Land values soared. States splurged on new programs. Then it all went bust, bringing down banks and state governments with them. This wasn’t America in 2011, it was America in 1841, when a now-forgotten depression pushed eight states and a desolate territory called Florida into the unthinkable: They defaulted on debts.
This was an incredible step, even then. Fledgling U.S. states like Indiana and Illinois were still building credibility on global debt markets. They rightly feared “a prejudice so deep and wide” that they could never sell bonds in Europe again, said one banker.
Their paranoia would be familiar to the shell-shocked California and Illinois of 2011. Each is beset by budget problems so great that some have begun debating default or bankruptcy. These worriers may draw comfort from the state crises that raged and retreated long ago. Most of the states eventually paid off their debts, and changed their laws to safeguard their finances, helping make U.S. states some of the world’s best credits.
Congress, meanwhile, helped set a precedent that still holds: In 1843, it rejected an elaborate plan for a bailout, with one critic later observing it would “cause recklessness and extravagance” among the states. Surely, someone will dust off those ideas in 2011.