I’ve hinted in previous posts that I believe the gold and silver standards were responsible for a remarkable amount of economic discord. There appears to be a well-regarded myth that systems of fixed exchange promote stability. A quick run through the history of Britain and the United States transitioning from the silver standard to the gold standard shows how misguided the belief in this myth really is.
Can Anybody Figure Out How to End a War Without Destroying the Economy?
Just as the history of hyperinflations is inexorably linked with warfare, the costs of combat tell the tale of the American silver standard. There are some arguments that the infant United States experienced hyperinflation during the Revolutionary War:
During the Revolutionary War the Continental dollar lost 99% of its value. The Civil War period did not experience the hyperinflation of the Revolution, but still experienced an annual inflation rate of 20%.
The Continental dollar certainly wasted away like the German papiermark did 140 years later…
…but the question remains whether the depreciation brought the price level to the hyperinflation threshold in the 1770s and 1780s:
The United States has never been a victim of hyperinflation but came close twice – during the Revolutionary War and Civil War – when the government printed currency in order to pay for its war efforts. However, in both of the US cases, inflation never exceeded a 50 percent monthly inflation rate (an informal threshold for hyperinflation), which pales in comparison to history’s most dramatic cases.
The composition of the largely-agrarian Revolutionary Era U.S. shielded the new nation from the effects of the Continental currency collapse:
The skyrocketing inflation was a hardship on the few people who had fixed incomes, but 90 percent of the people were farmers and were not directly affected by that inflation. Debtors benefited by paying off their debts with depreciated paper. The greatest burden was borne by the soldiers of the Continental Army, whose wages—usually in arrears—declined in value every month, weakening their morale and adding to the hardships suffered by their families (Figure 2).
So, the effects of the Revolutionary wartime collapse of the first American currency were rather muted for everyone other than the men doing the actual fighting. How infuriatingly…typical this was. From the dawn of the Republic, calls to ‘support the troops’ inevitably leads to foodstuffs labeled “for military of prison use only.”
As official American inflation rates go back only as far as January 1914, the relationship between warfare and inflation in the U.S. during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries cannot be directly determined. However, there is another way to show how unstable prices were in the early days of the Republic.
Betting it all on Gray
Before the Constitutional Convention was even called in Philadelphia, the United States of America transitioned to a silver standard based upon foreign silver coins, starting on 6 July 1785:
In America’s early years, the colonists used whatever coins they could find in circulation. As most of the settlers came from Europe, it was not surprising that English, Dutch, French, and German coins were commonly seen. However, the best-known and most widely used coin among the citizens turned out to be the Spanish Silver Dollar from the Mexico City Mint.
Then, in 1783, Thomas Jefferson proposed a unique coinage for the United States that was based on the Spanish Silver Dollar and divided into 100 cents. When Congress met on July 6, 1785, to adopt a standard monetary unit, Jefferson’s suggestions were accepted.
To determine the amount of silver to put into the new United States Silver Dollar, Alexander Hamilton weighed a group of Spanish Silver Dollars. According to legend, he used circulated coins that had been worn down and lost some of their silver content. Thus, the weight of a newly-minted U.S. Silver Dollar was set at the weight of a worndown Spanish one – 26.96 grams versus the Spanish 27.07 grams.
So, the dollar came from…Spain. Mexico City is closer than the capitals of the Old World, but the United States of America was a major seafarer from the outset. American animosity towards Great Britain was obviously still very high in 1785, but why would the nascent United States base the new standard on weight of the Spanish Dollar instead of Pound Sterling?
1717 September 21
Report of Sir Isaac Newton, Master of the Royal Mint, to the Lords Commissioners of His Majesty’s Treasury, on the price and relationship of gold to silver and the consequences for the coinage of the kingdom.
Newton prepared the report in response to the Treasury’s request for an account of the large amounts of gold coming in to the Mint and the flight of silver to India. In his report, Newton devalued the guinea, coined in standard gold at 916 parts out of 1000 fine, to £1.1s.6d. This was equivalent to a price of £3.17s.10½d. per standard ounce of gold and £4.4s.11½d. per ounce of fine gold. Except for the period of the Napoleonic wars when cash payment in gold was suspended, this price persisted until the early 20th century.
