The Devil’s Usurer: An Interpretation of The Devil and Tom Walker as a Cultural Response to the Economic and Legal Climate of the Era of Good Feelings and the Long 20’s

The Devil and Tom Walker is an American Short story written by Washingtong Irving, first published in 1824. It has become an classic American story and rests with The Devil and Daniel Webster as one of the definitive adaptations of the Faustian Myth in American Culture and the Western Canon. This essay will attempt to show how The Devil and Tom Walker can be interpreted as a critique of the American Banking and Legal systems that arose in the Wake of The War of 1812 and into “The Era of Good Feelings” as well as to show how the economic and legal practices of the United States during this period of time can seen as a deal with the Devil and that they would ultimately lead to ruin for the United States. The First Section of this Essay will show that the relationship between Tom Walker and his termagant wife is analogous to the relationship between the United States and Britain during the 1810’s and 1820’s. The second section will show that the character of Tom Walker is strongly characterized to represent the American Economy during the period. The third section will suggest that the money lending business chartered by Tom Walker and Black-Legs is symbolic of the chartering of the Second Bank of the United States and the results of the McCulloch V. Maryland Case. The fourth section will discuss Tom’s lending practices as representative of the economic climate of this era. The fifth section will discuss the Black-Leg’s desire for Tom to turn slave-trader in order to portray the New England cultural mood against slavery in the early 19th century. The sixth section will discuss Tom’s spendings after acquiring wealth and cultural addresment of issues over internal improvements. The seventh section will discuss the panic of 1819, specie, and the death of Tom Walker. The purpose of this essay is not to assert that The Devil and Tom Walker was written in order to critique legal, cultural, economic, or any other practices of the period. Scholarship remains divided as to the true meaning of this piece, and ample evidence can show that the the story is a critique of 18th century New England culture and society, or that the definitive purpose of the piece is to discuss the nature of greed. The only suggestion about The Devil and Tom Walker that I will make in the conclusion of this essay is that due to the connections between the story and American Culture at the time of publication, The Devil and Tom Walker resonated with the literate American public and drove its popularity. 

I. Tom Walker and the Termagant

“About the year 1727…there lived near this place a meagre, miserly fellow, of the name of Tom Walker. He had a wife as miserly as himself; they were so miserly that they even conspired to cheat each other.” (Irving, 1)

The relationship between Tom Walker and his wife is not pleasant. Portrayed as a den of avarice, deceit, and treachery the home constructed by these individuals falls very short of the patriarchal system that existed and was dominant in the colonial period. The cultural norm of the period was a system of family units led by the head and master man of the family, that did not begin to erode until the turn of the century. Standing in stark contrast to the long-held societal structure, Tom and his wife are constantly quarrelling over the meager wealth of their estate. 

“Whatever the woman could lay hands on she hid away; a hen could not cackle but she was on the alert to secure the new-laid egg.”(Irving, 1)


“Her husband was continually prying about to detect her secret hoards, and many and fierce were the conflicts that took place about what out to have been common property.”(Irving, 1)

Whereas it could be argued that the characterization of Tom and his wife are indicative of the destruction of the Jeffersonian Republic dream of the Yeoman farmer that would erode in New England as the 1800s drew on, Tom is not written to be a farmer, the have no children, and Tom Walker is not shown to be a member of a community of citizen patriarchs that conducts his business in the public forum of his community. A more fitting view of Tom and the termagant would be to identify the relationship as representing the United States and Britain. The feuds between miserly Tom and his distrusting avaricious wife echo the struggles between the two Nation-States. The relationship from the mid 18th century into the 19th century is anything but pleasant. 

“They lived in a forlorn-looking house that stood alone and had an air of starvation. A few straggling saving-trees, emblems of sterility, grew near it; no smoke ever curled from its chimney; no traveller stopped at its door.” (Irving, 1)

This sentiment was felt in the wake of the War of 1812. Having fought now two wars to gain independence from Britain the United States was in a struggle for freedom against an oppressive entity that sought to pillage the fruits of its labor. Drew McCoy’s An Unfinished Revolution: The Quest for Economic Independence in the Early Republic describes the tension between the United States and England as the United States tried to break free from economic dependence on England after they had asserted their political independence. 

“[A]lmost four decades after the Treaty of Paris, in the wake of a second war for independence that he had judged largely successful, the speaker of the House of Representatives talked as if little had really changed since the time of his birth. Try as they  might to disguise the truth, his fellow Americans remained a curious hybrid of a nation. They formed in fact “commercially slaves.” As Clay so eloquently and urgently pleaded in 1820, it was high time for the United states to forge the economic autonomy it had long sought but was still denied.“ (McCoy 131)

The economic autonomy Clay and other politicians of the time desired as they strived to create the American System would not be possible under the thumb of Britain. Two wars and decades of political, legal, and economic conflict gave an unpleasant mood to the relationship between the two. Decades of conflict that mirror the miserly relationship of the inhabitants of the Walker home. 

