By Charles Morgan for CoinWeek …..
Paper money, that graphically rich form of tender, sits at the periphery of the broader coin-collecting hobby.
It’s a status that is undeserved but understandable. Paper lacks the aura of gold and the ring of silver. It cannot be collected by die state, and its many levels of complexity–not to mention the rarity of some of its types–makes collecting the most historically interesting and beautiful pieces challenging to the average collector.
This is a shame, as the story of paper money is intertwined with the development of the modern world and the success of the American experiment. In fact, the preservation of our nation during its most trying times is owed directly to paper’s ability to borrow, settle debts, and serve as a marker for “real moneys” on deposit.
A modern retelling of the story of paper money is underway. From coffee table books to standard references, the past few years have provided the paper money enthusiast with much needed updates and insights.
This week, gracing my inbox was a new and important work by Nicholas J. Bruyer entitled U.S. Treasury Notes, 1812-1865: An Illustrated History, which will soon be published by Stack’s Bowers.
Bruyer is much more experienced in paper money than the typical collector, and he, like me, saw the Stack’s Bowers sale of the Joel R. Anderson Collection as an important moment for the hobby. It was that sale that served as the impetus for Bruyer to take on one of the most underserved areas of United States paper money: Treasury Note issues from the War of 1812 to the end of the American Civil War.
Treasury Notes and American Economic History
Bruyer’s chapter on Treasury Notes issued during the War of 1812 expands on Donald H. Kagin’s 2019 monograph on the subject, answering some questions that I had regarding the extent of their circulation and the politics surrounding their release. The War of 1812 had a major impact on the redemption of specie payments and the Treasury Department’s ability to manage the government’s expenditures. For this topic, numismatists need to understand the role paper money played alongside the Mint’s issue of specie coinage. To this purpose, Bruyer’s research is illuminating.
Another facet of American economic history that is much discussed outside of numismatic circles is the debate surrounding charters for the First and Second Banks of the United States and the role such institutions should play in the growth of the economy. These two institutions are largely misunderstood due to political polemics both contemporary and modern. Bruyer writes on these issues in an approachable way, discussing the ways that the Bank was scapegoated for economic crises created by Congress and the Treasury Department themselves. Bruyer explains how the Second Bank, and its leadership under the successive administrations of William Jones, Langdon Cheves, and Nicholas Biddle, was able to run a solvent and successful banking operation, issuing sound paper with innovative design motifs – all of which are highly sought today.
With the election of Andrew Jackson to the presidency, popular sentiment against the Bank reached its apogee. Jackson refused to sign the Bank’s second charter, fulfilling a campaign promise. Jackson also criticized incumbent president John Quincy Adams for “playing chess”. The Adams camp called Jackson out for dueling with pistols (he could literally shoot someone…). Sound familiar?
Jackson’s veto mortally wounded the Second Bank of the United States. Congress sought to intervene but could not temper the president. In the end, Jackson’s pet banks benefited and the Second Bank of the United States found itself out of business in 1841. But it was not without major financial repercussions. An economic crisis hit America and hard times wiped out some of the immediate economic gains of the Jackson Administration. Collectors are largely aware of Hard Times tokens: privately issued copper pieces that pillory the politics of the period, namely Jackson and his successor Martin Van Buren.
In U.S. Treasury Notes, 1812-1865: An Illustrated History, one gets a fairly comprehensive narrative of the impact this had on the issuance of United States Treasury Notes. Here you will find the backstory on such issues as the U.S. 1882 Gold $100 Certificate, which features the likeness of Senator Thomas Hart “Old Bullion” Benton, who was a pivotal figure in the economic debates of the 1830s.
Treasury Notes would have an important role to play in the expansion of the American West, the funding of the war with Mexico, and in providing stability during several economic crises that unfolded in the years leading up to the Civil War.
The sinking of SS Central America is well known for the enormous store of San Francisco gold coins and California gold ingots on board. The loss of 425 lives was a major tragedy; so, too, was the loss of much needed specie. Bruyer details the implications of this loss and the measures the government took to shore up the banking system.
The second half of Bruyer’s narrative focuses on Southern secession, its economic implications, and the high cost of prosecuting the Civil War. This period is probably the most written about in terms of currency reference work. Still, Bruyer does a great job in providing clarity and context. He also sees this period as a continuation of a series of decisions made at a much earlier time to deal with earlier crises.
This is a great treatment of a subject that will benefit the paper money collector and the collector of U.S. coins from the earliest years of the United States Mint through to the American Civil War.