IN all historical studies we should still bear in mind the difference between the point of view from which one looks at events and that from which they were seen by the actors themselves. We all act under the influence of ideas. Even those who speak of theories with contempt are none the less the unconscious disciples of some theory, none the less busied in working out some problems of the great theory of life. Much as they fancy themselves to differ from the speculative man, they differ from him only in contenting themselves with seeing the path as it lies at their feet, while he strives to embrace it all, starting-point and end, in one comprehensive view. And thus in looking back upon the past we are irresistibly led to arrange the events of history, as we arrange the facts of a science, in their appropriate classes and under their respective laws. And thus, too, these events give us the true measure of the intellectual and moral culture of the times, the extent to which just ideas prevailed therein upon all the duties and functions of private and public life. Tried by the standard of absolute truth and right, grievously would they all fall short,—and we, too, with them. Judged by the human standard of progressive development and gradual growth,— the only standard to which the man of the beam can venture, unrebuked, to bring the man with the mote,—we shall find much in them all to sadden us, and much, also, in which we can all sincerely rejoice.
In judging, therefore, the political acts of our ancestors, we have a right to bring them to the standard of the political science of their age, but we have, no right to bring them to the higher standard of our own. Montesquieu could give them but an imperfect clue to the labyrinth in which they found themselves involved ; and yet no one had seen farther into the mysteries of social and political organization than Montesquieu. Hume had scattered brilliant rays on dark places, and started ideas which, once at work in the mind, would never rest till they had evolved momentous truths and overthrown long-standing errors. But no one had yet seen, with Adam Smith, that labor was the original source of every form of wealth,—that the farmer, the merchant, the manufacturer, were all equally the instruments of national prosperity,— or demonstrated as unanswerably as he did that nations grow rich and powerful by giving as they receive, and that the good of one is the good of all. The world had not yet seen that fierce conflict between antagonistic principles which she was soon to see in the French Revolution ; nor had political science yet recorded those daring experiments in remoulding society, those constitutions framed in closets, discussed in clubs, accepted and overthrown with equal demonstrations of popular zeal, and which, expressing in their terrible energy the universal dissatisfaction with past and present, the universal grasping at a brighter future, have met and answered so many grave questions,— questions neither propounded nor solved in any of the two hundred constitutions which Aristotle studied in order to prepare himself for the composition of his “ Politics.” The world had not yet seen a powerful nation tottering on the brink of anarchy, with all the elements Of prosperity in her bosom,—nor a bankrupt state sustaining a war that demanded annual millions, and growing daily in wealth and power,—nor the economical phenomena which followed the reopening of Continental commerce in 1814, — nor the still more startling phenomena which a few years later attended England’s return to specie-payments and a specie-currency,— nor statesmen setting themselves gravely down with the map before them to the final settlement of Europe, and, while the ink was yet fresh on their protocols, seeing all the results of their combined wisdom set at nought by the inexorable development of the fundamental principle which they had refused to recognize.
But we have seen these things, and, having seen them, unconsciously apply the knowledge derived from them in our judgment of events to which we have no right to apply it. We condemn errors which we should never have detected without the aid of a light which was hidden from our fathers, and will still be dwelling upon shortcomings which nothing could have avoided but a general diffusion of that wisdom which Providence never vouchsafes except as a gift to a few exalted minds. Every school-boy has his text-book of political economy now : but many can remember when these books first made their appearance in schools ; and so late as 1820 the Professor of History in English Cambridge publicly lamented that there was no work upon this vital subject which he could put into the hands of his classes.
When, therefore, our fathers found themselves face to face with the complex questions of finance, they naturally fell back upon the experience and devices of their past history: they did as in such emergencies men always do,—they tried to meet the present difficulty without weighing maturely the future difficulties. The present was at the door, palpable, stern, urgent, relentless ; and as they looked at it, they could see nothing beyond half so full of perplexity and danger. They hoped, as in the face of all history and all experience men will ever hope, that out of those depths which their feeble eyes were unable to penetrate something would yet arise in their hour of need to avert the peril and snatch them from the precipice. Their past history had its lessons of encouragement, some thought, and, some thought, of warning. They seized the example, but the admonition passed by unheeded.
Short as the chronological record of American history then was, that exchange of the products of labor which so speedily grows up into commerce had already passed through all its phases, from direct barter to bank - notes and bills of exchange. Men gave what they wanted less to get what they wanted more, the products of industry without doors for the products of industry within doors ; and it was only when they felt the necessity of adding to their stock of luxuries or conveniences from a distance that they experienced the want of money. Prices naturally found their own level,— were what, when left to themselves they always are, the natural expression of the relations between demand and supply. Tobacco stood the Virginian in stead of money long after money had become abundant, procuring him corn, meat, raiment. Move than once, too, it procured him something better still. In the very same year in which the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth, history tells us, ninety maidens of “virtuous education and demeanor” landed in Virginia; the next year brought sixty more; and, provident industry reaping its own reward, he whose busy hands had raised the largest crop of tobacco was enabled to make the first choice of a wife. And it must have been an edifying and pleasant spectacle to see each stalwart Virginian pressing on towards the landing with his bundle of tobacco on his back, and walking deliberately home again with an affectionate wife under his arm.
