Decades of crisis: The uncanny similarities of the 1830s and 1930s

On Maryland History

October 01, 1990|By Peter Kumpa

MARYLAND, along with the rest of the country, suffered and dTC struggled through the bitter decade of the 1930s. But a century earlier, the state stumbled through some of its most painful crises. The same decade in both centuries saw economic depression, labor troubles with serious strikes and bank failures that ruined small depositors -- all against a background of political warfare between the rich and the rest of society.

Those two decades were not, of course, carbon copies of each othPeterKumpaer. But the similarities are striking. The 1930s witnessed a persistent lag in the economy. A century earlier there were swings in the economic cycle marked by financial panics, particularly in 1837 when hundreds of businesses failed. Immigration, mainly by the Irish and Germans, continued to bubble through Baltimore. That spurred ethnic conflict, with newcomers pitted against the settled workers, particularly free blacks.

A squeeze on wages promoted a movement to the West, like the Dust Bowl of the 1930s that moved farmers from their land. Some city businesses profited from the movement, making wagons and providing supplies for the great trek over the mountains.

The rural areas of Maryland, like the Eastern Shore, sank into a long-term recession that went on for decades. Farmers suffered from continued low prices, and the market towns settled into a long-term malaise. When the huge Warren cotton mills burned, 700 workers lost their jobs and sank into poverty. The Union Manufacturing Company closed its cotton mills and several hundred more workers joined the army of the poor. At one time, half of all printers in Baltimore were out of work.

Other trades suffered as well, but in 1833, when attempts were made to cut wages there were strikes by journeyman hatters. Mechanics followed suit, either striking or threatening to strike, most seeking the glory of a mere 10-hour working day from April to September without a cut in pay. A Baltimore Trades' Union, with both economic and political goals, was formed in 1833. It fell apart in the harsh fallout from the 1837 panic.

The entire decade was marked by a high degree of social violence. Baltimore, for example, went through a strange, three-month spree of arson that began in February 1835. No individual or group seemed responsible. There appeared to be no pattern, no political or other motive as the "firebrands" went wild. A chair factory was burned -- then the notable Athenaeum, with its law offices, its library and its organ. The costly Mechanical Institute was next.

Newspapers cried that matters were growing worse and worse as part of the courthouse blazed while attempts were made to burn a church, the female orphan asylum, the Friends Meeting House on Lombard Street and a newspaper office. When a row of stables was torched, four firefighters were killed when a stall caved in on them. The arson binge didn't stop until fires were set at the newspaper, the watch house and at two engine companies.

The violence of the decade wasn't limited to the city or the state. Law and order seemed to be breaking down as gamblers were hung by a mob in Vicksburg, Miss. A Catholic convent burned in Massachusetts. A black was lynched and burned in St. Louis while the abolitionist, Elijah Lovejoy, was killed when a mob attacked his newspaper in Alton, Ill. In 1835 alone, the nation recorded 35 serious riots, many tied to an increase in abolitionist activity.

If the first crisis of Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal was a banking crisis that forced the closing of banks and a reorganization of the system, the debate over banking in the administration of Andrew Jackson was the central ideological battle. Jackson was furious at the Bank of the United States, a chartered national monopoly. He opposed any governmental privilege to the few and the wealthy, whether it was Nicholas Biddle's bank or a tariff or a some special improvement project that didn't help all the people equally. He believed that the very foundation of liberty and the Union was threatened by greedy money-makers and speculation.

"It is to be regretted that the rich and powerful too often bend the acts of government to their selfish purposes," wrote Andrew Jackson in his message to Congress in July 1832 when he vetoed a recharter of the Bank of the United States. "Many of our rich men have not been content with equal protection and equal benefits, but have besought us to make them richer by act of Congress."

The bank issue was the heart of the 1832 presidential campaign. "The Jackson cause is the cause of democracy and the people, against a corrupt and abandoned aristocracy," roared Francis B. Blair, editor of the Globe, a Jackson propagandist.

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