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Money in the American Colonies

Ron Michener, University of Virginia

“There certainly can’t be a greater Grievance to a Traveller, from one Colony to another, than the different values their Paper Money bears.” An English visitor, circa 1742 (Kimber, 1998, p. 52).

The monetary arrangements in use in America before the Revolution were extremely varied. Each colony had its own conventions, tender laws, and coin ratings, and each issued its own paper money. The monetary system within each colony evolved over time, sometimes dramatically, as when Massachusetts abolished the use of paper money within her borders in 1750 and returned to a specie standard. Any encyclopedia-length overview of the subject will, unavoidably, need to generalize, and few generalizations about the colonial monetary system are immune to criticism because counterexamples can usually be found somewhere in the historical record. Those readers who find their interest piqued by this article would be well advised to continue their study of the subject by consulting the more detailed discussions available in Brock (1956, 1975, 1992), Ernst (1973), and McCusker (1978).

Units of Account

In the colonial era the unit of account and the medium of exchange were distinct in ways that now seem strange. An example from modern times suggests how the ancient system worked. Nowadays race horses are auctioned in England using guineas as the unit of account, although the guinea coin has long since disappeared. It is understood by all who participate in these auctions that payment is made according to the rule that one guinea equals 21s. Guineas are the unit of account, but the medium of exchange accepted in payment is something else entirely. The unit of account and medium of exchange were similarly disconnected in colonial times (Adler, 1900).

The units of account in colonial times were pounds, shillings, and pence (1£ = 20s., 1s. = 12d.).1 These pounds, shillings, and pence, however, were local units, such as New York money, Pennsylvania money, Massachusetts money, or South Carolina money and should not be confused with sterling. To do so is comparable to treating modern Canadian dollars and American dollars as interchangeable simply because they are both called “dollars.” All the local currencies were less valuable than sterling.2 A Spanish piece of eight, for instance, was worth 4 s. 6 d. sterling at the British mint. The same piece of eight, on the eve of the Revolution, would have been treated as 6 s. in New England, as 8 s. in New York, as 7 s. 6 d. in Philadelphia, and as 32 s. 6 d. in Charleston (McCusker, 1978).

Colonists assigned local currency values to foreign specie coins circulating there in these pounds, shillings and pence. The same foreign specie coins (most notably the Spanish dollar) continued to be legal tender in the United States in the first half of the nineteenth century as well as a considerable portion of the circulating specie (Andrews, 1904, pp. 327-28; Michener and Wright, 2005, p. 695). Because the decimal divisions of the dollar so familiar to us today were a newfangled innovation in the early Republic and because the same coins continued to circulate the traditional units of account were only gradually abandoned. Lucius Elmer, in his account of the early settlement of Cumberland County, New Jersey, describes how “Accounts were generally kept in this State in pounds, shillings, and pence, of the 7 s. 6 d. standard, until after 1799, in which year a law was passed requiring all accounts to be kept in dollars or units, dimes or tenths, cents or hundredths, and mills or thousandths. For several years, however, aged persons inquiring the price of an article in West Jersey or Philadelphia, required to told the value in shillings and pence, they not being able to keep in mind the newly-created cents or their relative value . . . So lately as 1820 some traders and tavern keepers in East Jersey kept their accounts in [New] York currency.”3 About 1820, John Quincy Adams (1822) surveyed the progress that had been made in familiarizing the public with the new units:

“It is now nearly thirty years since our new monies of account, our coins, and our mint, have been established. The dollar, under its new stamp, has preserved its name and circulation. The cent has become tolerably familiarized to the tongue, wherever it has been made by circulation familiar to the hand. But the dime having been seldom, and the mille never presented in their material images to the people, have remained . . . utterly unknown. . . . Even now, at the end of thirty years, ask a tradesman, or shopkeeper, in any of our cities, what is a dime or mille, and the chances are four in five that he will not understand your question. But go to New York and offer in payment the Spanish coin, the unit of the Spanish piece of eight [one reale], and the shop or market-man will take it for a shilling. Carry it to Boston or Richmond, and you shall be told it is not a shilling, but nine pence. Bring it to Philadelphia, Baltimore, or the City of Washington, and you shall find it recognized for an eleven-penny bit; and if you ask how that can be, you shall learn that, the dollar being of ninety-pence, the eight part of it is nearer to eleven than to any other number . . .4 And thus we have English denominations most absurdly and diversely applied to Spanish coins; while our own lawfully established dime and mille remain, to the great mass of the people, among the hidden mysteries of political economy – state secrets.”5

It took many more decades for the colonial unit of account to disappear completely. Elmer’s account (Elmer, 1869, p. 137) reported that “Even now, in New York, and in East Jersey, where the eighth of a dollar, so long the common coin in use, corresponded with the shilling of account, it is common to state the price of articles, not above two or three dollars, in shillings, as for instance, ten shillings rather than a dollar and a quarter.”

Not only were the unit of account and medium of exchange disconnected in an unfamiliar manner, but terms such as money and currency did not mean precisely the same thing in colonial times that they do today. In colonial times, “money” and “currency” were practically synonymous and signified whatever was conventionally used as a medium of exchange. The word “currency” today refers narrowly to paper money, but that wasn’t so in colonial times. “The Word, Currency,” Hugh Vance wrote in 1740, “is in common Use in the Plantations . . . and signifies Silver passing current either by Weight or Tale. The same Name is also applicable as well to Tobacco in Virginia, Sugars in the West Indies &c. Every thing at the Market-Rate may be called a Currency; more especially that most general Commodity, for which Contracts are usually made. And according to that Rule, Paper-Currency must signify certain Pieces of Paper, passing current in the Market as Money” (Vance, 1740, CCR III, pp. 396, 431).

Failure to appreciate that the unit of account and medium of exchange were quite distinct in colonial times, and that a familiar term like “currency” had a subtly different meaning, can lead unsuspecting historians astray. They often assume that a phrase such as “£100 New York money” or “£100 New York currency” necessarily refers to £100 of the bills of credit issued by New York. In fact, it simply means £100 of whatever was accepted as money in New York, according to the valuations prevailing in New York.6 Such subtle misunderstandings have led some historians to overestimate the ubiquity of paper money in colonial America.

Means of Payment – Book Credit

While simple “cash-and-carry” transactions sometimes occurred most purchases involved at least short-term book credit; Henry Laurens wrote that before the Revolution it had been “the practice to give credit for one and more years for 7/8th of the whole traffic” (Burnet, 1923, vol. 2, pp. 490-1). The buyer would receive goods and be debited on the seller’s books for an agreed amount in the local money of account. The debt would be extinguished when the buyer paid the seller either in the local medium of exchange or in equally valued goods or services acceptable to the seller. When it was mutually agreeable the debt could be and often was paid in ways that nowadays seem very unorthodox – with the delivery of chickens, or a week’s work fixing fences on land owned by the seller. The debt might be paid at one remove, by the buyer fixing fences on land owned by someone to whom the seller was himself indebted. Accounts would then be settled among the individuals involved. Account books testify to the pervasiveness of this system, termed “bookkeeping barter” by Baxter. Baxter examined the accounts of John Hancock and his father Thomas Hancock, both prominent Boston merchants, whose business dealings naturally involved an atypically large amount of cash. Even these gentlemen managed most of their transactions in such a way that no cash ever changed hands (Baxter, 1965; Plummer, 1942; Soltow, 1965, pp. 124-55; Forman, 1969).

An astonishing array of goods and services therefore served by mutual consent at some time or other to extinguish debt. Whether these goods ought all to be classified as “money” is doubtful; they certainly lacked the liquidity and universal acceptability in exchange that ordinarily defines money. At certain times and in certain colonies, however, specific commodities came to be so widely used in transactions that they might appropriately be termed money. Specie, of course, was such a commodity, but its worldwide acceptance as money made it special, so it is convenient to set it aside for a moment and focus on the others.

Means of Payment – Commodity Money

At various times and places in the colonies such items as tobacco, rice, sugar, beaver skins, wampum, and country pay all served as money. These items were generally accorded a special monetary status by various acts of colonial legislatures. Whether the legislative fiat was essential in monetizing these commodities or whether it simply acknowledged the existing state of affairs is open to question. Sugar was used in the British Caribbean, tobacco was used in the Chesapeake, and rice in South Carolina, each being the central product of their respective plantation economies. Wampum signifies the stringed shells used by the Indians as money before the arrival of European settlers. Wampum and beaver skins were commonly used as money in the northern colonies in the early stages of settlement when the fur trade and Indian trade were still mainstays of the local economy (Nettels, 1928, 1934; Fernow, 1893; Massey, 1976; Brock, 1975, pp. 9-18).

Country pay is more complicated. Where it was used, country pay consisted of a hodgepodge of locally produced agricultural commodities that had been monetized by the colonial legislature. A list of commodities, such as Indian corn, beef, pork, etc. were assigned specific monetary values (so many s. per bushel or barrel), and debtors were permitted by statute to pay certain debts with their choice of these commodities at nominal values set by the colonial legislature.7 In some instances country pay was declared a legal tender for all private debts although contracts explicitly requiring another form of payment might be exempted (Gottfried, 1936; Judd, 1905, pp. 94-96). Sometimes country pay was only a legal tender in payment of obligations to the colonial or town governments. Even where country pay was a legal tender only in payment of taxes it was often used in private transactions and even served as a unit of account. Probate inventories from colonial Connecticut, where country pay was widely used, are generally denominated in country pay (Main and Main, 1988).8

There were predictable difficulties where commodity money was used. A pound in “country pay” was simply not worth a pound in cash even as that cash was valued locally. The legislature sometimes overvalued agricultural commodities in setting their nominal prices. Even when the legislature’s prices were not biased in favor of debtors the debtor still had the power to select the particular commodity tendered and had some discretion over the quality of that commodity. In late 17th century Massachusetts the rule of thumb used to convert country pay to cash was that three pounds in country pay were worth two pounds cash (Republicæ, 1731, pp. 376, 390).9 Even this formula seems to have overvalued country pay. When a group of men seeking to rent a farm in Connecticut offered Boston merchant Thomas Bannister £22 of country pay in 1700, Bannister hesitated. It appears Bannister wanted to be paid £15 per annum in cash. Country pay was “a very uncertain thing,” he wrote. Some years £22 in country pay might be worth £10, some years £12, but he did not expect to see a day when it would fetch fifteen.10 Savvy merchants such as Bannister paid careful attention to the terms of payment. An unwary trader could easily be cheated. Just such an incident occurs in the comic satirical poem “The Sotweed Factor.” Sotweed is slang for tobacco, and a factor was a person in America representing a British merchant. Set in late seventeenth-century Maryland, the poem is a first-person account of the tribulations and humiliations a newly-arrived Briton suffers while seeking to enter the tobacco trade. The Briton agrees with a Quaker merchant to exchange his trade goods for ten thousand weight of oronoco tobacco in cask and ready to ship. When the Quaker fails to deliver any tobacco, the aggrieved factor sues him at the Annapolis court, only to discover that his attorney is a quack who divides his time between pretending to be a lawyer and pretending to be a doctor and that the judges have to be called away from their Punch and Rum at the tavern to hear his case. The verdict?

The Byast Court without delay,
Adjudg’d my Debt in Country Pay:
In Pipe staves, Corn, or Flesh of Boar,
Rare Cargo for the English Shoar.

Thus ruined the poor factor sails away never to return. A footnote to the reader explains “There is a Law in this Country, the Plaintiff may pay his Debt in Country pay, which consists in the produce of the Plantation” (Cooke, 1708).

By the middle of the eighteenth century commodity money had essentially disappeared in northern port cities, but still lingered in the hinterlands and plantation colonies. A pamphlet written in Boston in 1740 observed “Look into our British Plantations, and you’ll see [commodity] Money still in Use, As, Tobacco in Virginia, Rice in South Carolina, and Sugars in the Islands; they are the chief Commodities, used as the general Money, Contracts are made for them, Salaries and Fees of Office are paid in them, and sometimes they are made a lawful Tender at a yearly assigned Rate by publick Authority, even when Silver was promised” (Vance, 1740, CCR III, p. 396). North Carolina was an extreme case. Country pay there continued as a legal tender even in private debts. The system was amended in 1754 and 1764 to require rated commodities to be delivered to government warehouses and be judged of acceptable quality at which point warehouse certificates were issued to the value of the goods (at mandated, not market prices): these certificates were a legal tender (Bullock, 1969, pp. 126-7, 157).

Means of Payment – Bills of Credit

Cash came in two forms: full-bodied specie coins (usually Spanish or Portuguese) and paper money known as “bills of credit.” Bills of credit were notes issued by provincial governments that were similar in many ways to modern paper money: they were issued in convenient denominations, were often a legal tender in the payment of debts, and routinely passed from man to man in transactions.11 Bills of credit were ordinarily put into circulation in one of two ways. The most common method was for the colony to issue bills to pay its debts. Bills of credit were originally designed as a kind of tax-anticipation scrip, similar to that used by many localities in the United States during the Great Depression (Harper, 1948). Therefore when bills of credit were issued to pay for current expenditures a colony would ordinarily levy taxes over the next several years sufficient to call the bills in so they might be destroyed.12 A second method was for the colony to lend newly printed bills on land security at attractive interest rates. The agency established to make these loans was known as a “land bank” (Thayer, 1953).13 Bills of credit were denominated in the £., s., and d. of the colony of issue, and therefore were usually the only form of money in circulation that was actually denominated in the local unit of account.14

Sometimes even the bills of credit issued in a colony were not denominated in the local unit of account. In 1764 Maryland redeemed its Maryland-pound-denominated bills of credit and in 1767 issued new dollar-denominated bills of credit. Nonetheless Maryland pounds, not dollars, remained the predominant unit of account in Maryland up to the Revolution (Michener and Wright, 2006a, p. 34; Grubb; 2006a, pp. 66-67; Michener and Wright, 2006c, p. 264). The most striking example occurred in New England. Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island all had, long before the 1730s, emitted paper money in bills of credit known as “old tenor” bills of credit, and “old tenor” had become the most commonly-used unit of account in New England. The old tenor bills of all four colonies passed interchangeably and at par with one another throughout New England.