Even though the British currency alludes directly to silver, linkage between the Pound and Sterling was severed more than 250 years prior to the collapse of Bretton Woods. Master of the Royal Mint Sir Isaac Newton (yes, that Newton) inadvertently triggered a silver shortage in December 1717 when George I took and implemented Newton’s September recommendations:
[The gold standard] owed much to Great Britain’s accidental adoption of a de facto gold standard in 1717, when Sir Isaac Newton, as master of the mint, set too low a gold price for silver, inadvertently causing all but very worn and clipped silver coin to disappear from circulation.
“Set too low a price?” Followed by shortages? Does this sound familiar to anyone? Earth to economists and economic historians—the gold standard from Day One was an imposition of price controls! This does not bode well for the ability for coins of the American silver standard to ensure price stability. Not that the weight of U.S. silver coins mattered much for the first nine years after the Confederation Congress adopted the silver standard:
The first silver dollars – and the first silver half dollars – were delivered on the same day, October 15, 1794. Chief coiner Henry Voigt was responsible for 5,300 half dollars that day, and they apparently went into commerce as soon as they were released.
The dollars were another matter. Precisely 1,758 of them were coined on the fifteenth, and they were immediately delivered to Mint Director David Rittenhouse for distribution to dignitaries as souvenirs.
…which might explain why the silver standard was unable to prevent the first serious financial panic in American history:
During the US financial panic of 1792, Wall Street’s first crash, securities prices lost nearly a quarter of their value in two weeks. Nonetheless, the crisis, which came when the modern U.S. markets were less than two years old, is off the screens of most scholars, including even financial historians. In part that is because the crisis was managed incredibly well, mostly by Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton. Hence, there was almost no economic fallout for the US economy from the financial crisis.
When Cowen, Sylla and Wright call the Panic a “Wall Street crash,” that is not a euphemistic description:
The sharp run-ups of prices during July-August 1791 and December 1791-January 1792 are more interesting for present purposes, as they were followed by crashes. Worth noting also are rather wild price swings from January to March 1792 in New York, the center of speculative activity leading up the panic and crash of March-April 1792. Such swings are less evident in Philadelphia and Boston, due in part to less frequent data points. The period of steepest decline is of course the March-April 1792 panic-crash just noted, but there also a steep decline in mid-August 1791. This was a mini-panic that turns out to have been a trial run for the crisis-containment techniques Hamilton was to employ during the more serious price collapse in 1792.
Besides slaying the Panic of 1792, Hamilton was instrumental in creating U.S. currency and bringing the U.S. Mint into being:
In 1790, Alexander Hamilton was assigned the task of establishing a mint and creating a set of guidelines for America’s coins. Hamilton submitted a report on July 20th of that year, where he made numerous suggestions regarding the composition and denominations. In addition to gold and silver, he strongly advocated copper pieces.
A major step was taken two years later with the Mint Act of April 2, 1792. This revolutionary piece of legislation set forth crucial regulations for a United States mint and what it was to produce.
With Britain on a de facto gold standard, the U.S. would set the path for silver with the Coinage Act of 1792 (unofficially known as the Mint Act):
The monetary legislation of 1792 provided for the free and unlimited printing of silver “dollars” containing 1/1.293 troy ounce of silver, and of gold “eagles” containing 1/1.939 troy ounce of gold, as well as full-bodied fractional silver and gold coins, and a double eagle. The law went on to provide that one full-weight gold eagle would be “lawful tender by their respective weights.” The U.S. was thus on a bimetallic standard with a mint price for silver of $1.293, a mint price for gold of $19.39, and a mint ratio of 15:1.
Congress, through the Coinage Act of 1792, had set the silver standard’s…standard:
Oddly enough, this translated into an international standard, as these figures are from London (the largest commodities marketplace in the world at the time). This international standard became a silver price control valued at P=1.293 (price ceiling and floor).
