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The Great Crash (of 1792)
The federal government handled it far better than it would later ones
May/June 1999 | Volume 50, Issue 3
Jefferson gleefully calculated the losses as equal to the total value of New York real estate at the time.
In the increasing frenzy of speculation, Duer was the center of all attention, and it seemed he could do no wrong. Many were only too anxious to lend him money in hopes of getting on the bandwagon, among them Walter Livingston, who lent him $203,000. To get some idea of how much money that was in 1792, consider this. In 1828, thirty-six years later, a roster of New York’s richest citizens was drawn up, and although the city’s population had nearly tripled by then, there were only fifty-six New Yorkers thought to be worth at least $100,000.
Duer began to buy other bank stocks for future delivery, betting that rising prices would enable him to pay for them when the time came. But among the people from whom he had acquired bank stock were several other members of the Livingston clan, who were operating quite independently of their kinsman Walter. And they had an interest in seeing that prices fell. To ensure this, they began to withdraw gold and silver from their bank deposits, contracting the local money supply and forcing banks to call in loans. In other words, they instituted a credit squeeze. Interest rates soared to as much as one percent a day.
This was ruinous for Duer and others who had borrowed to speculate. Duer desperately tried to borrow more to cover his obligations, but now there was none to be had. Despite his troubles, he maintained a bold front, as the desperate on Wall Street usually do. On March 22 he wrote Walter Livingston, “I am now secure from my enemies, and feeling the purity of my heart I defy the world.” A day later he was in debtors’ prison.
With Duer’s fall, panic ensued and prices plunged. The next day twentyfive failures were reported in New York’s still-tiny financial community. Walter Livingston, who had gone from door to door assuring anyone who would listen that he was still solvent, announced that he was not. Alexander Macomb failed in early April and was also incarcerated for debt.
Thomas Jefferson, hardly able to contain his glee at the discomfiture of the speculators he hated so passionately, calculated their total losses at five million dollars. He also calculated that this was the total value of New York real estate at the time and equated the losses to those that would have occurred had the city been leveled by some natural catastrophe.
For some of those caught in the debacle, it must have seemed they had indeed been hit by an earthquake. Many never returned to Wall Street. William Duer would never get out of debtors’ prison alive, and Walter Livingston retired to his family’s vast upstate property to lick his wounds.
But for the country as a whole, it was not nearly that bad, thanks to fast action on the part of the federal government. Hamilton moved to make sure that the panic did not bring down basically sound institutions. He ordered the Treasury to purchase several hundred thousand dollars’ worth of federal securities to support the market, and he urged banks not to call in loans. Furthermore, to ease the money shortage, he allowed merchants to pay import duties at the customhouse—which usually required either gold or Bank of the United States bank notes—with notes payable in forty-five days. Speaking of the Treasury and the banks, Hamilton wrote, “No calamity truly public can happen, while these institutions remain sound.”
He was right. Calm quickly returned to the Street, the precursor to the New York Stock Exchange came into being a few months later, and the American economy continued to expand rapidly in the prosperous 179Os. The reason is simple: Hamilton acted exactly as public monetary and fiscal authorities should in the midst of a financial panic. He prevented the contagion of fear from getting out of hand and assured that the panic would not have long-term adverse consequences to the American economy as a whole.
Alas, the lesson went unlearned amid the developing tide of Jeffersonian politics, which held Wall Street and all its works to be a necessary evil. It would be 195 years, until the great crash of 1987, before the federal government once again moved decisively to prevent a panic on Wall Street from turning into a financial disaster.
That is why the panic of 1987 is today, only twelve years later, nearly as forgotten as the first one in 1792. If the federal government has truly learned its lesson, perhaps 1987, not 1929, should be the new image for our collective imagination.