But already there was a pernicious principle at work,—protested against by experience wherever tried, and still repeatedly tried anew,—the assumption by Government of the power to regulate the prices of goods. The first instance carries us back to 1618, and thinking men still believed it possible in 1777. The right to regulate the prices of labor was its natural corollary, bringing with it the power of creating legal tenders and the various representatives of value, without any correspondent measures for creating the value itself, or, in simpler words, paper-money without capital. And thus, logically as well as historically, we reach the first issue of paper-money in 1690, that year so memorable as the year of the first Congress.
New England, encouraged by a successful expedition against Port Royal, made an attempt upon Quebec. Confident of success, she sent, forth her little army without providing the means of paying it. The soldiers came back soured by disaster and fatigue, and, not yet up to the standard of ’76, were upon the point of mutinying for their pay. To escape the immediate danger, Massachusetts bethought her of bills of credit. They were issued, accepted, and redeemed, although the first holders suffered great losses, and the last holders or the speculators were the only ones that found them faithful pledges. The flood-gates once opened, the water poured in amain. Every pressing emergency afforded a pretext for a new issue. Other Colonies followed the seductive example. Paper was soon issued to make money plenty. Men’s minds became familiar with the idea, as they saw the convenient substitute passing freely from hand to hand. Accepted at market, accepted at the retail store, accepted in the counting-room, accepted for taxes, everywhere a legal tender, it seemed adequate to all the demands of domestic trade. But erelong came undue fluctuations of prices, depreciations, failures,—all the well-known indications of an unsound currency. England interposed to protect her own merchants, to whom American paper-money was utterly worthless; and Parliament stripped it of its value as a legal tender. Men’s minds were divided. They had never before been called upon to discuss such questions upon such a scale or in such a form. They were at a loss for the principle, still enveloped in the multitude and variety of conflicting theories and obstinate facts.
One fact, however, was clearly established,—that a government could, in great needs, make paper fulfil, for a while, the office of money; and if a regular government, why not also a revolutionary government, sustained and accepted by the people ? Here, then, begins the history of the Continental money,— the principal chapter in the financial history of the Revolution,—leading us, like all such histories, over ground thick-strown with unheeded admonitions and neglected warnings, through a round of constantly recurring phenomena, varied only here and there by modifications in the circumstances under which they appear.
It is much to be regretted that we have no record of the discussions through which Congress reached the resolves of June 22, 1775: “That a sum not exceeding two millions of Spanish milled dollars be emitted by the Congress in bills of credit for the defence of America. That the twelve confederated Colonies” (Georgia, it will be remembered, had not yet sent delegates) “ be pledged for the redemption of the bills of credit now to be emitted.” We do not even know positively that there was any discussion. If there was, it is not difficult to conceive how some of the reasoning ran, —how each had arguments and examples from his own Colony : how confidently Pennsylvanians would speak of the security which they had given to their paper; how confidently Virginians would assert that even the greatest straits might be passed without having recourse to so dangerous a medium ; how all the facts in the history of paper-money would be brought forward to prove both sides of the question, but how the underlying principle, subtile, impalpable, might still elude them all, as for thirty-five years longer it still continued to elude wise statesmen and thoughtful economists; how, at last, some impatient spirit, breaking through the untimely delay, sternly asked them what else they proposed to do. By what alchemy would they create gold and silver ? By what magic would they fill the coffers which their non-exportation resolutions had kept empty, or bring in the supplies which their non-importation resolutions had cut off? What arguments of their devising would induce a people in arms against taxation to submit to tenfold heavier taxes than those which they had indignantly repelled? Necessity, inexorable necessity, was now their lawgiver; they had adopted an army, they must support it; they had voted pay to their officers, they must devise the means of giving their vote effect; arms, ammunition, camp-equipage, everything was to be provided for. The people were full of ardor, glowing with fiery zeal; your promise to pay will be received like payment; your commands will be instantly obeyed. Every hour’s delay imperils the sacred cause, chills the holy enthusiasm ; action, prompt, energetic, resolute action, is what the crisis calls for. Men must see that we are in earnest; the enemy must see it; nothing else will bring them to terms; nothing else will give us a lasting peace: and in such a peace how easily, how cheerfully, shall we all unite in paying the debt which won for us so inestimable a blessing !
