The Panic of 1857

At the end of August 1857, little more than a month after the Dead Rabbits riot, the New York branch of the Ohio Life Insurance and Trust Company suddenly closed its doors. It soon transpired that the putatively rock-solid institution had been deftly looted by its manager, Edwin C. Ludlow. Worse, it had made loans with abandon to speculators playing the stock market—and done some gambling itself in railroad stocks, which had been gliding steadily downward. Since the Crimean War had ended the previous year—restoring Western Europe’s access to Russian grain—demand for American wheat had dropped steadily, shipments east had tapered off considerably, and railroad earnings (and stock prices) had dipped disappointingly. Farmers and merchants too had been squeezed; by the spring of 1857 metropolitan merchants found it difficult to collect on midwestern debts.

In August, unfortunately for Ohio Life, European farmers harvested a bumper crop, and the sudden glut threatened to further depress world farm prices. Worried midwestern businessmen had begun telegraphing New York banks, including Ohio Life, asking for the return of their surplus funds (which they had, as was customary, parked in the metropolis to garner high interest rates). Ohio Life, courtesy of Mr. Ludlow, was caught short, and the firm failed, leaving behind seven million dollars in debts. But Ohio Life had not been the only New York financial institution shoveling out shakily secured loans—indebtedness had reached an all-time high earlier in August—and many Manhattan banks had loaned funds to Ohio Life. Now, finding themselves suddenly and dangerously overextended, the banks panicked. Terrified that soon other institutions (or even their own) might be proved rotten, they demanded payment of all matured loans from all their debtors. In the ensuing fiscal sauve quipeut, “stony-hearted directors and inflexible cashiers” refused (as George Templeton Strong noted) to make loans on promissory notes or bills of exchange, despite pitiful pleading from straitened merchants, and went so far as to demand certified checks from even the bluest of their blue chip customers. The banks thus jammed on the credit brakes at precisely the moment businessmen were in direst need of accommodation. The financial institutions, especially banks newly hatched during the boom, saved themselves but forced merchants into bankruptcy.

Panic spread quickly. “The Foundations of financial confidence appear to have been knocked from under the Stock and Money markets,” worried the Times. In the days that followed, hundreds of other firms failed as well, and panicky brokers were observed pummeling one another with their fists on the floor of the Stock Exchange. Each day brought new lists of failures or suspensions, with each misfortune posted in large type on the bulletin boards in front of newspaper offices, attracting crowds. Handbills with the latest lists of broken banks and suspect banknotes were cried about in the streets by boys at “a penny a piece.”

Depositors lined up to withdraw gold. By mid-September the specie reserves of New York banks had shrunk from $94.5 million (in August) to $75.8 million. Desperate to augment their holdings, they demanded payment from stockbrokers of call loans, exacerbating the crisis at the Exchange, and pressed small banks in the interior for payment, generating a widening pool of failures. New York bankers hoped a forthcoming gold shipment from California would relieve the pressure, but just at the moment when everyone was scrambling for specie, and a heavy payment was due English creditors, word came that the steamer Central America had gone down on September 12 in a terrible hurricane, with the loss of four hundred passengers and crew, and $1.6 million worth of precious metal. The catastrophe precipitated a new wave of failures.

Now the banking system itself began to buckle. Philadelphia’s institutions suspended—refused to honor their legal commitment to redeem paper for gold—and banks across the nation were forced to follow suit, with legislators duly authorizing their actions. As credit dried up, manufacturing and transport wound down, construction ceased, produce was neither demanded nor shipped, and prices of western staples and southern cotton plummeted. By the first week of October, the nation’s trade was at a standstill. Only New York banks held out, and they were under siege, with tens of thousands of noteholders thronging Wall Street demanding redemption. “We seem foundering,” Strong wrote on October 10. “People’s faces in Wall Street look fearfully gaunt and desperate.”

The “excitement today is fearfull,” Brown Brothers officials advised their London partners on October 13. “Some banks have stopped and we don’t know whether the balance can hold out.” Broadway omnibuses were packed with people trying to get downtown. By three P.M. eighteen banks had suspended specie payments, and crowds milled from Water to Broadway, numb with fear and disbelief. Prices plunged on the stock market as investors dumped thousands of shares in a vain race to stay ahead of the avalanche. As sell orders were telegraphed to exchanges elsewhere, the crisis spread like a “malignant epidemic” across the country. Soon almost half the brokers on Wall Street, including Jacob Little, were wiped out.

