The Federal Reserve was created in 1913 to help limit the impact of financial panics. It took a while for the Fed to achieve that goal, but after World War II -- with a great deal of help from other parts of the federal government -- the Fed hit its stride. Today the Fed has not only lost that touch but, given the way our political and financial system currently operates, its own policies exacerbate the cycle of overexuberance and incautious lending that will bring on the next major crisis (and presumably another severe recession).
Sudden loss of confidence in the financial system was not uncommon toward the end of the 19th century, and while the private sector was able to stave off complete disaster largely by itself, the tide turned in 1907. In that instance J.P. Morgan could stand firm only because, behind the scenes, his team received a large loan from the United States Treasury (on this formative episode, see "The Panic of 1907: Lessons Learned From the Market's Perfect Storm" by Robert F. Bruner and Sean D. Carr). Leaders of the banking system realized they needed help moving forward, and there was general agreement that the widespread collapse of financial intermediaries was not in the broader social interest. The question of the day naturally became: How much government oversight would bankers have to accept in return for the creation of a modern central bank?