The United States and the Problem of Recovery after 1893

By Gerald T. White | Go to book overview
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More than forty years ago I wrote a doctoral dissertation entitled "The United States and the Problem of Recovery after 1893." Recently I returned to this topic, stimulated in part by kind words that have been said or written about the dissertation in the intervening years. I have worked through the relevant literature since my dissertation, much of it from the field of economics, including the significant contributions of Charles Hoffman, Rendig Fels, and coauthors Milton Friedman and Anna Schwartz. My reflections on both the new and the old have resulted in the modified study presented here.

My interest centers less on economic analysis than on the patterns of contemporary popular thought with respect to the problems of depression and recovery following the panic of 1893. Viewed in this perspective, we can note that for the first time the national government took action in response to partisan and group pressures to try to bring about economic recovery. These actions marked a step along the route from laissez-faire toward the general welfare state. The ideas lying behind the actions were not entirely new. Indeed, if they had been, they would have been unacceptable, for they would have required too great a leap in popular thought. Rather, they emerged out of the historic political debate between debtor and creditor and between high- and low-tariff partisans. Ordinary conventions of thought received a special potency because of the hopes and fears engendered by the depression. Creditors believed that the maintenance of the stability of the purchasing power of the currency and a gold reserve adequate to keep all forms of currency on a parity with gold were essential to recovery. For debtors, especially in agriculture, the key to recovery lay in inflation through the restoration of the free coinage of silver at the historic ratio of sixteen to one. For Republican partisans a high protective tariff provided the only sure means for recovery.

In response to human suffering in the depression, other ideas were advanced, including public works for the unemployed, the limitation of the size of crops, and government intervention in


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