Alasdair Roberts is the Jerome L. Rappaport Professor of Law and Public Policy at Suffolk University Law School. In March, Roberts moderated a roundtable event at Suffolk (click for my report) in which participants such as Boston Police Department Superintendent-in-Chief Daniel Linskey discussed the police’s handling of the Occupy movement throughout the nation.
In April of this year, Cornell University Press published Roberts’s latest book, America’s First Great Depression: Economic Crisis and Political Disorder After the Panic of 1837.
Professor Roberts spoke to me by phone about his latest work.
Your academic credentials include a law degree from the University of Toronto and a Ph.D. in public policy from Harvard University. However, this book reads very much like the work of a professional historian, and in a good way! How much research did you have to do in order complete a monograph on what, in your own words, “might seem an obscure topic”?
I have done historical work previously in my career … A large part of my dissertation at Harvard was based on archival work about the New Deal and Progressive Era reforms in the United States.
As a native of Canada, how much American history did you learn growing up?
Well, you absorb a fair amount of American history, and of course, there’s a large amount of shared history. For example, in this book, there’s a discussion about the border troubles along what is now the Canada-U.S. border. That’s part of your history, but it’s a part of Canadian history as well.
You write, “The crisis of 1836-1848 does not loom large in the public consciousness — certainly not like the Great Depression of the 1930s …” Did it, however, loom large in the minds of 19th-century Americans?
I would think so, yeah. The 19th-century economy was much more turbulent than the economy we’ve experienced up until very recently. It was punctuated by a series of severe economic crises, and that decade would count as one of them.
How did what you call “America’s first great depression” compare in length and severity to the capital-G Great Depression?
Economists who attempt to do a kind of retrospective assessment of how the economy failed using conventional economic indicators have tended to suggest that actually the depression of the 1930s was more severe. But if you look at it a little more broadly, and look at social and political and diplomatic dislocation, I think the two crises are probably more comparable.
Indeed, you could argue that in some respects social and political instability was worse in the 1840s than it was in the 1930s.
Your previous books dealt with contemporary issues such as government secrecy in the digital age, the administration of George W. Bush, and global capitalism. What prompted you to turn back the clock 170-some years?
Blacked Out [the book about government secrecy] might be a bit of an outlier, but the other three books [including America’s First Great Depression] actually have a lot in common … This current book, even though it’s based a long time ago plays on many of the same themes that the three preceding ones did. It’s all about managing that tension between liberty and order in a country which is embedded in a global economy.
The idea of looking backward came to me because I was down in Washington [,D.C.] in 2009, listening to a government official talking about the predicament which he said the the United States was going to be in in the coming years … And he said that we as a country have never been in this position before. The moment he said that I thought, “No, that’s not right.”
Actually, for the larger chunk of American history, that’s been the predicament: how do you reconcile domestic aspirations with the constraints of a globalized economy. And that’s basically what this story is about, even though it is a very old story.
Of the build-up to the Panic of 1837, you write, “This was a real estate bubble, and eventually it would burst … The banks were poorly regulated and often indiscriminate in lending.” Should this seem eerily familiar to present-day readers?
Yeah, there is a similarity. The economy was booming, credit was very easy, there was a lot of foreign investment coming into the country because there was a perception that there were easy profits to be made. People were borrowing excessively, and then when the economy began to stabilize, it deteriorated very rapidly. So yeah, there is an analogy to our recent predicament.
Were the creations of the first police departments in America, including those in Philadelphia and Boston, direct responses the social unrest that resulted from the long-term economic consequences of the first great depression?
Yeah, I think it is. Because of urbanization, it probably would have been the case that governments in the major cities eventually established some kind of police force. But the fact that they established police forces when they did, in that period, was a direct response to the disorder that had been triggered because of the depression.
It was the intensity of the rioting in the late 1830s and early 1840s that made city governments realize that something had to be done to maintain order.
The events in this book took place as many as seven decades after the Declaration of Independence. Considering the United States’s reliance on Great Britain as a buyer of American cotton and a creditor, as well as America’s uneasy position as a military inferior, was this independence literally and figuratively just on paper?
There was an assertion of political independence, but of course there was economic interdependence, and economic interdependence complicates the claim of political independence. That’s what makes the period so interesting but also so complex.
During this time, the United States avoided military conflict with Great Britain over the Oregon Territory and certain other areas of disputed land. However, the U.S. seemed okay with going to war with Mexico following the 1845 annexation of Texas, to which Britain made no claim. Was this an attempt by the United States to show its military strength to Great Britain without having to actually fight it?
Britain’s main concern was maintaining good commercial relations with the United States and Mexico, particularly the United States … The impression was that a war with Mexico would be over quickly, if not immediately, and it didn’t raise any of the delicate problems that would have been raised by a potential war with Great Britain … I think there was a sense that a successful war with Mexico would restore American pride. Some commentators at the time said immediately after the conclusion of the Mexican war [1846-1848] that the most important result of that war was showing the United Kingdom and other countries in Europe what a powerful country the United States was.
How did the war with Mexico, which was lengthier and more expensive than originally estimated, payoff it in terms of how it advanced American political and economic interests?
It turned out very favorably for the States … In the longer term, one of the big advantages of the outcome of the war was the acquisition of all of this new territory, including California. In the short term, one of the immediate effect was helping to rehabilitate the United States in Europe, and in European financial markets, and giving a boost to American pride and self-confidence.