Wall Street, Banks, and American Foreign Policy

by Murray N. Rothbard

This first appeared in World Market Perspective (1984) and later as a monograph published by the Center for  libertarian Studies (1995). Afterword By Justin Raimondo.

Businessmen or manufacturers can either be genuine free enterprisers or statists; they can either make their way on the free market or seek special government favors and privileges. They choose according to their individual preferences and values. But bankers are inherently inclined toward statism.

Commercial bankers, engaged as they are in unsound fractional reserve credit, are, in the free market, always teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. Hence they are always reaching for government aid and bailout.

Investment bankers do much of their business underwriting government bonds, in the United States and abroad. Therefore, they have a vested interest in promoting deficits and in forcing taxpayers to redeem government debt. Both sets of bankers, then, tend to be tied in with government policy, and try to influence and control government actions in domestic and foreign affairs.

In the early years of the 19th century, the organized capital market in the United States was largely confined to government bonds (then called “stocks”), along with canal companies and banks themselves. Whatever investment banking existed was therefore concentrated in government debt. From the Civil War until the 1890s, there were virtually no manufacturing corporations; manufacturing and other businesses were partnerships and had not yet reached the size where they needed to adopt the corporate form. The only exception was railroads, the biggest industry in the U.S. The first investment banks, therefore, were concentrated in railroad securities and government bonds.

The first major investment-banking house in the United States was a creature of government privilege. Jay Cooke, an Ohio-born business promoter living in Philadelphia, and his brother Henry, editor of the leading Republican newspaper in Ohio, were close friends of Ohio U.S. Senator Salmon P. Chase. When the new Lincoln Administration took over in 1861, the Cookes lobbied hard to secure Chase the appointment of Secretary of the Treasury. That lobbying, plus the then enormous sum of $100,000 that Jay Cooke poured into Chase’s political coffers, induced Chase to return the favor by granting Cooke, newly set up as an investment banker, an enormously lucrative monopoly in underwriting the entire federal debt.

Cooke and Chase then managed to use the virtual Republican monopoly in Congress during the war to transform the American commercial banking system from a relatively free market to a National Banking System centralized by the federal government under Wall Street control. A crucial aspect of that system was that national banks could only expand credit in proportion to the federal bonds they owned – bonds which they were forced to buy from Jay Cooke.

Jay Cooke & Co. proved enormously influential in the post-war Republican administrations, which continued their monopoly in under-writing government bonds. The House of Cooke met its well-deserved fate by going bankrupt in the Panic of 1874, a failure helped along by its great rival, the then Philadelphia-based Drexel, Morgan & Co.

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