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Published by EH.NET (April 2010)

Robert E. Shalhope, The Baltimore Bank Riot: Political Upheaval in Antebellum Maryland. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2009. x+ 196 pp. $50 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-252-03480-0.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Howard Bodenhorn, Department of Economics, Clemson University.

On March 24, 1834 the Bank of Maryland, the oldest chartered bank in the state, closed its doors. Because the bank had paid interest on deposits, it had held the accounts of widow and orphan trusts, of mechanics, and of small retailers. Hezekiah Niles, published of Niles? Weekly Register, had been suspicious of the bank for some time and had confidentially warned friends before the failure to withdraw their money. After its failure, he was convinced that a great fraud had been perpetrated and that the working classes would bear the costs while the wealthy would suffer not at all.

Where Niles shared his suspicions about the bank directors? fraudulent practices with a few friends, Samuel Harker, editor of the Baltimore Republican, portrayed the bank?s directors, with typical Jacksonian literary flourish, as a species of swindlers who, through their frauds, had become tyrants, moneyed aristocrats and, ultimately, enemies of the people. When a report made clear the extent of the directors? speculations, a pamphlet war broke out between the former directors who initiated the speculations and those that had unsuccessfully tried to rein in the bank?s more egregious speculations. In modern parlance, the bank failure went viral. Circulars naming the guilty and exposing their frauds were posted in taverns and oyster cellars. Those same circulars claimed that the law could or would do little to hold the responsible directors accountable. The only practical solution was the Lynch law, the tar and feathers, and the rail. In the meantime, Harker?s Baltimore Republican continued to stir the pot and his language fueled a ?visceral rage among a great many Baltimoreans intent upon bringing such shameless men and institutions to justice? (p. 26).

Following three nights of public officials dispersing restive mobs, a riot broke out on August 8. One fascinating feature of the Baltimore riot, as with most early nineteenth-century riots, was the selective nature of the destruction and the mob?s use of popular democracy in choosing whose property to destroy. Once the Baltimore mob learned, for example, that the residence of one of the bank?s directors was owned by a widow and that the director was only a boarder, the mob elected to spare the widow?s house and move on. Similarly, the mob spared the house of a director who had publicly disclosed the other directors? fraud, crying out ?No! No! We have naught to do with honest men? (p. 66). The other directors? homes were not spared.

In the aftermath of the riot, Baltimore?s press turned from attributing blame for the bank?s failure to partisan exchanges about the social, political and economic conditions that had laid the foundation for the riot. To Whigs it was populist Jacksonianism run amuck. To Democrats the riot was indicative of the dislocations inherent in the market system and popular dissatisfaction with the market as arbiter. To the casual historian, the rhetoric is familiar and too easily dismissed as so much nineteenth-century partisan hyperbole. To thoughtful students of the era, episodes like the Baltimore bank riot afford opportunities to explore the extent to which political hyperbole had real meaning to the typical American of the day. Shalhope is clearly the latter type of historian and it is in his connection of the riot with larger contemporary themes that his book succeeds.

Historians have generally adopted one of three approaches in their studies of the Jacksonian populism. The first emphasizes ethnic and cultural conflict: the conflict between natives and immigrants, for example, or rural Protestants and urban Catholics. A second approach emphasizes the dislocations arising from the market revolution and Shalhope readily concedes the appropriateness of this interpretation at several points in the book. Early in the volume he tells us that violence erupted, in part, due to tensions ?between those adhering to traditional communal values and others immersed in business practices associated with an emergent market economy? (p. 2). The idea that nineteenth-century Baltimore working men shared some fundamental communal ethos follows, I think, from an overly romanticized interpretation of eighteenth-century American urban society. The hypothesis of a workingman?s backlash against the market is both too sweeping and too simplistic to have much meaning. This is why, like John Majewski, I remain skeptical of a Jacksonian ?commercial revolution,? or the utility of such a construction in advancing our understanding of the era.[1] Shalhope is on firmer ground, however, when he places the bank riot within the third interpretation of the era: Jacksonian politics followed from popular demands for fundamental constitutional and electoral reform.

Maryland?s Jackson era political debate focused on the 1776 state constitution, which envisioned a confederation of equal counties rather than an electoral system of proportional representation. Each county elected four representatives; Annapolis and Baltimore elected two each. Further, two electors from each county selected a fifteen-member senate. In joint session, the senate and assembly elected a governor who had appointive power. Once it became clear that, after the election of senate electors in September 1836, the Whig minority would have nearly as many votes as the Democratic majority a call went out for a constitutional convention. It was not long before discussions of the bank riot and the need for constitutional reform intersected.

Democrats took their charge to be the elimination of privilege, whether economic or political. When privilege could not be reined in through appropriate legal channels, it was right and proper to use extralegal methods (like riots) to eliminate it. Whigs found this argument ludicrous, and the idea that a riot spoke to the need for popularly elected government specious. It was nonsense, in republican Maryland, to invoke Locke?s admonition that people must resist tyranny by force when necessary. Nevertheless, the Whigs acquiesced to constitutional reform, including the popular election of senators and more proportional representation.

As much as I like Shalhope?s book, it is not without its shortcomings. First and foremost, he does not convincingly connect the dots between the bank riot and constitutional reform. Urban riots were common in the late eighteenth through the mid-nineteenth centuries and constitutional reforms occurred throughout the era. That a reform followed a riot does not, of course, imply that a riot caused a reform. Historians have investigated nineteenth-century constitutional reform and the causes are complex and remain incompletely understood. It is not surprising that an historian is unfamiliar with John Wallis?s recent studies of state constitutional reform, which is more the shame.[2] Wallis?s idea of the emergence of open order societies and the public backlash against government-subsidized economic development programs, including the privileged position of banks and bankers, may have gone a long way in connecting riot and reform in this instance. Despite this shortcoming, Shalhope has provided a valuable study of a previously understudied event and connected it to larger themes in contemporary politics. Anyone interested in the intersection of economic and political change in the era of Jackson would profit from reading this book.

References:

1. John Majewski, ?A Revolution Too Many?? Journal of Economic History 57 (June 1997), 476-80.

2. John J. Wallis, ?State Constitutional Reform and the Structure of Government Finance in the Nineteenth Century.? In Public Choice: Interpretations of American Economic History, edited by J. Heckelman, J. Moorhouse, and R. Whaples, Boston: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2000. John J. Wallis, ?Constitutions, Corporations, and Corruption: American States and Constitutional Change, 1842 to 1852,? Journal of Economic History 65 (2005).

Howard Bodenhorn is the author of two books and two dozen articles on early American banking, including ?Federal and State Banking Policy in the Federalist Era and Beyond,? in Founding Choices, edited by Douglas Irwin and Richard Sylla (University of Chicago Press, forthcoming 2011).