History Colloquium with St. Louis University's Eric Sears


On January 30, 2015, the Kinder Forum invited St. Louis University doctoral candidate Eric Sears to the MU campus to deliver the first History Colloquium Series lecture of the Spring 2015 semester. Sears’ talk examined competing explanations of the causes underlying the Panic of 1857, as well as the various nineteenth-century moral conceptions of labor that quickly made their way to the forefront of the economic conversation. On one side of the debate, Sears explained, responsibility for the Panic fell squarely on the overextended commercial banks of the North, whose lax credit policies, in particular, were to blame for the nation’s financial ruin. Moreover, he noted, anti-bank critics argued that the commercial banking system fostered a culture of extravagance and vice that stood in direct, ethical opposition to the American laborer’s culture of honest, frugal simplicity. On the other side of the debate, free labor advocates assigned blame for the Panic on the Southern slaveholding interest, with some going so far as to characterize the financial collapse as retributive justice for the nation’s toleration of chattel slavery. As these opposing moral and economic explanations took greater hold of the national consciousness, Sears argued, the Panic entered into the broader lexicon of political conflict, becoming an accelerant of sorts for sectional tension in the years leading up to the Civil War.