which might not have adapted quickly to changed economic circumstances. This argument has some merit. Although the South’s growth rate compared favorably with that of the North in the antebellum period, a considerable portion of wealth was held in the hands of planters. Consequently, commercial and service industries lagged in the South. The region also had far less rail transportation than the North. Yet many plantations used the most advanced technologies of the day, and certain innovative commercial and insurance practices appeared first in transactions involving slaves. What is more, although the South fell behind the North and Great Britain in its level of manufacturing, it compared favorably to other advanced countries of the time. In sum, no clear consensus emerges as to whether the antebellum South created a standard of living comparable to that of the North or, if it did, whether it could have sustained it.

Ultimately, the South’s system of law, politics, business, and social customs strengthened the shackles of slavery and reinforced racial stereotyping. As such, it was undeniably evil. Yet, because slaves constituted valuable property, their masters had ample incentives to take care of them. And, by protecting the property rights of masters, slave law necessarily sheltered the persons embodied within. In a sense, the apologists for slavery were right: slaves sometimes fared better than free persons because powerful people had a stake in their well-being.

Conclusion: Slavery Cannot Be Seen As Benign

But slavery cannot be thought of as benign. In terms of material conditions, diet, and treatment, Southern slaves may have fared as well in many ways as the poorest class of free citizens. Yet the root of slavery is coercion. By its very nature, slavery involves involuntary transactions. Slaves are property, whereas free laborers are persons who make choices (at times constrained, of course) about the sort of work they do and the number of hours they work.

The behavior of former slaves after abolition clearly reveals that they cared strongly about the manner of their work and valued their non-work time more highly than masters did. Even the most benevolent former masters in the U.S. South found it impossible to entice their former chattels back into gang work, even with large wage premiums. Nor could they persuade women back into the labor force: many female ex-slaves simply chose to stay at home. In the end, perhaps slavery is an economic phenomenon only because slave societies fail to account for the incalculable costs borne by the slaves themselves.

REFERENCES AND FURTHER READING

For studies pertaining to the economics of slavery, see particularly Aitken, Hugh, editor. Did Slavery Pay? Readings in the Economics of Black Slavery in the United States. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1971.

Barzel, Yoram. “An Economic Analysis of Slavery.” Journal of Law and Economics 20 (1977): 87-110.

Conrad, Alfred H., and John R. Meyer. The Economics of Slavery and Other Studies. Chicago: Aldine, 1964.

David, Paul A., Herbert G. Gutman, Richard Sutch, Peter Temin, and Gavin Wright. Reckoning with Slavery: A Critical Study in the Quantitative History of American Negro Slavery. New York: Oxford University Press, 1976

Fogel , Robert W. Without Consent or Contract. New York: Norton, 1989.

Fogel, Robert W., and Stanley L. Engerman. Time on the Cross: The Economics of American Negro Slavery. New York: Little, Brown, 1974.

Galenson, David W. Traders, Planters, and Slaves: Market Behavior in Early English America. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986

Kotlikoff, Laurence. “The Structure of Slave Prices in New Orleans, 1804-1862.” Economic Inquiry 17 (1979): 496-518.

Ransom, Roger L., and Richard Sutch. One Kind of Freedom: The Economic Consequences of Emancipation. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1977.

Ransom, Roger L., and Richard Sutch “Capitalists Without Capital” Agricultural History 62 (1988): 133-160.

Vedder, Richard K. “The Slave Exploitation (Expropriation) Rate.” Explorations in Economic History 12 (1975): 453-57.

Wright, Gavin. The Political Economy of the Cotton South: Households, Markets, and Wealth in the Nineteenth Century. New York: Norton, 1978.

Yasuba, Yasukichi. “The Profitability and Viability of Slavery in the U.S.” Economic Studies Quarterly 12 (1961): 60-67.

For accounts of slave trading and sales, see
Bancroft, Frederic. Slave Trading in the Old South. New York: Ungar, 1931. Tadman, Michael. Speculators and Slaves. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989.

For discussion of the profession of slave catchers, see
Campbell, Stanley W. The Slave Catchers. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1968.

To read about slaves in industry and urban areas, see
Dew, Charles B. Slavery in the Antebellum Southern Industries. Bethesda: University Publications of America, 1991.

Goldin, Claudia D. Urban Slavery in the American South, 1820-1860: A Quantitative History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press,1976.

Starobin, Robert. Industrial Slavery in the Old South. New York: Oxford University Press, 1970.

For discussions of masters and overseers, see
Oakes, James. The Ruling Race: A History of American Slaveholders. New York: Knopf, 1982.

Roark, James L. Masters Without Slaves. New York: Norton, 1977.

Scarborough, William K. The Overseer: Plantation Management in the Old South. Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University Press, 1966.

On indentured servitude, see
Galenson, David. “Rise and Fall of Indentured Servitude in the Americas: An Economic Analysis.” Journal of Economic History 44 (1984): 1-26.

Galenson, David. White Servitude in Colonial America: An Economic Analysis. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1981.

Grubb, Farley. “Immigrant Servant Labor: Their Occupational and Geographic Distribution in the Late Eighteenth Century Mid-Atlantic Economy.” Social Science History 9 (1985): 249-75.

Menard, Russell R. “From Servants to Slaves: The Transformation of the Chesapeake Labor System.” Southern Studies 16 (1977): 355-90.

On slave law, see
Fede, Andrew. “Legal Protection for Slave Buyers in the U.S. South.” American Journal of Legal History 31 (1987). Finkelman, Paul. An Imperfect Union: Slavery, Federalism, and Comity. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 1981.

Finkelman, Paul. Slavery, Race, and the American Legal System, 1700-1872. New York: Garland, 1988.

Finkelman, Paul, ed. Slavery and the Law. Madison: Madison House, 1997.

Flanigan, Daniel J. The Criminal Law of Slavery and Freedom, 1800-68. New York: Garland, 1987.

Morris, Thomas D., Southern Slavery and the Law: 1619-1860. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996.

Schafer, Judith K. Slavery, The Civil Law, and the Supreme Court of Louisiana. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1994.

Tushnet, Mark V. The American Law of Slavery, 1810-60: Considerations of Humanity and Interest. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981.

Wahl, Jenny B. The Bondsman’s Burden: An Economic Analysis of the Common Law of Southern Slavery. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Other useful sources include
Berlin, Ira, and Philip D. Morgan, eds. The Slave’s Economy: Independent Production by Slaves in the Americas. London: Frank Cass, 1991.

Berlin, Ira, and Philip D. Morgan, eds, Cultivation and Culture: Labor and the Shaping of Slave Life in the Americas. Charlottesville, University Press of Virginia, 1993.

Elkins, Stanley M. Slavery: A Problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976.

Engerman, Stanley, and Eugene Genovese. Race and Slavery in the Western Hemisphere: Quantitative Studies. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1975.

Fehrenbacher, Don. Slavery, Law, and Politics. New York: Oxford University Press, 1981.

Franklin, John H. From Slavery to Freedom. New York: Knopf, 1988.

Genovese, Eugene D. Roll, Jordan, Roll. New York: Pantheon, 1974.

Genovese, Eugene D. The Political Economy of Slavery: Studies in the Economy and Society of the Slave South . Middletown, CT: Wesleyan, 1989.

Hindus, Michael S. Prison and Plantation. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1980.

Margo, Robert, and Richard Steckel. “The Heights of American Slaves: New Evidence on Slave Nutrition and Health.” Social Science History 6 (1982): 516-538.

Phillips, Ulrich B. American Negro Slavery: A Survey of the Supply, Employment and Control of Negro Labor as Determined by the Plantation Regime. New York: Appleton, 1918.

Stampp, Kenneth M. The Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Antebellum South. New York: Knopf, 1956.

Steckel, Richard. “Birth Weights and Infant Mortality Among American Slaves.” Explorations in Economic History 23 (1986): 173-98.

Walton, Gary, and Hugh Rockoff. History of the American Economy. Orlando: Harcourt Brace, 1994, chapter 13.

Whaples, Robert. “Where Is There Consensus among American Economic Historians?” Journal of Economic History 55 (1995): 139-154.

Data can be found at
U.S. Bureau of the Census, Historical Statistics of the United States, 1970, collected in ICPSR study number 0003, “Historical Demographic, Economic and Social Data: The United States, 1790-1970,” located at http://fisher.lib.virginia.edu/census/.

Citation: Bourne, Jenny. “Slavery in the United States”. EH.Net Encyclopedia, edited by Robert Whaples. March 26, 2008. URL http://eh.net/encyclopedia/slavery-in-the-united-states/

Fire Insurance in the United States

Dalit Baranoff

Fire Insurance before 1810

Marine Insurance

The first American insurers modeled themselves after British marine and fire insurers, who were already well-established by the eighteenth century. In eighteenth-century Britain, individual merchants wrote most marine insurance contracts. Shippers and ship owners were able to acquire insurance through an informal exchange centering on London’s coffeehouses. Edward Lloyd’s Coffee-house, the predecessor of Lloyd’s of London, came to dominate the individual underwriting business by the middle of the eighteenth century.

Similar insurance offices where local merchants could underwrite individual voyages began to appear in a number of American port cities in the 1720s. The trade centered on Philadelphia, where at least fifteen different brokerages helped place insurance in the hands of some 150 private underwriters over the course of the eighteenth century. But only a limited amount of coverage was available. American shippers also could acquire insurance through the agents of Lloyds and other British insurers, but often had to wait months for payments of losses.

Mutual Fire Insurance

When fire insurance first appeared in Britain after the Great London Fire of 1666, mutual societies, in which each policyholder owned a share of the risk, predominated. The earliest American fire insurers followed this model as well. Established in the few urban centers where capital was concentrated, American mutuals were not considered money-making ventures, but rather were outgrowths of volunteer firefighting organizations. In 1735 Charleston residents formed the first American mutual insurance company, the Friendly Society of Mutual Insuring of Homes against Fire. It only lasted until 1741, when a major fire put it out of business.

Benjamin Franklin was the organizing force behind the next, more successful, mutual insurance venture, the Philadelphia Contributionship for the Insurance of Houses from Loss by Fire 1, known familiarly by the name of its symbol, the “Hand in Hand.” By the 1780s, growing demand had led to the formation of other fire mutuals in Philadelphia, New York, Baltimore, Norwich (CT), Charleston, Richmond, Boston, Providence, and elsewhere. (See Table 1.)

Joint-Stock Companies

Joint-stock insurance companies, which raise capital through the sale of shares and distribute dividends, rose to prominence in American fire and marine insurance after the War of Independence. While only a few British insurers were granted the royal charters that allowed them to sell stock and to claim limited liability, insurers in the young United States found it relatively easy to obtain charters from state legislatures eager to promote a domestic insurance industry.

Joint-stock companies first appeared in the marine sector, where demand and the potential for profit were greater. Because they did not rely on the fortunes of any one individual, joint-stock companies provided greater security than private underwriting. In addition to their premium income, joint-stock companies maintained a fixed capital, allowing them to cover larger amounts than mutuals could.

The first successful joint-stock company, the Insurance Company of North America, was formed in 1792 in Philadelphia to sell marine, fire, and life insurance. By 1810, more than seventy such companies had been chartered in the United States. Most of the firms incorporated before 1810 operated primarily in marine insurance, although they were often chartered to handle other lines. (See Table 1.)

Table 1: American Insurance Companies, 1735-1810

Connecticut
1794 Norwich Mutual Fire Insurance Co. (Norwich)
1796 New Haven Insurance Co.
1797 New Haven Insurance Co. (Marine)
1801 Mutual Assurance Co. (New Haven)
1803 Hartford Insurance Co.(M)
1803 Middletown Insurance Co. (Middletown) (M)
1803 Norwich Marine Insurance Co.
1805 Union Insurance Co. (New London) (M)
1810 Hartford Fire Insurance Co.
Maryland
1787 Baltimore Fire Insurance Co. (Baltimore)
1791 Maryland I. Insurance Co. (Baltimore)
1794 Baltimore Equitable Society (Baltimore)
1795 Baltimore Fire Insurance Co. (Baltimore)
1795 Maryland Insurance Co. (Baltimore)
1796 Charitable Marine Society (Baltimore)
1798 Georgetown Mutual Insurance Co. (Georgetown)
1804 Chesapeake Insurance Co. (Baltimore)
1804 Marine Insurance Co. (Baltimore)
1804 Union Insurance Co. of MD (Baltimore)
Massachusetts
1795 Massachusetts Fire and Marine Insurance Co. (Boston)
1798 Massachusetts Mutual Ins. Co. (Boston)
1799 Boston Marine Insurance Co. (Boston)
1799 Newburyport Marine Insurance Co. (Newburyport)
1800 Maine Fire and Marine Ins. Co. (Portland)
1800 Salem Marine Insurance Co. (Salem)
1803 New England Marine Insurance Co. (Boston)
1803 Suffolk Insurance Co. (Boston)
1803 Cumberland Marine and Fire Insurance Co. (Portland, ME)
1803 Essex Fire and Marine Insurance Co. (Salem)
1803 Gloucester Marine Ins. Co. (Gloucester)
1803 Lincoln and Kennebeck Marine Ins. Co. (Wicasset)
1803 Merrimac Marine and Fire Ins. Co. (Newburyport)
1803 Marblehead Marine Insurance Co. (Marblehead)
1803 Nantucket Marine Insurance Co. (Nantucket)
1803 Portland Marine and Fire Insurance Co. (Portland)
1804 North American Insurance Co. (Boston)
1804 Union Insurance Co. (Boston)
1804 Hampshire Mutual Fire Insurance Co. (Northampton)
1804 Kennebunk Marine Ins. Co. (Wells)
1804 Nantucket Union Marine Insurance Co. (Nantucket)
1804 Plymouth Marine Insurance Co. (Plymouth)
1804 Union Marine Insurance Co. (Salem)
1805 Bedford Marine Insurance Co. (New Bedford)
1806 Newburyport Marine Insurance Co. (Newburyport)
1807 Bath Fire and Marine Insurance Co. (Bath)
1807 Middlesex Insurance Co. (Charlestown)
1807 Union Marine and Fire Insurance Co. (Newburyport)
1808 Kennebeck Marine Ins. Co. (Bath)
1809 Beverly Marine Insurance Co. (Beverly)
1809 Marblehead Social (Marblehead)
1809 Social Insurance Co. (Salem)
Pennsylvania
1752 Philadelphia Contributionship for the Insurance of Houses from Loss by Fire
1784 Mutual Assurance Co. (Philadelphia)
1794 Insurance Co. of North America (Philadelphia)
1794 Insurance Co. of the State of Pennsylvania (Philadelphia)
1803 Phoenix Insurance Co. (Philadelphia)
1803 Philadelphia Insurance Co. (Philadelphia)
1804 Delaware Insurance Co. (Philadelphia)
1804 Union Insurance Co. (Chester County)
1807 Lancaster and Susquehanna Insurance Co.
1809 Marine and Fire Insurance Co. (Philadelphia)
1810 United States Insurance Co. (Philadelphia)
1810 American Fire Insurance Co. (Philadelphia)
Delaware
1810 Farmers’ Bank of the State of Delaware (Dover)
Rhode Island
1799 Providence Insurance Co.
1800 Washington Insurance Co.
1800 Providence Mutual Fire Insurance Co.
South Carolina
1735 Friendly Society (Charleston) – royal charter
1797 Charleston Insurance Co. (Charleston)
1797 Charleston Mutual Insurance Co. (Charleston)
1805 South Carolina Insurance Co. (Charleston)
1807 Union Insurance Co. (Charleston)
New Hampshire
1799 New Hampshire Insurance Co. (Portsmouth)
New York City
1787 Knickerbocker Fire Insurance Co. (originally Mutual Insurance Co. of the City of New York)
1796 New York Insurance Co.
1796 Insurance Co. of New York
1797 Associated Underwriters
1798 Mutual Assurance Co.
1800 Columbian Insurance Co.
1802 Washington Mutual Assurance Co.
1802 Marine Insurance Co.
1804 Commercial Insurance Co.
1804 Eagle Fire Insurance Co.
1807 Phoenix Insurance Co.
1809 Mutual Insurance Co.
1810 Fireman’s Insurance Co.
1810 Ocean Insurance Co.
North Carolina
1803 Mutual Insurance Co. (Raleigh)
Virginia
1794 Mutual Assurance Society(Richmond)