Beginning in 1737, Massachusetts introduced a new kind of paper money known as “new tenor.” New tenor can be thought of as a monetary reform that ultimately failed to address underlying issues. It also served as a way of evading a restriction the Board of Trade had placed on the Governor of Massachusetts that limited him to emissions of not more than £30,000. The Massachusetts assembly declared each pound of the new tenor bills to be worth £3 in old tenor bills. What actually happened is that old tenor (abbreviated in records of the time as “O.T.”) continued to be the unit of account in New England, and so long as the old bills continued to circulate, a decreasing portion of the medium of exchange. Each new tenor bill was reckoned at three times its face value in old tenor terms. This was just the beginning of the confusion, for yet newer Massachusetts “new tenor” emissions were created, and the original “new tenor” emission became known as the “middle tenor.”15 The new “new tenor” bills emitted by Massachusetts were accounted in old tenor terms at four times their face value. These bills, like the old ones, circulated across colony borders throughout New England. As if this were not complicated enough, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Connecticut all created new tenor emission of their own, and the factors used to convert these new tenor bills into old tenor terms varied across colonies (Davis, 1970; Brock, 1975; McCusker, pp. 131-137). Connecticut, for instance, had a new tenor emission such that each new tenor bill was worth 3½ times its face value in old tenor (Connecticut, vol. 8, pp. 359-60; Brock, 1975, pp. 45-6). “They have a variety of paper currencies in the [New England] provinces; viz., that of New Hampshire, the Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut,” bemoaned an English visitor, “all of different value, divided and subdivided into old and new tenors, so that it is a science to know the nature and value of their moneys, and what will cost a stranger some study and application” (Hamilton, 1907, p. 179). Throughout New England, however, Old Tenor remained the unit of account. “The Price of [provisions sold at Market],” a contemporary pamphlet noted, “has been constantly computed in Bills of the old Tenor, ever since the Emission of the middle and new Tenor Bills, just as it was before their Emission, and with no more Regard to or Consideration of either the middle or new Tenor Bills, than if they had never been emitted” (Enquiry, 1744, CCR IV, p. 174). This occurred despite the fact that by 1750 only an inconsiderable portion of the bills of credit in circulation were denominated in old tenor.16

For the most part, bills of credit were fiat money. Although a colony’s treasurer would often consent to exchange these bills for other forms of cash in the treasury, there was rarely a provision in the law stating that holders of bills of credit had a legally binding claim on the government for a fixed sum in specie, and treasurers were sometimes unable to accommodate people who wished to exchange money (Nicholas, 1912, p. 257; The New York Mercury, January 27, 1759, November 24, 1760).17 The form of the bills themselves was sometimes misleading in this respect. It was not uncommon for the bills to be inscribed with an explicit statement that the bill was worth a certain sum in silver. This was often no more than an expression of the assembly’s hope, at the time of issuance, of how the bills would circulate.18 Colonial courts sometimes allowed inhabitants to pay less to royal officials and proprietors by valuing bills of credit used to pay fees, dues, and quit rents according to their “official” rather than actual specie values. (Michener and Wright, 2006c, p. 258, fn. 5; Hart, 2005, pp. 269-71).

Maryland’s paper money was unique. Maryland’s paper money – unlike that of other colonies – gave the possessor an explicit legal claim on a valuable asset. Maryland had levied a tax and invested the proceeds of the tax in London. It issued bills of credit promising a fixed sum in sterling bills of exchange at predetermined dates, to be drawn on the colony’s balance in London. The colony’s accrued balances in London were adequate to fund the redemption, and when redemption dates arrived in 1748 and 1764 the sums due were paid in full so the colony’s pledge was considered credible.

Maryland’s paper money was unique in other ways as well. Its first emission was put into circulation in a novel fashion. Of the £90,000 emitted in 1733, £42,000 was lent to inhabitants, while the other £48,000 was simply given away, at the rate of £1.5 per taxable (McCusker, 1978, pp. 190-196; Brock, 1975, chapter 8; Lester, 1970, chapter 5). Maryland’s paper money was so peculiar that it is unrepresentative of the colonial experience. This was recognized even by contemporaries. Hugh Vance, in the Postscript to his Inquiry into the Nature and Uses of Money, dismissed Maryland as “intirely out of the Question; their Bills being on the Foot of promissory Notes” Vance, 1740, CCR III, p. 462).

In 1690, Massachusetts was the first colony to issue bills of credit (Felt, 1839, pp. 49-52; Davis, 1970, vol. 1, chapter 1; Goldberg, 2009).19 The bills were issued to pay soldiers returning from a failed military expedition against Quebec. Over time, the rest of the colonies followed suit. The last holdout was Virginia, which issued its first bills of credit in 1755 to defray expenses associated with its entry into the French and Indian War (Brock, 1975, chapter 9). The common denominator here is wartime finance, and it is worthwhile to recognize that the vast majority of the bills of credit issued in the colonies were issued during wartime to pay for pressing military expenditures. Peacetime issues did occur and are in some respects quite interesting as they seem to have been motivated in part by a desire to stimulate the economy (Lester, 1970). However, peacetime emissions are dwarfed by those that occurred in war.20 Some historians enamored of the land bank system, whereby newly emitted bills were lent to landowners in order to promote economic development, have stressed the economic development aspect of colonial emissions – particularly those of Pennsylvania – while minimizing the military finance aspect (Schweitzer, 1989, pp. 313-4). The following graph, however, illustrates the fundamental importance of war finance; the dramatic spike marks the French and Indian War (Brock, 1992, Tables 4, 6).

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That bills in circulation peaked in 1760 reflects the fact that Quebec fell in 1759 and Montreal in 1760, so that the land war in North America was effectively over by 1760.

Because bills were disproportionally emitted for wartime finance it is not surprising that the colonies whose currencies depreciated due to over-issue were those who shared a border with a hostile neighbor – the New England colonies bordering French Canada and the Carolinas bordering Spanish Florida.21 The colonies from New York to Virginia were buffered by their neighbors and therefore issued no more than modest amounts of paper money until they were drawn into the French and Indian War, by which time their economies were large enough to temporarily absorb the issues.

It is important not to confuse the bills of credit issued by a colony with the bills of credit circulating in that colony. “Under the circumstances of America before the war,” a Maryland resident wrote in 1787, “there was a mutual tacit consent that the paper of each colony should be received by its neighbours” (Hanson, 1787, p. 24).22 Between 1710 and 1750, the currencies of Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island passed indiscriminately and at par with one another in everyday transactions throughout New England (Brock, 1975, pp. 35-6). Although not quite so integrated a currency area as New England the colonies of New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware each had bills of credit circulating within its neighbors’ borders (McCusker, 1978, pp. 169-70, 181-182). In the early 1760s, Pennsylvania money was the primary medium of exchange in Maryland (Maryland Gazette, September 15, 1763; Hazard, 1852, Eighth Series, vol. VII, p. 5826; McCusker, 1978, p. 193). In 1764 one quarter of South Carolina’s bills of credit circulated in North Carolina and Georgia (Ernst, 1973, p. 106). Where the currencies of neighboring colonies were of equal value, as was the case in New England between 1710 and 1750, bills of credit of neighboring colonies could be credited and debited in book accounts at face value. When this was not the case, as when Pennsylvania, Connecticut, or New Jersey bills of credit were used to pay a debt in New York, an adjustment had to be made to convert these sums to New York money. The conversion was usually based on the par values assigned to Spanish dollars by each colony. Indeed, this was also how merchants generally handled intercolonial exchange transactions (McCusker, 1978, p. 123). For example, on the eve of the Revolution a Spanish dollar was rated at 7 s. 6 d. in Pennsylvania money and at 8 s. in New York money. The ratio of eight to seven and a half being equal to 1.06666, Pennsylvania bills of credit were accepted in New York at a 6 and 1/3% advance (Stevens, 1867, pp. 10-11, 18). Connecticut rated the Spanish dollar at 6 s., and because the ratio of eight to six is 1.333, Connecticut bills of credit were accepted at a one third advance in New York (New York Journal, July 13, 1775). New Jersey’s paper money was a peculiar exception to this rule. By the custom of New York’s merchants, New Jersey bills of credit were accepted for thirty years or more at an advance of one pence in the shilling, or 8 and 1/3%, even though New Jersey rated the Spanish dollar at 7 s, 6 d., just as Pennsylvania did. The practice was controversial in New York, and the advance was finally reduced to the “logical” 6 and 2/3% advance by an act of the New York assembly in 1774.23

Means of Payment – Foreign Specie Coins

Specie coins were the other kind of cash that commonly circulated in the colonies. Few specie coins were minted in the colonies. Massachusetts coined silver “pine tree shillings” between 1652 and the closing of the mint in the early 1680s. This was the only mint of any size or duration in the colonies, although minting of small copper coins and tokens did occur at a number of locations (Jordan, 2002; Mossman, 1993). Colonial coinage is interesting numismatically, but economically it was too slight to be of consequence. Most circulating specie was minted abroad. The gold and silver coins circulating in the colonies were generally of Spanish or Portuguese origin. Among the most important of these coins were the Portuguese Johannes and moidore (more formally, the moeda d’ouro) and the Spanish dollar and pistole. The Johanneses were gold coins, 8 escudos (12,800 reis) in denomination; their name derived from the obverse of the coin, which bore the bust of Johannes V. Minted in Portugal and Brazil they were commonly known in the colonies as “joes.” The fractional denominations were 4 escudo and 2 escudo coins of the same origin. The 4 escudo (6,400 reis) coin, or “half joe,” was one of the most commonly used coins in the late colonial period. The moidore was another Portuguese gold coin, 4,000 reis in denomination. That these coins were being used as a medium of exchange in the colonies is not so peculiar as it might appear. Raphael Solomon (1976, p. 37) noted that these coins “played a very active part in international commerce, flowing in and out of the major seaports in both the Eastern and Western Hemispheres.” In the late colonial period the mid-Atlantic colonies began selling wheat and flour to Spain and Portugal “for which in return, they get hard cash” (Lydon, 1965; Virginia Gazette, January 12, 1769; Brodhead, 1853, vol. 8, p. 448).

The Spanish dollar and its fractional parts were, in McCusker’s (1978, p. 7) words, “the premier coin of the Atlantic world in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.” Well known and widely circulated throughout the world, its preeminence in colonial North America accounts for the fact that the United States uses dollars, rather than pounds, as its unit of account. The Spanish pistole was the Spanish gold coin most often encountered in America. While these coins were the most common, many others also circulated there (Solomon, 1976; McCusker, 1978, pp. 3-12).

Alongside the well-known gold and silver coins were various copper coins, most notably the English half-pence, that served as small change in the colonies. Fractional parts of the Spanish dollar and the pistareen, a small silver coin of base alloy, were also commonly used as change.24

None of these foreign specie coins were denominated in local currency units, however. One needed a rule to determine what a particular coin, such as a Spanish dollar, was worth in the £., s., and d. of local currency. Because foreign specie coins were in circulation long before any of the colonies issued paper money setting a rating on these coins amounted to picking a numeraire for the economy; that is, it defined what one meant by a pound of local currency. The ratings attached to individual coins were not haphazard: They were designed to reflect the relative weight and purity of the bullion in each coin as well as the ratio of gold to silver prices prevailing in the wider world.

In the early years of colonization these coin values were set by the colonial assemblies (Nettels, 1934, chap. 9; Solomon, 1976, pp. 28-29; John Hemphill, 1964, chapter 3). In 1700 Pennsylvania passed an act raising the rated value of its coins, causing the Governor of Maryland to complain to the Board of Trade of the difficulties this created in Maryland. He sought the Board’s permission for Maryland to follow suit. When the Board investigated the matter it concluded that the “liberty taken in many of your Majesty’s Plantations, to alter the rates of their coins as often as they think fit, does encourage an indirect practice of drawing the money from one Plantation to another, to the undermining of each other’s trade.” In response they arranged for the disallowance of the Pennsylvania act and a royal proclamation to put an end to the practice.25

Queen Anne’s proclamation, issued in 1704, prohibited a Spanish dollar of 17½ dwt. from passing for more than 6 s. in the colonies. Other current foreign silver coins were rated proportionately and similarly prohibited from circulating at a higher value. This particular rating of coins became known as “proclamation money.”26 It might seem peculiar that the// proclamation did not dictate that the colonies adopt the same ratings as prevailed in England. The Privy Council, however, had incautiously approved a Massachusetts act passed in 1697 rating Spanish dollars at 6 s., and attorney general Edward Northey felt the act could not be nullified by proclamation. This induced the Board of Trade to adopt the rating of the Massachusetts act.27

Had the proclamation been put into operation its effects would have been extremely deflationary because in most colonies coins were already passing at higher rates. When the proclamation reached America only Barbados attempted to enforce it. In New York Governor Lord Cornbury suspended its operation and wrote the Board of Trade that he could not enforce it in New York while it was being ignored in neighboring colonies as New York would be “ruined beyond recovery” if he did so (Brodhead, 1853, vol. 4, pp. 1131-1133; Brock, 1975, chapter 4). A chorus of such responses led the Board of Trade to take the matter to Parliament in hopes of enforcing a uniform compliance throughout America (House of Lords, 1921, pp. 302-3). On April 1, 1708, Parliament passed “An Act for ascertaining the Rates of foreign Coins in her Majesty’s Plantations in America” (Ruffhead, vol. 4, pp. 324-5). The act reiterated the restrictions embodied in Queen Anne’s Proclamation, and declared that anyone “accounting, receiving, taking, or paying the same contrary to the Directions therein contained, shall suffer six Months Imprisonment . . . and shall likewise forfeit the Sum of ten Pounds for every such Offence . . .”

The “Act for ascertaining the Rates of foreign Coins” never achieved its desired aim. In the colonies it was largely ignored, and business continued to be conducted just as if the act had never been passed. Pennsylvania, it was true, went though a show of complying but even that lapsed after a while (Brock, 1975, chapter 4). What the act did do, however, was push the process of coin rating into the shadows because it was no longer possible to address it in an open way by legislative enactment. Laws that passed through colonial legislatures (certain charter and proprietary colonies excepted) were routinely reviewed by the Privy Council, and if found to be inconsistent with British law, were declared null and void.

Two avenues remained open to alter coin ratings – private agreements among merchants that would not be subject to review in London, and a legislative enactment so stealthy as to slip through review unnoticed. New York was the first to succeed using stealth. In November 1709 it emitted bills of credit “for Tenn thousand Ounces of Plate or fourteen Thousand Five hundred & fourty five Lyon Dollars” (Lincoln, 1894, vol. 1, chap. 207, pp. 695-7). The Lyon dollar was an obscure silver coin that had escaped being explicitly mentioned in the enumeration of allowable values that had accompanied Queen Anne’s proclamation. Since 15 years previously New York had rated the Lyon dollar at 5 s. 6 d., it was generally supposed that that rating was still in force (Solomon, 1976, p. 30). The value of silver implied in the law’s title is 8 s. an ounce – a value higher than allowed by Parliament. Until 1723, New York’s emission acts contained clauses designed to rate an ounce of silver at 8 s. The act in 1714, for instance, tediously enumerated the denominations of the bills to be printed, in language such as “Five Hundred Sixty-eight Bills, of Twenty-five Ounces of Plate, or Ten Pounds value each” (Lincoln, 1894, vol. 1, chap. 280, pp. 819). When the Board of Trade finally realized what New York was up to it was too late: the earlier laws had already been confirmed. When the Board wrote Governor Hunter to complain, he replied, in part, “Tis not in the power of men or angels to beat the people of this Continent out of a silly notion of their being gainers by the Augmentation of the value of Plate” (Brodhead, vol. 5, p. 476). These colony laws were still thought to be in force in the late colonial period. Gaine’s New York Pocket Almanack for 1760 states that “Spanish Silver . . . here ‘tis fixed by Law at 8 s. per Ounce, but is often sold and bought from 9 s. to 9 s. and 3 d.”

In 1753 Maryland also succeeded using stealth, including revised coin ratings inconsistent with Queen Anne’s proclamation in “An Act for Amending the Staple of Tobacco, for Preventing Fraud in His Majesty’s Customs, and for the Limitation of Officer’s Fees” (McCusker, 1978, p. 192).