“Tom’s wife was a tall termagant, fierce of temper, loud of tongue, and strong of arm. Her voice was often heard in wordy warfare with her husband; and his face sometimes showed signs that their conflicts were not confined to words. No one ventured, however, to interfere between them.”(Irving, 1)

Tom’s wife, the tall strong, and quarrelsome tyrant of the Union dominates the relationship; always seeking to pull a profit from the hands of her partner would have been seen to readers of the short story as analogous to the tyrannical monarchy the fledgling colonies and shaken Nation-States that struggled do economically develop . 

“Clay’s vision of an “American System” actually began before the Revolutionary war for political independence. The nonimportation movements of the 1760s and 1770s were significant in part because they “bliged the colonist to thought about the possibility of an economy that would not be colonial,” and in the ideology that informed them could be found “the glimmerings of a future national economic policy.” (Mccoy 131)

Tom is stated to be a miser, but pitted against a more miserly, a more terrible, and a more greedy woman, he is sympathetic. An abused man at the hands of an oppressive regime, thus becoming sympathetic, though fraught with problems. For all the arguments and internal conflicts in the United States two wars for independence showed that the United States would unite against a common enemy, and so Tom as a flawed man represents the young United States, flawed, but struggling against a partner who sought to cheat it. Supporting McCoy’s work in showcasing the United States’ efforts to push off England’s dominance Andrew Shankman in chapter thirteen, John Quincy Adams and National Republicanism, of A Companion to John Adams and John Quincy Adams  argues that the United States largely failed to push off England’s influence.

“By 1807 it was clear that the United States could not assert its right on the ocean as an independent and neutral nation. Britain, in particular harassed American ships, impressed American sailors and sought to dictate in which foreign ports the nation could trade. In response, Jefferson’s administration sought to demonstrate the critical importance of American agricultural exports by imposing a national embarge for one year on all imports and exports. The JEfferson administration expected to show that the european nations at war could never hope to feed themselves unless they earned access to American agriculture by acknowledging the Republic’s international rights.” (Shankman – Adams 263)

Despite failure to become independent on the world market, efforts to develop an internal American market proceeded. 

“Visionaries such as Alexander Hamilton and James Madison wanted “to transform the still colonial economy of the United States by directing the industry and productivity of its citizens’ ‘ toward the “balanced self sufficiency” that would provide the security that mere political independence had not. Stimulating the development of domestic manufactures was, of course, the key and Morgan’s content lists of 1787 hoped to promote this end by a judicious regulation of forigen commerce. Their vision of a balanced economy, Morgan concluded stretched backward and forward through time.” (McCoy 132)

Failure to be free of the cheating schemes of his wife was the life of Tom Walker, but his fortunes change when he meets Black-legs, and correctly identifies him as the devil. At their first meeting they speak of the lost gold of Captain Kid. 

“The old stories add, moreover, that the devil presided at the hiding of the money, and took it under his guardianship; but this, it is well known, he always does with buried treasure, particularly when it has been ill-gotten. Be that as it may, Kidd never returned to recover his wealth; shortly after seized at Boston, sent out to England, and there hanged for a pirate.”(Irving, 1)

Black-legs offers Tom the use of this gold. He does not initially accept any deals and determines to think the matter over. When the details of the encounter are shared with his wife, the mind of the termagant is consumed.

“All her avarace was awakened at the mention of hidden gold, and she urged her husband to comply with the black man’s terms, and secure what would make them wealthy for life.”

With the wife as a representation of England, her avarice can seem to be justified. Kidd was a Scottish pirate who pillaged and plundered his way through the oceans of the British Empire, stealing British wealth away to supposedly hide it in the colonies.. The reclamation of England’s stolen wealth and property was of chief concern. Already England had waged two wars to reclaim its colonies, but unsuccessful sought rather to trade with the new nation that existed under its thumb. 

“Following independence, American expectations of unparalleled prosperity, which had often been euphoric, were abruptly dashed. The inevitable adjustment of the economy to the new conditions of indepence was fraught with difficulties.”(McCoy 136)

The unparalleled prosperity McCoy speaks of is the treasure of Kidd. Available at a cost, and difficult to achieve. If England could not directly conquer and dominate her husband in order to achieve the wealth it had so close at hand, the termagant determined to claim it for itself. 

“At length she determined to drive the bargain on her own account, and, if she succeeded, to keep all the gain to herself.”(Irving, 3)

The termagant fails, and disappears from the story, and “In 1816 Congress passed the nation’s first protective tariff(Shankman – Adams 263)” in order to protect its interests and promote its own economy. Focused on developing an American System where self sufficiency and internal manufacturing were promoted Tom’s reaction to the loss of his wife is succinct. 

“Let us get hold of the property,” said he, consolingly, to himself, “and we will endeavour to do without the woman. Tom consoled himself for the loss of his property, with the loss of his wife, for he was a man of fortitude. ”(Irving, 3)

An attitude that would have resonated with a people who were now free from the economic lechery of a dominant trading partner. Though not representative of the whole of the American public, the 1816 tariff was passed and American wealth was to be increased. 

“At Ghent, Quincy Admas and Clay sought to consolidate this development, believing that the Republic’s strength and safely lay with a shift from near total reliance on foreighn markets to a domestic market with the concomitant development of internal commerce and manufacturing.” (Shankman -Adams 265)

With a protective Tariff in place to ward off the influence of England and the other European powers from American markets the United States could go about exploiting the wealth hidden beneath the soil that was so close at hand. 

