(Week 25 - Monday, Jan. 26 / 2009)
History, it might be said, is not merely a chain of happenstance, but can be thought of as a meaningful weaving of times, people and events that reveal the workings of providence in worldly affairs. Such is strongly suggested by the American experience. What lesson does it have for us does at this paradoxically auspicious moment of crisis?
Time and again this nation has arrived at a juncture where it was threatened outwardly by affairs seemingly beyond its control. At each such reckoning, I would suggest, it has saved itself by a return to the monetary inspiration that gave it birth.
In 1690, when the seed of what we call the United States was a thin line of struggling settlements along the eastern seaboard, one colony, Massachusetts, became the first government in the Western world to issue paper money. These "bills of credit" were a public scrip whose purpose was to facilitate, not the designs of private interests, but the commonweal of the People. The colony prospered, the practice was adopted by its neighbors, and the beginnings of a new nation germinated.
In 1775, the Crown and Parliament of England had effectively forbidden the Colonies to issue their own money, save with the approval of the Crown and Parliament. This resulted in widespread economic distress, and threatened the undoing of the nascent social order the colonists had painstaking constructed. In response they called a Continental Congress, which then issued a "Continental Currency". This exercise of the monetary power was effectively the assumption of national sovereignty, and the first defining act of a new nation. The political separation heralded by the Declaration of Independence in 1776 followed as a matter of course.
In 1836, the charter for the Second Bank of the United States (modeled after the Bank of England) came up for renewal in the Congress in a bid to become a permanent American institution. It was vetoed by President Jackson whose campaign slogan was, "Bank and no Jackson, or no bank and Jackson". He had asserted:
"The bold effort the present bank had made to control the government, the distress it had wantonly produced . . . are but premonitions of the fate that awaits the American people should they be deluded into a perpetuation of this institution or the establishment of another like it."
Jackson's veto had the effect of putting off for almost eight decades the day when the country would have "another like it".
In 1860, the United States faced the challenge of whether the ". . . new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal . . . can long endure". Outwardly it was a military conflict between the Union and the Confederate States. On a deeper level, it was a battle over how and by whom money would be created and issued. Financial interests had worked to divide the states between North and South, thereby undermining the American example of a nation made strong and independent through the power to issue its own money. President Lincoln was pressured to borrow the funds to fight the war, but responded instead by creating $450 million in "Greenbacks", a public currency issued directly by the government, much like the Continental Currency. Had he succumbed, this sum would still theoretically be part of the "national debt", but compounded to an amount many times the original. In practical terms it would likely have caused the financial ruination of the nation that was supposedly saved on the battlefield.
In 1896, at the Democratic nominating convention in Chicago, dark-horse Presidential candidate Williams Jennings Bryan declared in his famous Cross-of-Gold speech:
"The gold standard has slain its tens of thousands. If they ask us why we do not embody in our platform all the things that we believe in, we reply that when we have restored the money of the Constitution, all other necessary reforms will be possible, but until this is done there is no other reform that can be accomplished."
The assembled gathering thundered its approval, and on the strength of this position, Bryan went on to win the Democratic nomination three times. This was the high point of the widespread Populist movement that had formed up following the Civil War virtually around the issue of preserving the Greenback as a national institution, and resisting the imposition of a gold standard on money by the banking establishment.
In 1942, the nation was still struggling to emerge from the Great Depression, a collapse brought on, many believe, by the establishment of a monetary system based on "debt" through the Federal Reserve Act of 1913. With the images of battleships burning at Pearl Harbor still fresh in mind, Congress was persuaded to pass the Steagall Amendment to the Stabilization Act of 1942, which established a parity price (one that would cover the cost of production, living expenses and seed for another round) for 45 basic raw materials, including the 25 most basic storable agricultural commodities. The domestic gold standard having collapsed in 1933, the value of the dollar was thus effectively reestablished on the basis of the actual economic worth of real commodities fairly monetized. The result was that the economy roared to life, and continued to prosper even during demobilization, post-war reconstruction, and the Korean War emergency. President Truman even balanced half of his budgets.
Now it is 2009. The legislation that established the "parity dollar" was undone in the early fifties, and the long slide into our present crushing "debt" began in earnest. The current financial crisis is not the first time that we as a nation have faced a threat to our essential well-being, or even very existence. In response to such crises in the past - 1690, 1775, 1836, 1860, 1896, 1942 – the nation saved itself by harkening back to its original monetary inspiration, each time taking the application of the principle a bit higher.
The providential import of this time is being felt across the land, as evidenced by the impulse on the part of millions of people to come together in thousands of gatherings, large and small, in Washington DC and across the nation (not to mention around the world). They are it seems, regardless of partisan feelings, intent on sharing in the momentousness of this week's Presidential inauguration. That being so, a question yet hangs heavy over the land - "What do we do now?"
At this auspicious juncture the nation more than ever needs to return, as it has always done, to its monetary roots for the answer, but, incredibly, we seem to have largely forgotten our own authentic heritage. It needs to be rediscovered, and taken to new heights of realization very soon.
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The complete set of columns from this series is posted at the following websites.