The Embargo Act (1807-1809) and the War of 1812 (1812-1814) interrupted shipping, drying up marine insurers’ premiums and forcing them to look for other sources of revenue. These same events also stimulated the development of domestic industries, such as textiles, which created new demand for fire insurance. Together, these events led many marine insurers into the fire field, previously a sideline for most. After 1810, new joint-stock companies appeared whose business centered on fire insurance from the outset. Unlike mutuals, these new fire underwriters insured contents as well as real estate, a growing necessity as Americans’ personal wealth began to expand.

1810-1870

Geographic Diversification

Until the late 1830s, most fire insurers concentrated on their local markets, with only a few experimenting with representation through agents in distant cities. Many state legislatures discouraged “foreign” competition by taxing the premiums of out-of-state insurers. This situation prevailed through 1835, when fire insurers learned a lesson they were not to forget. A devastating fire destroyed New York City’s business district, causing between $15 million and $26 million in damage, bankrupting 23 of the 26 local fire insurance companies. From this point on, fire insurers regarded the geographic diversification of risks as imperative.

Insurers sought to enter new markets in order to reduce their exposure to large-scale conflagrations. They gradually discovered that contracting with agents allowed them to expand broadly, rapidly, and at relatively low cost. Pioneered mainly by companies based in Hartford and Philadelphia, the agency system did not become truly widespread until the 1850s. Once the system began to emerge in earnest, it rapidly took off. By 1855, for example, New York State had authorized 38 out-of-state companies to sell insurance there. Most were fewer than five years old. By 1860, national companies relying on networks of local agents had replaced purely local operations as the mainstay of the industry.

Competition

As the agency system grew, so too did competition. By the 1860s, national fire insurance firms competed in hundreds of local markets simultaneously. Low capitalization requirements and the widespread adoption of general incorporation laws provided for easy entry into the field.

Competition forced insurers to base their premiums on short-term costs. As a result, fire insurance rates were inadequate to cover the long-term costs associated with the city-wide conflagrations that might occur unpredictably once or twice in a generation. When another large fire occurred, many consumers would be left with worthless policies.

Aware of this danger, insurers struggled to raise rates through cooperation. Their most notable effort was the National Board of Fire Underwriters. Formed in 1866 with 75 member companies, it established local boards throughout the country to set uniform rates. But by 1870, renewed competition led the members of the National Board to give up the attempt.

Regulation

Insurance regulation developed during this period to protect consumers from the threat of insurance company insolvency. Beginning with New York (1849) and Massachusetts (1852), a number of states began to codify their insurance laws. Following New York’s lead in 1851, some states adopted $100,000-minimum capitalization requirements. But these rules did little to protect consumers when a large fire resulted in losses in excess of that amount.

By 1860 four states had established insurance departments. Two decades later, insurance departments, headed by a commissioner or superintendent, existed in some 25 states. In states without formal departments, the state treasurer, comptroller, or secretary of state typically oversaw insurance regulation.

State Insurance Departments through 1910
(Departments headed by insurance commissioner or superintendent unless otherwise indicated)

Source: Harry C. Brearley, Fifty Years of a Civilizing Force (1916), 261-174.
Year listed is year department began operating, not year legislation creating it was passed.

1852
  • New Hampshire
  • Vermont (state treasurer served as insurance commissioner)
1855
  • Massachusetts (annual returns required since 1837)
1860
  • New York (comptroller first authorized to prepare reports in 1853, first annual report 1855)
1862
  • Rhode Island
1865
  • Indiana (1852-1865, state auditor headed)
  • Connecticut
1867
  • West Virginia (state auditor supervised 1865 until 1907, when reorganized)
1868
  • California
  • Maine
1869
  • Missouri
1870
  • Kentucky (part of bureau of state auditor.s department)
1871
  • Kansas
  • Michigan
1872
  • Florida
  • Ohio (1867-72, state auditor supervised)
  • Maryland
  • Minnesota
1873
  • Arkansas
  • Nebraska
  • Pennsylvania
  • Tennessee (state treasurer acted as insurance commissioner)
1876
  • Texas
1878
  • Wisconsin (1867-78, secretary of state supervised insurance)
1879
  • Delaware
1881
  • Nevada (1864-1881, state comptroller supervised insurance)
1883
  • Colorado
1887
  • Georgia (1869-1887, insurance supervised by state comptroller general)
1889
  • North Dakota
  • Washington (secretary of state acted as insurance commissioner until 1908)
1890
  • Oklahoma (secretary of territory headed through 1907)
1891
  • New Jersey (1875-1891, secretary of state supervised insurance)
1893
  • Illinois (auditor of public accounts supervised insurance 1869-1893)
1896
  • Utah (1884-1896, supervised by territorial secretary. Supervised by secretary of state until department reorganized in 1909)
1897
  • Alabama (1860-1897, insurance supervised by state auditor)
  • Wyoming (territorial auditor supervised insurance 1868-1896) (1877)
  • South Dakota (1889-1897, state auditor supervised)
1898
  • Louisiana (secretary of state acted as superintendent)
1900
  • Alaska (administered by survey-general of territory)
1901
  • Arizona (1887-1901 supervised by territorial treasurer)
  • Idaho (1891-1901, state treasurer headed)
1902
  • Mississippi (1857-1902, auditor of public accounts supervised insurance)
  • District of Columbia
1905
  • New Mexico (1882-1904, territorial auditor supervised)
1906
  • Virginia (from 1866 auditor of public accounts supervised)
1908
  • South Carolina (1876-1908, comptroller general supervised insurance)
1909
  • Montana (supervised by territorial/state auditor 1883-1909)

The Supreme Court affirmed state supervision of insurance in 1868 in Paul v. Virginia, which found insurance not to be interstate commerce. As a result, it would not be subject to any federal regulations over the coming decades.

1871-1906

Chicago and Boston Fires

The Great Chicago Fire of October 9 and 10, 1871 destroyed over 2,000 acres (nearly 3½ square miles) of the city. With close to 18,000 buildings burned, including 1,500 “substantial business structures,” 100,000 people were left homeless and thousands jobless. Insurance losses totaled between $90 and $100 million. Many firms’ losses exceeded their available assets.

About 200 fire insurance companies did business in Chicago at the time. The fire bankrupted 68 of them. At least one-half of the property in the burnt district was covered by insurance, but as a result of the insurance company failures, Chicago policyholders recovered only about 40 percent of what they were owed.

A year later, on November 9 and 10, 1872, a fire destroyed Boston’s entire mercantile district, an area of 40 acres. Insured losses in this case totaled more than $50 million, bankrupting an additional 32 companies. The rate of insurance coverage was higher in Boston, where commercial property, everywhere more likely to be insured, happened to bear the brunt of the fire. Some 75 percent of ruined buildings and their contents were insured against fire. In this case, policyholders recovered about 70 percent of their insured losses.

Local Boards

After the Chicago and Boston fires revealed the inadequacy of insurance rates, surviving insurers again tried to set rates collectively. By 1875, a revitalized National Board had organized over 1,000 local boards, placing them under the supervision of district organizations. State auxiliary boards oversaw the districts, and the National Board itself was the final arbiter of rates. But this top-down structure encountered resistance from the local agents, long accustomed to setting their own rates. In the midst of the economic downturn that followed the Panic of 1873, the National Board’s efforts again collapsed.

In 1877, the membership took a fresh approach. They voted to dismantle the centralized rating bureaucracy, instead leaving rate-setting to local boards composed of agents. The National Board now focused its attention on promoting fire prevention and collecting statistics. By the mid-1880s, local rate-setting cartels operated in cities throughout the U.S. Regional boards or private companies rated smaller communities outside the jurisdiction of a local board.

The success of the new breed of local rate-setting cartels owed much to the ever-expanding scale of commerce and property, which fostered a system of mutual dependence between the local agents. Although individual agents typically represented multiple companies, they had come routinely to split risks amongst themselves and the several firms they served. Responding to the imperative of diversification, companies rarely covered more than $10,000 on an individual property, or even within one block of a city.

As property values rose, it was not unusual to see single commercial buildings insured by 20 or more firms, each underwriting a $1,000 or $2,000 chunk of a given risk. Insurers who shared their business had few incentives to compete on price. Undercutting other insurers might even cost them future business. When a sufficiently large group of agents joined forces to set minimum prices, they effectively could shut out any agents who refused to follow the tariff.

Cooperative price-setting by local boards allowed insurers to maintain higher rates, taking periodic conflagrations into account as long-term costs. Cooperation also resulted, for the first time, in rates that followed a stable pattern, where aggregate prices reflected aggregate costs, the so-called underwriting cycle.

(Note: The underwriting cycle is illustrated above using combined ratios, which are the ratio of losses and expenses to premium income in any given year. Because combined ratios include dividend payments but not investment income, they are often greater than 100.)

Local boards helped fire insurance companies diversify their risks and stabilize their rates. The companies in turn, supported the local boards. As a result, the local rate-setting boards that formed during the early 1880s proved remarkably durable and successful. Despite brief disruptions in some cities during the severe economic downturn of the mid-1890s, the local boards did not fail.

As an additional benefit, insurers were able to accomplish collectively what they could not afford to do individually: collect and analyze data on a large scale. The “science” of fire insurance remained in its infancy. The local boards inspected property and created detailed rating charts. Some even instituted scheduled rating – a system where property owners were penalized for defects, such as lack of fire doors, and rewarded for improvements. Previously, agents had set rates based on their personal, idiosyncratic knowledge of local conditions. Within the local boards, agents shared both their subjective personal knowledge and objective data. The results were a crude approximation of an actuarial science.

Anti-Compact Laws

Price-setting by local boards was not viewed favorably by many policy-holders who had to pay higher prices for insurance. Since Paul v. Virginia had exempted insurance from federal antitrust laws, consumers encouraged their state legislatures to pass laws outlawing price collusion among insurers. Ohio adopted the first anti-compact law in 1885, followed by Michigan (1887), Arkansas, Nebraska, Texas, and Kansas (1889), Maine, New Hampshire, and Georgia (1891). By 1906, 19 states had anti-compact laws, but they had limited effectiveness. Where open collusion was outlawed, insurers simply established private rating bureaus to set “advisory” rates.

Spread of Insurance

Local boards flourished in prosperous times. During the boom years of the 1880s, new capital flowed into every sector. The increasing concentration of wealth in cities steadily drove the amounts and rates of covered property upward. Between 1880 and 1889, insurance coverage rose by an average rate of 4.6 percent a year, increasing 50 percent overall. By 1890, close to 60 percent of burned property in the U.S. was insured, a figure that would not be exceeded until the 1910s, when upwards of 70 percent of property was insured.

In 1889, the dollar value of property insured against fire in the United States approached $12 billion. Fifteen years later, $20 billion dollars in property was covered.

Baltimore and San Francisco

The ability of higher, more stable prices to insulate industry and society from the consequences of citywide conflagrations can be seen in the strikingly different results following the sequels to Boston and Chicago, which occurred in Baltimore and San Francisco in the early 1900s. The Baltimore Fire of Feb. 7 through 9, 1904 resulted in $55 million in insurance claims, 90 percent of which was paid. Only a few Maryland-based companies went bankrupt.

San Francisco’s disaster dwarfed Baltimore’s. The earthquake that struck the city on April 18, 1906 set off fires that burned for three days, destroying over 500 blocks that contained at least 25,000 buildings. The damages totaled $350 million, some two-thirds covered by insurance. In the end, $225 million was paid out, or around 90 percent of what was owed. Only 20 companies operating in San Francisco were forced to suspend business, some only temporarily.

Improvements in construction and firefighting would put an end to the giant blazes that had plagued America’s cities. But by the middle of the first decade of the twentieth century, cooperative price-setting in fire insurance already had ameliorated the worst economic consequences of these disasters.

1907-1920

State Rate-Setting

Despite the passage of anti-compact legislation, fire insurance in the early 1900s was regulated as much by companies as by state governments. After Baltimore and San Francisco, state governments, recognizing the value of cooperative price-setting, began to abandon anti-compact laws in favor of state involvement in rate-setting which took one of two forms: set rates, or state review of industry-set rates.