The “bursting of bubbles in New York,” the Chicago Tribune had soothed at first, “need not alarm anybody in the West,” for regional prosperity rested on solid foundations. But as the panic radiated outward from the metropolitan center, howls were heard


Wall Street, Half Past 2 O’clock, October 13, 1857, by James H. Cafferty and Charles G. Rosenberg. Among the nervous bankers and brokers gathered outside the Merchants Exchange are Cornelius Vanderbilt, on the far right with a walking stick, and Jacob Little, in the light coat, center. (© Museum of the City of New York)

around the country. The New Orleans Crescent railed against New York—“the centre of reckless speculation, unflinching fraud and downright robbery”—the city whose “rotten bankruptcies” were “permeating and injuring almost every solvent community in the Union.” The impact proved far greater than that, however.

The panic soon reached London and Paris, affecting more than a third of the stocks traded on Lombard Street and the Bourse. In Britain, only Bank of England intervention held the line. Modern communications sped the panic along to northern Germany, then Scandinavia, leaving a trail of bankruptcies and unemployment. From Europe, the crisis hopscotched back across the Atlantic to South America. Though the ensuing depression had many causes, New Yorkers could (had they wished) have taken a perverse pride in having managed to trigger a crisis of the entire world capitalist system. Karl Marx, then ensconced in the British Museum writing the Grundrisse, forerunner to Das Kapital, was ecstatic. To Friedrich Engels he wrote: “Despite my financial distress, I have not felt so cozy since 1848.” Engels’s response was similarly gleeful: “The general aspect of the Exchange here was most delicious in the past week. The fellows grow black in the face with rage at my suddenly rising good spirits.”


Spirits recovered rapidly on Wall Street, however, as suspension of specie payments, in freeing banks from the pressure of their own creditors, gave them time to bolster their reserves. This they did with dispatch, and by December 14 New York had gone back on a hard money standard. Several financiers had meanwhile seized the opportunity to profit from the failure of others: Moses Taylor, president of City Bank, gobbled up railroad stocks and the city’s largest gas company; Commodore Vanderbilt began to move in on financially troubled railroads, starting with the New York and Harlem, a course that within a decade would make him master of the mighty New York Central; and his partner-to-be Leonard Jerome became a millionaire by the simple expedient of selling short during the crisis.

For everyone else in New York, however, the recession was just getting under way. By December 985 merchants had failed, with losses totaling $120,000,000, and the shock waves from their collapse had toppled many other kinds of enterprises.

J. A. Westervelt and Company defaulted; one of the city’s largest shipbuilding firms, it was headed by a former mayor. Maritime construction collapsed in general, laying off between two-thirds and three-quarters of the city’s shipbuilders. The clipper ship industry, already weakened by tremendous competition from railroads and steamers, would never recover from the panic, and the city’s merchant marine, which lost federal subsidies in 1858, went into steady decline, losing much of its mail, passenger, and freight traffic to British rivals within a few years.

The New York and Erie Rail Road was forced into receivership, halting work on its Jersey City terminal. Foundries laid off hundreds of mechanics. Four-fifths of the city’s coopers lost their jobs. Textiles were badly hurt: the giant Hanford and Lewis collapsed, Brooks Brothers let go a thousand workers; the mantilla and cloak industry collectively laid off two thousand more. Garment workers who retained their jobs found their wages cut from $1.25 to eighty-five cents a day. Retailers suffered accordingly. “Almost every shop has its placards,” said Strong “announcing a great sacrifice, vast reduction of prices, sales at less than cost,” and, as in 1837, the stock of bankrupt tradesmen was snapped up by more fortunate merchants. Even “Chinamen who peddle cigars” and Italian “organ grinders” were hard hit, noted Bryant’s Post.

The communications world was pummeled. Putnam’s Magazine went under, and Putnam’s publishing house nearly followed, but Washington Irving helped rescue it by giving Putnam the plates for his Collected Edition. The printers’ union lost two-thirds of its members by 1858; female lithographers were virtually wiped out. Cyrus Field’s paper business suspended, and only his neighbor Peter Cooper kept him afloat.