“Thus the quest for national economic independence, as Clay defined it, ultimately focused on the issue of employment. No country that depends on precarious – or even worse, fictitious- foreign markets for the requisite stimulus to productivity was either healthy or entirely free. Employment had to be generated at home, and America must ponder carefully their options.” (McCoy 135)

Tom is not shown to be employed in any particular business of trade and the state of their land would show that even if they were in an agrarian business, for subsistence or other gains, they were not meaningfully productive. And so gainful employment and meaningful production become the goal of Tom Walker now that he is free of the termagant. 

II. The American Economic System 

“Such was the opening of this interview, according to the old story; though it has almost too familiar an air to be credited. One would think that to meet with such a singular personage in this wild, lonely place would have shaken any man’s nerves; but Tom was a hard-minded fellow, not easily daunted, and he had lived so long with a termagant wife that he did not even fear the devil.”(Irving, 2)

The untapped bounty held beneath the soil of the United States furthered the dreams of the Jeffersonian plan for unhindered westward agricultural expansion. The American System of Clay and other politicians furthered this dream of tapping the soil to produce a stable American system. 

“Acutely conscious of population growth and diffusion, Madison imagined an independent economy tied more to vigorous landed and commercial expansion than to the promotion of extensive and advanced forms of manufacturing. Geographical expansion was necessary to offset the pressure of America’s demographic explosion, which always threatened to create conditions for heightened populating density with dangerous levels of inequality and landless poverty.” (McCoy 138)

And in their interview the devil echoes that promise. 

“The black man told him of great sums of money buried by Kidd the pirate under the oak-trees on the high ridge, not far from the morass. All these were under his command, and protected by his power, so that none could find them but such as propitiated his favor. These he offered to place within Tom Walker’s reach, having conceived an espical kindness for him.”(Irving, 2)

The espcial place for the United States to claim the bounty of natural wealth perhaps stolen from foreign clutches fed the dreams of the founding fathers to create a more perfect union  based upon localized agrarian economies and westward expansion. 

“No one could dispute the monumental significance of abundant sustenance. As republuican tradition taught, only the man who could feed himself was politically free. Having direct access to the productive resources of nature conferred the necessary measure of individual independence that defined the republcian citizen.” (McCoy 133)

And it was the republican citizens that were to be promoted with the natural wealth so soon to be given to Tom Walker, the American Economy. 

“The american system was intended to produce a sizable domestic market by diversifying the nation’s economy. Emerging National Republican such as Quincy Adams and Clay took seriously the notion that they were living in a new epoch….. The solution was to create a vibrant domestic manufacturing sector.” (Shankman-Adams 268)

But the process was not as simple as unearthing buried gold. Returning to the swamp where he first encountered Black-Legs after the disappearance of his wife, the formerly excited devil all but ignores Tom’s advances to rekindle their talks. 

“He was affected to receive Tom’s advances with great indifference, made brief replies, and went on humming his tune.  And it is only through hard work and persuasion that Tom is able to bring about a resumption of the talks of fortune. 

By degrees, however, Tom brought him to business, and they began to haggle about the terms on which the former was to have the pirate’s treasure.”(Irving, 3)

Tom’s attitude and greedy eye for the gold and wealth he was formerly promised brings about his aggression, and he pushes the issue though he knows what the conclusion of the deal will net him. His attitude is not dissimilar to the way that the united states carried about the bolstering of its economy. 

“An aggressive nation state promoted policies that artificially produced the nation’s economy and society away from its natural pastoral and agricultural condition, and so in the process placed republican institutions in grave jeopardy.”(Shankman-Adams 268)

Through their actions toward creating the American System, the American Economy was dancing dangerously close to ruin. Men like Joseph story, men seeking to promote business and mercantile expansion furthered this attitude in the fledgling independent market of the United States. R.Kent Newmeyer characterizes Story in Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story Statesman of the Old Republic.

“He saw and empathized. Commerce and enterprise were second nature to him, part of the questioned values instilled by time, place, and family. His mother was the daughter of a merchant-shipper who descended from a line of ambitious, property grubbing folk. From the beginning his father’s family pursued the main chance. His brother William was a Boston entrepreneur- a “merchant,” not a mere “Mr.” His brothers-in-law and best friends, Stephen and Joseph White, were sea captains turned shippers. The Rebulican party he served so zealous as a young man was the party of aspiring, upwardly mobile entrepreneurs, and he served them also.“ (Newmeyer – Story 117)

The desire to serve the entrepreneurs, to develop american business, and promote unhindered the expansion of production are the was a dangerous arrangement fraught with haggling and compromise. Newmeyer speaks to the character of the law in this period as bent on increasing the economic development of entrepreneurial and industry minded men. 

“Law, it was assumed, should release and maximize individual energy and promote individual economic goals. No one wrote a treatise saying all this because it was commonly understood (and because treatise writers, among whom was Story, were so busy making law work that they had no time to theorize about what they were doing).”(Newmeyer -Story 117)

The years of development in which the entrepreneurial and economic minds were furthered can be seen as the haggling between Tom and the Devil, and Irving calls upon the nature of all Faustian tales in order to assert the end by which their deal will wrought.