It would have been difficult to deny the force of such an appeal. There were doubtless men there who believed firmly in the virtue of the people, — who thought, that, after the proof which the people had given of their readiness to sacrifice the interests of the present moment to the interests of a day and a posterity that they might not live to see, it would be worse than skepticism to call it in question. But even these men might hesitate about the form of the sacrifice they called for, for they knew how often men are governed by names, and that their minds might revolt at the idea of a formal tax, although they would submit to pay it fifty-fold under the name of depreciation. Even at this day, with all our additional light,—the combined light of science and of experience, —it is difficult to see what else they could have done without strengthening dangerously the hands of their domestic enemies. Nor let this be taken as a proof that they engaged rashly in an unequal contest, even though it was necessarily in part a war of paper against gold. They have been accused of this by their friends as well as by their enemies: they have been accused of sacrificing a positive good to an uncertain hope, — of suffering their passions to hurry them into a war for which they had made no adequate preparation, and had not the means of making any, — that they wilfully, almost wantonly, incurred the fearful responsibility of staking the lives and fortunes of those who were looking to them for guidance upon the chances of a single cast. But the accusation is unjust. As far as human foresight could reach, they had calculated these chances carefully. They knew the tenure by which they held their authority, and that, if they ran counter to the popular will, the people would fall from them,— that, it they should fail in making their position good, they would be the first, almost, the only victims,—that, then as ever, “ the thunderbolts on highest mountains light.” Charles Carroll added “ of Carrollton ” to his name, so that, if the Declaration he was setting it to should bring forfeiture and confiscation, there might be no mistake about the victim. Nor was it without a touch of sober earnestness that Harrison, bulky and fat, said to the lean and shadowy Gerry, as he laid down his pen,—11 When hanging-time comes, I shall have the advantage of you. I shall be dead in a second, while you will be kicking in the air half an hour after I am gone.” But they knew also, that, if there are dangers which we do not perceive till we come full upon them, there are likewise helps which we do not see till we find ourselves face to face with them, —and that in the life of nations, as in the life of individuals, there are moments when all that the wisest and most conscientious can do is to see that everything Is in its place, every man at his post, and resolutely bide the shock.
While this subject was pressing upon Congress, it was occupying no less seriously leading minds in the different Colonies. All felt that the success of the experiment must chiefly depend upon the degree of security that could be given to the bills. But how to reach that necessary degree was a perplexing question. Three ways were suggested in the New - York Convention : that Congress should fix upon a sum, assign each Colony its proportion, and the issue be made by the Colony upon its own responsibility ; or that the United Colonies should make the issue, each Colony pledging itself to redeem the part that fell to it; or, lastly, that, Congress issuing the sum, and each Colony assuming its proportionate responsibility, the Colonies should still be bound as a whole to make up for the failure of any individual Colony to redeem its share. The latter was proposed by the Convention as offering greater chances of security, and tending at the same time to strengthen the bond of union. It was in nearly this form, also, that it came from Congress.
No time was now lost in carrying the resolution into effect. The next day, Tuesday, June 23, the number, denomination, and form of the bills were decided in a Committee of the Whole. It was resolved to make bills of eight denominations, from one to eight, and issue forty-nine thousand of each, completing the two millions by eleven thousand eight hundred of twenty dollars each. The form of the bill was to be, —
This bill entitles the bearer to receive — Spanish, milled dollars or the value thereof in gold or silver, according to the resolutions of the Congress held at Philadelphia on the 10th day of May, A. D. 1775.
In the same sitting a committee of five was appointed “ to get proper plates engraved, to provide paper, and to agree with printers to print the above bills.” Both Franklin and John Adams were on this, committee.
Had they lived in 1862 instead of 1775, how their doors would have been beset by engravers and paper-dealers and printers ! What baskets of letters would have been poured upon their tables! How would they have dreaded the sound of the knocker or the cry of the postman! But, alas! paper was so far from abundant that generals were often reduced to hard straits for enough of it to write their reports and despatches on; and that Congressmen were not much better off will be believed when we find John Adams sending his wife a sheet or two at a time under the same envelope with his own letters. Printers there were, as many, perhaps, as the business of the country required, but not enough for the eager contention which the announcement of Government work to be done excites among us in these days. And of engravers there were but four between Maine and Georgia. Of these four, one was Paul Revere of the midnight ride, the Boston boy of Huguenot blood whose self-taught graver had celebrated the repeal of the Stamp Act, condemned to perpetual derision the rescinders of 1768, and told the story of the Boston Massacre,—who, when the first grand jury under the new organization was drawn, had met the judge with, “ I refuse to sarve,” — a scientific mechanic, — a leader at the Tea-party,—a soldier of the old war, — prepared to serve in this war, too, with sword, or graver, or science, — fitting carriages, at Washington’s command, to the cannon from which the retreating English had knocked off the trunnions, learning how to make powder at the command of the Provincial Congress, and setting up the first powder-mill ever built in Massachusetts.