The building boom halted abruptly, leaving even Fifth Avenue mansions half completed and masses of construction laborers out of work. Merchant princes cut costs by firing servants in droves. Seagoing black cooks and stewards found themselves drydocked in the Coloured Sailors Home—its proprietor wrote—given “the great revulsion in the commercial affairs.”

By September 1857 estimates of New York unemployment ran as high as forty thousand. By late October Hunt’s Merchant Magazine calculated the figure in Manhattan and Brooklyn had risen to a hundred thousand. As word on local conditions reached Europe, immigration damped down from 460,474 in 1854 to 123,126 in 1858.

Unions proved powerless to halt or slow the devastation. Indeed most laboring organizations broke up altogether, and trade union activity virtually ceased. Out-of-work mechanics pawned their tools; women their household goods, with one paper noting that “many a worthy home this winter will be half-stripped of the cherished things on which the good wife had prided herself.” Army recruiters were besieged by unemployed men. Women had no such option, though their need was greater—the contraction having cut female employment by almost half, versus 20 percent for males. At one point in midpanic, an advertisement ran for girls willing to work in the West, and within a week, over a thousand applied. Other “opportunities” lay closer to home: Dr. William Sanger estimated that the recession drove perhaps a thousand women to street whoring, and the numbers of women in prison rose accordingly.

Joblessness meant homelessness: adamant landlords turned out those who didn’t pay their rents. The AICP estimated that during three severe winter months of 1857-58 forty-one thousand were forced to seek shelter in police stations. Thousands more were forced out of respectable lodgings into crowded tenement apartments, and slum conditions surged. Industrial Home Owners Society Number One foundered in the hard times, as did many of the cooperatives, caught between soaring interest rates and assorted swindlers, and many participants lost their life savings.

One thing that did not collapse was the price of food, as the breakdown of the credit system prevented eastward shipments of western grain. Standing amid the economic ruins, even the AICP’s Hartley was forced to admit that New York “presented a more appalling picture of social wretchedness than was probably ever witnessed on this side of the Atlantic” and that “we were now brought to realize something of the distress which, at times, has often been experienced in European cities.”


Analyses of the crisis varied. James Waddell Alexander, pastor of New York’s largest Presbyterian church, announced that the panic was God’s work. Many Wall Streeters agreed and hied to their churches to pray for relief. By mid-winter, merchants and clerks were jamming lunch-hour prayer meetings at the local John Street Methodist Church. The Journal of Commerce encouraged more readers to participate: “Steal awhile away from Wall Street / and every worldly care, / And spend an hour about midday / in humble, hopeful prayer.” By February 1858 the noonday prayer meetings were attracting huge crowds. Soon a full-scale revival was in progress, an urban camp meeting in which bookkeepers and bankers, their wives, and their children huddled together and sang the old hymns, trying to create an island of stability amid the economic storm.

Horace Greeley adopted a structural explanation, though lacing his economic analysis with a dose of moralism, and the Tribune editor’s listing of presumed causes is all the more impressive for having been issued in the summer of 1857, several weeks before the collapse. One of the country’s biggest problems, Greeley argued, was its excess of imports over exports, an imbalance he believed had been fueled by the buying binge of luxury-mad New Yorkers (and other Americans), who expended millions “in fine homes and gaudy furniture” and “hundreds of thousands in the silly rivalries of fashionable parvenus in silks, laces, diamonds.” These purchases had been made possible, Greeley further suggested, by the booming sale of railroad securities and the tremendous levels of speculation in stocks and real estate (“government spoilations, public defaulters, paper bubbles of all descriptions”).

The ill effects of this adverse balance of payments, the fiscally astute James Gordon Bennett noted, had been staved off by exporting California gold and importing European capital. But this precarious equilibrium had begun to wobble in the mid-1850s, when Europeans had begun to cut back sharply on investment in the midwestern railroad boom. Capital transfers to the United States dropped from fifty-six million dollars in 1853 to twelve million dollars in 1856. Partly this was in intelligent response to signs of an overheated American economy; the Barings started to liquidate their holdings after the 1854 mini-crisis, and British funds shuttled into less speculative, often more remunerative English securities. The money was also needed at home for imperial expenses: the Crimean War, campaigns in China and Persia, and the suppression of the Indian Mutiny of 1857. The selloff helped drive down the price of shares on the New York Exchange, which in turn weakened the American banking system by reducing the value of assets supporting it. Bennett feared that the drying up of European capital might force the railroads into bankruptcy, then drag down the poorly capitalized banks. “What can be the end of all this,” he wrote before the crisis, “but another general collapse like that of 1837, only upon a much grander scale? The same premonitory symptoms that prevailed in 1835-6 prevail in 1857 in a tenfold degree.”

