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America's First Great DepressionAmerica's First Great Depression

Economic Crisis and Political Disorder after the Panic of 1837

Alastair Roberts

Narrated by Kevin Young

Available from Audible

Book published by Cornell University Press

For a while, it seemed impossible to lose money on real estate. But then the bubble burst. The financial sector was paralyzed and the economy contracted. State and federal governments struggled to pay their domestic and foreign creditors. Washington was incapable of decisive action. The country seethed with political and social unrest. In America's First Great Depression, Alasdair Roberts describes how the United States dealt with the economic and political crisis that followed the Panic of 1837.

As Roberts shows, the two decades that preceded the Panic had marked a democratic surge in the United States. However, the nation's commitment to democracy was tested severely during this crisis. Foreign lenders questioned whether American politicians could make the unpopular decisions needed on spending and taxing. State and local officials struggled to put down riots and rebellion. A few wondered whether this was the end of America's democratic experiment.

Roberts explains how the country's woes were complicated by its dependence on foreign trade and investment, particularly with Britain. Aware of the contemporary relevance of this story, Roberts examines how the country responded to the political and cultural aftershocks of 1837, transforming its political institutions to strike a new balance between liberty and social order, and uneasily coming to terms with its place in the global economy.

Alastair Roberts is the Jerome L. Rappaport Professor of Law and Public Policy at Suffolk University Law School in Boston, Massachusetts. He is also a Fellow of the U.S. National Academy of Public Administration. He is the author of The Logic of Discipline and Blacked Out: Government Secrecy in the Information Age.


“For the first 50 years after achieving independence, Americans had every reason to believe theirs to be the most fortunate of nations. Then came the Panic of 1837, which caused a hopelessness rendered worse by the optimism that had preceded it and resulted in a crisis that lasted until 1848.... Alasdair Roberts reveals how this disaster led to epochal shifts in policy and culture, and his lively narrative and commitment to character ensure that the human cost is never out of sight. Roberts is especially keen to demonstrate how this mid-19th century ordeal relates to America's current woes. The 'hard times' of the 1830s led to financial ruin for state governments, a near-cessation of federal aid, and an outbreak of violent protests in many major cities. ”

Publishers Weekly

“Roberts examines the financial, political, and social upheavals that occurred in the United States in the decade following the Panic of 1837, which he calls the First Great Depression.... Parallels to the country's current economic recession are clear throughout the text, and Roberts makes explicit comparisons in his conclusion. This timely book will be of great use not just to students of economic history but also to readers who wish to find historical precedent for today's uncertain, turbulent times.”

Library Journal

“Roberts's book is based on careful archival research that is quite uncommon in the study of public administration anywhere.... He dubbed his method the macrodynamics of administrative development, which is somewhat visible in Leonard White's four-volume administrative history and, more important, acknowledges the need of attention for both human agency and institutional context.... The book is well written and in my view an attractive example of how administrative history informs the present.”

American Review of Public Administration

“Roberts makes a valuable contribution to the scholarship of nineteenth-century economic downturns and their impact upon American society. He succeeds in showing that the Panic had a significant ripple effect through American society and that these historical examples can serve as useful references as Americans deliberate how best to recover from the damage caused by the 'Panic of 2008.' Importantly, Roberts illustrates how a severe economic downturn impacts a society well beyond just the world of finance. We should hope that merica's First Great Depression will be a catalyst for further examination of nineteenth-century business cycles and economic downturns.”

Essays in Economic and Business History

“The parallels between pre-industrial America's 1837 financial crisis and that of our own time are particularly strong. The beauty of Roberts’s book is that the reader can see the entire arc of the crisis, from beginning to end, in a historical context.... Roberts nicely combines narrative history with analysis. His book is accessible to both the expert and the novice in economic history. Highly recommended.”


“Alasdair Roberts has written a thoughtful and timely book about how Americans in the past responded to global economic and political forces beyond their control. Roberts masterfully reinterprets the period for historians, but his goal is not primarily historical. Political scientists, policymakers, and citizens have much to learn from the economic crisis following 1837.”

Political Science Quarterly

“Roberts provides a striking picture of the decade's economic woes, drawing extensively on contemporary commentaries from both sides of the Atlantic and informed by a vivid sense of American geography…. The author of a damning critique of the Bush White House, as well as books on government secrecy and on the architecture of neoliberal regulation, he is not an economist but a scholar of public administration. A principal aim of America’s First Great Depression is to assess the political outcomes of the economic turmoil, at both domestic and international level: what were its effects on the nascent party system, on tensions between states’ rights, federal efficacy and executive power, on territorial expansionism?”

New Left Review

“Alasdair Roberts has written a concise and commendably readable book that shows clearly and well just how devastating the Panic of 1837 was for the United States.... Roberts has written a highly successful and comprehensible book that puts the early takeoff years of American capitalism in their proper international context. It is a noteworthy achievement.”

Pennsylvania History

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