No mere engraver’s task for him, this engraving the first bill-plates of Continental Currency ! How he must have warmed over the design ! how carefully he must have chosen his copper ! how buoyantly he must have plied his graver, harassed by no doubts, disturbed by no misgivings of the double mission which those little plates were to perform, — the good one first, thank God ! but then how fatal a one afterward !—but resolved and hopeful as on that April night when he spurred his horse from cottage to hamlet, rousing the sleepers with the cry, long unheard in the sweet valleys of New England, “Up! up! the enemy is coming ! ”
The paper of these bills was thick, so thick that the enemy called it the pasteboard money of the rebels. Plate, paper, and printing, all had little in common with the elaborate finish and delicate texture of a modern bank-note. To sign them was too hard a tax upon Congressmen already taxed to the full measure of their working-time by committees and protracted daily sessions; and so a committee of twenty-eight gentlemen not in Congress was employed to sign and number them, receiving in compensation one dollar and a third for every thousand bills.
Meanwhile loud calls for money were daily reaching the doors of Congress, Every where money was wanted,—money to buy guns, money to buy powder, money to buy provisions, money to send officers to their posts, money to march troops to their stations, money to speed messengers to and fro, money for the wants of to-day, money to pay for what had already been done, and still more money to insure the right doing of what was yet to do: Washington wanted it; Lee wanted it; Schuyler wanted it: from north to south, from seaboard to inland, one deep, monotonous, menacing cry, — “ Money, or our hands are powerless ! ”
How long would these two millions stand such a drain ? Spent before they were received, hardly touching the Treasury-chest as a starting-place before they flew on the wings of the morning to gladden thousands of expectant hearts with a brief respite from one of their many cares. Relief there certainly was, — neither long, indeed, nor lasting, but still relief. Good Whigs received the bills, as they did everything else that came from Congress, with unquestioning confidenee. Tories turned from them in derision, and refused to give their goods for them. Whereupon Congress took the matter under consideration, and told them that they must. It was soon seen that another million would be wanted, and in July a second issue was resolved on. All-devouring war had soon swallowed these also. Three more millions were ordered in November. But the war was to end soon,—by June, ’76, at the latest. All their expenditures were calculated upon this supposition ; and wealth flowing in under the auspices of a just and equable accommodation with their reconciled mother, these millions which had served them so well in the hour of need would soon be paid by a happy and grateful people from an abundant treasury.
But early in 1776 reports came of English negotiations for foreign mercenaries to help put down the rebellion,— reports which soon took the shape of positive information. No immediate end of the war now : already, too, independence was looming up on the turbid horizon; already the current was bearing them onward, deep, swift, irresistible : and thus seizing still more eagerly upon the future, they poured out other four millions in February, five millions in May, five millions in July. The Confederacy was not yet formed ; the Declaration of Independence had nothing yet to authenticate it but the signatures of John Hancock and Charles Thompson; and the republic that was to be was already solemnly pledged to the payment of twenty millions of dollars.
Thus far men’s faith had not faltered, They saw the necessity and accepted it, giving their goods and their labor unhesitatingly for a slip of paper which derived all its value from the resolves of a body of men who might, upon a reverse, be thrown down as rapidly as they had been set up. And then whom were they to look to for indemnification ? But now hegan a sensible depreciation, — slight, indeed, at first, but ominous. Congress took the alarm, and resolved upon a loan, -_ resolved to borrow directly what they had hitherto borrowed indirectly, the goods and the labor of their constituents. Accordingly, on the third of October, a resolve was passed for raising five millions of dollars at four per cent.; and in order to make it convenient to lenders, loanoffices were established in every Colony with a commissioner for each,
Money came in slowly, but ran out so fast that in November Congress ordered weekly returns from the Treasury, not of sums on hand, but of what parts of the last emission remained unexpended, The campaign of ’77 was at hand; how the campaign of '76 would close was yet uncertain. The same impenetrable veil that hid Trenton and Princeton from their eyes concealed the disasters of Fort Washington and the Jerseys. They still looked hopefully to the lower line of the Hudson. They resolved, therefore, to make an immediate effort to supply the Treasury by a lottery to be drawn at Philadelphia,
A lottery, — does not the word carry one back, a great many years back, to other times and other manners ? The Articles of War were now on the table of Congress for revision, and in the second and third of those articles officers and soldiers had been earnestly recommended to attend divine service diligently, and to refrain, under grave penalties, from profane cursing or swearing. And here legislators deliberately set themselves to raise money by means which we have deliberately condemned as gambling. But years were yet to pass before statesmen, or the people rather, were brought to feel that the lottery-office and gaming - table stand side by side on the same broad highway.