Why wasn’t the economic juggernaut of Great Britain setting this standard in 1792 instead of a nascent New World nation? Because Britain was on a de facto gold standard and de jure (legislatively-imposed) bimetallic standard, while the U.S. had transitioned to a de facto silver standard and de jure bimetallic standard:
The market prices for the two metals subsequently hovered between the ratios of 15:1 and 16:1, so that in practice only silver circulated, and only silver was used to discharge debts.
“So that in practice only silver circulated.” Not only were the gold and silver standards price controls, they broke down frequently. Remind me, what exactly is the purpose of the gold and silver standards?
Oh right—“price stability.” That purpose would be put to the severe test starting in 1792. Britain became heavily embroiled in the French Revolutionary Wars beginning that same year. Five years into the War of the First Coalition, the Bank of England suspended specie payments on 27 February 1797. The reasons for this were numerous:
The most influential account of the suspension of cash payments was given by John Clapham in his history of the Bank of England. He enumerates the elements that led to the decision: pressure from the huge expense of war efforts and advances to the government, adverse exchanges, external drain to Ireland and Pitt’s attempt to unite Irish and English economies, and the final stroke: the invasion panic.
Or not—what’s this about an invasion panic?
On 21 December 1796, a French fleet arrived at Bantry Bay, Ireland. Though the French did not land, because of bad weather and confusion in the command, they stayed in the Bay for two weeks without an attack from British fleet, which was then in Spithead. The invasion of Bantry Bay has not been featured in most economic histories, but in fact, this event caused a financial crisis in Ireland, a crisis that preceded the Newcastle panic. Cork, which was situated close to Bantry Bay, was also seriously affected by the event. On 6 January, it was said that ‘all Business here is at a stand, no Money in Circulation but what is paid Tradesmen & Labourers.’ The shortage of money – which means coins – undoubtedly started immediately after the arrival of the French fleet, for the City of Cork Committee referred to an ‘alarm’ on 24 December. What is more significant about the Cork Committee is that, on this occasion, the Committee recommended stopping cash payments, and that recommendation was obligingly adopted by the Cork bankers.
Just the threat of the French landing in Ireland threw the British financial system into disarray. It’s funny how warfare by itself (or the threat of it coming onto a combatant country’s shores) has had so much influence over the course of economic and financial events throughout history, but most often is referred to as coincidental or at most ancillary in historical texts. The first specie suspensions in Cork set off a chain reaction that migrated into England:
During the 1797 suspension crisis, the adoption of this method spread surprisingly widely and quickly. Following the run on the Newcastle banks on 18 February, a meeting of Newcastle bankers took place. In the meeting they agreed to suspend cash payments on Monday if the demand for specie continued. On Monday, all the banks in Newcastle suspended payments.
Nine days later, the panic led to the Bank of England suspending specie. The so-called abandonment of the gold standard occurred in the waning days of the First Coalition, certainly in part to ensure the British had the finances to fight the upcoming War of the Second Coalition. But a secondary reason was the silver standard failing to prevent another financial shock on the other side of the Atlantic:
The immediate cause of the Panic of 1797 was a series of land speculation schemes that issued commercial paper backed by claims to Western lands. The largest such scheme was created by the Boston merchant James Greenleaf and Philadelphia financiers Robert Morris and John Nicholson. The new federal capital under construction, Washington D.C., required private investment for development. By late 1793, a partnership of the three speculators had acquired 40 percent of the building lots in the new capital. Greenleaf planned to finance these purchases with loans from Dutch banks, but the French invasion of the Netherlands prevented this. Lacking funds, the three speculators then formed the North American Land Company in 1795 to consolidate their land holdings from previous speculations. They planned, once again, to sell stock in this company to European investors.
However, quick sales failed to materialize as European investors grew wary of American land schemes. Unclear titles and the poor quality of much of the company’s land further slowed sales. Morris and Nicholson then began to finance their purchases by issuing their own notes, which creditors readily accepted because of Morris’s immense financial stature. These notes became themselves the subject of speculation, depreciating rapidly as a medium of exchange.
