The Panic of 1857 and the Coming of the Civil War
Paul L. Huston, 1987

Huston examined the economic events leading up to the Panic of 1857 in a very cursory fashion, I thought, then spent a fair amount of time discussing political and press reactions to it. This led him to some conclusions about the role of the Panic in foregrounding some economic issues in the sectional debate that led to the Civil War, although Huston was quick to qualify these claims and placed them in a generalized “blame-everything-on-slavery” context. Interestingly, it seemed to me he missed the point that Republicans may have used this blaming technique as a way not only of focusing attention on issues they wanted to address, but also as a way of diverting attention
away from issues they wanted to ignore. The Lynn strikes, for example, were recast by Horace Greeley and others as an opportunity for western expansion that (darn those southerners!) was imperiled by expansion of the slave economy into the southwest. Republican “labor policy” included the claim that low wages were due to the “degradation of labor,” which diverted attention to the specific abuses of (rich Republican) capitalists, as well as to systemic problems caused by the growth of  corporate (as opposed to small-producer) capitalism. The irony is, early Republicans had warned of this but had been pushed to the sidelines.

Huston’s conclusion was that "Economic issues did not have to play a role in the election of 1860. By their own intransigence,” he said, “Democrats allowed Republicans to take advantage of the economic questions that the Panic had reinvigorated." Did they? Or does his story suggest that these economic policies were not hard-wired into either party's DNA, but were arrived at contingently and maybe a little bit opportunistically?

One thing that did come out clearly, was the sectional nature of the Panic of 1857’s impact. It had a much less lasting impact on the South and the Northeast than it did on the West. This was interesting, for my research. Also, the really clear causal role of wheat exports on the Panic and the impact of the Crimean War on overproduction and then collapse in the West, was very helpful to me. I wonder how much the rebound in grain shipments to Europe ("in the fiscal year ending June 30, 1859, the United States exported 3,002,000 bushels of wheat; in fiscal year 1860 the total was 4,155,000; but in the fiscal year ending June 30, 1861, the amount grew to 31,238,000.") influenced Western politics and the 1860 elections?