No such thoughts troubled the minds of our forefathers, well stored as those minds were with human and divine lore ; but, going to work without a scruple, they prepared an elaborate scheme and fixed the first of March for the day of drawing, —“or sooner, if sooner full.” It was not full, however, nor was it full when the subject next came up. Tickets were sold ; committees sat; Congress returned to the subject from time to time : but what with the incipient depreciation of the bills of credit, the rising prices of goods and provisions, and the incessant calls upon every purse for public and private purposes, the lottery failed to commend itself either to speculators or to the bulk of the people. Some good Whigs bought tickets from principle, and, like many of the good Whigs who took the bills of credit for the same reason, lost their money.
In the same November the Treasury was ordered to make every preparation for a new issue ; and to meet the wants of the retail trade, it was resolved at the same time to issue five hundred thousand dollars in bills of two-thirds, one-third, one-sixth, and one-ninth of a dollar. Evident as it ought now to have been that nothing but taxation could relieve them, they still shrank from it. “ Do you think, Gentlemen,” said a member, “ that I will consent to load my constituents with taxes, when we can send to our printer and get a wagon - load of money, one quire of which will pay for the whole?” It was so easy a way of making money that men seemed to be getting into the humor of it.
The campaign of ’77, like the campaign of '76, was fought upon paper-money without any material depreciation. The bills could never be signed as fast as they were called for. But this could not last. The public mind was growing anxous. Extensive interests, in some cases whole fortunes, were becoming involved in the question of ultimate payment. The alarm gained upon Congress. Burgoyne, indeed, was conquered; but a more powerful, more insidious enemy, one to whom they themselves had opened the gate, was already within their works and fast making his way to the heart of the citadel. The depreciation had reached four for one, and there was but one way to prevent it from going lower. Congress deliberated anxiously. Thus far the public faith had supported the war. But, they reasoned, the quantity of the money for which this faith stood pledged already exceeded the demands of commerce, and hence its value was proportionably reduced. Add to this the arts of open and secret enemies, the avidity of professed friends, and the scarcity of foreign commodities, and it is easy to account for the depreciation. “ The consequences were equally obvious and alarming,” — “depravity of morals, decay of public virtue, a precarious supply for the war, debasement of the public faith, injustice to individuals, and the destruction of the safety, honor, and independence of the United States.” But “ a reasonable and effectual remedy ” was still within their reach, and therefore, “ with mature deliberation and the most earnest solicitude,” they recommended the raising by taxes on the different States, in proportion to their population, five millions of dollars in quarterly payments, for the service of 1778.
But having explained, justified, and recommended, the power of Congress ceased. Like the Confederation, it had no right of coercion, no machinery of its own for acting upon the States. And, unhappily, the States, pressed by their individual wants, feeling keenly their individual sacrifices and dangers, failed to see that the nearest road to relief lay through the odious portal of taxation. Had the mysterious words that Dante read on the gates of Hell been written on it, they could not have shrunk from it with a more instinctive feeling : —
Some States paid, some did not pay. The sums that came in were wholly insufficient to relieve the actual pressure, and that pressure, unrelieved, grew daily more severe. They had tried the regulating of prices,—they had tried loans,— they had tried a lottery ; and now they were forced back again to their earliest and most dangerous expedient, papermoney. New floods poured forth, and the parched earth drank them greedily up. One may almost fancy, as he looks at the tables, that he sees the shadowy form of sickly Credit tottering feebly forth to catch a gleam of sunshine, a breath of pure air, while myriads of little sprites, each bearing in his hand an emblazoned scroll with “Depreciation” written upon it in big yellow letters, dance merrily around him, thrusting the bitter record in his face, whichever way he turns, with gibes and taunts and demoniac laughter. But his course was almost ended : the grave was nigh, an unhonored grave; and as eager hands heaped the earth upon his faded form, a stern voice bade men remember that they who strayed from the path as he had done must sooner or later find a grave like his.
It was not without a desperate struggle that Congress saw the rapid decline and shameful death of its currency. The ground was fought manfully, foot by toot, inch by inch. The idea that money derived its value from acts of government seemed to have taken deep hold of their minds, and their policy was in perfect harmony with their belief. In January, 1776, they had solemnly resolved that everybody who refused to accept their bills, or did anything to obstruct the circulation of them, should, upon due conviction, “be deemed, published, and treated as an enemy of his country, and be precluded from all trade or intercourse with the inhabitants of these Colonies.” And to enforce it there were Committees of Inspection, whose power seldom lay idle in their hands, whose eyes were never sealed in slumber. In this work, which seemed good in their eyes, the State Assemblies and Conventions and Committees of Safety joined heart and hand with Congress. Tenderlaws were tried, and the relentless hunt of creditor after debtor became a flight of the recusant creditor from the debtor eager to wipe out his responsibility for gold or silver with a ream or two of paper. Limitation of prices was tried, and produced its natural results, — discontent, insufficient supplies, heavy losses. Threatening resolves were renewed, and fell powerless. It was hoped that some relict might come from the sales of confiscated property ; but property changed hands, and the Treasury was none the better off: just as in France, a few years later, the whole landed property of the kingdom changed hands, and left the government assignats what it found them, — bits of waste-paper.