Kansas was the first to adopt strict rate regulation in 1909, followed by Texas in 1910 and Missouri in 1911. These laws required insurers to submit their rates for review by the state insurance department, which could overrule them. Contesting the constitutionality of its law, the insurance industry took the State of Kansas to court. In 1914, the Supreme Court of the United States decided German Alliance Insurance Co. v. Ike Lewis, Superintendent of Insurance in favor of Kansas. The Court declared insurance to be a public good, subject to rate regulation.

While the case was pending, New York entered the rating arena in 1911 with a much less restrictive law. New York’s law was greatly influenced by a legislative investigation, the Merritt Committee. The Armstrong Committee’s investigation of New York’s life insurance industry in 1905 had uncovered numerous financial improprieties, leading legislators to call for investigations into the fire insurance industry, where they hoped to discover similar evidence of corruption or profiteering. The Merritt Committee, which met in 1910 and 1911, instead found that most fire insurance companies brought in only modest profits.

The Merritt Committee further concluded that cooperation among firms was often in the public interest, and recommended that insurance boards continue to set rates. The ensuing law mandated state review of rates to prevent discrimination, requiring companies to charge the same rates for the same types of property. The law also required insurance companies to submit uniform statistics on premiums and losses for the first time. Other states soon adopted similar requirements. By the early 1920, nearly thirty states had some form of rate regulation.

Data Collection

New York’s data-collection requirement had far-reaching consequences for the entire fire insurance industry. Because every major insurer in the United States did business in New York (and often a great deal of it), any regulatory act passed there had national implications. And once New York mandated that companies submit data, the imperative for a uniform classification system was born.

In 1914, the industry responded by creating an Actuarial Bureau within the National Board of Fire Underwriters to collect uniformly organized data and submit it to the states. Supported by the National Convention of Insurance Commissioners (today called the National Association of Insurance Commissioners, or NAIC), the Actuarial Bureau was soon able to establish uniform, industry-wide classification standards. The regular collection of uniform data enabled the development of modern actuarial science in the fire field.

1920 to the Present

Federal Regulation

Through the 1920s and 1930s, property insurance rating continued as it had before, with various rating bureaus determining the rates that insurers were to charge, and the states reviewing or approving them. In 1944, the Supreme Court decided a federal antitrust suit against the Southeastern Underwriters Association, which set rates in a number of southern states. The Supreme Court found the SEUA to be in violation of the Sherman Act, thereby overturning Paul v. Virginia. The industry had become subject to federal regulation for the first time.

Within a year, Congress had passed the McCarran-Ferguson Act, allowing the states to continue regulating insurance so long as they met certain federal requirements. The law also granted the industry a limited exemption from antitrust statutes. The Act gave the National Association of Insurance Commissioners three years to develop model rating laws for the states to adopt.

State Rating Laws

In 1946, the NAIC adopted model rate laws for fire and casualty insurance that required “prior approval” of rates by the states before they could be used by insurers. While most of the industry supported this requirement as a way to prevent competition, a group of “independent” insurers opposed prior approval and instead supported “file and use” rates.

By the 1950s, all states had passed rating laws, although not necessarily the model laws. Some allowed insurers to file deviations from bureau rates, while others required bureau membership and strict prior approval of rates. Most regulatory activity through the late 1950s involved the industry’s attempts to protect the bureau rating system.

The bureaus’ tight hold on rates was soon to loosen. In 1959, an investigation into bureau practices by a U.S. Senate Antitrust subcommittee (the O’Mahoney Committee) found that competition should be the main regulator of the industry. As a result, some states began to make it easier for insurers to deviate from prior approval rates.

During the 1960s, two different systems of property/casualty insurance regulation developed. While many states abandoned prior approval in favor of competitive rating, others strengthened strict rating laws. At the same time, the many rating bureaus that had provided rates for different states began to consolidate. By the 1970s, the rates that these combined rating bureaus provided were officially only advisory. Insurers could choose whether to use them or develop their own rates.

Although membership in rating bureaus is no longer mandatory, advisory organizations continue to play an important part in property/casualty insurance by providing required statistics to the states. They also allow new firms easy access to rating data. The Insurance Services Office (ISO), one of the largest “bureaus,” became a for-profit corporation in 1997, and is no longer controlled by the insurance industry. Still, even in its current, mature state, the property/casualty field still functions largely according to the patterns set in fire insurance by the 1920s.

References and Further Reading:

Bainbridge, John. Biography of an Idea: The Story of Mutual Fire and Casualty Insurance. New York: Doubleday, 1952.

Baranoff, Dalit. “Shaped By Risk: Fire Insurance in America 1790-1920.” Ph.D. dissertation, Johns Hopkins University, 2003.

Brearley, Harry Chase. Fifty Years of a Civilizing Force: An Historical and Critical Study of the Work of the National Board of Fire Underwriters. New York: Frederick A. Stokes Company, 1916.

Grant, H. Roger. Insurance Reform: Consumer Action in the Progressive Era. Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1979.

Harrington, Scott E. “Insurance Rate Regulation in the Twentieth Century.” Journal of Risk and Insurance 19, no. 2 (2000): 204-18.

Lilly, Claude C. “A History of Insurance Regulation in the United States.” CPCU Annals 29 (1976): 99-115.

Perkins, Edwin J. American Public Finance and Financial Services, 1700-1815. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1994.

Pomeroy, Earl and Carole Olson Gates. “State and Federal Regulation of the Business of Insurance.” Journal of Risk and Insurance 19, no. 2 (2000): 179-88.

Tebeau, Mark. Eating Smoke: Fire in Urban America, 1800-1950. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003.

Wagner, Tim. “Insurance Rating Bureaus.” Journal of Risk and Insurance 19, no. 2 (2000): 189-203.

1 The name appears in various sources as either the “Contributionship” or the “Contributorship.”

Citation: Baranoff, Dalit. “Fire Insurance in the United States”. EH.Net Encyclopedia, edited by Robert Whaples. March 16, 2008. URL http://eh.net/encyclopedia/fire-insurance-in-the-united-states/

Cliometrics

John Lyons, Miami University

Lou Cain, Loyola University Chicago and Northwestern University

Sam Williamson, Miami University

Introduction

In the 1950s a small group of North American scholars adopted a revolutionary approach to investigating the economic past that soon spread to Great Britain and Ireland, the European mainland, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan. What was first called “The New Economic History,” then “Cliometrics,” was impelled by the promise of significant achievement, by the novelties of the recent (mathematical) formalization of economic theory, by the rapid spread of econometric methods, and by the introduction of computers into academia. Cliometrics has three obvious elements: use of quantifiable evidence, use of theoretical concepts and models, and use of statistical methods of estimation and inference, and an important fourth element, employment of the historian’s skills in judging provenance and quality of sources, in placing an investigation in institutional and social context, and in choosing subject matter of significance to history as well as economics. Although the term cliometrics is used to describe work in a variety of historical social and behavioral sciences, the discussion here focuses on economic history.

A quantitative-analytical approach to economic history developed in the interwar years through the work of such scholars as Simon Kuznets in the U.S. and Colin Clark in Britain. Characteristic elements of cliometrics were stimulated by events, by changes in economics, and by an intensification of what might be called the statistical impulse.

First, depression, war, the dissolution of empires, a renewal of widespread and more rapid growth in the Western world, and the challenge of Soviet-style economic planning combined to focus attention on the sources and mechanisms of economic growth and development.

Second, new intellectual currents in economics, spurred in part by contemporary economic problems, arose and came to dominate the profession. In the 1930s, and especially during the war, theoretical approaches to the aggregate economy and its capabilities grew out of the new Keynesian macroeconomics and the development of national income accounting. Explicit techniques for analyzing resource allocation in detail were introduced and employed in wartime planning. Econometrics, the statistical analysis of economic data, continued to grow apace.

Third, the gathering of facts – with an emphasis on systematic arrays of quantitative facts – became more important. By the nineteenth century governments, citizens and scholars had become preoccupied with fact-gathering, but their collations were ordinarily ad hoc and unsystematic. Thoroughness and system became the desideratum of scholarly fact-gathering in the twentieth century.

All these forces had an impact on the birth of a more rigorous way of examining our economic past.

The New Economic History in North America

Cliometrics was unveiled formally in Williamstown, Massachusetts, in the autumn of 1957 at an unusual four-day gathering sponsored by the Economic History Association and the Conference on Research in Income and Wealth. Most of the program was designed to showcase recent work by economists who had ventured into history.

Young scholars in the Income and Wealth group presented their contributions to the historical national accounts of the United States and Canada, spearheaded by Robert Gallman’s estimates of U.S. commodity output, 1839-1899. A pair of headline sessions dealt with method; the one on economic theory and economic history was headed by Walt Rostow, who recalled his undergraduate years in the 1930s at Yale, where he had been led to ask himself “why not see what happened if the machinery of economic theory was brought to bear on modern economic history?” He asserted “economic history is a less interesting field than it could be, because we do not remain sufficiently loyal to the problem approach, which in fact underlies and directs our efforts.”

Newcomers John R. Meyer and Alfred H. Conrad presented two papers. The first was “Economic Theory, Statistical Inference, and Economic History” (1957), a manifesto for using formal theory and econometric methods to examine historical questions. They argued that particular historical circumstances are instances of more general phenomena, suitable for theoretical analysis, and that that quantitative historical evidence, although relatively scarce, is much more abundant than many historians believed and can be analyzed using formal statistical methods. At another session Conrad and Meyer presented “The Economics of Slavery in the Antebellum South,” which incorporated their methodological views to refute a long-standing proposition that the slave system in the southern United States had become moribund by the 1850s and would have died out had there been no Civil War. Conrad and Meyer buttressed the point by showing that slaveholding, viewed as a business activity, had been at least as remunerative as other uses of financial and physical capital. More broadly they illustrated “the ways in which economic theory might be used in ordering and organizing historical facts.”

Two decades later Robert Gallman recalled that the Williamstown “conference did more than put the ball in motion … It also set the tone and style of the new economic history and even forecast the chief methodological and substantive interests that were to occupy cliometricians for the next twenty-one years.” What began in the late 1950s as a trickle of work in the new style grew to a freshet and then a flood, incorporating new methods, examining bodies of data previously too difficult to analyze without the aid of computers, and investigating a variety of questions of traditional importance, mostly in American economic history. The watershed was continent-wide, collecting the work of small clusters of scholars bound together in a ramifying intellectual and social network.

An important and continuing node in this network was at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana. In the late 1950s a group of young historical economists assembled there, among whom the cross-pollination of historical interests and technical expertise was exceptional. In this group were Lance Davis and Jonathan Hughes and several others known primarily for their work in other fields. One was Stanley Reiter, a mathematical economist who traveled with Davis and Hughes to the meetings of the Economic History Association in September 1960 to present their paper explaining the new quantitative historical research being undertaken at Purdue – and to introduce the term “cliometrics” to the profession. The term was coined by Reiter as a whimsical combination of the words Clio, the muse of history, and metrics, from econometrics. As the years went by, the word stuck and became the name of the field.

To build on the enthusiasm aroused by that presentation, and to “consolidate Purdue’s position as the leader in this country of quantitative research in economic history,” Davis and Hughes (with Reiter’s aid) sought and received funds from Purdue for a meeting in December 1960 of about a dozen like-minded economic historians. They gave it the imposing title, “Conference on the Application of Economic Theory and Quantitative Methods to the Study of Problems of Economic History.” For obvious reasons the meetings were soon called “Clio” or the “Cliometrics Conference” by their familiars. Of the six presentations at the first meeting, none was more intriguing than Robert Fogel’s estimates of the “social saving” accruing from the expansion of the American railroad network to 1890.

Sessions were renowned from Clio’s early days as occasions for engaging in sharp debate and asking probing (and occasionally unanswerable) questions. Those who attended the first Clio conference established a tradition of rigorous and detailed analysis of the presenters’ work. In the early years at Purdue and elsewhere, cliometricians developed a research program with mutual support and encouragement and conducted an unusually large proportion of collaborative work, all the while believing in the progressiveness of their efforts.

Indeed, like Walt Rostow, other established economic historians felt that economic history was in need of renewal: Alexander Gerschenkron wrote in 1957 “Economic history is in a poor way. It is unable to attract good students, mainly because the discipline does not present any intellectual challenge …” Some cliometric young Turks were not so mild. While often relying heavily on the wealth of detail amassed in earlier research, they asserted a distinctive identity. The old economic history, it was said, was riddled with errors in economic reasoning and embodied an inadequate approach to causal explanation. The cliometricians insisted on a scientific approach to economic-historical questions, on careful specification of explicit models of the phenomena they were investigating. By implication and by declaration they said that much of conventional wisdom was based on unscientific and unsystematic historical scholarship, on occasion employing language not calculated to endear them to outsiders. The most vocal proponents declared a new order. Douglass North proclaimed that a “revolution is taking place in economic history in the United States … initiated by a new generation of economic historians” intent on reappraising “traditional interpretations of U.S. economic history.” Robert Fogel said that the “novel element in the work of the new economic historians is their approach to measurement and theory,” especially in their ability to find “methods of measuring economic phenomena that cannot be measured directly.” In 1993, these two were awarded the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics for, in the words of the Nobel committee, being “pioneers in the branch of economic history that has been called the ‘new economic history,’ or cliometrics.”

The hallmark of the top rung of work done by the new economic historians was its integration of fact with theory. As Donald [Deirdre] McCloskey observed in a series of surveys, the theory was often simple. The facts, when not conveniently available, were dug up from surviving sources, whether published or not. Indeed the discipline imposed by the need to measure usually requires more data than would serve for a qualitative argument. Many new economic historians expended considerable effort in the 1960s to expand the American quantitative record. Thus, with eyebrow raised, so to speak, Albert Fishlow remarked in 1970, “It is ironic … to read that … most of the “New Economic History” only applies its ingenuity to analyzing convenient (usually published) data.'” Many cliometricians worked their magic not merely by relying on their predecessors’ compilations; as Scott Eddie comments, “one of the most significant contributions of cliometricians’ painstaking search for data has been the uncovering of vast treasure troves of useful data hitherto either unknown, unappreciated, or simply ignored.” Very early in the computer age they put such data into forms suitable for tabulation and statistical analysis.