Bennett, Greeley, and many others put particular emphasis on the overbuilding of the railroad system. The expansion had been at the core of prosperity but the free-forall way the job was done undermined that prosperity. Railroad company promoters issued vast amounts of watered stock, way beyond what actual assets or dividends could support. Legislatures were pressured (or bribed) into granting charters, buying bonds, and donating land to underwrite the construction of unnecessary and overlapping lines. Promoters formed construction companies and awarded themselves contracts, siphoning off profits.

The superheated expansion—pointed out J. S. Gibbons in his 1859 postmortem, The Banks of New-York, Their Dealers, the Clearing House, and the Panic of 1857—had been underwritten by a too liberal granting of credit, engineered by the new banks and the booming Stock Exchange. Between 1851 and 1853 alone, twenty-seven new banks had been established, most of whose aggregate capital of over sixteen million dollars was fictitious book debt. Nevertheless, the banks attracted new deposits, upon which they issued additional credit, until by August 1857 over forty million dollars were out in loans, a good two-thirds of which Gibbons deemed ill advised.

Easy money encouraged speculation: as the boom wore on, greater profits were to be won by financing, promoting, and speculating in railroads than by building them. “All confidence is lost, for the present, in the solvency of our merchant-princes—and with good reason,” wrote Strong, as “it is probable that every one of them has been operating and gambling in stocks and railroad bonds.” Speculation spilled easily into manipulation; men like Jacob Little made fortunes in short selling, arranging rumors to drive stock prices down, and then clean up. (Bennett’s warnings were in part ignored because he was associated with Leonard Jerome, who, as a bear, stood to benefit if stock prices were driven down by gloomy prognosticators.) From manipulation to straightout corruption was but a short and easy step. Editor Freeman Hunt grew convinced that it was now necessary “to deal with every man and woman, so far as business is concerned, as if they were rogues.”


New Yorkers disagreed on how to respond to the crisis. On October 21 a thoroughly alarmed New York Times wondered if perhaps the metropolis needed a civic hero to rescue it—a Louis Napoleon who would put the unemployed to work rebuilding the city into a second Paris. The very next day, Mayor Fernando Wood, with at least one eye on the upcoming elections, volunteered for the role, proposing to the Common Council that the city both accelerate existing projects and launch new ones. Specifically, he urged the municipal government to build and grade streets, construct engine houses and police stations, repair docks, construct a new reservoir, forge ahead swiftly on the new Central Park, and buy fifty thousand barrels of flour, and a similar amount of cornmeal and potatoes, to be given to laborers on the public works in lieu of money. The cost of this crash program would be covered by issuing long-term 7 percent bonds, redeemable in fifty years.

To mobilize the upper classes behind this agenda, Wood argued that it was in their self-interest. Only swift action could prevent another 1837 riot or 1848 Paris-style upheaval. “Give no man excuse for violence or depredation upon property, that he must have bread for his children,” Wood counseled. “If the present want of employment continues many must rely upon either public or private charity, and I fear that not a few will resort to violence and force rather than submit to either of these precarious and humiliating dependences.”

At the same time, Wood appealed to the affluent’s sense of responsibility, in language (echoing his 1854 remarks) that was also calculated to demonstrate his sympathy for the poor. “In the days of general depression,” Wood argued, workers “are the first to feel the change, without the means to avoid or endure reverses. Truly it may be said that in New York those who produce everything get nothing, and those who produce nothing get everything.” “Is it not our duty,” Wood asked, “to provide some way to afford relief?”

Some merchants supported his program, if not his rhetoric. John Dix, a prominent railroad financier who knew where of he spoke, acknowledged that men of his class had engaged in frenetic speculation, were partly to blame for the panic, and had a responsibility to help their innocent victims: though he condemned the mayor for inflammatory language that might “excite the laborer against the capitalist, the rich against the poor.”