“There was one condition which needed to be mentioned, being generally understood in all cases where the devil grants favors; but there were others about which, thought of less importance, he was inflexibly obstinate.”(Irving, 3)

That end was the selling of the soul. To a obstinately Christian world based upon the tradition of the west containing the legacy of christ, aristotle and other republican thinkers, to get in bed with the most primeval of demons would have been a strong cultural statement. It showed that although there was great wealth to be made, that the changes to the world the American Economy was shifting towards would perhaps be fraught with danger, and perhaps profoundly evil. 

III. A Devil-Chartered Entity

“[The Devil] insisted that the money found through his means should be employed in his service.”(Irving, 3)

The hidden treasures of Captain Kidd that Tom Walker so eagerly wished to profit from were in no way free, and in addition to the cost of his soul the money must be used for the Devil’s purposes. Many contentious debates of the 1810’s revolved around the actions of banks and the institution that was the Second Bank of the United States. The post-War of 1812 boom created an economic boom that drove banking that Daniel Dupre in The Panic of 1819 and the Political Economy of Sectionalism discusses. 

“High export prices fueled prosperity after 1815, but so too did the proliferation of banks. The war years laid the groundwork for that expansion; in 1811 only eighty-eight banks had been characterized in the United States, but that figure had grown to 208 by the beginning of 1815. Many had issued notes far in excess of their gold and silver reserves, especially in the mid-Atlantic and southern states.” (Dupre 270)

And per its design the Second Bank of the United States was chartered to keep a hold of and to moderate the local and pet banks that were proliferating as economic development spread throughout the United States. Shankman elaborates on Dupre’s discussion:

“Though public land sales and other business conducted with the national government using local bank paper, supporters of a new Bank of the United States reasoned that over time the national bank would accumulate a portion of the notes issued by the most active local and state bans. The new bank of the United States, then could regularly exchange those notes for species and the knowledge that the demand would come would force local and state banks to be judicious in their issuance of notes and not print new notes at values far beyond their actual specie holdings.” (Shankman – Adams 269)

And it is such an institution that the Devil Charters with Tom Walker.

“You shall open a broker’s shop in Boston next month,” said the black man. 

“I’ll do it to-morrow, if you wish,” said Tom Walker. (Irving, 4)

The 1727 setting of the short story relegates the Tom and the Devil’s actions to the creation of a brokerage, as brokerages at the time of the setting were more dominant and prolific economic entities. Additionally, the Devil chartering a bank with originally-English specie, may have hit the issue Irving was discussing too on the nose. If the brokerage chartered by the Devil is viewed as the 2BUS, then it resounds the sentiments that many felt over the creation of the bank. 

Problems with the 2BUS were numerous, many viewed it as an attack on the rights of the state, the national government infringing and crossing established boundaries, and a twisted manipulation of the purpose of the national government and the workings of what many may have silently believed to be the devil.  Not only were the practices of the 2BUS seen as an affront to the economic independence of the individual states, the mere existence of the bank, that the National Government could out of thin air charter and create a corporation holding the rights of an individual beholden and held accountable to only the national government was an grave intrusion and infringement of rights by those who believed that it was the role of the national government to stay out of the business of the individual states. However, the legal climate that was emerging in this age supported such actions. Supreme Court Judges such as Story and Marshall wrote into case law how corporations were to act, and the legal systems that would come to dominate the 19th century ratified their decisions.”

“I defining this relationship the Court sponsored the corporation as a system of power and conditioned its entry into the ideology of free enterprise. It was here that Story made his mark. The occasion was Dartmouth College v Woodward, which concerned the public character of the corporation and the role it would plain in American history: Would the corporate device take its legal character from the individual who constituted it? If so, it would fall heir to the rights of private property so solicitously protected by American law, leaving the legislature only limited authority over the corporations it created. Or was the corporation public in character, on the primes that such a grant of power could be justified only if it were? If public in nature teh corporation might be subject to legislative regulation in the public interest. Much was at stake. If the business corporation were subject to legislative regulation, then investors might be reluctant to buy stock. But if private capital were protected absolutely, the new concentration of economic and political power might subvert the public interest. The issue in short was whether American law (and American ideology) would trate the business corporation as the ividual entrepreneur writing large or a revolutionary new social force.” (Newmeyer – Story 129)

The Dartmouth v Woodward case defined that not only did a corporation exist in a private capacity, but it held the rights of those who chartered and made up the entity, imaginary as it may be. 

“It was logical that the corporation should take on some of the attributes of the individuals who constituted it. The process of bestowing personality on the corporate form had ancient roots in Western law, and American judges continued the process almost without questioning it. Marshall showed the way in the Bank if the US v Deveaux which dealt with the right of a corporation to sue in federal courts. A corporation was an invisible artificial creation of the law, admitted the chief justice, but it was also the individuals who composed it, and those individuals had right that attached to the aggregate.” (Newmeyer – Story 135)

And not only did Story and his fellow lawmakers assert that imaginary corporations did exist as real entities, that they indelled them with the ability to function as citizens. 

