Reevaluation and Reflection

It appears as though my worst fears have come true. Going into this project, on the Panic of 1819 in Williamsburg, I was well aware that there was almost no writing on the subject. Now I know why:  after nearly a month and a half spent in the Swem Library at William and Mary and at the Rockefeller Library in Williamsburg I have found almost nothing substantive about Williamsburg during the 1810’s and 20’s.  What little I have found has been entirely qualitative- mainly descriptions of the city and its inhabitants.  I know almost nothing about the city’s economy during the period, which of course prevents me from writing seriously about the depression in Williamsburg. However, I have still learned quite a lot through my research, much of it quite useful and interesting

First of all, I learned that Williamsburg was not a good place to live in the early nineteenth century. It was scarcely populated, poor, and ridden with pestilence (for an in-depth discussion of the city during this period see the blog post I made on June 6).  It had lost the prestige it had once earned as a colonial capital, and visitors treated it with derision and pity. Although I have no numerical data to speak of , the written historical record does make it appear as though conditions in the city became noticeably worse after the Panic of 1819 and during the subsequent depression of the early twenties.

While I may not have learned much about the financial impact of the Panic on Williamsburg, I did learn a great deal about its effects on the College of William and Mary. The financial crash occurred during the incompetent bursarship of William Coleman (whose books are famously imbalanced), and took a terrible toll on the College. The College’s income during this period relied principally on loans made out to alumni and the revenue from the generous amount of land that accompanied its royal charter. When the Panic came, it wiped out many of the College’s debtors and made the school’s land almost worthless. In order to survive the college was forced to sell of much of its land holdings at rock-bottom prices. By 1824, the school was practically in ruins.

Finally, my research brought me to the writings of Thomas Roderick Dew. Dew, a William and Mary graduate, worked as a professor at the College from 1827 to 1836, and then served as its President from 1836 to his death in 1846. Today, he is perhaps best remembered for defending slavery on the floor of Virginia Legislature during the debates on the subject in the early 1830’s. But Dew also wrote extensively on Political Economy, and attempted to create “a generation of intolerant disciples of free trade” as Michael O’Brien writes in Conjectures of Order, his monumental study of antebellum southern intellectuals.  Dew had been a graduate student at William and Mary during the Panic, and had seen firsthand the terrible effects that the depression had on his beloved school. In his works on Political Economy, Dew relentlessly attacks international trade barriers and the tendency of banks to hoard gold and silver. Not coincidentally, the Panic of 1819 is largely blamed don a breakdown of international trade caused by protectionism combined with a huge effort by the Bank of the United States to acquire as much specie as possible.

It is on this subject that I now plan to write:  the Political Economy of Thomas Roderick Dew and the Panic of 1819. Although I can no longer work on what I had originally planned to write about, this new article still fulfills my original goal: an in-depth work of both economic and local history. I believe that I will benefit from this narrower focus, and will try to spend the rest of my time here this summer writing about this subject.

Comments

  1. It seems you dealt with these challenges admirably! I have found your blogs to be quite interesting, the early 19th century is a period of American history I feel as though has been significantly neglected in all of my American history education growing up. Thanks for sharing!