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Panic of 1873

A major economic reversal began in Europe and reached the United States in the fall of 1873. The signal event on this side of the Atlantic was the failure of Jay Cooke and Company, the country’s preeminent investment banking concern. The firm was the principal backer of the Northern Pacific Railroad and had handled most of the government’s wartime loans, using a widespread sales campaign back by advertising to sell bonds to people who had never before owned securities.

Cooke’s fall touched off a series of events that encompassed the entire nation. The New York Stock Exchange was closed for 10 days. Credit dried up, foreclosures were common and banks failed. Factories closed their doors, costing thousands of workers' jobs. The volume of destitute people soon overwhelmed the abilities of charities to function. Most of the major railroads failed.

The public tended to blame President Grant and Congress for mishandling the economy. The causes were much broader, however. The postwar period was one of frenetic, unregulated growth with the government playing no role in curbing abuses. More than any other single event, the extreme overbuilding of the nation’s railroad system laid the groundwork of the Panic and the depression that followed. Recovery was not realized until 1878.

In addition to the ruined fortunes of many Americans, there developed from the Panic of 1873 bitter antagonism between workers and the leaders of banking and manufacturing. This tension would erupt into the labor unrest that marked the following decades.

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