A Short History of American Money, From Fur to Fiat

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What do animal pelts, tobacco, fake wampum, gold, and cotton-paper bank notes have in common? At one point or another, they've all stood for the same thing: U.S. currency.

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Before independence, America's disparate colonial economies struggled with a very material financial hang-up: there just wasn't enough money to go around. Colonial governments attempted to solve this problem by using tobacco, nails, and animal pelts for currency, assigning them a set amount of shillings or pennies so that they could intermix with the existing system.

The most successful ad hoc currency was wampum, a particular kind of bead made from the shells of ocean critters. But eventually the value of this currency, like that of other alternative currencies of the day, was undermined by oversupply and counterfeiting. (That's right: counterfeit wampum. They were produced by dyeing like-shaped shells with berry juice, mimicking the purple color of the real thing.)

760px-Benjamin_Franklin_nature_printed_55_dollar_front_1779.jpgIt was a crew of Puritans from Boston who first put their faith in paper. Initially, the Massachusetts Bay Colony tried to issue colonial coinage. The pieces themselves, struck in 1652, were made from a mash-up of poor-quality silver and were soon outlawed by the Brits. Less than a decade later the colonists tried again. They were forced to, really, because they owed money to the crown to help fund Britain's war against France, yet lacked any currency with which to pay up. They called the paper "bills of credit." The local government essentially said to the people: Here, just use this. It's real money. We'll sort out redeemability later.

There were endless debates, from prairie farmlands to the floor of Congress, about whether this paper was real money or just a smoke-and-mirrors scheme destined to end badly. In the United States that dispute, between the fear of paper and the advantages of national currency, would rage for more than a century, and it is even front and center in the Constitution.

During the Continental Congress, the founding fathers deliberately forbid the nascent federal government from issuing "bills of credit." Paper money, one delegate noted, was "as alarming as the Mark of the Beast." The federal government was, however, granted authority "to coin money, regulate the value thereof ... and fit the standard of weights and measure."

THE RISE AND FALL OF PAPER

But paper issued by the federal government would get its chance, thanks to the Civil War and its economic fallout. To foot the bill of the Union Army's campaign, the government had to issue $450 million in greenbacks (about $8.1 billion in 2011 dollars). They may have been un-constitutional, but they worked, making it possible to buy equipment and pay soldiers. War has a habit of quieting concerns about currency's backing.

The end of the war, however, brought with it inflation and renewed attention to the constitutionality of paper money. It was Salmon P. Chase who, first as the secretary of the Treasury Department, made the greenbacks possible. Then, as a Supreme Court justice less than a decade later, he made one of history's most famous flip-flops, ruling that currency notes were illegal. He made this determination despite the fact that the face printed on them was none other than his own.

A reshuffled Supreme Court--two new justices were appointed by President Ulysses Grant the same day of that initial verdict against paper money--would quickly reverse the ruling. Two subsequent decisions in what became known as the Legal Tender Cases sealed the deal: the Constitution may not explicitly grant the federal government power to issue bills of credit, but it had the implicit right to do so be- cause governing over a country, or at least this one, would be flat-out impossible without it.

Before the advent of a single circulating national currency, though, thousands of private banks issued their own notes, sometimes backed by bullion or coinage in a safe, but just as often backed by nothing at all. This was a monetary free-for-all, and--considering the greenback's universal acceptability now--it's strange to imagine how, less than 150 years ago, money in America was a smorgasbord. Countless varieties of paper money circulated throughout the land, most issued by unchartered "Wildcat" banks, and much of it of questionable authenticity and unstable value.

Even during that chaotic time, however, the paper's value always depended, at least in theory, on the idea that you could exchange it for a weight of gold or silver. The conviction that precious metals are value incarnate was still as strong as it had been 2,000 years prior. It was inconceivable that currency could have value without this link to metals-- that currency value might be fluid. That too would soon change, during what was the final stage in this metamorphosis from ancient money to the cash in your wallet.

BYE, GOLD

The first step was in 1933, when President Franklin Roosevelt called in the public's gold supply as part of a radical effort to rebuild the economy during the Great Depression. Then in 1944, representatives of the major economies of the free world anointed the U.S. dollar to become the de facto currency of the globe--to replace gold, sort of. The dollar would still be locked at an exchange value to gold of $35 an ounce. Bizarre as it may sound, a small group of men sitting around a table determined that a 1-ounce nugget of gold would be worth, not $34 or $36.75, but $35. Other world currencies, instead of having their own correspondence to gold, would fix their value to the dollar, and wouldn't be allowed to change their exchange rates without special permission from the newly minted International Monetary Fund.

The rub was that this postwar agreement gave other countries the right to exchange their stashes of dollars for gold. By the early 1970s this policy, even if rarely acted upon, was becoming an increasingly obvious absurdity, as foreign banks held an amount of dollars equal to three times the amount of gold the U.S. owned. The situation aggravated foreign governments because a war- and deficit-weakened U.S. economy also hurt the dollar, and that in turn dragged down other countries' currencies and economies. Most prominent among the ticked off was France, which converted billions of dollars into gold, hoping other countries would follow suit and force the U.S. to get its financial house in order.

But others didn't follow suit. Instead, on August 15, 1971, President Richard Nixon severed the last remaining connective tissue between a material substance and national currencies. Nobody could exchange greenbacks for gold anymore. The number of dollars required to buy an ounce of gold would from here on out be determined by the markets, just like it is for oil, sod, dental equipment, and tulips. Currencies would be measured against each other, like untethered balloons carried on a breeze.

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IN DOLLARS WE TRUST

The dollar, meanwhile, remained the anchor currency of the world: the one ring that kinda rules them all. Other governments hold on to dollars and use them for paying debts, and in the aisles of the global supermarket of goods, most items are priced in U.S. dollars.

This is what's so weird about commentators in the U.S. proudly declaring that the dollar is the most stable currency in the world, as if this were because of American economic policy today, when it's really just the result of negotiations a few generations ago that made it the backbone of the whole system. The greenback is stable because the U.S. economy is huge and the United States is a terrific republic--OK. But it's also stable because everyone else's well-being depends on it, and on belief in its stability. That may be changing, though.

As for paper money itself, the end of the gold standard meant that cash had become a total abstraction. Its value now comes from fiat, government mandate. It's a Latin word meaning let there be. In God we better trust.

From The End of Money: Counterfeiters, Preachers, Techies, Dreamers--and the Coming Cashless Society by David Wolman. Reprinted courtesy of Da Capo Press.

Images, from top: Wampum contract between William Penn and Native Americans; $55 dollar note, backed in gold or silver, dated 1779; modern $20 bill.

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David Wolman is a contributing editor at Wired and the author of The InstigatorsThe End of Money, and other nonfiction.

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