The Private Coinage Ban: Why Your Dollars Ain't What They Used To Be

January 16, 2013 - 5:20 PM

Everybody knows what will happen if you set up a private mint in your basement, stamp out a few coins and call them "nickels" or "dimes." You won't circulate much longer than they will.

Most Americans today would recoil at the suggestion that coinage could or should be issued privately. They're unaware that private coinage has a rich history in the United States.

The U.S. Constitution expressly forbids the states to print paper money. It grants the Congress the power to issue coinage. But nowhere does it prohibit private parties from creating either paper currency or metallic coin. For seven decades, Americans used gold and silver coins from both public and private mints and paper currency issued by private banks and companies.

Even today, private paper money is not illegal as long as you don't break a few important rules: Don't imitate the appearance of government notes (that's counterfeiting) and don't demand payment of dollar debts in anything but government dollars. Check out the Wikipedia entry for "private currency" and you'll find that "Today, there are over four-thousand privately issued currencies in more than 35 countries. These include commercial trade exchanges that use barter credits as units of exchange, private gold and silver exchanges, local paper money (such as "BerkShares"), computerized systems of credits and debits, and electronic currencies in circulation, such as digital gold currency." A couple million BerkShares (denominated in dollars) have circulated in western Massachusetts since 2006. The BerkShares Web site lists more than 400 local businesses that accept them.

The history of how private, metallic coinage came to be illegal is both fascinating and instructive. Within the first year of the Civil War, President Lincoln and the (Northern) Congress wanted to print paper money to help finance the conflict. Raising direct taxes too high, they figured, would risk stoking the fires of anti-war fever. Printing paper didn't make things any cheaper (and certainly didn't things any more honest either). It just meant that Northerners paid for the war both in higher taxes and higher prices as the value of fiat paper money plummeted. People spent the paper stuff and hoarded gold and silver as protection from the inflation, resulting in a severe shortage of coin. By late 1862, true to famed Gresham's Law, coins had all but vanished.

It's tough to do business if you have no cents. So businesses themselves came to the rescue. At first, and very briefly, merchants started giving change in the form of postage stamps but their flimsiness wouldn't do. A Boston businessman named John Gault developed a protective brass encasement with a see-through window but the government took care of him when it ordered post offices to stop selling stamps for use as currency. (So the next time someone asks you, "Who is John Gault?" you'll know how to answer.)

Merchants then introduced what became known as "Civil War tokens." They minted more than 25 million of the mostly one- and two-cent copper, lead, brass or bronze pieces-more than enough to fill the needs of trade in the Northern states where they circulated. It stands to reason, doesn't it? If innovative, profit-seeking shopkeepers can't make change for their customers, they don't sit around twiddling their thumbs and wait for the politicians who created the problem to figure it out. They seek ways to fix it themselves.

This, indeed, is the story of money itself. It didn't appear by some central command. It evolved in the marketplace of exchange from one form to a better one, one evolutionary trade at a time. Parliaments, Congresses and Emperors came along later and stole it, pure and simple if not fair and square.

I own a small collection of those "Civil War tokens." They typically bear the name of a merchant like "C. S. Patterson, Druggist," a patriotic statement like "Stand By the Flag," or a slogan such as "Pro Bono Publico" (For the Public Good). Though many of them bear the words "One Cent" or "Two Cents," one popular version stated "I. O. U. 1 Cent." Another one said, "Value Me As You Please." One even declared "Not One Cent" on its back side so as to differentiate it from any government-issued coin.

When token issuer Gustavus Lindenmueller refused to redeem his tokens presented by a New York railroad company. Instead of doing the sensible thing-protecting property rights by allowing the company to sue Lindenmueller for redress in the Courts-Congress banned private coinage altogether. The minting and use of non-government coins was declared punishable in 1864 by a fine of up to $2,000 (at least $50,000 in today's dollars), a prison term of up to five years, or both. That served the interests of the government, but it put all of the token makers out of business and shortchanged American citizens of their money and an important liberty. It was tantamount to calling in the B-52s to weed a tulip bed.

In my collection is one of those "Gustavus Lindenmueller" tokens bearing his bearded image. While I wish old Gus had kept his word, my guts tell me Congress was going to monopolize the stuff sooner or later, one way or the other.

Private coinage was banned because it worked. Governments don't care much for competition or for sound and honest money. The Civil War ban on private coinage has remained the law of the land since June 1864-a hallmark on the shameful path of monetary debasement.

This, my friends, is one of the reasons why your dollars ain't what they used to be.

Editor's Note: Lawrence W. Reed is president of the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, NY and Atlanta, GA (www.fee.org).