The Anti-Rent Era in New York Law and Politics, 1839-1865

By Charles W. McCurdy | Go to book overview

5
Depression-Era Constitutionalism

Almost every index of economic activity plunged to a record low in 1842. Wholesale prices and the volume of bank loans continued their downward slide for the third consecutive year. Railroad stocks fell to less than half the value that prevailed in 1839. Construction all but ceased on transport facilities, manufactories, and housing—the most visible manifestations of the mid-1830s boom. Real-estate values collapsed, especially in the West. Land in Chicago retained only 14 percent of its market value just six years earlier; Bessie Pierce's study of the city's newspapers led her to conclude that “practically all of the leading business men of 1836 were either bankrupt or greatly impoverished by 1842.” Hundreds of cotton-belt planters packed up their slaves and fled to the Republic of Texas, where judgment creditors could not reach them. Arthur H. Cole, an unusually perceptive economic historian, wrote that the trough of 1842 must have been “the more depressing by the reason of its slow arrival … [and] must have seemed to the merchants of the day torpor itself when compared with the feverish activity of 1836.” 1

The economy's long downward slide had a pronounced effect on public policy. When the Whig Party failed to enact its recovery program during the special session of Congress in 1841, Democrats had an alternative course of action at the ready. Its foundation was hard money. Aiming their salvos at state legislatures in the South and West, where banking corporations had suspended specie payments in violation of contractual obligations to noteholders imposed by their charters, Democratic publicists called for the annihilation of noteissuing banks. “Require the immediate redemption, in gold and silver, of the notes banks have now in circulation,” Orestes Brownson thundered in early 1841. Decisive action by the state legislatures, which breathed life into the offending institutions in the first place, would shut down the suspended banks and “restore the currency to the constitutional standard” of gold and silver. Brownson conceded that “this … bold measure,” standing alone, might “caus[e] great suffering.” In Chicago, for example, most people were both

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The Anti-Rent Era in New York Law and Politics, 1839-1865
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Studies in Legal History *
  • Title Page *
  • For Sharon *
  • Contents vii
  • Tables and Maps *
  • Preface xiii
  • The Anti-Rent Era in New York Law and Politics, 1839–1865 *
  • 1 - Governor Seward and the Manor of Rensselaerwyck 1
  • 2 - Whig Reconnaissance 32
  • 3 - The Politics of Evasion 56
  • 4 - The Trouble with Democrats 78
  • 5 - Depression-Era Constitutionalism 104
  • 6 - Signs of War 128
  • 7 - Resistance and Reform 156
  • 8 - Political Crossroads 182
  • 9 - A Cacophony of Voices 205
  • 10 - Democratic Futility 234
  • 11 - Whig Resolution 260
  • 12 - Enmeshed in Law 287
  • 13 - The End of an Era 316
  • Notes 337
  • Index 387
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