William Parker and Robert Gallman, with their students, were pioneers in analyzing individual-level data from the United States Census manuscripts, a project arising from Parker’s earlier study of Southern plantations. From the 1860 agricultural census schedule they drew a carefully constructed sample of over 5,000 farms in the cotton counties of the American South and matched those farms with the two separate schedules for the free and slave populations. The Parker-Gallman sample was followed by Census samples for northern agriculture and for the post-bellum South.

The early practitioners of cliometrics applied their theoretical and quantitative skills to some issues well established in the more “traditional” economic historiography, none more important than asking when and how rapidly the North American economy began to experience “modern economic growth.” In the nineteenth century, economic growth in both the U.S. and Canada was punctuated by booms, recessions and financial crises, but the new work provided a better picture of the path of GNP and its components, revealing steady upward trends in aggregate output and in incomes per person and per worker. This last, it seemed clear from the work in the 1950s of Moses Abramovitz and Robert Solow, must have derived significantly from the introduction of new techniques, as well as from expansion of the scale and penetration of the market. Several scholars thus established a related objective, understanding – or at least accounting for – productivity growth.

Attempting to provide sound explanations for growth, productivity change, and numerous other developments in modern economic history, especially of the U.S. and Britain, was the objective of the cliometricians’ theory and quantification. They were much criticized from without for the very use of these technical tools, and within the movement there was much methodological dispute and considerable dissent. Nonetheless, the early cliometricians spawned a sustained intellectual tradition that diffused worldwide from its North American origins.

Historical Economics in Britain

Cliometrics arrived relatively slowly among British economic historians, but it did arrive. Some was homegrown; some was imported. When Jonathan Hughes expressed doubts in 1970 that the American style of cliometrics could ever be an “export product,” he was already wrong. Admittedly, by then the new style had been employed by only a tiny minority of those writing economic history in Britain. Introduction of a more formal style, in Britain as in North America, fell to those trained as economists, initially to Alec Cairncross, Brinley Thomas and Robin Matthews. Cairncross’s book on home and foreign investment and Thomas’s on migration and growth developed, or collected into one place, a great deal of quantitative information for theoretical analysis; their method, as David Landes noted in 1955, was “in the tradition of historical economics, as opposed to economic history.” Matthews’s Study in Trade Cycle History (1954), which examines the trade cycle of 1833-42, was written, he said, in a “quantitative-historical” mode, and contains theoretical reasoning, economic models, and statistical estimates.

Systematic use of national accounting methods to study British economic development was a task undertaken by Phyllis Deane at Cambridge. Her work resulted in two early papers on British income growth and capital formation and in two books of major importance and lasting value: British Economic Growth, 1688-1959 (1962), written with W. A. Cole, and a compendium of underlying data compiled with Brian Mitchell. Despite skeptical reviews, the basics of the Deane-Cole estimates of eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century aggregate growth were accepted widely for two decades and provided a quantitative basis for discussing living standards and the dispersion of technical progress in the new industrial era. Also at Cambridge, Charles Feinstein estimated the composition and magnitude of British investment flows and produced detailed national income estimates for the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, augmenting, refining and revising, as well as extending, the work of Deane and Cole.

All these studies belong to a decidedly British empirical tradition, despite the use of contemporary theoretical constructs, and contained nothing like the later claims of some American cliometricians about the virtues of using formal theory and statistical methods. Research in a consciously cliometric style was strongly encouraged in the 1960s at Oxford by Hrothgar Habakkuk and Max Hartwell, although neither saw himself as a cliometrician. Separately and together, they supported the movement, encouraging students to absorb both quantitative and formal analytical elements into their work.

The incursion of cliometrics into British economic history was – and has remained – neither so widespread nor so dominant as in North America, partly for reasons suggested by Hughes. Although economic history had been taught and practiced in British universities since the 1870s, after the first World War most faculty members were housed in separate departments of economic (and social) history that tended to require of their students only a modicum of economics and little of quantitative methods. With the establishment of new British universities and the rapid expansion of others, a dozen new departments of economic history were founded in the 1960s, staffed largely by people taught in history and economic history departments. The limited presence of cliometric types in Britain at the turn of the 1970s did not come from deficient demand, nor was it due to hostility or indifference. It was due to limited supply stemming from the small scale of the British academic labor market and an aversion to excessive specialization among young economists. Yet the situation was being rectified. On the demand side, British faculties of economics began to welcome more economic historians as colleagues, and, on the supply side, advanced students were being aided by post-graduate stipends and research support provided by the new Social Science Research Council.

During the 1970s a British version of new historical economics began to take shape. Its practitioners expanded their informal networks into formal institutional structures and scholarly ventures. The organized British movement opened in September 1970 at an Anglo-American “Conference on the New Economic History of Britain” in Cambridge (Massachusetts), followed by two others. From these meetings grew a project to re-write British economic history in a cliometric mode, which resulted in the publication in 1981 of a path-breaking two-volume work, The Economic History of Britain since 1700, edited by Roderick Floud and Donald [Deirdre] McCloskey.

Equally path-breaking, perhaps more so, was the outcome of parallel developments in English historical demography, whose practitioners had become progressively more quantitatively and theoretically adept since the 1950s, and for whom 1981 was also a banner year. Although portions of the book had been circulating for some time, E. A. Wrigley’s and R. S. Schofield’s Population History of England, 1541-1871: A Reconstruction and its striking revisions of English demographic history were now available in one massive document.

As in North America, after the first wave of “quanitifiers” invaded parts of British historiography, cliometrics was refined in the heat of scholarly debate.

Controversies

Cliometricians started or continued a series of debates about the nature and sources of economic growth and its welfare consequences that decidedly have altered our picture of modern economic history. The first was initiated by Walt Rostow, who argued that modern economic growth begins with a brief and well-defined period of “take-off,” with the necessary “preconditions” having already become the normal condition of a given national economy or society. His metaphor of a “take-off into self-sustained growth”, which first appeared in a journal article, was popularized in Rostow’s famous book, The Stages of Economic Growth (1960). Rostow asserted that “The introduction of the railroad has been historically the most powerful single initiator of take-offs.” To test this contention, Robert Fogel and Albert Fishlow both wrote Ph.D. dissertations dealing in part with Rostow’s view: Fogel’s Railroads and American Economic Growth (1964) and Fishlow’s American Railroads and the Transformation of the Antebellum Economy (1965). These books contain their estimates of the extent of resource saving that had accrued from the adoption of a new transport system, with costs lower than those of canals. Their results rejected Rostow’s view.

Until the cliometricians made a pair of disputatious incursions into its economic history, the American South was largely the province of regional historians – almost a footnote to the story of U.S. economic development. Sparked by Conrad and Meyer, for two decades cliometricians focused intently on the place of the South in the national economy and of slavery in the Southern economy. To what extent was early national economic growth driven by Southern cotton exports and how self-sufficient was the South as an economic region? Douglass North argued that the key to American economic development before 1860 was regional specialization, that Southern cotton was the economy’s staple product, and that much of Western and Northern economic growth derived from Southern demand for food and manufactures. Indeed, Conrad and Meyer had touched a nerve. Their demonstration of current profitability did not demonstrate long-run viability of the slave system; Yasukichi Yasuba was able to fill that gap by showing that slave prices were regularly more than enough to finance rearing slaves for future sale or employment. Many others tested and refined these early results. As a system of organizing production, American slavery was found to have been thriving on the eve of the Civil War; the sources of that prosperity, however, needed deeper examination.

In Time on the Cross (1974), Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman not only reaffirmed the profitability and viability of Southern slavery, but they also made claims about the superior productivity of Southern versus Midwestern agriculture and about the relatively generous material comforts afforded to the slave population. Their book sparked a long-running controversy that extended beyond academia and prompted critical examinations and rebuttals by political and social historians and, above all, by their fellow cliometricians. A major critique was Reckoning with Slavery (by Paul David and others, 1976), as much a defense of cliometric method as a catalogue of what the authors saw as the method’s improper or incomplete application in Time on the Cross. Fogel subsequently published Without Consent or Contract (1989), a defense and extension of his and Engerman’s earlier work.

The remarkable antebellum prosperity of the Southern slave economy was followed by an equally remarkable relative decline in Southern per-capita income after the war. While the remainder of the American economy grew rapidly, the South stagnated, with a distinctively low-wage, low-productivity economy and a poorly educated labor force, both black and white. The next generation of cliometricians asked “Why?” Was it the legacy of the slave system, of the virtual absence of industrial development in the antebellum South, of post-Civil War Reconstruction and backlash, of continued reliance on cotton, of Jim Crow, or of racism and discrimination? Roger Ransom and Richard Sutch investigated share-tenancy, debt peonage and labor effort in maintaining cotton cultivation, using individual level data, some derived a la Parker and Gallman, from a sample of the manuscript U.S. Censuses. Gavin Wright focused on an effective separation of the Southern from the national labor market, and Robert Margo examined the region’s low level of educational investment and its consequences.

An entirely new line of investigation derived from the research on slavery, measuring the “biological standard of living” using anthropometric data. Richard Steckel’s paper on slave height profiles led directly to the discussion of “Anthropometric Indexes of Malnutrition” in Without Consent or Contract. In a corrective to the Fogel-Engerman interpretation of the slave diet, Steckel showed how stunted (and thus how poorly fed) slave children were before they came of working age. John Komlos discovered that heights (of West Point cadets) were declining even as American per capita income was rising in the years before the Civil War, what he called the “Antebellum Puzzle.” Elsewhere, Roderick Floud led a project employing anthropometric data from records of British military recruits, while Stephen Nicholas, Deborah Oxley and Steckel analyzed records for male and female convicts transported to Australia.

Industrialization and its new technologies in the U.S. long predate the Civil War. In writing about technological progress, economic historians had, before the 1960s, tended to concentrate on single industries or economies. Yet distinctive “national” technologies emerged in the early nineteenth century (e.g., contemporary British observers distinguished “The American System of Manufactures” from their own). Amid the early ferment of quantitative economic history in the United States, Hrothgar Habakkuk published American and British Technology in the Nineteenth Century: The Search for Labour-Saving Inventions, a truly comparative study. It was 1962, when, as Paul David writes, “economic historians’ interests in Anglo-American technological divergences were suddenly raised from a quiet simmer to a furious boil by the publication of … Habakkuk’s now celebrated book on the subject.” Habakkuk expanded on an idea that the apparent labor-saving bias of American manufacturing techniques was due to land so abundant that American workers were paid (relative to other factors) much more than what their British counterparts received, but he did not resolve whether the bias was due to more machines per worker, better machines, or more inventiveness.

One strand of the debate over what Peter Temin called Habakkuk’s “labor-scarcity paradox” left to one side the question of “better machines.” It fell to Nathan Rosenberg and Paul David to explore the distinctive technological trajectories of different economies. Rosenberg pointed to the emergence of “technologically convergent” production processes and to the importance of very low relative materials costs in American manufacturing. Paul David reviewed the debate, beginning to formulate a theoretical approach to explain sources of technical change (and divergence). He argued that an economy’s trajectory of technological development is conditioned, perhaps only initially, by relative factor prices, but then by opportunities for further progress based on localized learning from, or constrained by, existing techniques and their histories. David developed the concept of “path dependence,” which is “a dynamic process whose evolution is governed by its own history.”

The first systematic cliometric debate involving European economic history was over an alleged British technological and economic failure in the late nineteenth century. The slower growth of income and exports, the loss of markets even in the Empire, and an “invasion” of foreign manufactures (many American) alarmed businessmen and policymakers alike and led to opposition to a half-century of British “Free Trade.” Who was to blame for loss of competitiveness? Although some scholars attributed Britain’s “climacteric” to the maturation of the technologies underpinning her success during the Industrial Revolution, others attributed it to “entrepreneurial failure” and cited the inability or refusal of British business leaders to adopt the best available technologies. Cliometricians argued, by and large, that British businessmen made their investment and production decisions in a sensible, economically rational fashion, given the constraints they faced; they had made the best of a bad situation. Subsequent research has demonstrated the problem to be more complex, and it is yet to be resolved.

Many results of the cliometrics revolution come from the application of theory and measurement in the service of history; a converse case comes from the macro economists. Monetarists, in particular, have placed economic history in the service of theory, prominently in analyzing the Great Depression of the 1930s. In 1963, Milton Friedman and Anna Schwartz, in A Monetary History of the United States, 1867-1960, opened a discussion that has led to widespread, but not universal, acceptance among economists of a sophisticated version of the “quantity theory of money.” Their detailed examination of several episodes in American monetary development under varying institutional regimes allowed them to use a set of “natural experiments” to assess the economic impact of exogenous changes in the stock of money. The Friedman-Schwartz enterprise sought support for the general proposition that money is not simply a veil over real transactions – that money does matter. Their demonstration of that point for the Great Depression initiated an entire scholarly literature involving not only economic historians but also monetary and macro economists. Peter Temin was among the first of the economic historians to question their argument, in Did Monetary Forces Cause the Great Depression? (1976). His answer was essentially “No,” stressing declines in consumer spending and in investment in the late 1920s as initiating factors and discounting money stock reductions for the continued downturn. In a later book, Lessons from the Great Depression (1989), Temin in effect recanted his earlier position, impelled by a good deal of further research, especially on international finance. The present consensus is that what Friedman and Schwartz call “The Great Contraction, 1929-1933″ may have been initiated by real factors in the late 1920s, but it was faulty public policy and adherence to the Gold Standard that played major roles in turning an economic downturn into “The Great Depression.”

A broad new approach to economic change over time has emerged from the mind of Douglass North. Confronted in the later 1960s with European economic development in its variety and antiquity, North became dissatisfied with the limited modes of analysis that he had applied fruitfully to the American case and concluded that “we couldn’t make sense out of European economic history without explicitly modeling institutions, property rights, and government.” For that matter, making sense of a wider view of American economic history was similarly difficult, as exemplified in the Lance Davis and North venture, Institutional Change and American Economic Growth (1971). The core of North’s model, conceptual rather than formal, is that, when changes in underlying circumstances alter the cost-benefit calculus of existing arrangements, new institutions will arise if there is a net benefit to be realized. Although their approach arose from dissatisfaction with the static nature of economic theory in the 1960s, North and his colleagues nonetheless followed what most other economists would do in arguing that optimal institutional forms will arise dynamically from an essentially profit-maximizing response to changes in incentives. As Davis and North were quick to admit, their effort was “a first (and very primitive) attempt” at formulating a theory of institutional change and applying that theory to American institutional development. North recognized the limitations of his early work on institutional change and has endeavored to develop a more subtle and articulated approach. In Understanding the Process of Economic Change (2005), North stresses again that modeling institutional change is less than straightforward, and he continues to examine the persistence of “institutions that provided incentives for stagnation and decline.”