Meanwhile speculation ran riot. Every form of wastefulness and extravagance prevailed in town and country,—nowhere more than at Philadelphia, under the very eyes of Congress, — luxury of dress, luxury of equipage, luxury of the table. We are told of one entertainment at which eight hundred pounds were spent in pastry. As I read the private letters ot those days, I sometimes feel as a man would feel who should be permitted to look down upon a foundering ship whose crew were preparing for death by breaking open the steward’s room and drinking themselves into madness.
An earnest appeal was made to the States. The sober eloquence and profound statesmanship of John Jay were employed to bring the subject before the country in its true light and manifold bearings,—the state of the Treasury, the results of loans and of taxes, and the nature and amount of the obligations incurred. The natural value and wealth of the country were held to view as the foundations on which Congress had undertaken to build up a system of public finances, beginning with bills of credit because there was no nation they could have borrowed of, coming next to loans, and thus “ unavoidably creating a public debt: a debt of $159,948,880, in emissions,— $7,545,196 67/90, in money borrowed before the first of March, 1778, with the interest payable in France, — $26,188,909, money borrowed since the first of March. 1778, with interest due in America,— about $4,000,000, of money due abroad ” The taxes had brought in only $3,027,560; so that all the money supplied to Congress by the people was but $36,761,665 67/90.
“ Judge, then, of the necessity of emissions, and learn from whom and whence that necessity arose. We are also to inform yon, that, on the first day of September instant, we resolved that we would on no account whatever emit more bills of credit than to make the whole amount of such bills two hundred million dollars; and as the sura emitted and in circulation amounted to $159,948,880, and the sum of $40,051,120 remained to complete the two hundred million above mentioned, we, on the third day of September instant, further resolved that we would emit such part only of the said sum as should be absolutely necessary for public exigencies before adequate supplies could otherwise be obtained, relying for such ratios on the exertions of the several States.”
Coming to the depreciation, they reduce the causes to three kinds,— natural, or artificial, or both. The natural cause was the excess of the supply over the demands of commerce ; the artificial cause was a distrust of the ability or inclination of the United States to redeem their bills ; and assuming that both causes have combined in producing the depreciation of the Continental money, they proceed to prove that there can be no doubt of the ability of the United States to pay their debt, and none of their inclination. Under the head of inclination the argument is divided into three parts : —
First, Whether, and in what manner, the faith of the United States has been pledged for the redemption of their bills.
Second, Whether they have put themselves in a political capacity to redeem them.
Third, Whether, admitting the two former propositions, there is any reason to apprehend a wanton violation of the public faith. The idea that Congress can destroy the money, because Congress made it, is treated with scorn.
“ A bankrupt, faithless Republic would be a novelty in the political world..... The pride of America revolts from the idea; her citizens know for what purposes these emissions were made, and have repeatedly plighted their faith for the redemption of them ; they are to be found in every man’s possession, and every man is interested in their being redeemed..... Provide for continuing your armies in the field till victory and peace shall lead them home, and avoid the reproach of permitting the currency to depreciate in your hands, when, by yielding a part to taxes and loans, the whole might have been appreciated and preserved. Humanity as well as justice makes this demand upon you ; the complaints of ruined widows and the cries of fatherless children, whose whole support has been placed in your hands and melted away, have doubtless reached you ; take care that they ascend no higher..... Determine to finish the coutest as you began it, honestly and gloriously. Let it never be said that America had no sooner become independent than she became insolvent.”
But it was not only the Continental money that was blocking up the channels through which a sound currency would have carried vigor and health. The States had their debts and their papermoney too,—wheel within wheel of complicated, desperate insolvency. The two hundred millions had been issued and spent. There was no money to send to Washington for his army, and he was compelled for a while to support them by seizing the articles he needed, and giving certificates in return. The States were called upon for specific supplies, beef, pork, flour, for the use of the army, — a method so expensive, irregular, and partial, that it was soon abandoned. One chance remained : to call in the old money by taxes, and burn it as soon as it was in ; then to issue a new paper,— one of the new for every twenty of the old ; and when the whole of the old was cancelled, to issue only ten millions of the new, — four millions of it subject to the order of Congress, and the remaining six to be divided among the States : the whole redeemable in specie within six years, and bearing till then an interest of five per cent., payable in specie annually or on redemption, at the option of the holder. By this skillul change of base it was hoped that a bold front could still be presented to the enemy, and the field, which had been so long and so obstinately contested, be finally won.