“But if the individual citizen’s rights to sue could be extended to the corporation, why not other individual rights? Why not extend the right to hold and freely use property as well? THis is precisely what the Court did in its Dartmouth College decision.”(Newmeyer – Story 135)

The Second Bank of the United States was a creation of this character. Holding the rights of those who held its interest, it was a legally chartered imaginary entity that became a reality. Not only was it a reality, it was a reality unbound by the States. Under this agreement, the bank would clearly be under the control of the federal government. The citizens of the United States were national citizens. They were constituents and citizens of their states. The Second National Bank, beholden to no one save the National government, and allowed to protect itself legally, was the culmination of these decisions. Many sought to hinder the power of the 2BUS. In Aggressive Nationalism Richard Ellis recounts Pennsylvania Politician Michael Lieb as trying to levy a tax on the 2BUS after it had hindered the income of state banks quoted Lieb 

“The State has imposed a tax on its own institution,and it is incumbent upon the State to protect its own offspring. The principle of equality requires that the Bank of the U.S. should participate in the tax, otherwise advantages would be extended to it, not enjoyed by the State Banks. (Ellis65)

The nature of the many quarrels between the States and National Government came to a head in the McCulloch v. Maryland Case which Ellis further discusses. 

“Webster began by asserting that there were two key issues central to the case. The First was whether the 2BUS was constitutional or not….the second major question in McCulloch v. Maryland , according to Webster, was the right of the state governments to tax the 2BUS.” (ellis78)

Hours upon hours of debate on these points culminated John Marshall’s decision that the bank remain and that it should go untaxed by the states. 

“Marshall believed that it was in the best interest of the country that Congress should have the means to exercise these delegated powers. In Particular, the bank was a convenient, useful, and essential instrument in the implementation of the nation’s fiscal policies. In promulgating this argument, Marshall made clear that he envisaged the United States to be a dynamic, powerful, and ever growing nation.” (ellis85)

Cementing the authority of the Bank as a national entity the McCulloch v Maryland decision. And although it was a landmark legal decision it was not found by many to be a beneficial act. 

“A short time after he delivered the decision in McCulloch v. Maryland, it became clear to Marshall that it was going to receive little public support.” (Ellis 104)

Without a doubt little public support would go to the decision. The state citenzineries unable to affect the national entity that many viewed already to infringe upon their legal and economic worlds, likely would have considered the bank an evil of the greatest magnitude, ranking among the evil wrought at the hands of the devil. In Duncan Macleod’s Triple Crisis the fanatical, avaricious, and geographical crises were brought to a head in 1819, and in his discussion of the triple crisis he places the 2BUS squarely in the midst of the conflict, and inextricably linked from the other issues of the crisis. 

“In the first years of its existence the new Bank was neither efficient nor wise in its operations and it was widely held to be at least partly responsible for the financial failures of 1819. Indeed, attempts in Congress to withdraw the charter ended in failure only days before Marshall handed down his epic decision in McCulloch v Maryland on 6 March 1819.” (Macleod 15)

The Devil and Tom Walker portrays the ugliest and most perverted extension of a chartered entity, an entity chartered by the Devil himself, the supreme evil of the world. The long twenties were a result of the legal decision of the 1810s and those now living in a world where they must co-inhabit with entities unable to be truly comprehended or stopped would be culturally seen as a supreme evil. A short story in which the Devil charters a brokerage, a colonial stand-in for a bank was a statement. A statement that would have resounded in the hearts of American readers. 

IV. Extortionate Lending

“You shall lend money at two per cent. A month.”

“Egad, I’ll charge four!” replied Tom Walker. 

“You are the usurer for my money!” said black legs with delight.

A few days’ time saw Tom Walker seated behind his desk in a counting-house in Boston.

His reputation for a ready-moneyed man, who would lend money out for a good consideration, soon spread abroad.(Irving, 4)

With Tom’s installment as the devil’s usurer in place in one of the financial centers of the United States during the time period, his business of driving men to the devil can begin. The expansion of industry, agriculture, and development throughout New England in the colonial period mirrors the westward expansion as well is increasing development of the New England and southern industries during the Era of Good feelings. And the wake of the Panic of 1819, the first true economic crisis of the New United States, was a time of economic uncertainty. In Shankman’s Neither Infinite Wretchedness nor Positive Good, a discussion on the nature of poltical economy and slavery, he descibes the climate in which the poltical actions of the 1810’s caused the beginnnigs of a shift away from the long held Jeffersonion Republican ideals that had guides the American experited for decades prior. 

“Support for manufacturing a domestic market did not mean turning away from Jeffersonian ideals, for in the new epoch aggrain political economy produced the very conditions it was meant to prevent. Superfluous farmers produced marketable surplus, prices fell, debts rose, taxes went unpaid and farms were foreclosed upon.” (Shankman – Wretchedness 249)

The economic climate of the day is a similar time in which Tom enters the New England Market. 