The most common subterfuge was for a colony’s merchants to meet and agree on coin ratings. Once the merchants agreed on such ratings, the colonial courts appear to have deferred to them, which is not surprising in light of the fact that many judges and legislators were drawn from the merchants’ ranks (e.g. Horle, 1991). These private agreements effectively nullified not only the act of Parliament but also local statutes, such as those rating silver in New York at 8 s. an ounce. Records of many such agreements have survived.28 There is also testimony that these agreements were commonplace. Lewis Morris remarked that “It is a common practice … [for] the merchants to put what value they think fit upon Gold and Silver coynes current in the Plantations.” When the Philadelphia merchants published a notice in the Pennsylvania Gazette of September 16, 1742 enumerating the values they had agreed to put on foreign gold and silver coins, only the brazenness of the act came as a surprise to Morris. “Tho’ I believe by the merchants private Agreements amongst themselves they have allwaies done the same thing since the Existence of A paper currency, yet I do not remember so publick an instance of defying an act of parliament” (Morris, 1993, vol. 3, pp. 260-262, 273). These agreements, when backed by a strong consensus among merchants, seem to have been effective. Decades later, Benjamin Franklin (1959, vol. 14, p. 232) recollected how the agreement that had offended Morris “had a great Effect in fixing the Value and Rates of our Gold and Silver.”

After the New York Chamber of Commerce was founded in 1768, merchant deliberations on these agreements were recorded. During this period, the coin ratings in effect in New York were routinely published in almanacs, particularly Gaine’s New-York pocket almanac. When the New York Chamber of Commerce resolved to change the rating of coins and the minimum allowable weight for guineas the almanac values changed immediately to reflect those adopted by the Chamber (Stevens, 1867, pp. 56-7. 69).29

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The coin rating table above, reproduced from The New-York Pocket Almanack for the Year 1771 shows how coin-rating worked in practice in the late colonial period. (Note the reference to the deliberations of the Chamber of Commerce.) It shows, for instance, that if you tendered a half joe in payment of debt in Pennsylvania, you would be credited with having paid £3 Pennsylvania money. If the same half joe were tendered in payment of a debt in New York you would be credited with having paid £ 3 4 s. New York money. In Connecticut it would have been £2 8 s. Connecticut money.30

The colonists possessed no central bank and colonial treasurers, however willing they might have been to exchange paper for specie, sometimes found themselves without the means to do so. That these coin ratings were successfully maintained for decades on end was a testament to the public’s faith in the bills of credit, which made them willing to voluntarily exchange them for specie at the established rate. Writing in 1786 and attempting to explain why New Jersey’s colonial bills of credit had retained their value, “Eugenio” attributed their success to the fact that it possessed what he called “the means of instant realization at value.” This awkward phrase signified the bills were instantly convertible at par. “Eugenio” went on to explain why:

“It is true that government did not raise a sum of coin and deposit the same in the treasury to exchange the bills on demand; but the faith of the government, the opinion of the people, and the security of the fund formerly by a well-timed and steady policy, went so hand in hand and so concurred to support each other, that the people voluntarily and without the least compulsion threw all their gold and silver, not locking up a shilling, into circulation concurrently with the bills; whereby the whole coin of the government became forthwith upon an emission of paper, a bank of deposit at every man’s door for the instant realization or immediate exchange of his bill into gold or silver. This had a benign and equitable, a persuasive, a satisfactory, and an extensive influence. If any one doubted the validity or price of his bill, his neighbor immediately removed his doubts by exchanging it without loss into gold or silver. If any one for a particular purpose needed the precious metals, his bill procured them at the next door, without a moment’s delay or a penny’s diminution. So high was the opinion of the people raised, that often an advance was given for paper on account of the convenience of carriage. In the market as well as in the payment of debts, the paper and the coin possessed a voluntary, equal, and concurrent circulation, and no special contract was made which should be paid or whether they should be received at a difference. By this instant realization and immediate exchange, the government had all the gold and silver in the community as effectually in their hands as if those precious metals had all been locked up in their treasury. By this realization and exchange they could extend credit to any degree it was required. The people could not be induced to entertain a doubt of their paper, because the government had never failed them in a single instance, either in war or in peace (New Jersey Gazette, January 30, 1786).”

Insofar as colonial bills of credit were convertible on demand into specie at the rated specie value of coins, there is no mystery as to why those bills of credit maintained their value. How merchants maintained and enforced such accords, however, is relatively inscrutable. Some economists are incredulous that private associations of merchants could accomplish the feat. The best evidence on this question can be found in a pamphlet by a disgruntled inhabitant complaining of the actions of a merchants’ association in Antigua (Anon., 1740), which provides a tantalizing glimpse of the methods merchants used.

Means of Payment – Private debt instruments

This leaves private debt instruments, such as bank notes, bills of exchange, notes of hand, and shop notes. It is sometimes asserted that there were no banks in colonial America, but this is something of an overstatement. There were several experiments made and several embryonic private banks actually got notes into circulation. Andrew McFarland Davis devoted an entire volume to banking in colonial New England (Davis, 1970, vol. 2; Perkins 1991 ). Perhaps the most successful bank of the era was established in South Carolina in 1731. It apparently issued notes totaling £50,000 South Carolina money and operated successfully for a decade.31 However, the banks that did exist did not last long enough or succeed in putting enough notes in circulation for us to be especially concerned about them.

Bills of exchange were similar to checks. A hypothetical example will illustrate how they functioned. The process of creating a bill of exchange began when someone obtained a balance on account overseas (in the case of the colonies, that place was often London). Suppose a Virginia tobacco producer consigned his tobacco to be sold in England, with the sterling proceeds to remain temporarily in the hands of a London merchant. The Virginia planter could then draw on those funds, by writing a bill of exchange payable in London. Suppose further that the planter drew a bill of exchange on his London correspondent, and sold it to a Virginia merchant, who then transmitted it to London to pay a balance due on imported dry goods. When the bill of exchange reached London, the dry goods wholesaler who received it would call on the London merchant holding the funds in order to receive the payment specified in the bill of exchange.

Bills of exchange were widely used in foreign trade, and were the preferred and most common method for paying debts due overseas. Because of the nature of the trade they financed, bills of exchange were usually in large denominations. Also, because bills of exchange were drawn on particular people or institutions overseas, there was an element of risk involved. Perhaps the person drawing the bill was writing a bad check, or perhaps the person on whom the bill was drawn was himself a deadbeat. One needed to be confident of the reputations of the parties involved when purchasing a bill of exchange. Perhaps because of their large denominations and the asymmetric information problems involved, bills of exchange played a limited role as a medium of exchange in the inland economy (McCusker, 1978, especially pp. 20-21).

Small denomination IOUs, called “notes of hand” were widespread, and these were typically denominated in local currency units. For the most part, these were not designed to circulate as a medium of exchange. When someone purchased goods from a shopkeeper on credit, the shopkeeper would generally get a “note of hand” as a receipt. In the court records in the Connecticut archives, one can find the case files for countless colonial-era cases where an individual was sued for nonpayment of a small debt.32 The court records generally include a note of hand entered as evidence to prove the debt. Notes of hand sometimes were proffered to third parties in payment of debt, however, particularly if the issuer was a person of acknowledged creditworthiness (Mather, 1691, p. 191). Some individuals of modest means created notes of hand in small denominations and attempted to circulate them as a medium of exchange; in Pennsylvania in 1768, a newspaper account stated that 10% of the cash offered in the retail trade consisted of such notes (Pennsylvania Chronicle, October 12, 1768; Kimber, 1998, p. 53). Indeed, many private banking schemes, such as the Massachusetts merchants’ bank, the New Hampshire merchants’ bank, the New London Society, and the Land Bank of 1740 were modeled on private notes of hand, and each consisted of an association designed to circulate such notes on a large scale. For the most part, however, notes of hand lacked the universal acceptability that would have unambiguously qualified them as money.

Shop notes were “notes of hand” of a particular type and seem to have been especially widespread in colonial New England. The twentieth-century analogue to shop notes would be scrip issued by an employer that could be used for purchases at the company store.33 Shop notes were I.O.U.s of local shopkeepers, redeemable through the shopkeeper. Such an I.O.U. might promise, for example, £6 in local currency value, half in money and half in goods (Weeden, 1891, vol. 2, p. 589; Ernst, 1990). Hugh Vance described the origins of shop notes in a 1740 pamphlet:

“… by the best Information I can have from Men of Credit then living, the Fact is truly this, viz. about the Year 1700, Silver-Money became exceedingly scarce, and the Trade so embarassed, that we begun to go into the Use of Shop-Goods, as the Money. The Shopkeepers told the Tradesmen, who had Draughts upon them from the Merchants for all Money, that they could not pay all in Money (and very truly) and so by Degrees brought the Tradesmen into the Use of taking Part in Shop-Goods; and likewise the Merchants, who must always follow the natural Course of Trade, were forced into the Way of agreeing with Tradesmen, Fishermen, and others; and also with the Shopkeepers, to draw Bills for Part and sometimes for all Shop-Goods (Vance, 1740, CCR III, pp. 390-91).”

Vance’s account seems accurate in all respects save one. Merchants played an active role in introducing shop notes into circulation. By the 1740s shop notes had been much abused, and it was disingenuous of Vance (himself a merchant) to suggest that merchants had had the system thrust upon them by shopkeepers. Merchants used shop notes to expedite sales and returns. The merchant might contact a shopkeeper and a shipbuilder. The shipbuilder would build a ship for the merchant, the ship to be sent to England and sold as a way of making returns. In exchange the merchant would provide the builder with shop notes and the shopkeeper with imported goods. The builder used the shop notes to pay his workers. The shop notes, in turn, were redeemed at the shop of the shopkeeper when presented to him by workers (Boston Weekly Postboy, December 8, 1740). Thomas Fitch tried to interest an English partner in just such a scheme in 1710:

“Realy it’s extream difficult to raise money here, for goods are generally Sold to take 1/2 money & 1/2 goods again out of the buyers Shops to pay builders of Ships [etc?] which is a great advantage in the readier if not higher sale of goods, as well as that it procures the Return; Wherefore if we sell goods to be paid in money we must give long time or they will not medle (Fitch, 1711, to Edward Warner, November 22, 1710).”

Like other substitutes for cash, shop notes were seldom worth their stated values. A 1736 pamphlet, for instance, reported wages to be 6s in bills of credit, or 7s if paid in shop notes (Anonymous, 1736, p. 143). One reason shop notes failed to remain at par with cash is that shopkeepers often refused to redeem them except with merchandise of their own choosing. Another abuse was to interpret money to mean British goods; half money, half goods often meant no money at all.34

Controversies

Colonial bills of credit were controversial when they were first issued, and have remained controversial to this day. Those who have wanted to highlight the evils of inflation have focused narrowly on the colonies where the bills of credit depreciated most dramatically – those colonies being New England and the Carolinas, with New England being a special focus because of the wealth of material that exists concerning New England history. When Hillsborough drafted a report for the Board of Trade intended to support the abolition of legal tender paper money in the colonies he rested his argument on the inflationary experiences of these colonies (printed in Whitehead, 1885, vol. IX, pp. 405-414). Those who have wanted to defend the use of bills of credit in the colonies have focused on the Middle colonies, where inflation was practically nonexistent. This tradition dates back at least to Benjamin Franklin (1959, vol. 14, pp. 77-87), who drafted a reply to the Board of Trade’s report in an effort to persuade Parliament to repeal of the Currency Act of 1764. Nineteenth-century authors, such as Bullock (1969) and Davis (1970), tended to follow Hillsborough’s lead whereas twentieth-century authors, such as Ferguson (1953) and Schweitzer (1987), followed Franklin’s.

Changing popular attitudes towards inflation have helped to rehabilitate the colonists. Whereas inflation in earlier centuries was rare, and even the mild inflation suffered in England between 1797 and 1815 was sufficient to stir a political uproar, the twentieth century has become inured to inflation. Even in colonial New England between 1711 and 1749, which was thought to have done a disgraceful job in managing its bills of credit, peacetime inflation was only about 5% per annum. Inflation during King George’s War was about 35% per annum.35

Nineteenth-century economists were guilty of overgeneralizing based on the unrepresentative inflationary experiences and associated debtor-creditor conflicts that occurred in a few colonies. Some twentieth-century economists, however, have swung too far in the other direction by generalizing on the basis of the success of the system in the Middle colonies and by attributing the benign outcomes there to the fundamental soundness of the system and its sagacious management. It would be closer to the truth, I believe, to note that the virtuous restraint exhibited by the Middle colonies was imposed upon them. Emissions in these colonies were sometimes vetoed by royal authorities and frequently stymied by instructions issued to royal or proprietary governors. The success of the Middle colonies owes much to the simple fact that they did not exert themselves in war to the extent that their New England neighbors did and that they were not permitted to freely issue bills of credit in peacetime.

A recent controversy has developed over the correct answer to the question – Why did some bills of credit depreciate, while others did not? Many early writers took it for granted that the price level in a colony would vary proportionally with the number of bills of credit the colony issued. This assumption was mocked by Ernst (1973, chapter 1) and devastated by West (1978). West performed simple regressions relating the quantity of bills of credit outstanding to price indices where such data exist. For most colonies he found no correlation between these variables. This was particularly striking because in the Middle colonies there was a dramatic increase in the quantity of bills of credit outstanding during the French and Indian War, and a dramatic decrease afterwards. Yet this large fluctuation seemed to have little effect on the purchasing power of those bills of credit as measured by prices of bills of exchange and the imperfect commodity price indices we possess. Only in New England in the first half of the eighteenth century did there seem to be a strong correlation between bills of credit outstanding and prices and exchange rates. Officer (2005) examined the New England episode and concluded that the quantity theory provides an adequate explanation in this instance, making the contrast with many other colonies (most notably, the Middle colonies) even more remarkable.

Seizing on West’s results Bruce Smith suggested that they disproved the quantity theory of money and provided evidence in favor of an alternative theory of money based on theoretical models of Wallace and Sargent, which Smith characterized as the “backing theory.”36 According to Smith (1985a, p. 534), the redemption provisions enacted when bills of credit were introduced into circulation on tax and loan funds were what prevented them from depreciating. “Just as the value of privately issued liabilities depends on the issuers’ balance sheet,” he wrote, “the same is true for government liabilities. Thus issues of money which are accompanied by increases in the (expected) discounted present value of the government’s revenues need not be inflationary.” One obvious problem with this theory is that the New England bills of credit which did depreciate were issued in exactly the same way. Smith’s answer was that the New England colonies administered their tax and loan funds poorly and New England’s poor administration accounted for the inflation experienced there.

Others who did not wholly agree with Smith – especially his sweeping refutation of the quantity theory – nonetheless pointed to the redemption provisions in explaining why bills of credit often retained their value (Wicker, 1985; Bernholz, 1988; Calomiris, 1988; Sumner, 1993; Rousseau, 2007). Of those who assigned credit to the redemption provisions, however, only Smith grappled with the key question; namely, why essentially identical redemption provisions failed to prevent inflation elsewhere.

