(Week 16 - Friday, Nov. 28)
On June 22, 1775, the Second Continental Congress meeting in Philadelphia assumed the power of sovereignty by issuing the first currency that was common to all the Colonies, the "Continental Currency". This act could be deemed to be the effective break with England, though it preceded the Declaration of Independence by slightly over a year. This was a publicly-issued currency, not tied to precious metals, commodities, land banks, or other forms of "backing".
There is a common "wisdom" that assumes that the eventual failure of the Continental Currency proves that the issuance of money should be left to private banks. In fact, the oft-repeated phrase "not worth a Continental" arises from this period. This phrase is, in turn, routinely picked up and repeated by those who argue against the public issuance of currency. The historical record, however, indicates quite a different story. The Continental Congress authorized and printed $241 million, but after accounting for the redemption of worn bills, there were never more than about $200 million in circulation at any one time. The British spared no efforts at trying to render the currency worthless by counterfeiting and distributing this amount many times over (estimated at one to two billion).
It has long been recognized that to debauch their currency is an effective way to undermine the power and will of an adversary, and the Revolutionary War period was not the only time that this principle was used by the British to further its interests. In the 1790's they engaged in a counterfeiting campaign to destroy the Assignats, a publicly-issued currency of the French Revolutionary period. When contesting the Dutch over New Amsterdam (New York) they even flooded the colony with Indian wampum (beaded sea shells used for ceremonial purposes), which the Dutch had adopted as currency.
The British counterfeiting campaign was massive and sophisticated. Benjamin Franklin, an advocate of paper money, noted:
"The artists they employed performed so well that immense quantities of these counterfeits which issued from the British Government in New York, were circulated among the inhabitants of all the states, before the fraud was detected. This operated significantly in depreciating the whole mass."
They ran an ad in a British-occupied New York paper which read:
"Persons going into other Colonies may be supplied with any Number of counterfeit Congress-Notes, for the Price of the Paper per Ream. They are so neatly and exactly executed that there is no Risque in getting them off, it being almost impossible to discover, that they are not genuine."
This "unparalleled piece" prompted George Washington to comment, "... no Artifices are left untried by the Enemy to injure us." In spite of this, Continental Currency continued to function reasonably well. After three years of war it was still exchanged at $1.75 against $1.00 of coinage. This led and exasperated General Clinton to complain to Lord Germaine (cabinet secretary in charge of war in the American colonies), "The experiments suggested by your lordships have been tried, no assistance that could be drawn from the power of gold or the arts of counterfeiting have been left untried, but still the currency . . . has not failed." The currency did finally collapse, but not before seeing the new nation through its birth pangs, prompting Thomas Paine to write, "Every stone in the bridge that has carried us over, seems to have a claim upon our esteem. But this (Continental Currency) was a cornerstone, and its usefulness cannot be forgotten."
Evidently its usefulness has largely been forgotten, and what remains in the culture to commemorate its critical importance is the phase "not worth a Continental". The eventual collapse of the Continental Currency is very frequently cited as evidence that the issuance of money cannot be trusted to the government, and should instead be left to private banks, but these sources virtually never mention the massive counterfeiting of the currency by the British (as well as private counterfeiters encouraged and protected by the British). How often this is a willful omission is hard to say, but I have many times heard it repeated reflexively even by those whose intention of the moment was evidently not to make a monetary argument. This is an example of how our culture and founding national mythology has been co-opted into an effective, though largely unconscious, conspiracy to cause us to forget our true monetary heritage.
The complete set of columns from this series is posted at the following websites.