(All indented quotes are found in Devil Take the Hindmost: A History of Financial Speculation by Edward Chancellor, © 1999, A Plume Book. You should read this book if you are an investor and/or speculator, or if you are financially related to one.)
Not only was the “vast fund of stupidity”* a growth industry in the 1800’s, its companion fund, cupidity, was not a whit behind. The prior manias1 were dimly remembered, BUT this new century was unfolding as a unique and exceptional age BECAUSE the Railroad was unlike anything before. This time—THIS TIME—with the Railroad, “it was different.”2
Except of course, when it wasn’t.
Times (24 Oct. 1845): “A mighty bubble of wealth is blown before our eyes as empty, as transient, as contradictory to the laws of solid material, as confuted by every circumstance of actual condition, as any other bubble which man or child ever blew before.” (p. 140)
Journalist (1849): “All rule and order are upset by the general epidemic [of speculation], as in the Plague of London, when all ties of blood, honour, or friendship, were cast away.” (p. 139)
Benjamin Disraeli (British statesman, literary figure, & eventual UK-PM; as quoted in 1849): “[There was] commercial distress of unprecedented severity—private credit was paralysed, trade was more than dull, it was almost dead—and there was scarcely a private individual in this kingdom, … , who was not smarting under the circumstances of commercial distress …” (p. 143)
Nation (1873): Anyone who stood on Wall Street or in the gallery of the stock Exchange last Thursday, or Friday, and Saturday, and saw the mad terror, we might almost say, brute terror … with which great crowds of men rushed to and fro trying to get rid of their property, almost begging people to take it from them at any price, could hardly avoid feeling that a new plague had been sent among men, that there was an impalpable, invisible force in the air, robbing them of their wits, of which philosophy had not yet dreamt.” (p. 185)
Charles Francis Adams, Jr. (author, 1869) “ … probably no representative body were ever more thoroughly venal, more shamelessly corrupt, or more hopelessly beyond the reach of public opinion, than are certain of those bodies which legislate for republican America in this latter half of the nineteenth century. (p. 177n)
Alexander Dana Noyes (1938 re 1880s): “[There were massive frauds accompanied by] individual wrongdoing, of a kind and on a scale for which even the lax financial morality of those days provided no precedent.” (p. 187)
Letter to the Times (12 Jul 1845): “There is not a single dabbler in scrip who does not steadfastly believe—first, that a crash sooner or later, is inevitable; and secondly, that he himself will escape it. When the luck turns, and the crack play is sauve qui peut, or devil take the hindmost, no one fancies that the last mail train from Panic station will leave him behind. In this, as in other respects, ‘Men deem all men mortal but themselves.’” (p. 136)
Times change, but human nature does not. And so the FUNDS grow.3 And the sinking sense of déjà vu prevails. THUS, woe is the world as bubbles float on with technology-assisted rapidity and with increasingly manic attempts to catch them before they burst!
* A quote from Cato’s Letters, January 1721. See http://dejavu-times.blogspot.com/2011/03/vast-fund-of-stupidity-recycling.html
1. Reference: The Tulip Mania (1637), John Law’s Mississippi Bubble (1720), the South Sea Bubble (1720), the mining and canal crazes (1790s and beyond), and scores of lesser manias.
2. The four most expensive words in the English language are “this time it’s different.” (Attributed to Sir John Templeton and quoted in Chancellor’s book at page 191.)
3. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Economic_bubble for some of the many latter-day bubbles.