Crediting careful administration of tax and loan funds for the steady value of some colonial currencies, and haphazard administration for the depreciation of others looks superficially appealing. The experiences of Pennsylvania and Rhode Island, generally thought to be the most and least successful issuers of colonial bills of credit, fit the hypothesis nicely. However, when one examines other cases, the hypothesis breaks down. Connecticut was generally credited with administering her bills of credit very carefully, yet they depreciated in lockstep with those of her New England neighbors for forty years (Brock, 1975, pp. 43-47). Virginia’s bills of credit retained their value even though Virginia’s colonial treasurer was discovered to have embezzled a sum equal to nearly half of Virginia’s total outstanding bills of credit and returned them to circulation (Michener, 1987, p. 247). North Carolina’s bills of credit held their value well in the late colonial period despite tax administration so notoriously corrupt it led to an armed revolt (Michener, 1987, pp. 248-9, Ernst, 1973, p. 221).

A competing explanation has been offered by Michener (1987, 1988), Brock (1992), McCallum (1992), and Michener and Wright (2006b). According to this explanation, the coin rating system operating in the colonies meant they were effectively on a specie standard with a de facto fixed par of exchange. Provided emissions of paper money did not exceed the amount needed for domestic purposes (“normal real balances,” in McCallum’s terminology) some specie would remain in circulation, prices would remain stable, and the fixed par could be maintained. Where emissions exceeded this bound specie would disappear from circulation and exchange rates would float freely, no longer tethered to the fixed par. Further emissions would cause inflation.37 This was said to account for inflation in New England after 1712, where specie did, in fact, completely disappear from circulation (Hutchinson, 1936, vol. 2, p. 154; Michener, 1987, pp. 288-94). If this explanation is correct, it would suggest that emissions of bills of credit ought to be offset by specie outflows, ceteris paribus.

Critics of the “specie circulated at rated values” explanation have frequently disregarded the ceteris paribus qualification and maintained that the theory implies specie flows always ought to be highly negatively correlated with changes in the quantity of bills of credit. This amounts to assuming the quantity of money demanded per capita in colonial America was nearly constant. If this were a valid test of the theory, one would be forced to reject it, because the specie stock fell little, if at all, in the Middle colonies in 1755-1760 as bills of credit increased, and when bills of credit began to decrease after 1760, specie became scarcer.

The flaw in critics’ reasoning, in my opinion, is that it assumes three unwarranted facts. First, that the demand for money, narrowly defined to mean bills of credit plus specie, was very stable despite the widespread use of bookkeeping barter; Second, that the absence of evidence of large interest rate fluctuations is evidence of the absence of large interest rate fluctuations (Smith, 1985b, pp. 1193, 1198; Letwin, 1982, p. 466); Third, that the opportunity cost of holding money is adequately measured by the nominal interest rate.38

With respect to the first point, colonial wars significantly influenced the demand for money. During peacetime, most transactions were handled by means of book credit. During major wars, however, many men served in the militia. Men in military service were paid in cash and taken far from the community in which their creditworthiness was commonly known, reducing both their need for book credit and their ability to obtain it. Moreover, it would have to give a shopkeeper pause and discourage him from advancing book credit to consider the real possibility that even his civilian customers might find themselves in the militia in the near future and gone from the local community, possibly forever. In each of the major colonial wars there is evidence suggesting an increase in cash real balances that could be attributed to the war’s impact on the book credit system. The increase in real money balances during the French and Indian War and the subsequent decrease can be largely accounted for in this way. With respect to the second point, fluctuations in the money supply are even compatible with a stable demand for money if periods when money is scarce are also periods when interest rates are high, as is also suggested by the historical record.39 It is true that the maximum interest rates specified in colonial usury laws are stable, generally in the range of 6%-8% per annum, often a bit lower late in the colonial era than at its beginning. This has been taken as evidence that colonial interest rates were stable. However, we know that these usury laws were commonly evaded and that market rates were often much higher (Wright, 2002, pp. 19-26). Some indication of how much higher became evident in the summer of 1768 when the Privy Council unexpectedly struck down New Hampshire’s usury law.40 News of the disallowance did not reach New Hampshire until the end of the year, at which time New Hampshire, having sunk the bills of credit issued to finance the French and Indian War during the 5 year interval permitted by the Currency Act of 1751, was in the throes of a liquidity crisis.41 Governor Wentworth reported to the Lords of Trade, that “Interest arose to 30 p. Ct. within six days of the repeal of the late Act.”42 By contrast, when cash was plentiful in Pennsylvania at the height of the French and Indian War, Pennsylvania’s “wealthy people were catching at every opportunity of letting out their money on good security, on common interest [that is, seven per cent].”43 With respect to the third point, the received theory that the nominal interest rate measures the opportunity cost of holding real money balances is derived from models in which individuals are free to borrow and lend at the nominal interest rate. Insofar as lenders respected the usury ceilings, borrowers were unable to borrow freely at the nominal interest rate. Recent work on moral hazard and adverse selection suggest that even private unregulated lenders forced to make loans in an environment characterized by seriously asymmetric information would be wise to ration loans by charging less than market clearing rates and limiting allowed borrowing. The creditworthiness of individuals was more difficult to determine in colonial times than today, and asymmetric information problems were rife. Under such circumstances, even an unregulated market rate of interest (if we had such data, which we don’t) would understate the opportunity cost of holding money for constrained borrowers.

The debate over why some colonial bills of credit depreciated, while others did not has spilled over into another related question: how much cash [i.e., paper money plus specie] circulated in the American colonies, and how much was in bills of credit, and how much was in specie? Clearly, if there was hardly any specie anywhere in colonial America, the concomitant circulation of specie at fixed rates could scarcely account for the stable purchasing power of bills of credit.

Determining how much cash circulated in the colonies is no easy matter, because the amount of specie in circulation is so hard to determine. The issue is further complicated by the fact that the total amount of cash in circulation fluctuated considerably from year to year, depending on such things as the demand for colonial staples and the magnitude of British military expenditure in the colonies (Sachs, 1957; Hemphill, 1964). The mix of bills of credit and specie in circulation was also highly variable. In the Middle colonies – and much of the most contentious debate involves the Middle colonies – the quantity of bills of credit in circulation was very modest (both absolutely and in per-capita terms) before the French and Indian War. The quantity exploded to cover military expenditures during the French and Indian War, and then fell again following 1760, until by the late colonial period, the quantity outstanding was once again very modest. Pennsylvania’s experience is not atypical of the Middle colonies. In 1754, on the eve of the French and Indian War, only £81,500 in Pennsylvania bills of credit were in circulation. At the height of the conflict, in 1760, this had increased to £446,158, but by 1773 the sum had been reduced to only £135,006 (Brock, 1992, Table 6). Any conclusion about the importance of bills of credit in the colonial money supply has to be carefully qualified because it will depend on the year in question.

Traditionally, economic historians have focused their attention on the eve of the Revolution, with a special focus on 1774, because of Alice Hanson Jones’s extensive study of 1774 probate records. Even with the inquiry dramatically narrowed, estimates have varied widely. McCusker and Menard (1985, p. 338), citing Alexander Hamilton for authority, estimated that just before the Revolution the “current cash” totaled 30 million dollars. Of the 30 million dollars, Hamilton said 8 million consisted of specie (27%). On the basis of this authority, Smith (1985a, p. 538; 1988, p. 22) has maintained that specie was a comparatively minor component in the colonial money supply.

Hamilton was arguing in favor of banks when he made this oft-cited estimate, and his purpose in presenting it was to show that the circulation was capable of absorbing a great deal of paper money, which ought to make us wonder whether his estimate might have been biased by his political agenda. Whether biased, or simply misinformed, Hamilton clearly got his facts wrong.

All estimates of the quantity of colonial bills of credit in circulation – including those of Brock (1975, 1992) that have been relied on by recent authors of all sides of the debate – lead inescapably to the conclusion that in 1774 there were very few bills of credit left outstanding, nowhere near the 22 million dollars implied by Hamilton. Calculations along these lines were first performed by Ratchford. Ratchford (1941, pp. 24-25) estimated the total quantity of bills of credit outstanding in each colony on the eve of the Revolution, and then added the local £., s., and d. of all the colonies (a true case of adding apples and oranges), converted to dollars by valuing dollars at 6 s. each, and concluded that the total was equal to about $5.16 million.

Ratchford’s method of summing local pounds and then converting to dollars is incorrect because local pounds did not have a uniform value across colonies. Since dollars were commonly rated at more than 6 s., his procedure resulted in an inflated estimate. We can correct this error by using McCusker’s (1978) data on 1774 exchange rates to convert local currency to sterling for each colony, obtain a sum in pounds sterling, and then convert to dollars using the rated value of the dollar in pounds sterling, 4½ s. Four and a half s. was very near the dollar’s value in London bullion markets in 1774, so no appreciable error arises from using the rated value. Doing so reduces Ratchford’s estimate to $3.42 million. Replacing Ratchford’s estimates of currency outstanding in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and South Carolina with apparently superior data published by Brock (1975, 1992) reduces the total to $2.93 million. Even allowing for some imprecision in the data, this simply can’t be reconciled with Hamilton’s apparently mythical $22 million in paper money!

How much current cash was there in the colonies in 1774? Alice Hanson Jones’s extensive research into probate records gives an independent estimate of the money supply. Jones (1980, table 5.2) estimated that per capita cash-holding in the Middle colonies in 1774 was £1.8 sterling, and that the entire money supply of the thirteen colonies was slightly more than 12 million dollars.44 McCallum (1992) proposed another way to estimate total money balances in the colonies. McCallum started with the few episodes where historians generally agree paper money entirely displaced specie, making the total money supply measurable. He used money balances in these episodes as a basis for estimating money balances in other colonies by deriving approximate measures of the variability of money holdings over colonies and over time. Given the starkly different methodologies, it is remarkable that McCallum’s approach yields an answer practically indistinguishable from Jones’s.45

Various contemporary estimates, including estimates by Pelatiah Webster, Noah Webster, and Lord Sheffield, also suggest the total colonial money supply in 1774 was ten to twelve million dollars, mostly in specie (Michener 1988, p. 687; Elliot, 1845, p. 938). If we tentatively accept that the total money supply in the American colonies in 1774 was about twelve million dollars, and that only three million dollars worth of bills of credit remained outstanding, then fully 75% of the prewar money supply must have been in specie.

Even this may be an underestimate. Colonial probate inventories are notoriously incomplete, and the usual presumption is that Jones’s estimates are likely to be downwardly biased. Two examples not involving money illustrate the general problem. In Jones’s collection of inventories, over 20% of the estates did not include any clothes (Lindert, 1981, p. 657). In an independent survey of Surry County, Virginia probate records, Anna Hawley (1987, pp. 27-8) noted that only 34% of the estates listed hoes despite the fact that the region’s staple crops, corn and tobacco, had to be hoed several times a year.

In Jones’s 1774 database an amazing 70% of all estates were devoid of money. While the widespread use of credit made it possible to do without money in most transactions it is likely some estates contained cash that does not appear in probate inventories. Peter Lindert (1981, p. 658) surmised “cash was simply allocated informally among survivors even before probate took place.” McCusker and Menard (1985, p. 338, fn. 14) concurred noting “cash would have been one of the things most likely to have been distributed outside the usual probate proceedings.” If Jones actually underestimated cash holdings in 1774 the implication would be that more than 75% of the prewar money supply must have been specie.

That most of the cash circulating in the colonies in 1774 must have been specie seems like an inescapable conclusion. The issue has been clouded, however, by the existence of many contradictory and internally inconsistent estimates in the literature. By using them to defend his contention that specie was relatively unimportant, Smith (1988, p. 22) drew attention to these estimates.

The first such estimate was made by Roger Weiss (1970, p. 779), who computed the ratio of paper money to total money in the Middle colonies, using Jones’s probate data to estimate total money balances as has been done here; he arrived at a considerably smaller fraction of specie in the money supply. There is a simple explanation for this puzzling result: Weiss, whose article was published in 1970, based his analysis on Jones’s 1968 dissertation rather than her 1980 book. In her dissertation, Jones (1968, Tables 3 and 4, pp. 50-51) estimated the money supply in the three Middle colonies at £2.0 local currency per free white capita. Since £1 local currency was worth about £0.6 sterling, Weiss began with an estimated total money supply of £1.2 sterling per free white capita (equal to £1.13 per capita), rather than Jones’s more recent estimate of £1.8 sterling per capita.

Another authority is Letwin (1982, p. 467), who estimated that more than 60% of the money supply of Pennsylvania in 1775 was paper. Letwin used the Historical Statistics of the United States for his money supply data, and a casual back-of-the-envelope estimate that nominal balances in Pennsylvania were £700,000 in 1775 to conclude that 63% of Pennsylvania’s money supply was paper money. However, the data in Historical Statistics of the United States are known to be incorrect: Using Letwin’s back-of-the-envelope estimate, but redoing the calculation using Brock’s estimates of paper money in circulation, gives the result that in 1775 only 45.5% of Pennsylvania’s money supply was paper money; for 1774 the figure is 31%.46

That good faith attempts to estimate the stock of specie in the colonies in 1774 have given rise to such wildly varying and inconsistent estimates gives some indication of the task that remains to be accomplished.47 Many hints about how the specie stock varied over time in colonial America can be found in newspapers, legislative records, pamphlets and correspondence. Organizing those fragments of evidence and interpreting them is going to require great skill and will probably have to be done colony by colony. In addition, if the key to the purchasing power of colonial currency lies in the ratings attached to coins as I personally believe it does, then more effort is going to have to be paid in the future to tracking how those ratings evolved over time. Our knowledge at the moment is very fragmentary, probably because the politics of paper money has so engrossed the attention of historians that few people have attached much significance to coin ratings.

Economic historian Farley Grubb has proposed (2003, 2004, 2007) that the composition of the medium of exchange in colonial America and the early Republic can be determined from the unit of account used in arm’s length transactions, such as rewards offered in runaway ads and prices recorded in indentured servant contract registrations. If, for instance, a runaway reward is offered in pounds, shillings and pence, it means (Grubb argues) that colonial or state bills of credit were the medium of exchange used, while dollar rewards in such ads would imply silver. Grubb then uses contract registrations in the early Republic (2003, 2007) and runaway ads in colonial Pennsylvania (2004) to develop time series for hitherto unmeasurable components of the money supply and draws many striking conclusions from them. I believe Grubb is proceeding on a mistaken premise. Reversing Grubb’s procedure and using runaway ads in the early Republic and contract registrations in colonial Pennsylvania yields dramatically different results, which suggests the method is not useful. I have participated in this contentious published debate (see Michener and Wright 2005, 2006a, 2006c and Grubb 2003, 2004, 2006a, 2006b, 2007) and will leave it to the reader to draw his or her own conclusions.

Notes:

1. Beginning in 1767, Maryland issued bills of credit denominated in dollars (McCusker, 1978, p. 194).

2. For a number of years, Georgia money was an exception to this rule (McCusker, 1978, pp. 227-8).

3. Elmer (1869, p. 137). Similarly, historian Robert Shalhope (Shalhope, 2003, pp. 140, 142, 147, 290) documents a Vermont farmer who continued to reckon, at least some of the time, in New York currency (i.e. 8 shillings = $1) well into the 1820s.