“ Everybody remembers the time of Governor Belcher, when money was particularly scarce. It was a time of paper credit. The country had been deluged with government bills; the famous Land Bank has been establish; there had been a rage for speculating; the people had run mad with scheme for new settlements, for building cities in the wilderness; land jobbers went about with maps of grants and townships and Eldorados, lying nobody knew where, but which everybody was ready to purchase. In a word, the great speculating fever which breaks out every now and then in the country had raged to an alarming degree, and everybody was dreaming of making sudden fortune from nothing. As usual, the fever had subsided, the dream had gone off, and the imaginary fortunes with it; the patients were left in doleful plight, and the whole country resounded with the consequent cry of “hard times.” (Irving, 4)

The mass speculation of the time Irving describes would find the panic of 1819 the most recent and relatable time when the story was published in 1824. 

“Economic upheaval during the “Era of Good Feelings’ ‘ sharpened those tensions and divisions. Peace brought the resumption of intenationtrade, but also created a speculative boom fueled by rising European demand for American agricultural exports, a flood of cheap imported manufactured goods, and a proliferation of banks and credit. That postwar bubble burst in 1818 as agricultural prices fell and as the Second Bank of the united states adopted a contractionary monetary policy triggering a panic is 1819 that ushered in several years of hard times.” (Dupre 270)

In line with Shankmans assertion that the planned economic prosperity caused the opposite of intended affects Americans were left in a very different world than what they believed their legislature sought for them a world driven by banking and credit. 

“The rapid expansion of credit and overheated trade following the war sparked a speculative boom between 1816 and 1818. Settlers in the West borrowed heavily to purchase government land on credite, sure that either high crop prices would pay off their installments of newcomers would take it off their hands at a tidy profit. By then, many who opposed the Bank, whether on constitutional or other grounds, had reconciled themselves to its existence.” (Dupre 271)

In a reconciled existence the Devil-chartered brokerage of Tom Walker abounds in business. 

“At this propitious time of public distress did Tom Walker, set up as usurer in Boston. His door was soon thronged by customers. The needy and adventurous, the grambling specular, the dreaming land-jobber, the thriftless tradesman, the merchant with cracked credit-in short, everyone driven to raise money by desperate means and desperated sacrifices hurried to Tom Walker.”(Irving, 4)

The speculative boom caused by the drive for westward expansion soon drains Tom’s immediate species, the wealth of Kidd, in what seemed to be a euphoric funding of the goals of those who would seek to make their fortunes, built upon the backbone of the Devil’s money. 

“But the prosperity of 1818 was built on fragile foundations that could not withstand increasing pressures in banking and trade. The flow of gold and silver abroad, both in payment for imports and to cover the Louisiana Purchase debt, was draining the specie reserves of the Bank of the United States.”   (Dupre 271)

And while the speice drained away from the Bank of the United States to fund expansion, the bank survived the panic of 1819, and continued to prosper, leaving those who could not pay their loans to flounder. The structure of the world the National Bank dwelled in and lent to, while designed for these men to succeed is not the world of John Larson’s Internal Improvement

“The majority of Ameircans, who lived in rural areas and engaged in agricultural pursuits. These people needed longer-term loans to purchase land and slaves adn to plant crops and raise livestock, loans that would take at least a year, and usually longer to pay off.” (Larson 61)

Economic prosperity was not so simple as taking out a loan and paying it back in this period. The hopes of American enterprise could not pay the loans and interest, and while many succeeded, as in any trade or new industry, many faltered and failed, victims of the banking system. The bank of the united states was likely the lightning rod of these sentiments. The McCulloch V Maryland decision driving the bank away from public approval, and failures on the part of friends, family, and neighbors at the hands of banks would have resulted in a very demonized opinion of the 2BUS. Tom Walker’s success in extortionately lending should be seen as representing these sentiments. 

“In this way he made money hand over hand, became a rich and mighty man, and exalted his cocked hat upon “Change.” “(Irving, 4)

These public sentiments were echoed by Henry Clay. 

“Under these conditions lamented Carey, “citizens possessed of great wealth…increased it immoderately by purchasing the property of the distressed…. Thus destroying the equality of our citizens and aggrandizing the rich as the expense of the middle class of society.”  (Shankman – Wretchedness 249)

Tom grows from a miserly fellow on sterile land to the owner of mass amounts of land and wealth. The growth of his brokerage acquiring this wealth is written by Irving as nothing more than the essence of pure greed, bent upon making as much money as humanly possible, all built upon the precipitous deal with the devil and the speculative climate of the Era of Good Feelings. Was this not criminal? Newmeyer’s Paper Harvard Law School shows that not only were Tom and the Bank’s practices legal, they were promoted to stimulate the economy. 

“Legal historians have tended to focus on the effect of instrumentalism on private law, but constitutional law was an integral part of the revolution. Indeed, nearly all the great constitutional division of the Marshall court originated in economic conflict and were argued by private lawyers for private capitalists without benefit of government counsel. Private law energized the market economy; constitutional decisions like McCulloch v Maryland and Gibbons v Ogden created a national market guaranteed against state obstructionism. Private corporation law created by state courts was completed by Supreme Court decisions giving corporation access to federal courts and, as in Dartmouth College v. Woodward, encouraging corporate investment by assuming the stability of legislative charters.” (Newmeyer – Harvard 820).

