Sovereign Debt and Repudiation: The Emerging-Market Debt Crisis in the U.S. States, 1839-1843

John Joseph Wallis, Richard E. Sylla, Arthur Grinath III

NBER Working Paper No. 10753
Issued in September 2004
NBER Program(s):   DAE

In 1841 and 1842, eight states and the Territory of Florida defaulted on their sovereign debts. Traditional histories of the default crisis have stressed the causal role of the depression that began with the Panic of 1837, unexpected revenue shortfalls from canal and bank investments as a result of the depression, and an unwillingness of states to raise tax rates. This paper shows that none of these stylized facts fits the experience of states at all well. The majority of state debts in default in 1842 were contracted after the Panic of 1837; most states did not expect canal investments to return substantial revenues by 1841 and so could not experience unexpected shortfalls in those revenues; and, finally, most states were willing to raise tax rates substantially. The relationship between land sales and land values explains much of the timing of state borrowing and the default experience of western and southern states. Pennsylvania and Maryland defaulted because they postponed the imposition of a state property tax until it was too late.

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Document Object Identifier (DOI): 10.3386/w10753

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