Meanwhile, continued war in Europe constricted credit, exposing the precariousness of the North American Land Company scheme and others like it. Rampant business failure plagued Eastern port cities by late 1796, and land speculators less preeminent than Morris soon found themselves in debtors’ prison. Among these was James Wilson, whose confinement, combined with rumors of Morris’s imprisonment, caused panic. Morris and Nicholson’s notes, by now totaling $10,000,000, began trading at just one-eighth their value. By 1797, their paper pyramid collapsed altogether.
Some argue at the suspension of specie payments in Britain exacerbated the financial crisis. This argument strikes me (and this author in all likelihood) as putting the cart before the horse:
At that time in history, in both Europe and the infant United States, monetary policy was not controlled by the governments but by an oligarchy of private financiers both in England and America. While there was fiat currency being used at the time, it was back by species – gold and silver. The dominant commercial bank at the time was the Bank of England which was heavily involved with the rampant land speculation that was going on as America began its great expansion. Even though Bank of England was England’s Central Bank, it was privately owned and had been authorized to set interest rates and print money. Many today say this is how the Federal Reserve works but that is not true. The Federal Reserve is a government institution, not a private institution.
Soon after the meeting of parliament an act was passed (3rd of May 1797), known as the Bank Restriction Act, requiring the bank not to pay cash except for sums under 20s. This act would have expired 24th June in the same year, but on 22nd June it was continued to the next session, and, in November 1797, another act was passed extending the restriction until six months after the termination of the war.
This “temporary” move would last 24 years (Britain would resume specie payments on 1 May 1821 as part of formally transitioning to a de jure gold standard)…though I have trouble seeing why this requires the gnashing of teeth:
|Year||British Official Price
(British pounds per fine ounce
end of year)
|London Market Price
(British £ [1718-1949] or
U.S. $ [1950-2011] per fine ounce)
The disinflationary/deflationary pressures after the Battle of Waterloo brought the London gold price “back into line” by 1820 and the British resumed specie payments the following year. Am I missing something?
I am more puzzled by the fact that twenty years of war never led British authorities to revalue their gold price control of P=4.25, especially considering the wars in Europe consumed the attention of the British Army and Royal Navy nonstop until April 1814.
Meanwhile, the ‘market’ price of silver was set at the price level of P=1.293…
…where it remained for more than 20 years (until 1814). Why 1814? Many reasons come to mind. 1814 was the peak year of financial strain on Great Britain’s finances:
In 1800 the price of standard gold rose to £4:5s per ounce, and continued to fluctuate at more or less premium until 1819. In 1811 it was quoted at £4:17:6, and in 1814, as high as £5:8s per ounce. Conversely stated, the value of the £5 was then at its lowest point, £3:10:10, being nearly 30 per cent discount.
To fight several wars, Britain was heavily indebted and was experiencing inflation. But there’s a problem here. The rise in gold prices during the Napoleonic Wars years had no effect on silver prices until the same year Napoleon was defeated and exiled to Elba. British banks had suspended specie in 1797 and since 1717 silver hadn’t circulated much. The War of the Sixth Coalition had embroiled most of Europe, so turning to transatlantic sources…
During the same time frame, the U.S. experienced a massive increase in banking:
Thus, from 1811 to 1815 the number of banks in the country increased from 117 to 212; in addition, there had sprung up 35 private unincorporated banks, which were illegal in most states but were allowed to function under war conditions. Specie in the 30 reporting banks, 26 percent of the total number in 1811, amounted to $2.57 million in 1811; this figure had risen to $5.40 million in the 98 reporting banks in 1815, or 40 percent of the total. Notes and deposits on the other hand, were $10.95 million in 1811 and had increased to $31.6 million in 1815 among the reporting banks.
The author uses 1811 as a baseline—the year prior to the outbreak of the War of 1812. So, are these peacetime-versus-wartime figures? Or is it because the First Bank of the United States (BUS) lost its charter that year?
