Mises Daily: Monday, December 23, 2013 by Christopher Westley
The Democratic Party gained prominence in the first half of the nineteenth century as being the party that opposed the Second Bank of the United States. In the process, it tapped into an anti-state sentiment that proved so strong that we wouldn’t see another like it until the next century.
Its adversaries were Whig politicians who defended the bank and its ability to grow the government and their own personal fortunes at the same time. They were, in fact, quite open about these arrangements. It was considered standard-operating procedure for Whig representatives to receive monetary compensation for their support of the Bank when leaving Congress. The Whig Daniel Webster even expected annual payments while in Congress. Once he complained to the Bank of the United States President Nicholas Biddle, “I believe my retainer has not been renewed or refreshed as usual. If it be wished that my relation to the Bank should be continued, it may be well to send me my usual retainer.”
No wonder these people were often pummeled with canes on the House floor.
It is little wonder that early Democrats garnered such popular support and would demand Andrew Jackson end America’s experiment with central banking. Jackson called it “dangerous to the liberty of the American people because it represented a fantastic centralization of economic and political power under private control.”
It’s hard to believe that guy who said that is now on the $20 bill.
Jackson also warned that the Bank of the United States was “a vast electioneering engine” that could “control the Government and change its character.” These sentiments were echoed by Roger Taney, Jackson’s Treasury Secretary, who talked of the Bank’s “corrupting influence” and ability to “influence elections.”
(The Whigs would later get revenge on this future chief justice when Abraham Lincoln, in response to a written opinion with which he disagreed, issued his arrest warrant.)
But the courtship between the political classes and their cronies would continue in the decades following Lincoln’s assassination. Those politically well-connected groups that benefited from early central banking continued to benefit from government finance, especially off of “internal improvements,” which is the nineteenth-century term for pork. National banking would appear during the War Between the States, setting in place a banking system in which individual banks would be chartered by the federal government. The government itself would use regulations backed by a new armed U.S. Treasury police force to encourage the banks’ inflation and protect them from the market penalties that inflation would otherwise bring them, such as the loss of specie and the occurrence of bank runs.
The boom and bust cycle, explained by the Austrian School in such detail, became worse and worse in the period leading up to 1913. And with the rise of Progressive Era spending on war and welfare, and with the pressure on banks to inflate to finance this activity, the boom and bust cycles worsened even more. If there was one saving grace about this period it would be that banks were forced to internalize their losses. When banks faced runs on their currencies, private financiers would bail them out. But this arrangement didn’t last, so when the losses grew, those financiers would secretly organize to reintroduce central banking to America, thus engineering an urgent need for a new “lender of last resort.” The result was the Federal Reserve…