But the day of expedients was past. The zeal which had blazed forth with such energy at the beginning of the war was fast sinking to a fitful, smouldering flame. Individual interests were again taking the precedence of general interests. The moral sense of the people had contracted a deadly taint from daily contact with corruption. The spirit of gambling, confined in the beginning and lost to the eye, like Le Sage’s Devil, had swollen to its full proportions, and, in the garb of speculation, was undermining the foundations of society. Rogues were growing rich ; the honest men who were not already poor were daily growing poor. The laws that had been made in the view of propping the currency had served only to countenance unscrupulous men in paying their debts at a discount ruinous to the creditor. The laws against forestalled and engrossers, who, it was currently believed, were leagued against both army and country, were powerless, as such laws always are. Even Washington wished for a gallows like Haman’s to hang them on; but the army was kept starving none the less.
The seasons themselves—God’s visible agents — seemed to combine against our cause. The years 1779 and 1780 were years of small crops. The winter of 1780 was severe far beyond the common severity even of a Northern winter. Provisions were scarce, suffering universal. Farmers, as if forgetting their dependence on rain and sunshine, had planted less than usual, — some from disaffection, some because they were irritated at having to give up their corn and cattle for worthless bills, and certificates which might prove equally worthless. Some, who were within reach of the enemy, preferred to sell to them, for they paid in silver and gold. There were riots in Philadelphia, put down at the point of the sword. There was mutiny in the army, and this, too, was put down by the strong hand, — though the fearful sufferings which had caused it justified it almost in the eye of sober reason.
It is easy to see why farmers should have been loath to raise more than they needed for their own use, —why merchants should have been unwilling to lay in stores which they might be compelled to sell at prices so truly nominal that the money which they received would often sink to half they had taken it for before they were able to pass it. But it is not so easy to see why this wretched substitute for values should have circulated so freely to the very last. Even at two hundred for one, with the knowledge that the next twenty-four hours might make that two hundred two hundred and fifty, or even more, without the slightest hope that it would ever be redeemed at its nominal value, it would still buy everything that was to be sold, — provisions, goods, houses, lands, even hard money itself. Down to its last gasp there were speculations afoot to take advantage of the differences in the degree of its worthlessness at different places, and buy it up in one place to sell it at another,to buy it in Philadelphia at two hundred and twenty-five for one, and sell it in Boston at seventy-five for one. It was possible, if the ball passed quickly from hand to hand, that some might gain ; it was very manifest that some must lose : and thus outcrops that pernicious doctrine, that true, life-giving, health - diffusing commerce consists in stripping one to clothe another.
And thus we reach the memorable year 1781, the great, decisive year of the war. While Greene was fighting Cornwallis and Rawdon, and Washington watching eagerly for an opportunity to strike at Clinton, Congress was busy making up its accounts. One circumstance told for them. There was no longer the same dearth of gold and silver which had embarrassed them so much at the beginning of the war. A gainful commerce was now opened with the West Indies. The French army and the French fleet were here, and hard money with them. Louis-d’ ors and livres and Spanish dollars, —how welcome must their pleasant faces have looked, after this long, long absence ! With what a thrill must the hand which had touched nothing for years but Continental bills have closed upon solid gold and silver ! It is easy to conceive that a new spirit must soon have manifested itself in the wide circle of contractors and agents,—that shopkeepers must speedily have discovered that their business was shifting its ground as they obtained a reliable standard for counting their losses and gains,—that every branch of commerce must have felt a new vigor diffusing itself through its veins. But it is equally evident, that, while the gold and silver which flowed in upon them from these sources strengthened the people for the work they were to do and the burdens they were to bear, the comparisons they were daily making between fluctuating paper and steadfast metal were not of a nature to strengthen thenfaith in money that could be made by a turn of the printing-press and a few strokes of the pen.
Another circumstance told for them, too. The accession of Maryland had fulfilled the conditions for the acceptance of the Confederation so long held in abeyance, and the finances were taken from a board and intrusted to the hands of a skilful and energetic financier. Robert Morris, who had protested energetically against the tender-laws, made specie-payments the condition of his acceptance of office; and on the twenty-second of May, though not without a struggle, Congress resolved “ that the whole debts already due by the United States be liquidated as soon as may be to their specievalue, and funded, if agreeable to the creditors, as a loan upon interest; that the States be severally informed that the calculations of the expenses of the present campaign are made in solid coin, and therefore that the requisitions from them respectively, being grounded on those calculations, must be complied with in such manner as effectually to answer the purpose designed ; that, experience having evinced the inefficacy of all attempts to support the credit of papermoney by compulsory acts, it is recommended to such States, where laws making paper-bills a tender yet exist, to repeal the same.”