Others totally rejected the proposal. The Evening Post castigated its political premise: “Despotic governments do incur such obligations,” Bryant’s paper said, “but our republican system of government. . . incurs no obligation to take care of the vicious and the thriftless and improvident.” The notion that the state should provide work, the Post fulminated, was “one of the most monstrous doctrines ever broached in revolutionary France.” There was, perhaps, a duty “to relieve the poor and to succor the distressed,” but that was “a Christian duty, not a political duty.”

For all the talk of succoring the distressed, the rich—held firmly in check by the Association for the Improvement of the Condition of the Poor—did less of it than ever. The AICP loathed Wood’s proposals, fearing his “words would excite the harassed unemployed rather than allay their fears and lead to humble forbearance.” Hartley was determined that in 1857, unlike 1854, almsgiving would be kept in private and tightfisted hands. He successfully blocked formation of independent ward relief committees, which freed him from having to set up rival AICP branch offices in working-class neighborhoods. He was thus able to force the unemployed to travel to a central office, where trained personnel imposed rigorous means tests, which three-fourths of those applying for aid failed. Though eight thousand families were given assistance in October this was 25 percent fewer than had been helped in the previous prosperous year, a statistic of which Hartley later boasted. The AICP also made some ineffectual efforts to find jobs for the unemployed with farmers outside the city; and Charles Loring Brace of the Children’s Aid Society, too, urged the jobless be directed “into one great channel—that of EMIGRATION.” But Hartley’s main suggestion was that the laboring classes “bear with manliness what they must bear.”


Albert Komp, James McGuire, and Ira B. Davis thought differently. In October 1857 Komp, an associate of Joseph Weydemeyer’s, gathered together some fellow radical forty-eighters into a Kommunisten Klub, which in turn helped revive the dormant Amerikanische Arbeiterbund. The Germans then joined forces with McGuire, an Irish labor leader, and Davis, an old Loco Foco man and cooperative movement activist, in an effort to organize the unemployed of all nations. As McGuire said, “If one man suffer, it don’t matter whether he is an all American or a foreigner—they all suffer.”

This working-class movement claimed state assistance as a right, not as charity or patronage, a call that resonated powerfully even amongst nonsocialists, especially in an Irish immigrant community profoundly scarred by the recent Great Hunger. As the Irish News wrote: “When famine stares fifty thousand workmen in the face—when their wives and little ones cry to them for bread, it is not time to be laying down stale maxims of economy, quoting Adam Smith, or any other politico-economical old fogy.”

Tired of upper-class bickering while the crisis deepened, the revived American Workers League announced a “work and bread” demonstration to protest the Common Council’s failure to act on Mayor Wood’s suggestions. On November 5 four thousand radicals, unionists, and land reformers gathered in Tompkins Square and marched to City Hall Park behind a banner emblazoned ARBEIT!(work). While a speaker perched on the fountain basin pointed out that “ladies throng Broadway every day buying silk robes, while the wives and children of honest laborers are starving,” a “Mass Petition for the Unemployed” was presented to Mayor Wood.

“Every human being has a RIGHT to live,” it declared, “not as a mere charity, but as RIGHT, and governments, monarchical or republican, MUST FIND work for the people if individual exertion prove not sufficient.” Specifically the unemployed demanded a program of public works at a guaranteed minimum wage, aimed at launching the new Central Park, sewering the city’s streets, “or any other public works so indispensable for the sanitary condition of the people and the comfort and safety of the wealthy themselves.” They also called for municipal construction of low-income housing on city-owned land and for an injunction against evictions of the unemployed. When Wood responded he would give the petition to the aldermen the following week, a spokesman named Bieler said of the massed jobless outside, “We cannot warrant that, their patience being exhausted, they will not help themselves by employing physical power with its accompanying brutalities.” Thus prompted, Wood passed on the plea that evening, and the councilmen announced they would advertise for bids to undertake the project of leveling Hamilton Square.

The next day, November 6, the fight was carried to Wall Street. A procession of five thousand chanting, “We want work,” trooped to the steps of the Merchants’ Exchange and demanded bankers lend funds to businessmen who would employ the poor. Workingmen, a blacksmith named Bowles warned, did not intend to starve while tens of millions in specie was lying unused.