4. To clarify: In New York, a dollar was rated at eight shillings, hence one reale, an eighth of a dollar, was one shilling. In Richmond and Boston, the dollar was rated at six shillings, or 72 pence, one eighth of which is 9 pence. In Philadelphia and Baltimore, the dollar was rated at seven shillings six pence, or ninety pence, and an eighth of a dollar would be 11.25 pence.

5. In 1822, for example, P. T. Barnum, then a young man from Connecticut making his first visit to New York, paid too much for a brace of oranges because of confusion over the unit of account. “I was told,” he later related, “[the oranges] were four pence apiece [as Barnum failed to realise, in New York there were 96 pence to the dollar], and as four pence in Connecticut was six cents, I offered ten cents for two oranges, which was of course readily taken; and thus, instead of saving two cents, as I thought, I actually paid two cents more than the price demanded” (Barnum, 1886, p. 18).

6. One way to see the truth of this statement is to examine colonial records predating the emission of colonial bills of credit. Virginia pounds are referred to long before Virginia issued its first bills of credit in 1755. See, for example, Pennsylvania Gazette, September 20, 1736, quoting Votes of the House of Burgesses in Virginia, August 30, 1736 or the Pennsylvania Gazette, May 29, 1746, quoting a runaway ad that mentions “a bond from a certain Fielding Turner to William Williams, for 42 pounds Virginia currency.” Advertisements in the Philadelphia newspapers in 1720 promise rewards for the return of runaway servants and slaves in Pennsylvania pounds, even though Pennsylvania did not issue its first bills of credit until 1723. The contemporary meaning of “currency” sheds light on otherwise confusing statements, such as an ad in the Pennsylvania Gazette, May 12, 1763, where the advertiser offered a reward for the recovery of £460 “New York currency” that was stolen from him and then parenthetically noted “the greatest part of said Money was in Jersey Bills.”

7. For an example of a complete list, see Felt (1839, pp. 82-83).

8. Further discussion of country pay in Connecticut can be found in Bronson (1865, pp. 23-4).

9. Weiss (1974, pp. 580-85) cites a passage from an 1684 court case that appears to contradict this discount. However, inspecting the court records shows that the initial debt consisted of 34s. 5d. in money to which the court added 17s. 3d. to cover the difference between money and country pay, a ratio of pay to money of exactly 3 to 2 (Massachusetts, 1961, pp. 303-4). Other good illustrations of the divergence of cash and country pay prices can be found in Knight (1935, pp. 40-1) and Judd (1905, pp. 95-6). The multiple price system was not limited to Massachusetts and Connecticut (Coulter, 1944, p. 107).

10. Thomas Bannister to Mr. Joseph Thomson, March 8, 1699/1700 in (Bannister, 1708).

11. In New York, for instance, early issues were legal tender, but the Currency Act of 1764 put a halt to new issues of legal tender paper money; the legal tender status of practically all existing issues expired in 1768. After prolonged and contentious negotiation with imperial authorities, the Currency Act of 1770 permitted New York to issue paper money that was a legal tender in payments to the colonial government, but not in private transactions. New York made its first issue under the terms of the Currency Act of 1770 in early 1771 (Ernst, 1973).

12. Ordinarily, but not always. For instance, in 1731 South Carolina reissued £106,500 in bills of credit without creating any tax fund with which to redeem them (Nettels, 1934, pp. 261-2; Brock, 1975, p. 123). The Board of Trade repeatedly pressured the colony to create a tax fund for this purpose, but without success. That no tax funds had been earmarked to redeem these bills was common knowledge, but it did not make the bills less acceptable as a medium of exchange, or adversely affect their value. The episode contradicts the common supposition that the promise of future redemption played a key role in determining the value of colonial currencies.

13. Once the bills of credit were placed in circulation, no distinction was made between them based on how they were originally issued. It is not as if one could only pay taxes with bills of the first sort, or repay mortgages with bills of the second sort. Many colonies, to save the cost of printing, would reuse worn but serviceable notes. A bill originally issued on loan, upon returning to the colonial treasury, might be reissued on tax funds; often it would have been impossible, even in principle, for an individual to examine the bills in his possession and deduce the funds ostensibly backing them.

14. Late in the seventeenth century Massachusetts briefly operated a mint that issued silver coins denominated in the local unit of account (Jordon, 2002). On the eve of the Revolution, Virginia obtained official permission to have copper coins minted for use in Virginia (Davis, 1970, vol. 1, chapter 2; Newman, 1956).

15. The Massachusetts government, unable to honor redemption promises made when the first new tenor emission was first created, decided in 1742 to revalue these bills from three to one to four to one with old tenor as compensation. When Massachusetts returned to a specie standard, the remaining middle tenor bills were redeemed at four to one (Davis, 1970; McCusker, 1978, p. 133).

16. New and old tenors have led to much confusion. In the Boston Weekly News Letter, July 1, 1742, there is an ad pertaining to someone who mistakenly passed Rhode Island New Tenor in Boston at three to one, when it was supposed to be valued at four to one. Modern day historians have also occasionally been misled. An excellent example can be found in Patterson (1961, p. 27). Patterson believed he had unearthed evidence of outrageous fraud during the Massachusetts currency reform, whereas he had, in fact, simply failed to convert a sum in an official document stated in new tenor terms into appropriate old tenor terms. Sufro (1976, p. 247) following Patterson, made similar accusations based on a similar misunderstanding of New England’s monetary units.

17. That colonial treasurers did not unfailingly provide this service is implicit in statements found in merchant letters complaining of how difficult it sometimes became to convert paper money to specie (Beekman to Evan and Francis Malbone, March 10, 1769, White, 1956, p. 522).

18. Nathaniel Appleton (1748) preached a sermon excoriating the province of Massachusetts Bay for flagrantly failing to keep the promises inscribed on the face of its bills of credit.

19. Goldberg (2009) uses circumstantial evidence to suggest that Massachusetts was engaged in a “monetary ploy to fool the king” when it made its first emissions. In Goldberg’s telling of the tale, the king had been furious about the Massachusetts mint and officially issuing paper money that was a full legal tender would have been a “colossal mistake” because it would have endangered the colony’s effort to obtain a new charter, which was essential to confirm the land grants the colony had already made. The alleged ploy Goldberg discovered was a provision passed shortly afterwards: “Ordered that all country pay with one third abated shall pass as current money to pay all country’s debts at the same prices set by this court.” Since those with a claim on the Treasury were going to be tendered either paper money or country pay, and since Goldberg interprets this as requiring those creditors to accept either 3 pounds in paper money or 2 pounds in country pay, the provision was, in Goldberg’s estimation, a way of forcing the paper money on the populace at a one third discount. The shortchanging of the public creditors, through some mechanism not adequately explained to my understanding, was sufficient to make the new paper money a defacto legal tender.

There are several problems with Goldberg’s analysis. Jordan (2002, pp. 36-45) has recently written the definitive history of the Massachusetts mint, and he minutely reviews the evidence pertaining to the Massachusetts mint and British reaction to it. He concludes that “there was no concerted effort by the king and his ministers to crush the Massachusetts mint.” In 1692 Massachusetts obtained a new charter and passed a law making the bills of credit a legal tender. The new charter required Massachusetts to submit all its laws to London for review, yet the imperial authorities quietly ratified the legal tender law, even though they were fully empowered to veto it, which seems very peculiar if the legal tender status of the bills was as unpopular with the King and his ministers as Goldberg maintains. The smoking gun Goldberg cites appears to me to be no more than a statement of the “three pounds of country pay equals two pounds cash” rule that prevailed in Massachusetts in the late seventeenth century. In his argument, Goldberg tacitly assumes that a pound of country pay was equal in value to a pound of hard money; he observes that the new bills of credit initially circulated at a one third discount (with respect to specie) and that this might have arisen because recipients (according to his interpretation) were offered only two pounds of country pay in lieu of three pounds of bills of credit (Goldberg, p. 1102). However, because country pay itself was worth, at most, two thirds of its nominal value in specie, by Goldberg’s reasoning paper money should have been at a discount of at least five ninths with respect to specie.

The paper money era in Massachusetts brought forth approximately fifty pamphlets and hundreds of newspaper articles and public debates in the Assembly, none of which confirm Goldberg’s inference.

20. The role bills of credit played as a means of financing government expenditures is discussed in Ferguson (1953).

21. Georgia was not founded until 1733, and one reason for its founding was to create a military buffer to protect the Carolinas from the Spanish in Florida.

22. Grubb (2004, 2006a, 2006b) argues that bills of credit did not commonly circulate across colony borders. Michener and Wright (2006a, 2006c) dispute Grubb’s analysis and provide (Michener and Wright 2006a, pp. 12-13, 24-30) additional evidence of the phenomenon.

23. Poor Thomas Improved: Being More’s Country Almanack for … 1768 gives as a rule that “To reduce New-Jersey Bills into York Currency, only add one penny to every shilling, and the Sum is determined.” (McCusker, 1978, pp. 170-71; Stevens, 1867, pp. 151-3, 160-1, 168, 185-6, 296; Lincoln, 1894, vol. 5, Chapter 1654, pp. 638-9.)

24. In two articles, John R. Hanson (1979, 1980) argued that bills of credit were important to the colonial economy because they provided much-needed small denomination money. His analysis, however, completely ignores the presence of half-pence, pistareens, and fractional denominations of the Spanish dollar. The Spanish minted halves, quarters, eighths, and sixteenths of the dollar, which circulated in the colonies (Solomon, 1976, pp. 31-32). For a good introduction to small change in the colonies, see Andrews (1886), Newman (1976), Mossman (1993, pp. 105-142), and Kays (2001).

25. Council of Trade and Plantations to the Queen, November 23, 1703, in Calendar of State Papers, 1702-1703, entry #1299. Brock, 1975, chap. 4.

26. This, it should be noted, is what British authorities meant by “proclamation money.” Since salaries of royal officials, fees, quit rents, etc. were often denominated in proclamation money, colonial courts often found a rationale to attach their own interpretation to “proclamation money” so as to reduce the real value of such salaries and fees. In New York, for example, eight shillings in New York’s bills of credit were ostensibly worth one ounce of silver although by the late colonial period they were actually worth less. This valuation of bills of credit made each seven pounds of New York bills of credit in principle worth six pounds in proclamation money. The New York courts used that fact to establish the rule that seven pounds in New York currency could pay a debt of six pounds proclamation money. This rule allowed New Yorkers to pay less in real terms than was contemplated by the British (Hart, 2005, pp. 269-71).

27. Brock (1975). The text of the proclamation can be found in the Boston New-Letter, December 11, 1704. To be precise, the Proclamation rate was actually in slight contradiction to that in the Massachusetts law, which had rated a piece of eight weighing 17 dwt. at 6 s. See Brock (1975, p. 133, fn. 7).

28. This contention has engendered considerable controversy, but the evidence for it seems to me both considerable and compelling. Apart from evidence cited in the text, see for Massachusetts, Michener (1987, p. 291, fn. 54), Waite Winthrop to Samuel Reade, March 5, 1708 and Wait Winthrop to Samuel Reade, October 22, 1709 in Winthrop (1892, pp. 165, 201); For South Carolina see South Carolina Gazette, May 14, 1753; August 13, 1744; and Manigualt (1969, p. 188); For Pennsylvania see Pennsylvania Gazette, April 2, 1730, December 3, 1767, February 15, 1775, March 8, 1775; For St. Kitts see Roberdeau to Hyndman & Thomas, October 16, 1766, in Roberdeau (1771); For Antigua, see Anonymous (1740).

29. The Chamber of Commerce adopted its measure in October 1769, apparently too late in the year to appear in the “1770” almanacs, which were printed and sold in late 1769. The 1771 almanacs, printed in 1770, include the revised coin ratings.

30. Note that the relative ratings of the half joe are aligned with the ratings of the dollar. For example, the ratio of the New York value of the half joe to the Pennsylvania value is 64 s./60 s. = 1.066666, and the ratio of the New York value of the half joe to the Connecticut value is 64 s./48 s. = 1.3333.

31. This bank has been largely overlooked, but is well documented. Letter of a Merchant in South Carolina to Alexander Cumings, Charlestown, May 23, 1730, South Carolina Public Records, Vol XIV, pp. 117-20; Anonymous (1734); Easterby (1951, [March 5, 1736/37] vol. 1, pp. 309-10); Governor Johnson to the Board of Trade in Calendar of State Papers, 1731, entry 488, p. 342; Whitaker (1741, p. 25); and Vance (1740, p. 463).

32.I base this on my own experience reviewing the contents of RG3 Litchfield County Court Files, Box 1 at the Connecticut State Library.

33. Though best documented in New England, Benjamin Franklin (1729, CCR II, p. 340) mentions their use in Pennsylvania.

34. See Douglass (1740, CCR III, pp. 328-329) and Vance (1740, CCR III, pp. 328-329). Douglass and Vance disagreed on all the substantive issues, so that their agreement on this point is especially noteworthy. See also Boston Weekly Newsletter, Feb. 12-19, 1741.

35. Data on New England prices during this period are very limited, but annual data exist for wheat prices and silver prices. Regressing the log of these prices on time yields an annual growth rate of prices approximately that mentioned in the text. The price data leave much to be desired, and the inflation estimates should be understood as simply a crude characterization. However, it does show that New England’s peacetime inflation during this era was not so extreme as to shock modern sensibilities.

36. Smith (1985a, 1985b). The quantity theory holds that the price level is determined by the supply and demand for money – loosely, how much money is chasing how many goods. Smith’s version of the backing theory is summarized by the passage quoted from his article.

37. John Adams explained this very clearly in a letter written June 22, 1780 to Vergennes (Wharton, vol. 3, p. 811). Adams’s “certain sum” and McCallum’s “normal real balances” are essentially the same, although Adams is speaking in nominal and McCallum in real terms.

A certain sum of money is necessary to circulate among the society in order to carry on their business. This precise sum is discoverable by calculation and reducible to certainty. You may emit paper or any other currency for this purpose until you reach this rule, and it will not depreciate. After you exceed this rule it will depreciate, and no power or act of legislation hitherto invented will prevent it. In the case of paper, if you go on emitting forever, the whole mass will be worth no more than that was which was emitted within the rule.

38. One of the principle observations Smith (1985b, p. 1198) makes in dismissing the possible importance of interest rate fluctuations is “it is known that sterling bills of exchange did not circulate at a discount.” Sterling bills were payable at a future date, and Smith presumably means that sterling bills should have been discounted if interest made an appreciable difference in their market value. Sterling bills, however, were discounted. These bills were not payable at a particular fixed date, but rather on a certain number of days after they were first presented for payment. For example, a bill might be payable “on sixty days sight,” meaning that once the bill was presented (in London, for example, to the person upon whom it was drawn) the person would have sixty days in which to make payment. Not all bills were drawn at the same sight, and sight periods of 30, 60, and 90 days were all common. Bills payable sooner sold at higher prices, and bills could be and sometimes were discounted in London to obtain quicker payment (McCusker, 1978, p. 21, especially fn. 25; David Vanhorne to Nicholas Browne and Co., October 3, 1766. Brown Papers, P-V2, John Carter Brown Library). In the early Federal period many newspapers published extensive prices current that included prices of bills drawn on 30, 60, and 90 days’ sight.