Another public body, the Supreme Executive Council of Pennsylvania, dealt it another blow, fixing the ratio at which it was to be received in public payments at one hundred and seventy-five for one. Circulation ceased. In a short time the money that had been carted to and fro in reams disappeared from the shop, the counting - room, the market. All dealings were in hard money. Gold and silver resumed their legitimate sway, and men began to look hopefully forward to a return of economy, frugality, and an invigorating commerce.
The Superintendent of Finance set himself seriously to his task. One great obstacle had been removed ; one great and decisive step had been made towards the restoration of that sense ot security without which industry and enterprise are powerless. As a merchant, he was familiar with the resources of the country ; as a Member of Congress, he was familiar with the wants of Government. His resources were taxes and loans ; his obligations, an old debt and a daily expenditure. Opposed as he was to the irresponsible currency which had brought the country to the brink of ruin, he was a believer in banks and bills resting on a secure basis. One of his earliest measures was to prepare, with the aid of his Assistant - Superintendent, Gouverneur Morris, a plan of a bank, which soon after, with the sanction of Congress, went into operation as the Bank of North America. Small as the capital with which it started was, — only four hundred thousand dollars, — its influence was immediately felt throughout the country. It gave an impulse to legitimate enterprise which had long been wanting, and a confidence to buyer and seller which they had not felt since the first year of the war. In his public operations the Superintendent used it freely, and, using it at the same time wisely, was enabled to call upon it for aid to the full extent of its ability without impairing its strength.
Henceforth the financial history of the Revolution, although it loses none of its importance, loses much of its narrativeinterest. No longer a hand-to-hand conflict between coin and paper, — no longer the melancholy spectacle of wise men doing unwise things, and honorable men doing things which, in any other form, they would have been the first to brand with dishonor,—it still continues a long, a wearisome, and often a mortifying struggle: men knowing their duty and refusing to do it, knowing consequences and yet blindly shutting their eyes to them. I will give but one example.
After a careful estimate for the operations of 1782, Congress had called upon the States for eight millions. Up to January, 1783, only four hundred and twenty thousand had come into the Treasury. Four hundred thousand Treasurynotes were almost due; the funds in Europe were overdrawn to the amount of five hundred thousand by the sale of drafts. But Morris, waiting only to cover himself by a special authorization of Congress, made fresh sales upon the hopes of the Dutch loan and the possibility of a new French loan, and still held on —as cautiously as he could, but ever boldly and skilfully — his anxious way through the rocks and shoals that menaced him on every side. He was rewarded, as such men too often are, by calumny and suspicion. But when men came to look closely at his acts, comparing his means with his wants, and the expenditure of the Treasury Board with the expenditure of the Finance Office, it was seen and acknowledged that he had saved the country thirteen millions a year in hard money.
And now, from our stand-point of the Peace, — from 1783,— let us give a parting glance at the ground over which we have passed. We see thirteen Colonies, united by interest, divided by habits, association, and tradition, engaging in a doubtful contest with one of the most powerful and energetic nations which the world had ever seen; we see them begin, as men always do, with very imperfect conceptions of the time it would last, the lengths to which it would carry them, or the sacrifices it would impose ; we see them boldly adopting some measures, timidly shrinking from others, — reasoning justly about some things, reasoning falsely about things equally important, — endowed at times with singular foresight, visited at times by incomprehensible blindness : boatmen on a mighty river, strong themselves and resolute and skilful, plying their oars manfully from first to last, but borne onward by a current which no human science could measure, no human strength could resist.
They knew that the resources of the country were exhaustless ; and they threw themselves upon those resources in the only way by which they could reach them. Their bills of credit were the offspring of enthusiasm and faith. The enthusiasm grew-chill, the faith failed. With a little more enthusiasm, the people would cheerfully have submitted to taxation ; with a little more faith, the Congress would have taxed them. In the end, the people paid for the shortcomings of their enthusiasm by seventy millions of indirect taxation,— taxation through depreciation ; the Congress paid for the shortcomings of their faith by the loss of confidence and respect. The war left them with a Federal debt of seventy million dollars, and State debts of nearly twenty-six millions.
Could this have been avoided ? Could they have done otherwise ? It is easy, when the battle is won, to tell how victory might have been bought cheaper, — when the campaign is ended, to show what might perhaps have brought it to an earlier and more glorious close. It is easy for us, with the whole field before us, to see that from the beginning, from the very first start, although the formula was Taxation, the principle was Independence ; but before we venture to pass sentence, ought we not to pause and weigh well our judgment and our words, — we who, in the fiercer contest through which we are passing, have so long failed to see, that, while the formula is Secession, the principle is Slavery ?