Retrospect and Prospect

In the 1960s, when the first cliometricians began to group themselves into a distinct intellectual and social movement, buoyed by their revisionist achievements, they (at least many of them) thought they could use their scientific approach to re-write history. This hope may not have been a vain one, but it is yet to be realized. The best efforts of cliometricians have merged with those in other traditions to develop a rather different understanding of the economic past from views maintained half a century ago.

As economic history has evolved, so have the environs economic historians inhabit. In the Anglophone world, economic history – and cliometrics within it – burgeoned with the growth of higher education, but it has recently suffered the effects of retrenchment in that sector. Elsewhere, a new multi-lingual generation of enthusiastic economic historians and historical economists has arisen, with English as the language of international discourse. Both history and economics have been transformed by dissatisfaction with old verities and values, by adoption of new methods and points of view, and by posing new or revived questions. Economic history has been beneficiary of and contributor to such changes.

Although this entry focuses on the development of historical economics in the United States and the United Kingdom, we note that the cliometric approach has diffused well beyond their boundaries. In France the economist’s quantitative approach was fostered when Kuznets’s historical national accounts project recruited scholars in the 1950s to amass and organize the agricultural, output and population data available, in a new histoire quantitative. Still, that movement was overshadowed by the Annales school, whose histoire totale involved much data collection but limited economic analysis. Economic history of France, produced in the cliometric mode by scholars trained there, did not arrive in force until the mid-1980s. French cliometrics was first written by economic historians from (or trained in) North America or Britain; the Gallic cliometrics revolution occurred gradually, for “peculiarly French” institutional and ideological reasons. In Germany similar institutional barriers were partially breached in the 1960s with the arrival of a “turnkey” cliometrics operation in the form of an American-trained American scholar, Richard Tilly, who went from Wisconsin to Munster. Tilly was joined later by a few central Europeans who received American degrees, and all have since taught younger German cliometricians. Leading cliometric scholars from Italy, Spain and Portugal likewise received their post-graduate educations in Britain or America. The foremost Japanese cliometrician, Yasukichi Yasuba, received his Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins, supervised by Simon Kuznets.

If cliometrics in and of continental Europe could trace its roots to North America and Britain, by the 1980s it had developed indigenous strength and identity. At the Tenth International Economic History Congress in Leuven, Belgium (1990), a new association of analytical economic historians was founded. Rejecting the use of “cliometrics” as descriptor, the participants endorsed the nascent European Historical Economics Society. Subsequently national associations and seminars have grown up under the umbrella of the EHES – for example, French historical economists have the Association Francaise de Cliometrie and a new international journal, Cliometrica, while the Portuguese and Spaniards have sponsored a series of “Iberometrics” Conferences.

Cliometrics has transformed itself over the past half-century, forging important links with other disciplines and continuing to broaden its compass, and interpreting “new” phenomena. They are showing, for example, that recent “globalization” has origins and manifestations going back half a millennium and, given the recent experience of the formerly Socialist “transitional” economies, they are showing that the deep historical roots of institutions, organizations, values and behavior in the developed economies cannot be duplicated by following simple formulae. Despite the presentism of contemporary society, economic history will continue to address essential questions of origins and consequences, and it seems likely that cliometricians will complement and sometimes lead their colleagues in providing the answers. Cliometrics is a well-established field of study and its practitioners continue to increase our understanding of how economies evolve.

Source Note: The bulk of this article is a condensed version of the introduction to Lyons, Cain, and Williamson, eds., Reflections on the Cliometrics Revolution: Conversations with Economic Historians (2008), copyright (c) The Cliometric Society, Inc., which receives the royalties; reproduced by permission. Readers should consult that book for a more complete presentation, notes, and a full bibliography.

Further Reading

Coats, A. W. “The Historical Context of the ‘New’ Economic History.” Journal of European Economic History 9, no. 1 (1980): 185-207.

“Cliometrics after 40 Years.” American Economic Review: Papers and Proceedings 87:2, (1997): 396-414 [commentary by Claudia Goldin, Avner Greif, James J. Heckman, John R. Meyer, and Douglass C. North].

Crafts, N. F. R. “Cliometrics, 1971-1986: A Survey.” Journal of Applied Econometrics 2, no. 3 (1987): 171-92.

Davis, Lance E., Jonathan R. T. Hughes and Duncan McDougall. American Economic History. Homewood, IL: Irwin, 1961. [The first textbook of U.S. economic history to make systematic use of economic theory to organize the exposition. Second edition, 1965; third edition, 1969.]

Davis, Lance E., Jonathan R. T. Hughes and Stanley Reiter. “Aspects of Quantitative Research in Economic History.” _Journal of Economic History_ 20:4 (1960): 539-47 [in which “cliometrics” first appeared in print].

Drukker, J. W. The Revolution That Bit Its Own Tail: How Economic History Has Changed Our Ideas about Economic Growth. Amsterdam: Aksant, 2006.

Engerman, Stanley L. “Cliometrics.” In The Social Science Encyclopedia, second edition, edited by Adam Kuper and Jessica Kuper, 96-98. New York: Routledge, 1996.

Field, Alexander J. “The Future of Economic History.” In The Future of Economic History, edited by Alexander J. Field, 1-41. Boston: Kluwer-Nijhoff, 1987.

Fishlow, Albert, and Robert W. Fogel. “Quantitative Economic History: An Interim Evaluation. Past Trends and Present Tendencies.” Journal of Economic History 31, no. 1 (1971): 15-42.

Floud, Roderick. “Cliometrics.” In The New Palgrave: A Dictionary of Economics, edited by John Eatwell, Murray Milgate and Peter Newman, vol. 1, 452-54. London: Macmillan, 1987.

Goldin, Claudia. “Cliometrics and the Nobel.” Journal of Economic Perspectives 9, no. 2 (1995): 191-208.

Grantham, George. “The French Cliometric Revolution: A Survey of Cliometric Contributions to French Economic History.” European Review of Economic History 1, no. 3 (1997): 353-405.

Lamoreaux, Naomi R. “Economic History and the Cliometric Revolution.” In Imagined Histories: American Historians Interpret the Past, edited by Anthony Molho and Gordon S. Wood, 59-84. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998

Lyons, John S., Louis P Cain, and Samuel H. Williamson, eds. Reflections on the Cliometrics Revolution: Conversations with Economic Historians. New York: Routledge, 2008.

McCloskey, Donald [Deirdre] N. Econometric History. London: Macmillan, 1987

Parker, William, editor. Trends in the American Economy in the Nineteenth Century. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1960. [Volume 24 in Studies in Income and Wealth, in which many of the papers presented at the 1957 Williamstown conference appear.]

Tilly, Richard. “German Economic History and Cliometrics: A Selective Survey of Recent Tendencies.” European Review of Economic History 5, vol. 2 (2001): 151-87.

Whaples, Robert. “A Quantitative History of the Journal of Economic History and the Cliometric Revolution.” Journal of Economic History 51, no. 2 (1991): 289-301.

Williamson, Samuel H. “The History of Cliometrics.” In The Vital One: Essays in Honor of Jonathan R. T. Hughes, edited by Joel Mokyr, 15-31. Greenwich, Conn.: JAI Press, 1991. [Research in Economic History, Supplement 6.]

Williamson, Samuel H., and Robert Whaples. “Cliometrics.” In The Oxford Encyclopedia of Economic History, vol. 1, edited by Joel Mokyr, 446-47. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Wright, Gavin. “Economic History, Quantitative: United States.” In International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences, edited by Neil J. Smelser and Paul B. Baltes, 4108-14. Amsterdam: Elsevier, 2001.

Citation: Lyons, John. “Cliometrics”. EH.Net Encyclopedia, edited by Robert Whaples. August 27, 2009. URL http://eh.net/encyclopedia/cliometrics/

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).

Adaptability

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)

1820
Capital
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

Pennsylvania

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.

Trivoli, George. The Suffolk Bank: A Study of a Free-Enterprise Clearing System. London: The Adam Smith Institute, 1979.

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

Citation: Bodenhorn, Howard. “Antebellum Banking in the United States”. EH.Net Encyclopedia, edited by Robert Whaples. March 26, 2008. URL http://eh.net/encyclopedia/antebellum-banking-in-the-united-states/

The Economic History of Australia from 1788: An Introduction

Bernard Attard, University of Leicester

Introduction

The economic benefits of establishing a British colony in Australia in 1788 were not immediately obvious. The Government’s motives have been debated but the settlement’s early character and prospects were dominated by its original function as a jail. Colonization nevertheless began a radical change in the pattern of human activity and resource use in that part of the world, and by the 1890s a highly successful settler economy had been established on the basis of a favorable climate in large parts of the southeast (including Tasmania ) and the southwest corner; the suitability of land for European pastoralism and agriculture; an abundance of mineral wealth; and the ease with which these resources were appropriated from the indigenous population. This article will focus on the creation of a colonial economy from 1788 and its structural change during the twentieth century. To simplify, it will divide Australian economic history into four periods, two of which overlap. These are defined by the foundation of the ‘bridgehead economy’ before 1820; the growth of a colonial economy between 1820 and 1930; the rise of manufacturing and the protectionist state between 1891 and 1973; and the experience of liberalization and structural change since 1973. The article will conclude by suggesting briefly some of the similarities between Australia and other comparable settler economies, as well as the ways in which it has differed from them.

The Bridgehead Economy, 1788-1820

The description ‘bridgehead economy’ was used by one of Australia’s foremost economic historians, N. G. Butlin to refer to the earliest decades of British occupation when the colony was essentially a penal institution. The main settlements were at Port Jackson (modern Sydney, 1788) in New South Wales and Hobart (1804) in what was then Van Diemen’s Land (modern Tasmania). The colony barely survived its first years and was largely neglected for much of the following quarter-century while the British government was preoccupied by the war with France. An important beginning was nevertheless made in the creation of a private economy to support the penal regime. Above all, agriculture was established on the basis of land grants to senior officials and emancipated convicts, and limited freedoms were allowed to convicts to supply a range of goods and services. Although economic life depended heavily on the government Commissariat as a supplier of goods, money and foreign exchange, individual rights in property and labor were recognized, and private markets for both started to function. In 1808, the recall of the New South Wales Corps, whose officers had benefited most from access to land and imported goods (thus hopelessly entangling public and private interests), coupled with the appointment of a new governor, Lachlan Macquarie, in the following year, brought about a greater separation of the private economy from the activities and interests of the colonial government. With a significant increase in the numbers transported after 1810, New South Wales’ future became more secure. As laborers, craftsmen, clerks and tradesmen, many convicts possessed the skills required in the new settlements. As their terms expired, they also added permanently to the free population. Over time, this would inevitably change the colony’s character.

Natural Resources and the Colonial Economy, 1820-1930

Pastoral and Rural Expansion

For Butlin, the developments around 1810 were a turning point in the creation of a ‘colonial’ economy. Many historians have preferred to view those during the 1820s as more significant. From that decade, economic growth was based increasingly upon the production of fine wool and other rural commodities for markets in Britain and the industrializing economies of northwestern Europe. This growth was interrupted by two major depressions during the 1840s and 1890s and stimulated in complex ways by the rich gold discoveries in Victoria in 1851, but the underlying dynamics were essentially unchanged. At different times, the extraction of natural resources, whether maritime before the 1840s or later gold and other minerals, was also important. Agriculture, local manufacturing and construction industries expanded to meet the immediate needs of growing populations, which concentrated increasingly in the main urban centers. The colonial economy’s structure, growth of population and significance of urbanization are illustrated in tables 1 and 2. The opportunities for large profits in pastoralism and mining attracted considerable amounts of British capital, while expansion generally was supported by enormous government outlays for transport, communication and urban infrastructures, which also depended heavily on British finance. As the economy expanded, large-scale immigration became necessary to satisfy the growing demand for workers, especially after the end of convict transportation to the eastern mainland in 1840. The costs of immigration were subsidized by colonial governments, with settlers coming predominantly from the United Kingdom and bringing skills that contributed enormously to the economy’s growth. All this provided the foundation for the establishment of free colonial societies. In turn, the institutions associated with these — including the rule of law, secure property rights, and stable and democratic political systems — created conditions that, on balance, fostered growth. In addition to New South Wales, four other British colonies were established on the mainland: Western Australia (1829), South Australia (1836), Victoria (1851) and Queensland (1859). Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania after 1856) became a separate colony in 1825. From the 1850s, these colonies acquired responsible government. In 1901, they federated, creating the Commonwealth of Australia.

Table 1
The Colonial Economy: Percentage Shares of GDP, 1891 Prices, 1861-1911

Pastoral Other rural Mining Manuf. Building Services Rent
1861 9.3 13.0 17.5 14.2 8.4 28.8 8.6
1891 16.1 12.4 6.7 16.6 8.5 29.2 10.3
1911 14.8 16.7 9.0 17.1 5.3 28.7 8.3

Source: Haig (2001), Table A1. Totals do not sum to 100 because of rounding.

Table 2
Colonial Populations (thousands), 1851-1911

Australia Colonies Cities
NSW Victoria Sydney Melbourne
1851 257 100 46 54 29
1861 669 198 328 96 125
1891 1,704 608 598 400 473
1911 2,313 858 656 648 593

Source: McCarty (1974), p. 21; Vamplew (1987), POP 26-34.