Recharter was fought for by the Madison administration aided by nearly all the Federalists in Congress, but was narrowly defeated by the bulk of the Democratic-Republicans, including the hard-money Old Republican forces.
The author is libertarian hero Ron Paul, so I tend towards the latter. Either way, I’m certain he doesn’t consider that the of the BUS shuttering on 3 March 1811 might be the impetus for the near-doubling of banking institutions in the United States during the four year period following the liquidation of the BUS. I have my suspicions that he will blame the federal government.
But the aggregates scarcely tell the whole story since, as we have seen, the expansion took place solely outside of New England, while New England banks continued on their relatively sound basis and did not inflate their credit. The record expansion of the number of banks was in Pennsylvania, which incorporated no less than 41 new banks in the month of March 1814, contrasting to only four banks—all in Philadelphia—until that date. It is instructive to compare the pyramid ratios of banks in various reporting states in 1815: only 1.96:1 in Massachusetts, 2.7:1 in New Hampshire, and 2.42:1 in Rhode Island, as contrasted to 19.2:1 in Pennsylvania, 18.46:1 in South Carolina, and 18.73:1 in Virginia.
Wait, what’s up with New England? One might think the region’s loyalties were to the Crown rather than the United States…
New England banks were more conservative than in other regions, and the region was strongly opposed to the war with England, so little public debt was purchased in New England. Yet imported goods, textile manufacturers, and munitions had to be purchased in the region by the federal government.
New England opposed war with its namesake. What a surprise…yes, this time it genuinely is surprising. Boston tea party, Lexington, Concord, Bunker Hill—this region was where the Revolutionary War literally began. The Springfield Armory (in Springfield, Massachusetts) was the primary manufacturing facility for American military firearms from 1777 to 1968, so New England’s importance to a war effort in the 1810s was unquestioned. But then Ron Paul feels the need to flog the closest available government:
The government therefore encouraged the formation of new and recklessly inflationary banks in the Mid-Atlantic, Southern, and Western states, which printed huge quantities of new notes to purchase government bonds. The federal government thereupon used these notes to purchase manufactured goods in New England.
In analyzing the loans made by the government from 1812 and 1814, of the $61 million authorized by the Congress, only $45 million had been sold, and less than $8 million had been sold at par; the discounts varied from twelve to twenty percent. In 1814, an offering of $25 million brought the government only $10 million.
I can already hear the next question: Well, what about treasury notes, hotshot?
Of the additional $30 million in treasury notes authorized by the Congress after 1812 [(the first issue in June 1812 was $5 million)], only $17 million were actually circulated, and only a small part of this sum was in circulation at any one time.
This sounds to me that the entire country’s enthusiasm for the war was quite tepid. It’s almost as if the myriad of private banks had sprung up to fill the void after the largest financial institution in the country was shuttered in 1811 but also had no intention of tending to the country’s financial needs during a time of war. Still, I find it odd that Ron Paul theorizes New England banks aimed to sabotage the war effort in the summer of 1814…
This monetary situation meant the United States government was paying for New England manufactured goods with a mass of inflated bank paper outside the region. Soon, as the New England banks called upon the other banks to redeem their notes in specie, the mass of inflating banks faced immediate insolvency.
…which supposedly leads to a final showdown with the federal government. Before ascending to this supposed climax, I will give a little background on the actual war.
The Flames of August
The War of 1812 for the first two years consisted of two major conflicts. The first was a blue-water naval war that began as a series of single ship frigate-to-frigate engagements in 1812 that favored the U.S. Navy due to the outsized and over-gunned frigates in its fleet (the USN vessels were constructed in such a manner to counter the Royal Navy’s overwhelming superiority in sheer number of frigates).
Naturally, the largest naval power on Earth responded to its minor losses by gradually imposing a massive blockade as more of the Royal Navy’s European squadrons (centered around huge ships-of-the-line that vastly outclassed the mere frigates composing the USN’s battle fleet in every way but speed) became available when Napoleon fell upon the ropes in 1813 and 1814; the RN finally managing on 31 May 1814 to patrol the entirety of the American coast. With no hope of breaking the British blockade, American ocean-going warships turned to fighting British privateers and joining American vessels already engaged in commerce raiding.
