Legal and Political History of the Federal Reserve




Assistant Professor of Legal Studies and Business Ethics

Project Summary

The goal of our project was to help provide a comprehensive political history of the Federal Reserve. More specifically, the information we gathered and wrote about will be used in Professor Conti-Brown’s upcoming book on the Fed. The content in this project contains archived newspaper PDFs, lengthy research memos on unique events in the Federal Reserve’s history, quantitative analysis concerning the payment systems of Federal Reserve Board members, and digitized correspondence and reports made by past Federal Reserve Board members and political officials (e.g. the President, Secretary of the Treasury, etc.). 


In our research experience, we learned the more quantitative aspects inherent in historical research such as data entry, file conversion, and light coding. We also learned how to properly gather sources for writing an extensive report on a specific event in the Fed’s history and how to handle and analyze historical documents while visiting presidential libraries. When writing these reports, we learned about significant events, such as how the Federal Reserve earned its dual mandate to manage inflation and unemployment through the Humphrey-Hawkins Act; we learned how the Federal Reserve has the ability to react swiftly to stock market crashes; we studied Congressional and Executive pressures on the Federal Reserve in the 20th century and how the Fed helped spur and dealt with the fallout of the boom and bust around the turn of the millennium. We used Excel and R to create graphs to help readers visualize data like Reserve Board Governor salaries over time.


For me (Sahill), I believe this experience researching the Federal Reserve was very eye-opening. First, I was able to work with Professor Conti-Brown, who was a very understanding and knowledgeable mentor, and I am extremely grateful that I had the opportunity to contribute to his forthcoming publication. Additionally, after researching so much about the Federal Reserve, I feel that I have gained a better insight into the banking industry and am even more interested in pursuing that as a career. Although deemed as a particularly confusing institution to the general public, the Federal Reserve and its role in the economy has been significantly made understandable to me after this research experience.

For me (Olivia), I second what Sahill has said. I gained an appreciation for the complexity of the dual mandate of the Federal Reserve. The Fed has two seemingly opposite goals—to keep inflation stable and to maximize unemployment—and it was only through learning the history of the wrangling behind the institution and its role that I began to understand how the Fed became the scapegoat of governments and prophet of the banking industry that it is today. The Fed has a unique place in the American government as a public, private, and very prominent institution, and the criticism of the Fed we hear today is, as I learned this summer, is nothing new. Criticism, debate, and collective hand-wringing over the Fed and its actions are as integral to the Fed as its gold vaults.