The process of colonial growth began with two related developments. First, in 1820, Macquarie responded to land pressure in the districts immediately surrounding Sydney by relaxing restrictions on settlement. Soon the outward movement of herdsmen seeking new pastures became uncontrollable. From the 1820s, the British authorities also encouraged private enterprise by the wholesale assignment of convicts to private employers and easy access to land. In 1831, the principles of systematic colonization popularized by Edward Gibbon Wakefield (1796-1862) were put into practice in New South Wales with the substitution of land sales for grants in order to finance immigration. This, however, did not affect the continued outward movement of pastoralists who simply occupied land where could find it beyond the official limits of settlement. By 1840, they had claimed a vast swathe of territory two hundred miles in depth running from Moreton Bay in the north (the site of modern Brisbane) through the Port Phillip District (the future colony of Victoria, whose capital Melbourne was marked out in 1837) to Adelaide in South Australia. The absence of any legal title meant that these intruders became known as ‘squatters’ and the terms of their tenure were not finally settled until 1846 after a prolonged political struggle with the Governor of New South Wales, Sir George Gipps.

The impact of the original penal settlements on the indigenous population had been enormous. The consequences of squatting after 1820 were equally devastating as the land and natural resources upon which indigenous hunter-gathering activities and environmental management depended were appropriated on a massive scale. Aboriginal populations collapsed in the face of disease, violence and forced removal until they survived only on the margins of the new pastoral economy, on government reserves, or in the arid parts of the continent least touched by white settlement. The process would be repeated again in northern Australia during the second half of the century.

For the colonists this could happen because Australia was considered terra nullius, vacant land freely available for occupation and exploitation. The encouragement of private enterprise, the reception of Wakefieldian ideas, and the wholesale spread of white settlement were all part of a profound transformation in official and private perceptions of Australia’s prospects and economic value as a British colony. Millennia of fire-stick management to assist hunter-gathering had created inland grasslands in the southeast that were ideally suited to the production of fine wool. Both the physical environment and the official incentives just described raised expectations of considerable profits to be made in pastoral enterprise and attracted a growing stream of British capital in the form of organizations like the Australian Agricultural Company (1824); new corporate settlements in Western Australia (1829) and South Australia (1836); and, from the 1830s, British banks and mortgage companies formed to operate in the colonies. By the 1830s, wool had overtaken whale oil as the colony’s most important export, and by 1850 New South Wales had displaced Germany as the main overseas supplier to British industry (see table 3). Allowing for the colonial economy’s growing complexity, the cycle of growth based upon land settlement, exports and British capital would be repeated twice. The first pastoral boom ended in a depression which was at its worst during 1842-43. Although output continued to grow during the 1840s, the best land had been occupied in the absence of substantial investment in fencing and water supplies. Without further geographical expansion, opportunities for high profits were reduced and the flow of British capital dried up, contributing to a wider downturn caused by drought and mercantile failure.

Table 3
Imports of Wool into Britain (thousands of bales), 1830-50

German Australian
1830 74.5 8.0
1840 63.3 41.0
1850 30.5 137.2

Source: Sinclair (1976), p. 46

When pastoral growth revived during the 1860s, borrowed funds were used to fence properties and secure access to water. This in turn allowed a further extension of pastoral production into the more environmentally fragile semi-arid interior districts of New South Wales, particularly during the 1880s. As the mobs of sheep moved further inland, colonial governments increased the scale of their railway construction programs, some competing to capture the freight to ports. Technical innovation and government sponsorship of land settlement brought greater diversity to the rural economy (see table 4). Exports of South Australian wheat started in the 1870s. The development of drought resistant grain varieties from the turn of the century led to an enormous expansion of sown acreage in both the southeast and southwest. From the 1880s, sugar production increased in Queensland, although mainly for the domestic market. From the 1890s, refrigeration made it possible to export meat, dairy products and fruit.

Table 4
Australian Exports (percentages of total value of exports), 1881-1928/29

Wool Minerals Wheat,flour Butter Meat Fruit
1881-90 54.1 27.2 5.3 0.1 1.2 0.2
1891-1900 43.5 33.1 2.9 2.4 4.1 0.3
1901-13 34.3 35.4 9.7 4.1 5.1 0.5
1920/21-1928/29 42.9 8.8 20.5 5.6 4.6 2.2

Source: Sinclair (1976), p. 166

Gold and Its Consequences

Alongside rural growth and diversification, the remarkable gold discoveries in central Victoria in 1851 brought increased complexity to the process of economic development. The news sparked an immediate surge of gold seekers into the colony, which was soon reinforced by a flood of overseas migrants. Until the 1870s, gold displaced wool as Australia’s most valuable export. Rural industries either expanded output (wheat in South Australia) or, in the case of pastoralists, switched production to meat and tallow, to supply a much larger domestic market. Minerals had been extracted since earliest settlement and, while yields on the Victorian gold fields soon declined, rich mineral deposits continued to be found. During the 1880s alone these included silver, lead and zinc at Broken Hill in New South Wales; copper at Mount Lyell in Tasmania; and gold at Charters Towers and Mount Morgan in Queensland. From 1893, what eventually became the richest goldfields in Australia were discovered at Coolgardie in Western Australia. The mining industry’s overall contribution to output and exports is illustrated in tables 1 and 4.

In Victoria, the deposits of easily extracted alluvial gold were soon exhausted and mining was taken over by companies that could command the financial and organizational resources needed to work the deep lodes. But the enormous permanent addition to the colonial population caused by the gold rush had profound effects throughout eastern Australia, dramatically accelerating the growth of the local market and workforce, and deeply disturbing the social balance that had emerged during the decade before. Between 1851 and 1861, the Australian population more than doubled. In Victoria it increased sevenfold; Melbourne outgrew Sydney, Chicago and San Francisco (see table 2). Significantly enlarged populations required social infrastructure, political representation, employment and land; and the new colonial legislatures were compelled to respond. The way this was played out varied between colonies but the common outcomes were the introduction of manhood suffrage, access to land through ‘free selection’ of small holdings, and, in the Victorian case, the introduction of a protectionist tariff in 1865. The particular age structure of the migrants of the 1850s also had long-term effects on the building cycle, notably in Victoria. The demand for housing accelerated during the 1880s, as the children of the gold generation matured and established their own households. With pastoral expansion and public investment also nearing their peaks, the colony experienced a speculative boom which added to the imbalances already being caused by falling export prices and rising overseas debt. The boom ended with the wholesale collapse of building companies, mortgage banks and other financial institutions during 1891-92 and the stoppage of much of the banking system during 1893.

The depression of the 1890s was worst in Victoria. Its impact on employment was softened by the Western Australian gold discoveries, which drew population away, but the colonial economy had grown to such an extent since the 1850s that the stimulus provided by the earlier gold finds could not be repeated. Severe drought in eastern Australia from the mid-1890s until 1903 caused the pastoral industry to contract. Yet, as we have seen, technological innovation also created opportunities for other rural producers, who were now heavily supported by government with little direct involvement by foreign investors. The final phase of rural expansion, with its associated public investment in rural (and increasingly urban) infrastructure continued until the end of the 1920s. Yields declined, however, as farmers moved onto the most marginal land. The terms of trade also deteriorated with the oversupply of several commodities in world markets after the First World War. As a result, the burden of servicing foreign debt rose once again. Australia’s position as a capital importer and exporter of natural resources meant that the Great Depression arrived early. From late 1929, the closure of overseas capital markets and collapse of export prices forced the Federal Government to take drastic measures to protect the balance of payments. The falls in investment and income transmitted the contraction to the rest of the economy. By 1932, average monthly unemployment amongst trade union members was over 22 percent. Although natural resource industries continued to have enduring importance as earners of foreign exchange, the Depression finally ended the long period in which land settlement and technical innovation had together provided a secure foundation for economic growth.

Manufacturing and the Protected Economy, 1891-1973

The ‘Australian Settlement’

There is a considerable chronological overlap between the previous section, which surveyed the growth of a colonial economy during the nineteenth century based on the exploitation of natural resources, and this one because it is a convenient way of approaching the two most important developments in Australian economic history between Federation and the 1970s: the enormous increase in government regulation after 1901 and, closely linked to this, the expansion of domestic manufacturing, which from the Second World War became the most dynamic part of the Australian economy.

The creation of the Commonwealth of Australia on 1 January 1901 broadened the opportunities for public intervention in private markets. The new Federal Government was given clearly-defined but limited powers over obviously ‘national’ matters like customs duties. The rest, including many affecting economic development and social welfare, remained with the states. The most immediate economic consequence was the abolition of inter-colonial tariffs and the establishment of a single Australian market. But the Commonwealth also soon set about transferring to the national level several institutions that different the colonies had experimented with during the 1890s. These included arrangements for the compulsory arbitration of industrial disputes by government tribunals, which also had the power to fix wages, and a discriminatory ‘white Australia’ immigration policy designed to exclude non-Europeans from the labor market. Both were partly responses to organized labor’s electoral success during the 1890s. Urban business and professional interests had always been represented in colonial legislatures; during the 1910s, rural producers also formed their own political parties. Subsequently, state and federal governments were typically formed by the either Australian Labor Party or coalitions of urban conservatives and the Country Party. The constituencies they each represented were thus able to influence the regulatory structure to protect themselves against the full impact of market outcomes, whether in the form of import competition, volatile commodity prices or uncertain employment conditions. The institutional arrangements they created have been described as the ‘Australian settlement’ because they balanced competing producer interests and arguably provided a stable framework for economic development until the 1970s, despite the inevitable costs.

The Growth of Manufacturing

An important part of the ‘Australian settlement’ was the imposition of a uniform federal tariff and its eventual elaboration into a system of ‘protection all round’. The original intended beneficiaries were manufacturers and their employees; indeed, when the first protectionist tariff was introduced in 1907, its operation was linked to the requirement that employers pay their workers ‘fair and reasonable wages’. Manufacturing’s actual contribution to economic growth before Federation has been controversial. The population influx of the 1850s widened opportunities for import-substitution but the best evidence suggests that manufacturing grew slowly as the industrial workforce increased (see table 1). Production was small-scale and confined largely to the processing of rural products and raw materials; assembly and repair-work; or the manufacture of goods for immediate consumption (e.g. soap and candle-making, brewing and distilling). Clothing and textile output was limited to a few lines. For all manufacturing, growth was restrained by the market’s small size and the limited opportunities for technical change it afforded.

After Federation, production was stimulated by several factors: rural expansion, the increasing use of agricultural machinery and refrigeration equipment, and the growing propensity of farm incomes to be spent locally. The removal of inter-colonial tariffs may also have helped. The statistical evidence indicates that between 1901 and the outbreak of the First World War manufacturing grew faster than the economy as a whole, while output per worker increased. But manufacturers also aspired mainly to supply the domestic market and expended increasing energy on retaining privileged access. Tariffs rose considerably between the two world wars. Some sectors became more capital intensive, particularly with the establishment of a local steel industry, the beginnings of automobile manufacture, and the greater use of electricity. But, except during the first half of the 1920s, there was little increase in labor productivity and the inter-war expansion of textile manufacturing reflected the heavy bias towards import substitution. Not until the Second World War and after did manufacturing growth accelerate and extend to those sectors most characteristic of an advance industrial economy (table 5). Amongst these were automobiles, chemicals, electrical and electronic equipment, and iron-and-steel. Growth was sustained during 1950s by similar factors to those operating in other countries during the ‘long boom’, including a growing stream of American direct investment, access to new and better technology, and stable conditions of full employment.

Table 5
Manufacturing and the Australian Economy, 1913-1949

1938-39 prices
Manufacturing share of GDP % Manufacturing annual rate of growth % GDP, annual rate of growth %
1913/14 21.9
1928/29 23.6 2.6 2.1
1948/49 29.8 3.4 2.2

Calculated from Haig (2001), Table A2. Rates of change are average annual changes since the previous year in the first column.

Manufacturing peaked in the mid-1960s at about 28 percent of national output (measured in 1968-69 prices) but natural resource industries remained the most important suppliers of exports. Since the 1920s, over-supply in world markets and the need to compensate farmers for manufacturing protection, had meant that virtually all rural industries, with the exception of wool, had been drawn into a complicated system of subsidies, price controls and market interventions at both federal and state levels. The post-war boom in the world economy increased demand for commodities, benefiting rural producers but also creating new opportunities for Australian miners. Most important of all, the first surge of breakneck growth in East Asia opened a vast new market for iron ore, coal and other mining products. Britain’s significance as a trading partner had declined markedly since the 1950s. By the end of the 1960s, Japan overtook it as Australia’s largest customer, while the United States was now the main provider of imports.

The mining bonanza contributed to the boom conditions experienced generally after 1950. The Federal Government played its part by using the full range of macroeconomic policies that were also increasingly familiar in similar western countries to secure stability and full employment. It encouraged high immigration, relaxing the entry criteria to allow in large numbers of southern Europeans, who added directly to the workforce, but also brought knowledge and experience. With state governments, the Commonwealth increased expenditure on education significantly, effectively entering the field for the first time after 1945. Access to secondary education was widened with the abandonment of fees in government schools and federal finance secured an enormous expansion of university places, especially after 1960. Some weaknesses remained. Enrolment rates after primary school were below those in many industrial countries and funding for technical education was poor. Despite this, the Australian population’s rising levels of education and skill continued to be important additional sources of growth. Finally, although government advisers expressed misgivings, industry policy remained determinedly interventionist. While state governments competed to attract manufacturing investment with tax and other incentives, by the 1960s protection had reached its highest level, with Australia playing virtually no part in the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), despite being an original signatory. The effects of rising tariffs since 1900 were evident in the considerable decline in Australia’s openness to trade (Table 6). Yet, as the post-war boom approached its end, the country still relied upon commodity exports and foreign investment to purchase the manufactures it was unable to produce itself. The impossibility of sustaining growth in this way was already becoming clear, even though the full implications would only be felt during the decades to come.

Table 6
Trade (Exports Plus Imports)
as a Share of GDP, Current Prices, %

1900/1 44.9
1928/29 36.9
1938/38 32.7
1964/65 33.3
1972/73 29.5

Calculated from Vamplew (1987), ANA 119-129.

Liberalization and Structural Change, 1973-2005

From the beginning of the 1970s, instability in the world economy and weakness at home ended Australia’s experience of the post-war boom. During the following decades, manufacturing’s share in output (table 7) and employment fell, while the long-term relative decline of commodity prices meant that natural resources could no longer be relied on to cover the cost of imports, let alone the long-standing deficits in payments for services, migrant remittances and interest on foreign debt. Until the early 1990s, Australia also suffered from persistent inflation and rising unemployment (which remained permanently higher, see chart 1). As a consequence, per capita incomes fluctuated during the 1970s, and the economy contracted in absolute terms during 1982-83 and 1990-91.