Crowds were bigger than ever on Monday, November 9, and demonstrators flooded into City Hall itself. Councilmen agreed to authorize a $250,000 bond issue for Central Park but rejected further direct relief. Wood, himself troubled by the growing throngs, now decided to post police guards around government buildings and—remembering 1837—the flour warehouses. The next day, when another mass meeting at Tompkins Square dispatched a delegation to confer with the mayor, it found City Hall Park ringed by three hundred police and stocked with a brigade of militia. A few blocks further south, moreover, the federal government had deployed soldiers and sailors under Mexican War hero General Winfield Scott to guard the Custom House and Sub-Treasury Building.

Despite the array of armed might and editorial calls to “shoot down any quantity of Irish or Germans” necessary—“Rioters, like other people, have heads to be broken,” cried the Herald, “and bodies to be perforated with ball and steel”—thousands again swarmed into Tompkins Square, and this time some of the desperately hungry broke discipline and launched a bread riot, seizing bakers’ wagons and invading food shops. Increasingly, however, protesters redirected their attention uptown, gathering in front of Superintendent Frederick Law Olmsted’s office carrying white muslin standards reading WORK/ARBEIT and WE WANT WORK and demanding men be hired from their ranks. The park commissioners, however, were also inundated with four thousand letters from job seekers, and in conjunction with local politicians they proceeded to divide up the patronage positions among this vaster body. By January 1858 a thousand men had been set to work clearing debris from the site; ten months later twenty-five hundred were so employed; by the following year, on a peak day in September 1859, thirty-six hundred were laboring away.


The winning of job openings—together with the patent inability to wrest further assistance from city government—dissipated the protest movement. By the end of November 1857, the crowds in Tompkins Square had virtually disappeared, and so had the massed police and military presence. Nevertheless, Wood’s combination of class rhetoric and public welfare cost him his remaining elite support. He was now, in their eyes, thoroughly identified with the subterranean city (“the canaille” in Strong’s word).

Days after the first demonstrations, and a scant three weeks before the December 1 election, powerful merchants in the Democratic Party’s inner circle bolted. Men like August Belmont, John A. Dix, William Havemeyer, and John Van Buren made common cause with Republicans, former Know-Nothings, and leaders of the old civic reform movement like Peter Cooper. A Wall Street mass meeting of merchants, industrialists, and bankers—claiming “our metropolis is the worst governed city in Christendom”—nominated Almshouse Governor Daniel F. Tiemann, a Democrat and wealthy German-American paint manufacturer, to run against Wood. Disgruntled Tammanyites (including William Tweed) were happy Tiemann was of their party, Republicans liked his opposition to slavery, and Know-Nothing men applauded his well-known nativism (tempered by a German background).

Spurned by the upper class, Wood garnered support from the organized workers. Ira B. Davis denounced the Wall Street Democratic renegades, noting that none had objected when the state government bailed out the banks: apparently what was “virtuous in them” was “a crime in Mayor Wood or the workingmen.” At a meeting in Steuben Hall on November 26, James McGuire announced: “We mean to make labor the plaintiff and capital the defendant.”

In the December election, Wood carried the heavily German and Irish eastside wards, but enough Democrats deserted him (especially in Tweed’s ward) to narrowly cost him the election. The fusion coalition’s 51.4 percent to 48.6 percent victory was probably aided as well by Republican state-appointed election inspectors, who closed the polls before workmen could leave their jobs to vote.

Over the next two years, business conditions slowly improved. Specie stocks rose as gold shipments began arriving again. Credit eased, and trade expanded steadily if unevenly, with far stronger European demand for cotton than for wheat. Foreign capitalists cautiously began buying securities again, though foreign laborers remained bearish and immigration stayed low. With a reviving economy—by spring 1859 the worst was clearly over—the labor movement girded itself to restore wages to their prepanic level. A new German labor federation was established in 1859, paced by cabinetmakers and pianomakers, and it embarked on a series of strikes.

Still, the fierce animosities the panic had fanned subsided for the moment, muted by exhaustion, political catharsis, and rising public and private employment. But the divisions the crisis had illuminated did not knit themselves up; fear and rancor smoldered, awaiting only a new crisis to rekindle them. It was not long in coming, for even as New York was congratulating itself for having survived the economic maelstrom, a political hurricane was about to slam into the city.

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