39. Franklin (1729) wrote a tract on colonial currency, in which he maintained as one of his propositions that “A great Want of Money in any Trading Country, occasions Interest to be at a very high Rate.” An anonymous referee warned that when colonists complained of a “want of money” that they were not complaining of a lack of a circulating medium per se, but were expressing a desire for more credit at lower interest rates. I do not entirely agree with the referee. I believe many colonists, like Franklin, reasoned like modern-day Keynesians, and believed high interest rates and scarce credit were caused by an inadequate money supply. For more on this subject, see Wright (2002, chapter 1).

40. Public Record Office, CO 5/ 947, August 13, 1768, pp. 18-23.

41. New Hampshire Gazette and Historical Chronicle, January 13, 1769.

42. Public Record Office, Wentworth to Hillsborough, CO 5/ 936, July 3, 1769.

43. Pennsylvania Chronicle, and Universal Advertiser, 28 December 1767.

44. This should be understood to be paper money and specie equal in value to 12 million dollars, not 12 million Spanish dollars. The fraction of specie in the money supply can’t be directly estimated from probate records. Jones (1980, p. 132) found that “whether the cash was in coin or paper was rarely stated.”

45. McCallum deflated money balances by the free white population rather than the total population. Using population estimates to put the numbers on a comparable basis reveals how close McCallum’s estimates are to those of Jones. For example, McCallum’s estimate for the Middle colonies, converted to a per-capita basis, is approximately £1.88 sterling.

46. This incident illustrates how mistakes about colonial currency are propagated and seem never to die out. Henry Phillips 1865 book presented data on Pennsylvania bills of credit outstanding. One of his major “findings” was that Pennsylvania retired only £25,000 between 1760 and 1769. This was a mistake: Brock (1992, table 6) found £225,247 had been retired over the same period. Because of the retirements Phillips missed, he overestimated the quantity of Pennsylvania bills of credit in circulation in the late colonial period by 50 to 100%. Lester (1939, pp. 88, 108) used Phillips’s series; Ratchford (1941) obtained his data from Lester. Through Ratchford, Phillips’s series found its way into Historical Statistics of the United States.

47. Benjamin Allen Hicklin (2007) maintains that generations of historians have exaggerated the scarcity of specie in seventeenth and early eighteenth century Massachusetts. Hicklin’s analysis illustrates the unsettled state of our knowledge about colonial specie stocks.

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Citation: Michener, Ron. “Money in the American Colonies”. EH.Net Encyclopedia, edited by Robert Whaples. June 8, 2003, revised January 13, 2011. URL http://eh.net/encyclopedia/money-in-the-american-colonies/

Money Changes Everything: How Finance Made Civilization Possible

Author(s):Goetzmann, William N.
Reviewer(s):Neal, Larry

Published by EH.Net (July 2016)

William N. Goetzmann, Money Changes Everything: How Finance Made Civilization Possible.  Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016. x + 584 pp. $35 (cloth), ISBN: 978-0-691-14378-1.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Larry Neal, Department of Economics, University of Illinois.

Long awaited by other financial historians, myself included, William N. Goetzmann’s book has finally appeared! This, after years of research and teaching during which Goetzmann allowed anyone interested in financial history to view his chapters in progress on-line at: http://viking.som.yale.edu. (The website is well worth visiting in any case for the wide selection of primary source materials he has made readily available there for the rest of us.)  The printed product covers defining episodes in the history of finance from ancient Mesopotamia to the sub-prime crisis of 2008.  The introduction explains the themes that underlie the chest-thumping title despite his modest initial disclaimer that, “This book is a somewhat personal narrative about the people, places, and things that, in my view, shaped the history of finance as a technology of civilization” (p. 3). To motivate the structure of the book chapters that follow Goetzmann summarizes the key elements of finance as:
1. Reallocating economic value through time
2. Reallocating risk
3. Reallocating capital
4. Expanding the access to, and the complexity of, these reallocations

After explaining and extolling the virtues of each financial element, however, he broadens and deepens the implications of financial innovations that have occurred through history under each element.  The first element, the re-allocation of economic value through time, he sees as the fundamental feature that allowed civilizations to arise in the first place, wherever and whenever they occurred. Drawing on earlier work by his father, the late historian William H. Goetzmann, he distinguishes cultures as “structures of interrelated institutions, language, ideas, values, myths and symbols.  They tend to be exclusive, even tribal.  Civilizations, on the other hand, are open to new customs and ideas. They are syncretistic, chaotic, and often confusing societal information systems.  They continue to grow in the richness, variety and complexity of societal experience” (p. 9).

Goetzmann concludes with the optimistic view that: “financial technology allowed for more complex political institutions, enhanced social mobility, and greater economic growth – in short, all the major indicators of complex society we call civilization” (p. 14). Following this upbeat overview, there are four major sections, each with a separate introduction to explain the motivation.  Part 1, “From Cuneiform to Classical Civilization,” starts with Babylon and ends with Roman finance making a transition from informal securities markets in the Republic to central control of the money supply and its uses under the Empire.  Part II, “The Financial Legacy of China,” is a thoughtful diversion about the different routes that financial engineers can take, depending on the nature of political controls and contract enforcement.  Part III, the bulk of the book in two hundred pages, describes in loving detail “The European Crucible,” beginning with sovereign debt in Venice and concluding with American substitutes for sovereign debt, often underwritten by Dutch financiers.   Part IV, “The Emergence of Global Markets,” takes the reader into the maelstrom of the late nineteenth, twentieth, and early twenty-first centuries as global finance made its way among competing political visions in the world, all the while becoming increasingly complex — and disruptive.

Part I, “From Cuneiform to Classical Civilization,” focuses on lasting contributions to the rise of civilizations in the West, starting with writing, then cities, and culminates with a “financial architecture” based on record keeping, contract enforcement, a numerical system that permitted compound interest calculations, and astronomical observations based on a calendar year of 360 days (to make interest calculations easier).  This financial architecture held congeries of cities together in mutually beneficial trade networks, but then also allowed the rise of empires and their disruptive consequences.  Especially poignant is the interpretation of the Muraŝu archive discovered in the ruins of ancient Nippur, which must have been one of the financial centers of the Persian Empire.  Three generations of the Muraŝu family maintained their clay tablets recording outstanding claims on property and business ventures, concluding with their aid to a usurper who overthrew the reigning emperor, Sogdianus.  The Muraŝu family organized the financing of the army of his half-brother, Ochus, who became Darius II.  After which, however, the archive testifies to continuing indebtedness and foreclosures of the various financiers.  Goetzmann concludes, “finance could rapidly and powerfully focus economic assets in one time and place for political gain” (p. 68).

The historical record of finance in the ensuring centuries remains largely to be decoded from the millions of clay tablets now dispersed in museums throughout the world, but the Mesopotamian innovations persisted into Grecian times.  The famed orator, Demosthenes, was often hired to express eloquently and convincingly the case of his client, whether an aggrieved creditor or debtor, before a mass jury of Athenian citizens.  His various speeches demonstrate the sophistication and complexity of Athenian private finance. Goetzmann concludes, “The Athenian state was able to induce investors into the equally risky venture of prospecting and mining through mechanisms for dispute resolution and the means by which the state fairly and transparently allotted property rights” (p. 91).

Roman finance, he argues, laid the basis for later development of corporate enterprises and secondary markets in mortgages as the Roman Republic expanded at the expense of Grecian (and Phoenician) city-states, while adopting their most successful and proven financial techniques, including the use of standardized coins to facilitate impersonal exchanges throughout the unified empire.  Why some forms of private finance, annuities based on rental properties, disappear from the historical record after the rise of the Empire remains a mystery.  The later travails of the Roman Empire with increasingly desperate measures for war finance, moreover, elicit a comparison with the contemporaneous Han Empire in China.

Part II, “The Financial Legacy of China,” basically resolves the so-called “Needham Paradox,” the failure of the technology advances of the Song Dynasty to generate an industrial revolution or further scientific advances that occurred much later in Europe, to the financial divergence between China and Europe. The key factor was the failure of China to develop sovereign debt, whether for its magnificent cities or for the central government.  Only with the opening of China’s treaty ports in the nineteenth century did the Chinese government finally resort to state debt, and even then the first Chinese government bonds were floated on international debt markets rather than in China itself.  But when China did enter global markets of the late nineteenth century, it did so with a vengeance. Shanghai rapidly became one of the great banking centers of the world in the 1920s, but only by discarding the imperial legacy of centuries before.  Goetzmann notes, “There was great debate in the Han over the role of private enterprise versus state ownership [especially regarding salt, iron, and maritime trade] and state ownership won” (p. 174).  Thereafter, the state provided credit to merchants and warlords when it needed to mobilize resources, eventually creating fiat paper money in the Song Dynasty.  Goetzmann concludes, “It is impossible to create fiat money without complete fiat.  Thus, the value of the currency rose and ultimately collapsed with the state” (p. 202).

Part III, “The European Crucible,” develops the logic that led small, competing, and warring city-states scattered across Western Europe to create viable forms of finance that led, with many well-known missteps but also with a few underappreciated financial successes, to modern, global finance.  Goetzmann sees the stages of financial development in Europe as: “first, the emergence of financial institutions; second the development of securities markets; third, the emergence of companies; fourth, the sudden explosion of stock markets; fifth, the quantification of risk; and finally, the spillover of this system to the rest of the world” (p. 203). The next twelve chapters explore both the missteps and the occasional successes that lay the foundations for modern finance.

After 219 pages of fascinating historical episodes, often interleaved with personal accounts of Goetzmann’s encounters with archaeological digs or archival sites, he sums up the lessons of history from the European example.  “Financial technology is redundant, adaptive, and sometimes mercurial.  The institutions we take to be sacrosanct, inevitable, and indispensable are probably not.  Given the random outcome of historical events, another set of institutions might have emerged to solve the same financial problems.  Financial innovation is thus a series of accidents of history — the caprice of time, location, and opportunity” (p. 219).  Consequently, his treatment of the technical advances in probability theory and actuarial science, starting with Fibonacci, Bernoulli and Pascal, contrasts sharply with that of Peter Bernstein’s Against the Gods: The Remarkable Story of Risk (New York: Wiley, 1996).  For Bernstein, the practical application of the Black-Scholes model for pricing options, built on the assumption that past distributions of asset prices could persist over the near future, had created the modern, efficient, global financial market.  For Goetzmann, however, the successes of the early financial markets led to the formalization in mathematical terms of the underlying processes.  He notes with approval the possibilities of non-linearities formalized by his Yale colleague Benoit Mandelbrot and erratic market movements highlighted by another Yale colleague, Robert Shiller.  Both scholars were inspired by observing anomalies in the price discovery processes revealed in the securities markets of the 20th century.

The final success of the European Crucible, according to Goetzmann, however, arose in the American colonies, first with their experiments with land banks (until outlawed by the British Parliament) and then with land companies backed usually by Dutch and British investors.  With all the current fervor surrounding the role played by Alexander Hamilton, thanks to the Broadway musical based on Ronald Chernow’s biography, Goetzmann instead gives Abraham Van Ketwich and a number of other Dutch bankers primary credit for having securitized the early debt of the United States.  True, “Dutch investors made out well when the debt of the United States was reorganized by Alexander Hamilton and the young nation made good on its financial commitments” (p. 386).  So, real credit for America’s success should go to the eighteenth century Dutch investors who developed the financial innovation of closed end mutual funds, which allowed small investors to share the returns from risky assets.

Part IV, “The Emergence of Global Markets,” begins with an interesting discussion of Marx, especially his insights into contemporary finance as demonstrated in his newspaper columns in the New York Daily Tribune in the U.S.  Goetzmann writes, “His prose is terse, witty, and convincing.  When I read these lively columns I can almost forgive him” (p. 411). The Tribune articles by Marx portray a world of “global linkages and geo-political dynamics” and that is what excites Goetzmann about this period of financial history. Especially noteworthy is the amount of information contained in the Investor’s Monthly Manual “quoting thousands of prices for securities from all over the world” (p. 412).  (And it’s available on downloadable pdf files from Goetzmann’s website given above.)  He extols The London Stock Exchange in 1870 as “giant economic lever with the fulcrum planted in the present, balancing past savings and future promises” (p. 413).

There follow fascinating insights into the experiences in pre-revolutionary China (“China’s Financiers”) and pre-World War I and early revolutionary Russia (“The Russian Bear”). Each country attempted to adopt financial innovations and capital from abroad while trying to establish legitimacy for a new government.  Both lapsed into authoritarian regimes espousing Marxian ideology, demonstrating again the historical contingencies under which financial innovations arise or meet their demise.  Chapter 26, “Keynes to the Rescue,” contrasts Keynes’ macro-economic recommendations, familiar to all from his General Theory, with his microeconomic investment strategies in handling the endowments of King’s College at Cambridge University.  At the macro-level, Keynes prescribed governmental spending whenever the animal spirits motivating private investment flagged while at a micro-level he switched from speculating on price movements in equities or foreign exchange (with dismal results) into equity investments in firms with sound management and robust markets.

“The New Financial World” emerged after World War I, not World War II, on Goetzmann’s account.  Highlighting the leadership of the U.S. in finance were skyscraper bonds, which he sees as an application into vertical space of the early American land companies dealing with wide, open horizontal spaces.  Financial architecture mimicked in many ways the new architecture that created a building boom toward the sky.  It is their eventual demise at the end of 1926 that Goetzmann sees as the collapse of a real bubble as “skyscrapers built in Manhattan were … driven by a demand for bonds that backed them rather than by a demand for the amazing new machine to make the land pay” (p. 480). Following the collapse of the urban real estate market in the U.S., returns from applying other new technologies such as radios, autos, and electrical appliances were delayed by a decade of more and equity prices in their companies collapsed, destroying the American public’s craving for investing in the stock markets.

Out of the Great Depression that followed, however, Goetzmann sees the emergence of useful financial innovations, starting with government regulation of the securities markets, implementation of a national Social Security plan, and improvements in mutual fund designs, all leading to post-war developments in financial theories, as well as intense empirical research into the varieties of movements in equity prices.  The challenges of the future, in a global financial system with confidence badly shaken from the 2008 financial crisis, lie in providing assurances to the current working age populations around the world that their future medical expenses and pension benefits can be financed. Attempts to meet these challenges with new financial innovations, whether from private or public initiatives, should be encouraged, as history shows that the consequences of disappointing the public’s expectations have always been disastrous for a civilization.

Larry Neal is the author of A Concise History of International Finance: From Babylon to Bernanke (Cambridge University Press, 2015).