Even before the 1970s, new sources of growth and rising living standards had been needed, but the opportunities for economic change were restricted by the elaborate regulatory structure that had evolved since Federation. During that decade itself, policy and outlook were essentially defensive and backward looking, despite calls for reform and some willingness to alter the tariff. Governments sought to protect employment in established industries, while dependence on mineral exports actually increased as a result of the commodity booms at the decade’s beginning and end. By the 1980s, however, it was clear that the country’s existing institutions were failing and fundamental reform was required.

Table 7
The Australian Economy, 1974-2004

A. Percentage shares of value-added, constant prices

1974 1984 1994 2002
Agriculture 4.4 4.3 3.0 2.7
Manufacturing 18.1 15.2 13.3 11.8
Other industry, inc. mining 14.2 14.0 14.6 14.4
Services 63.4 66.4 69.1 71.1

B. Per capita GDP, annual average rate of growth %, constant prices

1973-84 1.2
1984-94 1.7
1994-2004 2.5

Calculated from World Bank, World Development Indicators (Sept. 2005).

Figure 1
Unemployment, 1971-2005, percent

Unemployment, 1971-2005, percent

Source: Reserve Bank of Australia (1988); Reserve Bank of Australia, G07Hist.xls. Survey data at August. The method of data collection changed in 1978.

The catalyst was the resumption of the relative fall of commodity prices since the Second World War which meant that the cost of purchasing manufactured goods inexorably rose for primary producers. The decline had been temporarily reversed by the oil shocks of the 1970s but, from the 1980/81 financial year until the decade’s end, the value of Australia’s merchandise imports exceeded that of merchandise exports in every year but two. The overall deficit on current account measured as a proportion of GDP also moved became permanently higher, averaging around 4.7 percent. During the 1930s, deflation had been followed by the further closing of the Australian economy. There was no longer much scope for this. Manufacturing had stagnated since the 1960s, suffering especially from the inflation of wage and other costs during the 1970s. It was particularly badly affected by the recession of 1982-83, when unemployment rose to almost ten percent, its highest level since the Great Depression. In 1983, a new federal Labor Government led by Bob Hawke sought to engineer a recovery through an ‘Accord’ with the trade union movement which aimed at creating employment by holding down real wages. But under Hawke and his Treasurer, Paul Keating — who warned colorfully that otherwise the country risked becoming a ‘banana republic’ — Labor also started to introduce broader reforms to increase the efficiency of Australian firms by improving their access to foreign finance and exposing them to greater competition. Costs would fall and exports of more profitable manufactures increase, reducing the economy’s dependence on commodities. During the 1980s and 1990s, the reforms deepened and widened, extending to state governments and continuing with the election of a conservative Liberal-National Party government under John Howard in 1996, as each act of deregulation invited further measures to consolidate them and increase their effectiveness. Key reforms included the floating of the Australian dollar and the deregulation of the financial system; the progressive removal of protection of most manufacturing and agriculture; the dismantling of the centralized system of wage-fixing; taxation reform; and the promotion of greater competition and better resource use through privatization and the restructuring of publicly-owned corporations, the elimination of government monopolies, and the deregulation of sectors like transport and telecommunications. In contrast with the 1930s, the prospects of further domestic reform were improved by an increasingly favorable international climate. Australia contributed by joining other nations in the Cairns Group to negotiate reductions of agricultural protection during the Uruguay round of GATT negotiations and by promoting regional liberalization through the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum.

Table 8
Exports and Openness, 1983-2004

Shares of total exports, % Shares of GDP: exports + imports, %
Goods Services
Rural Resource Manuf. Other
1983 30 34 9 3 24 26
1989 23 37 11 5 24 27
1999 20 34 17 4 24 37
2004 18 33 19 6 23 39

Calculated from: Reserve Bank of Australia, G10Hist.xls and H03Hist.xls; World Bank, World Development Indicators (Sept. 2005). Chain volume measures, except shares of GDP, 1983, which are at current prices.

The extent to which institutional reform had successfully brought about long-term structural change was still not clear at the end of the century. Recovery from the 1982-83 recession was based upon a strong revival of employment. By contrast, the uninterrupted growth experienced since 1992 arose from increases in the combined productivity of workers and capital. If this persisted, it was a historic change in the sources of growth from reliance on the accumulation of capital and the increase of the workforce to improvements in the efficiency of both. From the 1990s, the Australian economy also became more open (table 8). Manufactured goods increased their share of exports, while rural products continued to decline. Yet, although growth was more broadly-based, rapid and sustained (table 7), the country continued to experience large trade and current account deficits, which were augmented by the considerable increase of foreign debt after financial deregulation during the 1980s. Unemployment also failed to return to its pre-1974 level of around 2 percent, although much of the permanent rise occurred during the mid to late 1970s. In 2005, it remained 5 percent (Figure 1). Institutional reform clearly contributed to these changes in economic structure and performance but they were also influenced by other factors, including falling transport costs, the communications and information revolutions, the greater openness of the international economy, and the remarkable burst of economic growth during the century’s final decades in southeast and east Asia, above all China. Reform was also complemented by policies to provide the skills needed in a technologically-sophisticated, increasingly service-oriented economy. Retention rates in the last years of secondary education doubled during the 1980s, followed by a sharp increase of enrolments in technical colleges and universities. By 2002, total expenditure on education as a proportion of national income had caught up with the average of member countries of the OECD (Table 9). Shortages were nevertheless beginning to be experienced in the engineering and other skilled trades, raising questions about some priorities and the diminishing relative financial contribution of government to tertiary education.

Table 9
Tertiary Enrolments and Education Expenditure, 2002

Tertiary enrolments, gross percent Education expenditure as a proportion of GDP, percent
Australia 63.22 6.0
OECD 61.68 5.8
United States 70.67 7.2

Source: World Bank, World Development Indicators (Sept. 2005); OECD (2005). Gross enrolments are total enrolments, regardless of age, as a proportion of the population in the relevant official age group. OECD enrolments are for fifteen high-income members only.

Summing Up: The Australian Economy in a Wider Context

Virtually since the beginning of European occupation, the Australian economy had provided the original British colonizers, generations of migrants, and the descendants of both with a remarkably high standard of living. Towards the end of the nineteenth century, this was by all measures the highest in the world (see table 10). After 1900, national income per member of the population slipped behind that of several countries, but continued to compare favorably with most. In 2004, Australia was ranked behind only Norway and Sweden in the United Nation’s Human Development Index. Economic historians have differed over the sources of growth that made this possible. Butlin emphasized the significance of local factors like the unusually high rate of urbanization and the expansion of domestic manufacturing. In important respects, however, Australia was subject to the same forces as other European settler societies in New Zealand and Latin America, and its development bore striking similarities to theirs. From the 1820s, its economy grew as one frontier of an expanding western capitalism. With its close institutional ties to, and complementarities with, the most dynamic parts of the world economy, it drew capital and migrants from them, supplied them with commodities, and shared the benefits of their growth. Like other settler societies, it sought population growth as an end in itself and, from the turn of the nineteenth century, aspired to the creation of a national manufacturing base. Finally, when openness to the world economy appeared to threaten growth and living standards, governments intervened to regulate and protect with broader social objectives in mind. But there were also striking contrasts with other settler economies, notably those in Latin America like Argentina, with which it has been frequently compared. In particular, Australia responded to successive challenges to growth by finding new opportunities for wealth creation with a minimum of political disturbance, social conflict or economic instability, while sharing a rising national income as widely as possible.

Table 10
Per capita GDP in Australia, United States and Argentina
(1990 international dollars)

Australia United States Argentina
1870 3,641 2,457 1,311
1890 4,433 3,396 2,152
1950 7,493 9,561 4,987
1998 20,390 27,331 9,219

Sources: Australia: GDP, Haig (2001) as converted in Maddison (2003); all other data Maddison (1995) and (2001)

From the mid-twentieth century, Australia’s experience also resembled that of many advanced western countries. This included the post-war willingness to use macroeconomic policy to maintain growth and full employment; and, after the 1970s, the abandonment of much government intervention in private markets while at the same time retaining strong social services and seeking to improve education and training. Australia also experienced a similar relative decline of manufacturing, permanent rise of unemployment, and transition to a more service-based economy typical of high income countries. By the beginning of the new millennium, services accounted for over 70 percent of national income (table 7). Australia remained vulnerable as an exporter of commodities and importer of capital but its endowment of natural resources and the skills of its population were also creating opportunities. The country was again favorably positioned to take advantage of growth in the most dynamic parts of the world economy, particularly China. With the final abandonment of the White Australia policy during the 1970s, it had also started to integrate more closely with its region. This was further evidence of the capacity to change that allowed Australians to face the future with confidence.

References:

Anderson, Kym. “Australia in the International Economy.” In Reshaping Australia’s Economy: Growth with Equity and Sustainability, edited by John Nieuwenhuysen, Peter Lloyd and Margaret Mead, 33-49. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

Blainey, Geoffrey. The Rush that Never Ended: A History of Australian Mining, fourth edition. Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1993.

Borland, Jeff. “Unemployment.” In Reshaping Australia’s Economy: Growth and with Equity and Sustainable Development, edited by John Nieuwenhuysen, Peter Lloyd and Margaret Mead, 207-228. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

Butlin, N. G. Australian Domestic Product, Investment and Foreign Borrowing 1861-1938/39. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1962.

Butlin, N.G. Economics and the Dreamtime, A Hypothetical History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Butlin, N.G. Forming a Colonial Economy: Australia, 1810-1850. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Butlin, N.G. Investment in Australian Economic Development, 1861-1900. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1964.

Butlin, N. G., A. Barnard and J. J. Pincus. Government and Capitalism: Public and Private Choice in Twentieth Century Australia. Sydney: George Allen and Unwin, 1982.

Butlin, S. J. Foundations of the Australian Monetary System, 1788-1851. Sydney: Sydney University Press, 1968.

Chapman, Bruce, and Glenn Withers. “Human Capital Accumulation: Education and Immigration.” In Reshaping Australia’s economy: growth with equity and sustainability, edited by John Nieuwenhuysen, Peter Lloyd and Margaret Mead, 242-267. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

Dowrick, Steve. “Productivity Boom: Miracle or Mirage?” In Reshaping Australia’s Economy: Growth with Equity and Sustainability, edited by John Nieuwenhuysen, Peter Lloyd and Margaret Mead, 19-32. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

Economist. “Has he got the ticker? A survey of Australia.” 7 May 2005.

Haig, B. D. “Australian Economic Growth and Structural Change in the 1950s: An International Comparison.” Australian Economic History Review 18, no. 1 (1978): 29-45.

Haig, B.D. “Manufacturing Output and Productivity 1910 to 1948/49.” Australian Economic History Review 15, no. 2 (1975): 136-61.

Haig, B.D. “New Estimates of Australian GDP: 1861-1948/49.” Australian Economic History Review 41, no. 1 (2001): 1-34.

Haig, B. D., and N. G. Cain. “Industrialization and Productivity: Australian Manufacturing in the 1920s and 1950s.” Explorations in Economic History 20, no. 2 (1983): 183-98.

Jackson, R. V. Australian Economic Development in the Nineteenth Century. Canberra: Australian National University Press, 1977.

Jackson, R.V. “The Colonial Economies: An Introduction.” Australian Economic History Review 38, no. 1 (1998): 1-15.

Kelly, Paul. The End of Certainty: The Story of the 1980s. Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 1992.

Macintyre, Stuart. A Concise History of Australia. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

McCarthy, J. W. “Australian Capital Cities in the Nineteenth Century.” In Urbanization in Australia; The Nineteenth Century, edited by J. W. McCarthy and C. B. Schedvin, 9-39. Sydney: Sydney University Press, 1974.

McLean, I.W. “Australian Economic Growth in Historical Perspective.” The Economic Record 80, no. 250 (2004): 330-45.

Maddison, Angus. Monitoring the World Economy 1820-1992. Paris: OECD, 1995.

Maddison, Angus. The World Economy: A Millennial Perspective. Paris: OECD, 2001.

Maddison, Angus. The World Economy: Historical Statistics. Paris: OECD, 2003.

Meredith, David, and Barrie Dyster. Australia in the Global Economy: Continuity and Change. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Nicholas, Stephen, editor. Convict Workers: Reinterpreting Australia’s Past. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

OECD. Education at a Glance 2005 – Tables OECD, 2005 [cited 9 February 2006]. Available from http://www.oecd.org/document/11/0,2340,en_2825_495609_35321099_1_1_1_1,00.html.

Pope, David, and Glenn Withers. “The Role of Human Capital in Australia’s Long-Term Economic Growth.” Paper presented to 24th Conference of Economists, Adelaide, 1995.

Reserve Bank of Australia. “Australian Economic Statistics: 1949-50 to 1986-7: I Tables.” Occasional Paper No. 8A (1988).

Reserve Bank of Australia. Current Account – Balance of Payments – H1 [cited 29 November 2005]. Available from http://www.rba.gov.au/Statistics/Bulletin/H01bhist.xls.

Reserve Bank of Australia. Gross Domestic Product – G10 [cited 29 November 2005]. Available from http://www.rba.gov.au/Statistics/Bulletin/G10hist.xls.

Reserve Bank of Australia. Unemployment – Labour Force – G1 [cited 2 February 2006]. Available from http://www.rba.gov.au/Statistics/Bulletin/G07hist.xls.

Schedvin, C. B. Australia and the Great Depression: A Study of Economic Development and Policy in the 120s and 1930s. Sydney: Sydney University Press, 1970.

Schedvin, C.B. “Midas and the Merino: A Perspective on Australian Economic History.” Economic History Review 32, no. 4 (1979): 542-56.

Sinclair, W. A. The Process of Economic Development in Australia. Melbourne: Longman Cheshire, 1976.

United Nations Development Programme. Human Development Index [cited 29 November 2005]. Available from http://hdr.undp.org/statistics/data/indicators.cfm?x=1&y=1&z=1.

