America in 1857: A Nation on the Brink

By Kenneth M. Stampp | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 8
Flush Times and an Autumn Panic

On the first day of autumn Robert C. Winthrop, descendant of John Winthrop, conservative Whig politician, and gentleman scholar, sat at his desk in his comfortable Boston home and considered the state of the Union. For almost a month, no doubt, he had been reading daily accounts in the local press of a series of economic calamities that had startled the country and produced a condition of near businessó paralysis: a sharp decline of prices on the New York Stock Exchange, merchants in distress, banks in dire peril, railroads facing bankruptcy, land values collapsing, factories reducing their operations or shutting down, the ranks of the unemployed steadily growing. The news was all the more dismaying when it appeared that some of the men who controlled the failing enterprises, once respected for their probity, were guilty of unethical business practices, a few even of outright peculation. In a gloomy letter to a friend, Winthrop reflected the current widespread feelings of disillusionment and despair. "For myself," he wrote, "I am afraid that my moralizings do not do me much good, and may be only the result of disordered nerves or a bad digestion; but the world never seemed to me a less hopeful place than in this month of September, in the Year of our Lord 1857." 1

How sadly these sentiments contrasted with the economic euphoria evident in the business community and in the editorial columns of the urban press a few months earlier! The buoyant boosterism of the Cincinnati Enquirer as recently as June typified the general optimism at had prevailed during the previous decade of prosperous growth. Cincinnati, it proudly claimed, presented to the world "a picture of progress heretofore unknown to the history of cities." Having grown in a half-century from a small village to a thriving city with a population of 115,000, its "solidity and continued prosperity" had become "matters of special

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