Tom Walker is never legally persecuted for his extortion. The law sides with his actions. Seeing The Devil and Tom Walker through the lense of this period of law reveals a Devil-Chartered entity, backed by law, bent on extracting wealth from those who sought to justly enterprise and make for themselves a life. 

V. The Black Trade

“He proposed that Tom should employ it in the black traffic; that he should fit out a slave-ship. This, however Tom resolutely refused; he was bad enough in all conscience, but the devil himself could not tempt him to turn slave-trader.”(Irving, 3)

In their initial talks on how Tom should go about using his money Black-legs urges him to become a slave dealer. With the intercontinental slave trade being done away with in 1808, not only does Tom’s aversion to dealing in slaves speak to a disgust of the practice, it serves to illustrate the New England attitude towards slavery and slave trading in general. Though the intercontinental slave trade was done away with when Irving wrote the short story it was not a distant memory, nor was there a lack of similar practices upon which the critque was critical of. 

Posititioning slavery as the first and favored choice of the Devil is a bold cultural statement in and of itself. It additionally would bring the minds of the readers to the most recent slave issue of the time, the Missouri Compromise. John Hammond’s work in “Uncontrollable Necessity” The Local Politics, Geopolitics, and Sectional Politics of Slavery Expansion discusses the compromise and showcases cultural attitudes and efforts to prevent slavery expansion by New England. 

“In the three decades preceding the Missouri Controversy, Northern Republicans repeatedly sought to halt slavery expansion. These efforts failed because of the weakness of the American Union in the Early american west. Through 1815, the main sectional conflict over slavery expansion were fought between the Atlantic States and teh Trans-Applachina West.” (Hammond 139)

With Tom characterized as the American Economic system it portrays the hypocrisy of the time. Although “the years after 1815 saw a renewed Northern interest in attacking slavery and a renewed interest in the West. Within four years, these would converge into the Missouri Controversy(Hammond 140) .” showing that the issue of slavery was not so simple as a mere distaste of entering into the slave trade itself. The drive of the devil to turn to turn tom a  direct slave trader fails, but his practice of lending money to the entrepenurial minded men could be in no way free of slavery. 

“Complicating any American effort to restrict slavery expansion, the United States had aquired possesion of the Lower Mississippi Valley at thevery momen the region was being remade by plantation revolutions. Thought slavery had existed in Louisiana and the Natchez Country since teh early 1700a both had been long on the margins of the Atlantic plantation complex.”  (Hammond 144)

The land-jobbers and would be farmers that sought to turn a profit on the bounties of gold hidden beneath American soil would have fed the internal slave trade of the United States, and Tom’s wealth in no way would have been limited to specie and land. Just as banks aquired great quantities of slaves from defaults, or profitted off the mortaging of such assests, there was money to be made from slavery, and Tom Walker’s eyes though perhaps not horrid enough to directly trade slaves, could not resist the profits of the lucrative enterprise that was slavery, the uncontrollable necessity that Hammond speaks of. 

Although the mention of slavery in the short story is relagated to a mere few lines, the decision to position the slavery “issue” as the desire of the devil and in the story at all, speaks to the critical role it played in the Era of Good Feelings and Long 20s. The banking industry and the 2BUS funded the expansion of slavery into the westward territories, and profitted from the Missouri Compromise, just a Tom was implicit in his profiteering. And without directly stating it, Irving called into the mind of his readers the issue of slavery and the closeness it held to the horrible wretchednes of the greatest evil force in American Culture. 

VI. Internal Improvements

“He built himself, as usual, a vast house, out of ostentation, but left the greater part of it unfinished and unfurnished, out of parsimony. He even set up a carriage in the fullness of his vain-glory, though he nearly starved the horses which drew it, and as the ungreased wheels groaned and screed on the axle-trees, you would have thought it heard the souls of the poor debtors he was squeezing.”(Irving, 4)

Another brief, but important detail of The Devil and Tom Walker is the description of how Tom spent his hoards of wealth. A miser to the core, he lavishes himself with grand projects, but does not follow through to fund those projects to completion. This is reminiscent of the attitude of the American Government and economy during the era of good feelings into the long twenties and further into the future. The grand design of Tom’s houses echoes the lavish internal improvements planned by the national and state governments, while the execution of such project wrought results more similar to Tom’s House, grand exoskeletons bereft of substance inside. Arguments of the time spoke of the difficulty in making internal improvements work. 

“Neither private nor local public capital was competent to proceed on these major projects: the sums were too large, the fruits of investment depended on the coordination of simultaneous and distant operations, and the greatest benefits often fell outside the jurisdiction of where the work was to be done.” (Larson 72)

Building a luxurious internal improvements meant to take up the legacy of  the works of Greece and Rome fell flat against the cost of proper operation and only long-term profit, as good as they may be in the long run. As a result, Tom’s ostentatious home filled with a meager few sticks of furniture serves as a tragic mirror-image of the fate of all but few internal improvements in his era. 