Copyright (c) 2016 by EH.Net. All rights reserved. This work may be copied for non-profit educational uses if proper credit is given to the author and the list. For other permission, please contact the EH.Net Administrator (administrator@eh.net). Published by EH.Net (July 2016). All EH.Net reviews are archived at http://eh.net/book-reviews/

Subject(s):Financial Markets, Financial Institutions, and Monetary History
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
Time Period(s):General or Comparative

The Economics of the American Revolutionary War

Ben Baack, Ohio State University

By the time of the onset of the American Revolution, Britain had attained the status of a military and economic superpower. The thirteen American colonies were one part of a global empire generated by the British in a series of colonial wars beginning in the late seventeenth century and continuing on to the mid eighteenth century. The British military establishment increased relentlessly in size during this period as it engaged in the Nine Years War (1688-97), the War of Spanish Succession (1702-13), the War of Austrian Succession (1739-48), and the Seven Years War (1756-63). These wars brought considerable additions to the British Empire. In North America alone the British victory in the Seven Years War resulted in France ceding to Britain all of its territory east of the Mississippi River as well as all of Canada and Spain surrendering its claim to Florida (Nester, 2000).

Given the sheer magnitude of the British military and its empire, the actions taken by the American colonists for independence have long fascinated scholars. Why did the colonists want independence? How were they able to achieve a victory over what was at the time the world’s preeminent military power? What were the consequences of achieving independence? These and many other questions have engaged the attention of economic, legal, military, political, and social historians. In this brief essay we will focus only on the economics of the Revolutionary War.

Economic Causes of the Revolutionary War

Prior to the conclusion of the Seven Years War there was little, if any, reason to believe that one day the American colonies would undertake a revolution in an effort to create an independent nation-state. As apart of the empire the colonies were protected from foreign invasion by the British military. In return, the colonists paid relatively few taxes and could engage in domestic economic activity without much interference from the British government. For the most part the colonists were only asked to adhere to regulations concerning foreign trade. In a series of acts passed by Parliament during the seventeenth century the Navigation Acts required that all trade within the empire be conducted on ships which were constructed, owned and largely manned by British citizens. Certain enumerated goods whether exported or imported by the colonies had to be shipped through England regardless of the final port of destination.

Western Land Policies

The movement for independence arose in the colonies following a series of critical decisions made by the British government after the end of the war with France in 1763. Two themes emerge from what was to be a fundamental change in British economic policy toward the American colonies. The first involved western land. With the acquisition from the French of the territory between the Allegheny Mountains and the Mississippi River the British decided to isolate the area from the rest of the colonies. Under the terms of the Proclamation of 1763 and the Quebec Act of 1774 colonists were not allowed to settle here or trade with the Indians without the permission of the British government. These actions nullified the claims to land in the area by a host of American colonies, individuals, and land companies. The essence of the policy was to maintain British control of the fur trade in the West by restricting settlement by the Americans.

Tax Policies

The second fundamental change involved taxation. The British victory over the French had come at a high price. Domestic taxes had been raised substantially during the war and total government debt had increased nearly twofold (Brewer, 1989). Furthermore, the British had decided in1763 to place a standing army of 10,000 men in North America. The bulk of these forces were stationed in newly acquired territory to enforce its new land policy in the West. Forts were to be built which would become the new centers of trade with the Indians. The British decided that the Americans should share the costs of the military buildup in the colonies. The reason seemed obvious. Taxes were significantly higher in Britain than in the colonies. One estimate suggests the per capita tax burden in the colonies ranged from two to four per cent of that in Britain (Palmer, 1959). It was time in the British view that the Americans began to pay a larger share of the expenses of the empire.

Accordingly, a series of tax acts were passed by Parliament the revenue from which was to be used to help pay for the standing army in America. The first was the Sugar Act of 1764. Proposed by England’s Prime Minister the act lowered tariff rates on non-British products from the West Indies as well as strengthened their collection. It was hoped this would reduce the incentive for smuggling and thereby increase tariff revenue (Bullion, 1982). The following year Parliament passed the Stamp Act that imposed a tax commonly used in England. It required stamps for a broad range of legal documents as well as newspapers and pamphlets. While the colonial stamp duties were less than those in England they were expected to generate enough revenue to finance a substantial portion of the cost the new standing army. The same year passage of the Quartering Act imposed essentially a tax in kind by requiring the colonists to provide British military units with housing, provisions, and transportation. In 1767 the Townshend Acts imposed tariffs upon a variety of imported goods and established a Board of Customs Commissioners in the colonies to collect the revenue.

Boycotts

American opposition to these acts was expressed initially in a variety of peaceful forms. While they did not have representation in Parliament, the colonists did attempt to exert some influence in it through petition and lobbying. However, it was the economic boycott that became by far the most effective means of altering the new British economic policies. In 1765 representatives from nine colonies met at the Stamp Act Congress in New York and organized a boycott of imported English goods. The boycott was so successful in reducing trade that English merchants lobbied Parliament for the repeal of the new taxes. Parliament soon responded to the political pressure. During 1766 it repealed both the Stamp and Sugar Acts (Johnson, 1997). In response to the Townshend Acts of 1767 a second major boycott started in 1768 in Boston and New York and subsequently spread to other cities leading Parliament in 1770 to repeal all of the Townshend duties except the one on tea. In addition, Parliament decided at the same time not to renew the Quartering Act.

With these actions taken by Parliament the Americans appeared to have successfully overturned the new British post war tax agenda. However, Parliament had not given up what it believed to be its right to tax the colonies. On the same day it repealed the Stamp Act, Parliament passed the Declaratory Act stating the British government had the full power and authority to make laws governing the colonies in all cases whatsoever including taxation. Policies not principles had been overturned.

The Tea Act

Three years after the repeal of the Townshend duties British policy was once again to emerge as an issue in the colonies. This time the American reaction was not peaceful. It all started when Parliament for the first time granted an exemption from the Navigation Acts. In an effort to assist the financially troubled British East India Company Parliament passed the Tea Act of 1773, which allowed the company to ship tea directly to America. The grant of a major trading advantage to an already powerful competitor meant a potential financial loss for American importers and smugglers of tea. In December a small group of colonists responded by boarding three British ships in the Boston harbor and throwing overboard several hundred chests of tea owned by the East India Company (Labaree, 1964). Stunned by the events in Boston, Parliament decided not to cave in to the colonists as it had before. In rapid order it passed the Boston Port Act, the Massachusetts Government Act, the Justice Act, and the Quartering Act. Among other things these so-called Coercive or Intolerable Acts closed the port of Boston, altered the charter of Massachusetts, and reintroduced the demand for colonial quartering of British troops. Once done Parliament then went on to pass the Quebec Act as a continuation of its policy of restricting the settlement of the West.

The First Continental Congress

Many Americans viewed all of this as a blatant abuse of power by the British government. Once again a call went out for a colonial congress to sort out a response. On September 5, 1774 delegates appointed by the colonies met in Philadelphia for the First Continental Congress. Drawing upon the successful manner in which previous acts had been overturned the first thing Congress did was to organize a comprehensive embargo of trade with Britain. It then conveyed to the British government a list of grievances that demanded the repeal of thirteen acts of Parliament. All of the acts listed had been passed after 1763 as the delegates had agreed not to question British policies made prior to the conclusion of the Seven Years War. Despite all the problems it had created, the Tea Act was not on the list. The reason for this was that Congress decided not to protest British regulation of colonial trade under the Navigation Acts. In short, the delegates were saying to Parliament take us back to 1763 and all will be well.

The Second Continental Congress

What happened then was a sequence of events that led to a significant increase in the degree of American resistance to British polices. Before the Congress adjourned in October the delegates voted to meet again in May of 1775 if Parliament did not meet their demands. Confronted by the extent of the American demands the British government decided it was time to impose a military solution to the crisis. Boston was occupied by British troops. In April a military confrontation occurred at Lexington and Concord. Within a month the Second Continental Congress was convened. Here the delegates decided to fundamentally change the nature of their resistance to British policies. Congress authorized a continental army and undertook the purchase of arms and munitions. To pay for all of this it established a continental currency. With previous political efforts by the First Continental Congress to form an alliance with Canada having failed, the Second Continental Congress took the extraordinary step of instructing its new army to invade Canada. In effect, these actions taken were those of an emerging nation-state. In October as American forces closed in on Quebec the King of England in a speech to Parliament declared that the colonists having formed their own government were now fighting for their independence. It was to be only a matter of months before Congress formally declared it.

Economic Incentives for Pursuing Independence: Taxation

Given the nature of British colonial policies, scholars have long sought to evaluate the economic incentives the Americans had in pursuing independence. In this effort economic historians initially focused on the period following the Seven Years War up to the Revolution. It turned out that making a case for the avoidance of British taxes as a major incentive for independence proved difficult. The reason was that many of the taxes imposed were later repealed. The actual level of taxation appeared to be relatively modest. After all, the Americans soon after adopting the Constitution taxed themselves at far higher rates than the British had prior to the Revolution (Perkins, 1988). Rather it seemed the incentive for independence might have been the avoidance of the British regulation of colonial trade. Unlike some of the new British taxes, the Navigation Acts had remained intact throughout this period.

The Burden of the Navigation Acts

One early attempt to quantify the economic effects of the Navigation Acts was by Thomas (1965). Building upon the previous work of Harper (1942), Thomas employed a counterfactual analysis to assess what would have happened to the American economy in the absence of the Navigation Acts. To do this he compared American trade under the Acts with that which would have occurred had America been independent following the Seven Years War. Thomas then estimated the loss of both consumer and produce surplus to the colonies as a result of shipping enumerated goods indirectly through England. These burdens were partially offset by his estimated value of the benefits of British protection and various bounties paid to the colonies. The outcome of his analysis was that the Navigation Acts imposed a net burden of less than one percent of colonial per capita income. From this he concluded the Acts were an unlikely cause of the Revolution. A long series of subsequent works questioned various parts of his analysis but not his general conclusion (Walton, 1971). The work of Thomas also appeared to be consistent with the observation that the First Continental Congress had not demanded in its list of grievances the repeal of either the Navigation Acts or the Sugar Act.

American Expectations about Future British Policy

Did this mean then that the Americans had few if any economic incentives for independence? Upon further consideration economic historians realized that perhaps more important to the colonists were not the past and present burdens but rather the expected future burdens of continued membership in the British Empire. The Declaratory Act made it clear the British government had not given up what it viewed as its right to tax the colonists. This was despite the fact that up to 1775 the Americans had employed a variety of protest measures including lobbying, petitions, boycotts, and violence. The confluence of not having representation in Parliament while confronting an aggressive new British tax policy designed to raise their relatively low taxes may have made it reasonable for the Americans to expect a substantial increase in the level of taxation in the future (Gunderson, 1976, Reid, 1978). Furthermore a recent study has argued that in 1776 not only did the future burdens of the Navigation Acts clearly exceed those of the past, but a substantial portion would have borne by those who played a major role in the Revolution (Sawers, 1992). Seen in this light the economic incentive for independence would have been avoiding the potential future costs of remaining in the British Empire.

The Americans Undertake a Revolution

1776-77

British Military Advantages

The American colonies had both strengths and weaknesses in terms of undertaking a revolution. The colonial population of well over two million was nearly one third of that in Britain (McCusker and Menard, 1985). The growth in the colonial economy had generated a remarkably high level of per capita wealth and income (Jones, 1980). Yet the hurdles confronting the Americans in achieving independence were indeed formidable. The British military had an array of advantages. With virtual control of the Atlantic its navy could attack anywhere along the American coast at will and would have borne logistical support for the army without much interference. A large core of experienced officers commanded a highly disciplined and well-drilled army in the large-unit tactics of eighteenth century European warfare. By these measures the American military would have great difficulty in defeating the British. Its navy was small. The Continental Army had relatively few officers proficient in large-unit military tactics. Lacking both the numbers and the discipline of its adversary the American army was unlikely to be able to meet the British army on equal terms on the battlefield (Higginbotham, 1977).

British Financial Advantages

In addition, the British were in a better position than the Americans to finance a war. A tax system was in place that had provided substantial revenue during previous colonial wars. Also for a variety of reasons the government had acquired an exceptional capacity to generate debt to fund wartime expenses (North and Weingast, 1989). For the Continental Congress the situation was much different. After declaring independence Congress had set about defining the institutional relationship between it and the former colonies. The powers granted to Congress were established under the Articles of Confederation. Reflecting the political environment neither the power to tax nor the power to regulate commerce was given to Congress. Having no tax system to generate revenue also made it very difficult to borrow money. According to the Articles the states were to make voluntary payments to Congress for its war efforts. This precarious revenue system was to hamper funding by Congress throughout the war (Baack, 2001).

Military and Financial Factors Determine Strategy

It was within these military and financial constraints that the war strategies by the British and the Americans were developed. In terms of military strategies both of the contestants realized that America was simply too large for the British army to occupy all of the cities and countryside. This being the case the British decided initially that they would try to impose a naval blockade and capture major American seaports. Having already occupied Boston, the British during 1776 and 1777 took New York, Newport, and Philadelphia. With plenty of room to maneuver his forces and unable to match those of the British, George Washington chose to engage in a war of attrition. The purpose was twofold. First, by not engaging in an all out offensive Washington reduced the probability of losing his army. Second, over time the British might tire of the war.

Saratoga

Frustrated without a conclusive victory, the British altered their strategy. During 1777 a plan was devised to cut off New England from the rest of the colonies, contain the Continental Army, and then defeat it. An army was assembled in Canada under the command of General Burgoyne and then sent to and down along the Hudson River. It was to link up with an army sent from New York City. Unfortunately for the British the plan totally unraveled as in October Burgoyne’s army was defeated at the battle of Saratoga and forced to surrender (Ketchum, 1997).

The American Financial Situation Deteriorates

With the victory at Saratoga the military side of the war had improved considerably for the Americans. However, the financial situation was seriously deteriorating. The states to this point had made no voluntary payments to Congress. At the same time the continental currency had to compete with a variety of other currencies for resources. The states were issuing their own individual currencies to help finance expenditures. Moreover the British in an effort to destroy the funding system of the Continental Congress had undertaken a covert program of counterfeiting the Continental dollar. These dollars were printed and then distributed throughout the former colonies by the British army and agents loyal to the Crown (Newman, 1957). Altogether this expansion of the nominal money supply in the colonies led to a rapid depreciation of the Continental dollar (Calomiris, 1988, Michener, 1988). Furthermore, inflation may have been enhanced by any negative impact upon output resulting from the disruption of markets along with the destruction of property and loss of able-bodied men (Buel, 1998). By the end of 1777 inflation had reduced the specie value of the Continental to about twenty percent of what it had been when originally issued. This rapid decline in value was becoming a serious problem for Congress in that up to this point almost ninety percent of its revenue had been generated from currency emissions.

1778-83

British Invasion of the South

The British defeat at Saratoga had a profound impact upon the nature of the war. The French government still upset by their defeat by the British in the Seven Years War and encouraged by the American victory signed a treaty of alliance with the Continental Congress in early 1778. Fearing a new war with France the British government sent a commission to negotiate a peace treaty with the Americans. The commission offered to repeal all of the legislation applying to the colonies passed since 1763. Congress rejected the offer. The British response was to give up its efforts to suppress the rebellion in the North and in turn organize an invasion of the South. The new southern campaign began with the taking of the port of Savannah in December. Pursuing their southern strategy the British won major victories at Charleston and Camden during the spring and summer of 1780.