Vamplew, Wray, ed. Australians: Historical Statistics. Edited by Alan D. Gilbert and K. S. Inglis, Australians: A Historical Library. Sydney: Fairfax, Syme and Weldon Associates, 1987.

White, Colin. Mastering Risk: Environment, Markets and Politics in Australian Economic History. Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1992.

World Bank. World Development Indicators ESDS International, University of Manchester, September 2005 [cited 29 November 2005]. Available from http://www.esds.ac.uk/International/Introduction.asp.

Citation: Attard, Bernard. “The Economic History of Australia from 1788: An Introduction”. EH.Net Encyclopedia, edited by Robert Whaples. March 16, 2008. URL
http://eh.net/encyclopedia/the-economic-history-of-australia-from-1788-an-introduction/

Inside the Nixon Administration: The Secret Diary of Arthur Burns, 1969-1974

Author(s):Ferrell, Robert H.
Reviewer(s):Chappell, Henry

Published by EH.NET (April 2011)

Robert H. Ferrell, editor, Inside the Nixon Administration: The Secret Diary of Arthur Burns, 1969-1974. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2010. xiv + 133 pp. $25 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-7006-1730-2.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Henry Chappell, Department of Economics, University of South Carolina.

Arthur Burns served as Chairman of the Federal Reserve Board (the Fed) from 1970 to 1978. Prior to serving at the Fed, he had distinguished himself in academia at Columbia University, had served as the Chairman of President Eisenhower?s Council of Economic Advisors, and had been president of both the National Bureau of Economic Research and the American Economic Association. He had also served President Nixon as an advisor prior to his years at the Fed.

As Fed Chairman, Burns inherited an incipient inflation, an inflation that accelerated under his tenure. His reign at the Fed is also known for an unhealthy mixing of politics and economics; it has been alleged that Burns? expansionary policies prior to the 1972 election were motivated by an effort to secure a Nixon win. There is little doubt that Nixon was a political schemer, but Burns? motivations have always been more difficult to assess.

As the title suggests, this book is a diary kept by Burns during the Nixon years, beginning with inauguration day in 1969 and concluding shortly before Nixon?s resignation in July 1974. The volume has been edited by Robert H. Ferrell, emeritus professor of history at Indiana University. Ferrell has left Burns? original wording intact, but has annotated the entries to provide helpful context for the reader. After Burns assumed the Fed Chairmanship, he continued to play a role as a key Nixon advisor and he observed and interacted with all of the major Nixon administration appointees. Because of his proximity to the administration, Burns? diary is able to describe the political machinations that preceded important events like the abandonment of the gold standard, the imposition of price controls, and the expansion of the money supply in advance of the 1972 election.

Ferrell tells us that Burns ?wrote this diary to hold in his mind the strengths and foibles of the leading figures of the Nixon administration, not least the president himself? (p. vii).? Burns clearly succeeded in chronicling the foibles of others; his assessments are rarely flattering. Burns says that former Treasury Secretary George Schultz was a ?woefully ignorant ideologist? (p. 66). Of William Martin, his predecessor as Fed Chairman, Burns says, ?Poor fellow, he thinks he owns the Fed and has suddenly discovered that he is so indispensable that the job must not go … to anyone else. Pathetic slob!? (p. 14).? Burns dismisses Sargent Shriver, saying, ?What a damned fool that lacquered fellow is! More stupid than I had realized.? Similarly, IMF head Pierre-Paul Schweitzer ?… is a pathetic man, always on the defensive one way or another? (p. 58).

Burns was equally harsh in his assessment of Paul Volcker, who, at that time, was serving as an undersecretary of the Treasury: ?Volcker troubled me, gave a stupid reply to President?s question why the British are interested in raising the price of gold, and I had to clarify the matter? (p. 13). He added that ?he is an indecisive man, full of flaws, and anxieties? (p. 62), and laments that ?… somehow, poor and wretched Volker — never knowing where he stood on any issue — had succeeded in instilling an irrational fear of gold in his tyrannical master [Treasury Secretary John Connally]? (p. 65). Ironically, history will portray Volcker as the heroic figure who, as Fed Chairman, finally put an end to the Great Inflation that began under Martin and accelerated under Burns.

Burns does offer at least one positive evaluation of an administration colleague, one that is comically inappropriate: ?Ted Agnew is an honest man. He has plenty of guts and good sense? (p. 76).? Agnew later resigned as Vice President and was convicted of tax evasion in connection with charges of bribery.

Given the profound inadequacies of other Nixon appointees, it was natural for Burns to seek to influence the President.? Ferrell seems to accept this as an appropriate and virtuous role for Burns. He notes that ?the solidity of his [Burns?] self-knowledge made him impervious to the mistakes of politics … when the public interest intervened he could be counted on? (p. ix).

Even if we accept Burns? good intentions, he was neither without ambition nor immune to manipulation. Like many others, Burns craved both the president?s ear and his approval. He wanted to be a part of Nixon?s administration, with influence over all economic issues, not just monetary policy. Nixon was happy to oblige him. Burns met with the ?Quadriad? (Nixon?s key economic appointees), had private meetings with Nixon and administration officials, frequently attended Cabinet meetings, and was even included in Nixon family social events.

What price did Burns pay for this elevated status? He was expected to be a team player. Burns records this expectation explicitly, quoting Nixon as saying ?while my [Burns?] status was a special one, I too will be expected to conform to publicly announced Administration policies? (p. 45).? In August 1971, Nixon announced the adoption of wage and price controls, the closing of the gold window, and the abandonment of the Bretton Woods regime of fixed exchange rates.? When Burns told Nixon that he could fully support the new program, he was rewarded with both praise and trinkets: ?That evening, Saturday, [William] Safire came to see me and told me how pleased the President was with my entire attitude and that he had said that he did not think that one could find another half dozen men like me in the entire country — that, indeed, I was a rare jewel … The next day, Sunday, the President presented everyone at the meeting with a Camp David Jacket, but he singled me and [David] Kennedy out — we were also to receive some Camp David glasses.?

Excuse me, Arthur, did you just sacrifice central bank independence for souvenir glasses?

Later, Nixon chose to ask Burns to chair the Committee on Interest and Dividends, a board with oversight over those income categories under the wage and price guidelines. It would be difficult for any Fed Chairman to raise interest rates during a period of price controls, but for a Fed Chairman to raise interest rates while simultaneously chairing a committee overseeing interest rate pricing guidelines was unthinkable. Nixon had cleverly boxed Burns in with this double appointment. Unfortunately, Burns was easy prey:? ?[Nixon] expressed gratification over my taking chairmanship of Committee on Interest and Dividends, hoped that this would not be embarrassing to Fed, [said] that my hand in this was needed, for a Stans or a Romney would not command the authority or respect required for success. I kept quiet for the most part. How could I disagree?? (p. 58-59).

As Burns was manipulated through attention and flattery, the Fed?s independence was a casualty and the political pressure for monetary ease was irresistible. Burns could not advocate resistance. Had he done so, he would have become a pariah in the administration and — for one who craved a central role — that would have been an intolerable outcome. Burns was quick to note shortcomings of others but he was unable to see how his own imperfections were so tragically exploited.

The Burns diary provides an extraordinary account. Readers will find that Ferrell?s annotations providing historical context are convenient and useful supplements. Ferrell also offers interpretive commentary that is sometimes helpful but, at other times, less so. He presents Burns as a defender of virtue, the public interest, and the gold standard, but fails to comment on the personal frailties that led Burns to sacrifice Federal Reserve independence. Ferrell?s comments on economics are sometimes confused or misleading. For example, his explanation for the crisis leading to the abandonment of gold is that ?The increasing wealth of the European nations and Japan and other factors had sent dollars out of control? (p. 49). Commentary aside, the diary itself is a treasure. It is essential reading for anyone with an interest in the history of the Nixon presidency or the political decisions that sustained the Great Inflation of the 1970s.

Henry Chappell is the Dewey H. Johnson Professor of Economics at the University of South Carolina. He is the author, with Rob Roy McGregor and Todd A. Vermilyea, of Committee Decisions on Monetary Policy: Evidence from Historical Records of the Federal Open Market Committee, MIT Press, 2005.

Copyright (c) 2011 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 (administrator@eh.net). Published by EH.Net (April 2011). All EH.Net reviews are archived at http://www.eh.net/BookReview.

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

Better Living through Economics

Author(s):Siegfried, John J.
Reviewer(s):Vedder, Richard

Published by EH.NET (August 2010)

John J. Siegfried, editor, Better Living through Economics. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010. viii + 315 pp. $45 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-674-03618-5.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Richard Vedder, Department of Economics, Ohio University.

?

This volume of essays advances the proposition that economic theory and economic research can and has been harnessed to promote human welfare in many different ways, materially improving the quality of our lives and arguably our incomes. Not unusual for compilations of essays, this book contains the good, the bad, and, unfortunately, the ugly. Fortunately, ?the good? dominates, and I would say two-thirds of the volume successfully achieves its mission.

John Siegfried, Vanderbilt professor and Secretary-Treasurer of the American Economic Association, seems to be the prime mover on getting this volume published.? As Richard Caves states in a cover blurb, many of the ?essays are concise, clear and consistently written at a level within the reach of undergraduate economics students.? Good examples include Thomas Tietenberg?s excellent treatment of the evolution of emissions trading to more efficiently deal with restricting environmentally undesirable practices, Elizabeth Bailey?s nice narrative about the benefits of transportation deregulation beginning in the late 1970s, Robert Moffitt?s clear and well balanced discussion of the evolution of the Earned Income Tax Credit, Michael Boskin?s discussion of improvements in measuring inflation, Lawrence White?s analysis of changing views on anti-trust regulation over time, and the Asch, Miller and Warner?s discussion of how the military draft was ended and subsequent issues arising from that.? Each of these authors shows that basic propositions taught in any good principles of economics course can be harnessed to make the world work better and more efficiently. Generally speaking, the discipline and self-correcting properties of markets are stronger and more effective in allocating resources than rules-based command decisions made through the political process. Also, aligning incentives with socially desirable objectives pays.

Anne Krueger?s essay stands out in several respects. First, she very convincingly demonstrates that the move away from protectionist/import substitution policies in the 1950s and 1960s harnessed the spirit of enterprise and brought about enormous improvements in the standard of living for literally billions of people. And she appropriately notes that the underlying theory was not discovered by an National Science Foundation grant revealing huge insights, but essentially by the work of Adam Smith and David Ricardo a couple of centuries ago.

This gets to a problem. Economists sometimes get overwhelmed with their own self importance and claim more than they should. John Taylor writes a generally solid essay arguing that reductions in macroeconomic stability in modern times reflects in large part a move to a more intelligent understanding on the role of monetary variables in the economy. Taylor believes the evolution of new economic modeling in recent decades that combine rational expectations with some allowance for price stickiness has brought about enormous policy improvements.? Maybe, but I side with commenter Laurence H. Meyer (himself a former Federal Reserve Governor) whose views are ?the shifts in monetary policy … are due more to the rediscovery of classical monetary theory than to advances of modern macroeconomic theory. … classical monetary theorists had the story basically right? (p. 165).? The work of Milton Friedman outlined a half century ago — itself informed by still earlier work of quantity theorists and neglected practitioners like Clark Warburton — was far more important than modern-day theoretical refinements.

The less good essays stray a good deal from the stated mission of offering clear, concise explanations of using economics to deal with problems in a language an undergraduate student can understand. Alvin Roth?s paper on deferred-acceptance algorithms is filled with jargon, is exceedingly hard to follow, and deals, frankly, with a far less dramatic advancement in modern economics than improving price indices, promoting the power of comparative advantage, or the gains from transport deregulation.? Modest Roth is not — he cites nearly thirty papers he authored or coauthored in the bibliography.? The McAfee, McMillan and Wilkie piece on auctioning spectrum licenses deals with a moderately more important topic, but again gets into too many details of alternative bidding possibilities to be of interest to all but the most gung ho specialists.

Alas, I must come to the ?ugly? part of this book. This appears to be not simply a volume of essays to promote the practical dimensions of modern advances in economics, but more an effort to increase the income and prestige of economists relative to other scholars.? On page one John Siegfried assets, without a scintilla of supporting evidence, that ?the value of the improved policies documented in this volume is likely hundreds of billions of dollars.?? His agenda becomes clearer very shortly: ?Interestingly … only a few of the contributions outlined here have been financed or promoted through the private sector? (p. 3).? In other words, NSF economics grants have a huge payoff.? Charles Plott even goes further: ?the social value of the contributions of economics compares well with the contributions of basic research in any field of science.? (p. 6). ?This, of course, is a normative judgment without a scintilla of rigorous proof, measuring, for example, the rate of return on research in physics or biological sciences with that in economics or psychology (a point that even the NSF?s Daniel Newlon gently takes him to task on).

All and all, this reinforces my own feelings about our profession. For many, Physics Envy is a big cross to bear — the unwillingness to accept that economics is not considered as respectable as many of the so-called hard sciences.? This volume promotes the good economists have done, ignoring the policy disasters that economists have contributed to, for example, the stagflation of the 1970s, or, arguably, even the financial crisis of 2008 — where were economists in warning about subprime lending, excessive use of untried to financial instruments, etc? Where are we today in opposing stimulus packages that historical experience and economic theory alike say do not work?

But above all, the volume is all about rent-seeking — a plea to get more economics funding for the NSF and related agencies. It is amazing how much Adam Smith, David Ricardo, A.C. Pigou, Irving Fisher and Milton Friedman contributed to the advancement of human welfare without NSF funds. As Austen Goolsbee notes in a recent NBER working paper, more government grant funding inevitably increases economic rents because of the inherent short-term limits on the supply of good talent. If the authors had stuck to presenting the evidence without its obvious and overplayed commercial message, this would have been a far better volume.

?

Richard Vedder is Distinguished Professor of Economics at Ohio University. With Andrew Gillen, he has recently completed a manuscript ?Universities and Human Welfare? now under consideration at a major university press.

Copyright (c) 2010 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 (administrator@eh.net). Published by EH.Net (August 2010). All EH.Net reviews are archived at http://www.eh.net/BookReview.

Subject(s):Economic Planning and Policy
History of Economic Thought; Methodology
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII
20th Century: WWII and post-WWII