This attitude John Larson claims that “Carey himself penned an explanation in 1831 for the disappointments of the state public works. These “magnificent projects,” worthy of the “influential citizens” who planned them and the “powerful state” that undertook them, had been hobbled by two radical mistakes. First, fearing loss of support from the disappointed voters, legislators committed to “too many objects simultaneously,” driving up immediate expense while fatally postponing the star of profit through traffic. The second egregious error” lay in not providing for initial interest from an independent source of revenue. (Larson) As useful as a large home may or may not have been to Tom walker, intent upon maximizing his profit, what good could be gleaned from it? What profit could be turned from a carriage that required constant upkeep and financial gain? With internal improvements in a constant cycle of being promoted, underfunded, or never funded. The Americans who could have benefitted from projects built for them by the National Government whose benefits were proven in works such as the Erie Canal saw their poultry internal improvements with high costs as no more beneficial to them, than would an grand house and carriage own by a miser who refused to make anything good come from wealth.

VII. Cinder Specie

The poor land jobber begged him to grant a few month’s indulgence. Tom had grown testly and irritated, and refused another delay. 

“My family will be ruined, and brought upon the parish,” said the land-jobber. 

“Charity begins at home,” replied Tom; “I must take care of myself in these hard times.”

“You have made so much money out of me,” said the speculator. 

Tom had lost his patience and his piety. “The devil take me,” he said, “if I have made a farthing!” (Irving, 5)

By the slip of the tongue Tom is taken by Black-Legs and whisked away to death. In a death carrying no spectacle, the intrigue comes about when his estate is estimated in order to manage his affairs. 

“Trustees were appointed to take charge of Tom’s effects. There was nothing, however, to administer upon. On searching his coffers, all his bonds and mortgages were reduced to cinders. In place of gold and silver, his iron chest was filled with chips and shavings; two skeletons lay in his stable instead of his half-starved horses, and the very next day his great house room caught fire and was burned to the ground.”(Irving, 5)

A lifetime of extortionate and greedy business netted Tom nothing. In applying Tom’s life to the Era of Good Feelings,two interpretations of these passages can occur that I believe are equal in value. The first being that Tom’s death is representative of the panic of 1819. 

“As the unfavorable balance of trade drained species away, banks sprang up nevertheless, fueled by demands of rising consumption. Yet, since specie grew scarce, the banks issued dubious paper and “the inordinate sprite of banking, carried in many cases to a most culpable excess, had done great mischief.” (Shankman – Carey 2)

The cinders that Tom’s mortgages and bonds are reduced to are not dissimilar to how the bank papers would have been viewed during the panic. And although the purpose of the National and State banks was to be a beneficent entity, 

“Republic banks would also need to intervene during hard economic times when citizens were suffering. During such periods, “policy as well as humanity, dictates an extension of accommodation, and of course in the most imperious manner forbids banks to pruss upon their debtors.”  (Shankman – Carey 9)

And the Jefersonian sentiment that  “Banks taking advantage of unfortunate circumstances disrupted a republican social order.” (Shankman – Carey 9) Were found to be nothing more than sentiments when holding a wad of bank notes unable to be backed by specie. 

The second view of Tom’s unfortunate slip of the tongue is more speculative. That it was the culture that wished the destruction of the 2BUS and economic system, in order to free the public from its grasp. Under a banking system that with one hand promoted expansion and lending yet was ineffective to prevent the panic of 1819 and likely future hard times, how could one feel any security that their loans and mortgages would not be drawn out from under them? What hope for reliable internal improvements could be gained when they were so easily started and stopped, left to die and burn when attention and funding was withdrawn. This interpretation paints a bleak, but perhaps not inaccurate view of the cultural sentiments towards the economic climate that lead into the long 20s. 

VII. Conclusion

The World of Tom Walker is dark and grim, driven by greed. If the relationship between Tom and his wife stands for the relationship between Britain and the United States, Tom is seen as the American Economy chartering the Second Bank of the United States with the Devil, and his practices represent the legal and economic practices leading up to, into, and following the panic of 1819 the popularity of the story can be explained.  Irving’s short story would have resonated with its readers who would apply it to the world they operated in, seeing parallels to the 19th century in the 18th century characterization and setting of the text. Examining The Devil and Tom Walker in this way allows striking parallels to be revealed as well as an accessible way to explain and understand the history of the Era of Good Feelings.

Works Cited

McCoy D. An Unfinished Revolution: The Quest for Economic Independence in the Early Republic.

Shankman. John Quincy Adams and National Republicanism.

Newmyer. (n.d.). Supreme court justice Joseph story.

Newmyer. (n.d.). Harvard law school.

Shankman. (n.d.). Capitalism, slavery, and the new epoch.

Mason, M. (2013). The Maine and Missouri Crisis: Competing Priorities and Northern Slavery Politics in the Early Republic. Journal of the Early Republic, 33(4), 675–700. Retrieved from

Macleod, D. (n.d.). The Triple Crisis.

Dupre, D. (n.d.). The Panic of 1819 and the Political Economy of Sectionalism .

Hammond. (n.d.). Uncontrollable necessity.

Shankman. (n.d.). Neither Infinite Wretchedness nor Positive Good .

Ellis, Richard E. Aggressive nationalism : McCulloch v. Maryland and the foundation of federal authority in the young republic. Oxford New York: Oxford University Press, 2007. Print.

Larson, John L. Internal improvement : national public works and the promise of popular government in the early United States. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001. Print.