The other was an intense campaign aimed at conquering Canada. Of particular note was the 27 April 1813 Battle of York, where American forces laid waste and burned the city that today is known as Toronto. The American land-based aggressiveness seems odd even 200 years later because most of the American grievances seemed related to the oppressiveness of British naval policy (and what is more oppressive than a wide ranging blockade by huge naval squadrons that plunder and burn coastal towns at will)? But in effect for two years the American military forces held an upper hand toward an inadequate, Canada-based adversary.
All that changed once Napoleon was defeated and exiled to Elba and a certain bloodied veteran British Army officer named Robert Ross was freed up following the defeat of the French forces on the Iberian Peninsula. The conclusion of the Peninsula War and War of the Sixth Coalition opened the floodgates, permitting the full wrath of the British military to be directed at a pesky breakaway colony.
The United Kingdom of Great Britain dispatched thousands of soldiers and marines under Major General Ross to the Royal Navy’s blockade headquarters in Bermuda, from where over 4,000 British troops were transported to and landed in Maryland on 19 August 1814. Encountering and defeating a local militia force at the Battle of Blandensburg, the region became defenseless against the Royal Marines and army regulars under the command of General Ross, who proceeded to burn Washington D.C. to the ground on 24 August.
This was a pretty dramatic crescendo to the British campaign, right? Here’s Ron Paul’s climax:
It was at this point that a fateful decision was made by the U.S. government and concurred in by the state governments outside of New England. As the banks all faced failure, the governments, in August 1814, permitted all of them to suspend specie payments—that is to stop all redemption of notes and deposits in gold or silver—and yet to continue in operation. In short, one of the most flagrant violations of property rights in American history, the banks were permitted to waive their contractual obligations to pay in specie while they themselves could expand their loans and operations and force their own debtors to repay their loans as usual.
Nope. The widespread suspension of specie payments only began after Washington, D.C. had been set aflame:
The Congress, the president and many of the dignitaries had already fled the city when the British arrived in August 1814 to burn the capitol, the White House, and almost all the city’s public buildings. The panic that occurred caused runs on the banks for specie, and all the banks in Washington and Baltimore immediately suspended payment of specie. The suspension spread to the banks in New York, Philadelphia, New Jersey, Virginia, Ohio and Kentucky. Only the banks in New England and the Bank of Nashville in Tennessee continued to make payments of specie. However, about eighteen country banks in the New England area occasionally used suspension as an excuse not to make specie payments.
Those are some crafty bastards, those country bankers. The federal government did not orchestrate the specie suspension at the end of August; they were too busy fleeing from the flames consuming Washington, D.C. and the looming siege against Baltimore (Major General Robert Ross and his soldiers were on the march toward the Maryland center of commerce, which they reached in September).
I can hear the attempts at rebuttal: Well, one source from 1999! What does that prove?
That the detailed account from 1842 wasn’t harsh enough?
On the 30th of August, 1814, the Philadelphia banks suspended specie payments for the first time [sic], and the other banks in the middle and southern states within a week or two of that date. The New Orleans banks had suspended payment in the April previous; but the banks of Kentucky and Ohio till about the 1st of January, 1815; and the only bank then in Tennessee did not suspend payment till July or August, 1815. Through the whole of this, the first [sic] general suspension of specie payments, the banks of New England continued to pay specie, with the exception of a few banks in Maine that stopped payment early in 1814.
The British had launched an assault and occupied Maine beginning in April 1814, the same month the Royal Navy’s blockade drained New Orleans’ banks of specie which triggered a bank run. Many depictions of the first suspension of specie payments in American history are missing an important element—General Ross’s capture and destruction of the national capital nearly cleaved the U.S. in two. Craven American bankers were wiggling out of their responsibilities while their nation was under attack from North to South, running a serious risk of not only losing the war but annihilating the U.S.A. at age 38.