Worsening Inflation and Financial Problems

As the American military situation deteriorated in the South so did the financial circumstances of the Continental Congress. Inflation continued as Congress and the states dramatically increased the rate of issuance of their currencies. At the same time the British continued to pursue their policy of counterfeiting the Continental dollar. In order to deal with inflation some states organized conventions for the purpose of establishing wage and price controls (Rockoff, 1984). With its currency rapidly depreciating in value Congress increasingly relied on funds from other sources such as state requisitions, domestic loans, and French loans of specie. As a last resort Congress authorized the army to confiscate property.

Yorktown

Fortunately for the Americans the British military effort collapsed before the funding system of Congress. In a combined effort during the fall of 1781 French and American forces trapped the British southern army under the command of Cornwallis at Yorktown, Virginia. Under siege by superior forces the British army surrendered on October 19. The British government had now suffered not only the defeat of its northern strategy at Saratoga but also the defeat of its southern campaign at Yorktown. Following Yorktown, Britain suspended its offensive military operations against the Americans. The war was over. All that remained was the political maneuvering over the terms for peace.

The Treaty of Paris

The Revolutionary War officially concluded with the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1783. Under the terms of the treaty the United States was granted independence and British troops were to evacuate all American territory. While commonly viewed by historians through the lens of political science, the Treaty of Paris was indeed a momentous economic achievement by the United States. The British ceded to the Americans all of the land east of the Mississippi River which they had taken from the French during the Seven Years War. The West was now available for settlement. To the extent the Revolutionary War had been undertaken by the Americans to avoid the costs of continued membership in the British Empire, the goal had been achieved. As an independent nation the United States was no longer subject to the regulations of the Navigation Acts. There was no longer to be any economic burden from British taxation.

THE FORMATION OF A NATIONAL GOVERNMENT

When you start a revolution you have to be prepared for the possibility you might win. This means being prepared to form a new government. When the Americans declared independence their experience of governing at a national level was indeed limited. In 1765 delegates from various colonies had met for about eighteen days at the Stamp Act Congress in New York to sort out a colonial response to the new stamp duties. Nearly a decade passed before delegates from colonies once again got together to discuss a colonial response to British policies. This time the discussions lasted seven weeks at the First Continental Congress in Philadelphia during the fall of 1774. The primary action taken at both meetings was an agreement to boycott trade with England. After having been in session only a month, delegates at the Second Continental Congress for the first time began to undertake actions usually associated with a national government. However, when the colonies were declared to be free and independent states Congress had yet to define its institutional relationship with the states.

The Articles of Confederation

Following the Declaration of Independence, Congress turned to deciding the political and economic powers it would be given as well as those granted to the states. After more than a year of debate among the delegates the allocation of powers was articulated in the Articles of Confederation. Only Congress would have the authority to declare war and conduct foreign affairs. It was not given the power to tax or regulate commerce. The expenses of Congress were to be made from a common treasury with funds supplied by the states. This revenue was to be generated from exercising the power granted to the states to determine their own internal taxes. It was not until November of 1777 that Congress approved the final draft of the Articles. It took over three years for the states to ratify the Articles. The primary reason for the delay was a dispute over control of land in the West as some states had claims while others did not. Those states with claims eventually agreed to cede them to Congress. The Articles were then ratified and put into effect on March 1, 1781. This was just a few months before the American victory at Yorktown. The process of institutional development had proved so difficult that the Americans fought almost the entire Revolutionary War with a government not sanctioned by the states.

Difficulties in the 1780s

The new national government that emerged from the Revolution confronted a host of issues during the 1780s. The first major one to be addressed by Congress was what to do with all of the land acquired in the West. Starting in 1784 Congress passed a series of land ordinances that provided for land surveys, sales of land to individuals, and the institutional foundation for the creation of new states. These ordinances opened the West for settlement. While this was a major accomplishment by Congress, other issues remained unresolved. Having repudiated its own currency and no power of taxation, Congress did not have an independent source of revenue to pay off its domestic and foreign debts incurred during the war. Since the Continental Army had been demobilized no protection was being provided for settlers in the West or against foreign invasion. Domestic trade was being increasingly disrupted during the 1780s as more states began to impose tariffs on goods from other states. Unable to resolve these and other issues Congress endorsed a proposed plan to hold a convention to meet in Philadelphia in May of 1787 to revise the Articles of Confederation.

Rather than amend the Articles, the delegates to the convention voted to replace them entirely with a new form of national government under the Constitution. There are of course many ways to assess the significance of this truly remarkable achievement. One is to view the Constitution as an economic document. Among other things the Constitution specifically addressed many of the economic problems that confronted Congress during and after the Revolutionary War. Drawing upon lessons learned in financing the war, no state under the Constitution would be allowed to coin money or issue bills of credit. Only the national government could coin money and regulate its value. Punishment was to be provided for counterfeiting. The problems associated with the states contributing to a common treasury under the Articles were overcome by giving the national government the coercive power of taxation. Part of the revenue was to be used to pay for the common defense of the United States. No longer would states be allowed to impose tariffs as they had done during the 1780s. The national government was now given the power to regulate both foreign and interstate commerce. As a result the nation was to become a common market. There is a general consensus among economic historians today that the economic significance of the ratification of the Constitution was to lay the institutional foundation for long run growth. From the point of view of the former colonists, however, it meant they had succeeded in transferring the power to tax and regulate commerce from Parliament to the new national government of the United States.

TABLES
Table 1 Continental Dollar Emissions (1775-1779)

Year of Emission Nominal Dollars Emitted (000) Annual Emission As Share of Total Nominal Stock Emitted Specie Value of Annual Emission (000) Annual Emission As Share of Total Specie Value Emitted
1775 $6,000 3% $6,000 15%
1776 19,000 8 15,330 37
1777 13,000 5 4,040 10
1778 63,000 26 10,380 25
1779 140,500 58 5,270 13
Total $241,500 100% $41,020 100%

Source: Bullock (1895), 135.
Table 2 Currency Emissions by the States (1775-1781)

Year of Emission Nominal Dollars Emitted (000) Year of Emission Nominal Dollars Emitted (000)
1775 $4,740 1778 $9,118
1776 13,328 1779 17,613
1777 9,573 1780 66,813
1781 123.376
Total $27,641 Total $216,376

Source: Robinson (1969), 327-28.

References

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Brewer, John. The Sinews of Power: War, Money and the English State, 1688- 1783. London: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

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Bullion, John L. A Great and Necessary Measure: George Grenville and the Genesis of the Stamp Act, 1763-1765. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1982.

Bullock, Charles J. “The Finances of the United States from 1775 to 1789, with Especial Reference to the Budget.” Bulletin of the University of Wisconsin 1 no. 2 (1895): 117-273.

Calomiris, Charles W. “Institutional Failure, Monetary Scarcity, and the Depreciation of the Continental.” Journal of Economic History 48 no. 1 (1988): 47-68.

Egnal, Mark. A Mighty Empire: The Origins of the American Revolution. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1988.

Ferguson, E. James. The Power of the Purse: A History of American Public Finance, 1776-1790. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1961.

Gunderson, Gerald. A New Economic History of America. New York: McGraw- Hill, 1976.

Harper, Lawrence A. “Mercantilism and the American Revolution.” Canadian Historical Review 23 (1942): 1-15.

Higginbotham, Don. The War of American Independence: Military Attitudes, Policies, and Practice, 1763-1789. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1977.

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Ketchum, Richard M. Saratoga: Turning Point of America’s Revolutionary War. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1997.

Labaree, Benjamin Woods. The Boston Tea Party. New York: Oxford University Press, 1964.

Mackesy, Piers. The War for America, 1775-1783. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1964.

McCusker, John J. and Russell R. Menard. The Economy of British America, 1607- 1789. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1985.

Michener, Ron. “Backing Theories and the Currencies of Eighteenth-Century America: A Comment.” Journal of Economic History 48 no. 3 (1988): 682-692.

Nester, William R. The First Global War: Britain, France, and the Fate of North America, 1756-1775. Westport: Praeger, 2000.

Newman, E. P. “Counterfeit Continental Currency Goes to War.” The Numismatist 1 (January, 1957): 5-16.

North, Douglass C., and Barry R. Weingast. “Constitutions and Commitment: The Evolution of Institutions Governing Public Choice in Seventeenth-Century England.” Journal of Economic History 49 No. 4 (1989): 803-32.

O’Shaughnessy, Andrew Jackson. An Empire Divided: The American Revolution and the British Caribbean. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000.

Palmer, R. R. The Age of Democratic Revolution: A Political History of Europe and America. Vol. 1. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1959.

Perkins, Edwin J. The Economy of Colonial America. New York: Columbia University Press, 1988.

Reid, Joseph D., Jr. “Economic Burden: Spark to the American Revolution?” Journal of Economic History 38, no. 1 (1978): 81-100.

Robinson, Edward F. “Continental Treasury Administration, 1775-1781: A Study in the Financial History of the American Revolution.” Ph.D. diss., University of Wisconsin, 1969.

Rockoff, Hugh. Drastic Measures: A History of Wage and Price Controls in the United States. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984.

Sawers, Larry. “The Navigation Acts Revisited.” Economic History Review 45, no. 2 (1992): 262-84.

Thomas, Robert P. “A Quantitative Approach to the Study of the Effects of British Imperial Policy on Colonial Welfare: Some Preliminary Findings.” Journal of Economic History 25, no. 4 (1965): 615-38.

Tucker, Robert W. and David C. Hendrickson. The Fall of the First British Empire: Origins of the War of American Independence. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1982.

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Citation: Baack, Ben.  “The Economics of the American Revolutionary War.” EH.Net Encyclopedia, edited by Robert Whaples. October, 2001. URL https://eh.net/encyclopedia/the-economics-of-the-american-revolutionary-war-2/

 

The Economics of the American Revolutionary War

Ben Baack, Ohio State University

By the time of the onset of the American Revolution, Britain had attained the status of a military and economic superpower. The thirteen American colonies were one part of a global empire generated by the British in a series of colonial wars beginning in the late seventeenth century and continuing on to the mid eighteenth century. The British military establishment increased relentlessly in size during this period as it engaged in the Nine Years War (1688-97), the War of Spanish Succession (1702-13), the War of Austrian Succession (1739-48), and the Seven Years War (1756-63). These wars brought considerable additions to the British Empire. In North America alone the British victory in the Seven Years War resulted in France ceding to Britain all of its territory east of the Mississippi River as well as all of Canada and Spain surrendering its claim to Florida (Nester, 2000).

Given the sheer magnitude of the British military and its empire, the actions taken by the American colonists for independence have long fascinated scholars. Why did the colonists want independence? How were they able to achieve a victory over what was at the time the world’s preeminent military power? What were the consequences of achieving independence? These and many other questions have engaged the attention of economic, legal, military, political, and social historians. In this brief essay we will focus only on the economics of the Revolutionary War.

Economic Causes of the Revolutionary War

Prior to the conclusion of the Seven Years War there was little, if any, reason to believe that one day the American colonies would undertake a revolution in an effort to create an independent nation-state. As apart of the empire the colonies were protected from foreign invasion by the British military. In return, the colonists paid relatively few taxes and could engage in domestic economic activity without much interference from the British government. For the most part the colonists were only asked to adhere to regulations concerning foreign trade. In a series of acts passed by Parliament during the seventeenth century the Navigation Acts required that all trade within the empire be conducted on ships which were constructed, owned and largely manned by British citizens. Certain enumerated goods whether exported or imported by the colonies had to be shipped through England regardless of the final port of destination.

Western Land Policies

Economic incentives for independence significantly increased in the colonies as a result of a series of critical land policy decisions made by the British government. The Seven Years’ War had originated in a contest between Britain and France over control of the land from the Appalachian Mountains to the Mississippi River. During the 1740s the British government pursued a policy of promoting colonial land claims to as well as settlement in this area, which was at the time French territory. With the ensuing conflict of land claims both nations resorted to the use of military force which ultimately led to the onset of the war. At the conclusion of the war as a result of one of many concessions made by France in the 1763 Treaty of Paris, Britain acquired all the contested land west of its colonies to the Mississippi River. It was at this point that the British government began to implement a fundamental change in its western land policy.

Britain now reversed its long-time position of encouraging colonial claims to land and settlement in the west. The essence of the new policy was to establish British control of the former French fur trade in the west by excluding any settlement there by the Americans. Implementation led to the development of three new areas of policy. 1. Construction of the new rules of exclusion. 2. Enforcement of the new exclusion rules. 3. Financing the cost of the enforcement of the new rules. First, the rules of exclusion were set out under the terms of the Proclamation of 1763 whereby colonists were not allowed to settle in the west. This action legally nullified the claims to land in the area by a host of individual colonists, land companies, as well as colonies. Second, enforcement of the new rules was delegated to the standing army of about 7,500 regulars newly stationed in the west. This army for the most part occupied former French forts although some new ones were built. Among other things, this army was charged with keeping Americans out of the west as well as returning to the colonies any Americans who were already there. Third, financing of the cost of the enforcement was to be accomplished by levying taxes on the Americans. Thus, Americans were being asked to finance a British army which was charged with keeping Americans out of the west (Baack, 2004).

Tax Policies

Of all the potential options available for funding the new standing army in the west, why did the British decide to tax their American colonies? The answer is fairly straightforward. First of all, the victory over the French in the Seven Years’ War had come at a high price. Domestic taxes had been raised substantially during the war and total government debt had increased nearly twofold (Brewer, 1989). In addition, taxes were significantly higher in Britain than in the colonies. One estimate suggests the per capita tax burden in the colonies ranged from two to four percent of that in Britain (Palmer, 1959). And finally, the voting constituencies of the members of parliament were in Britain not the colonies. All things considered, Parliament viewed taxing the colonies as the obvious choice.

Accordingly, a series of tax acts were passed by Parliament the revenue from which was to be used to help pay for the standing army in America. The first was the Sugar Act of 1764. Proposed by England’s Prime Minister the act lowered tariff rates on non-British products from the West Indies as well as strengthened their collection. It was hoped this would reduce the incentive for smuggling and thereby increase tariff revenue (Bullion, 1982). The following year Parliament passed the Stamp Act that imposed a tax commonly used in England. It required stamps for a broad range of legal documents as well as newspapers and pamphlets. While the colonial stamp duties were less than those in England they were expected to generate enough revenue to finance a substantial portion of the cost the new standing army. The same year passage of the Quartering Act imposed essentially a tax in kind by requiring the colonists to provide British military units with housing, provisions, and transportation. In 1767 the Townshend Acts imposed tariffs upon a variety of imported goods and established a Board of Customs Commissioners in the colonies to collect the revenue.

Boycotts

While the Americans could do little about the British army stationed in the west, they could do somthing about the new British taxes. American opposition to these acts was expressed initially in a variety of peaceful forms. While they did not have representation in Parliament, the colonists did attempt to exert some influence in it through petition and lobbying. However, it was the economic boycott that became by far the most effective means of altering the new British economic policies. In 1765 representatives from nine colonies met at the Stamp Act Congress in New York and organized a boycott of imported English goods. The boycott was so successful in reducing trade that English merchants lobbied Parliament for the repeal of the new taxes. Parliament soon responded to the political pressure. During 1766 it repealed both the Stamp and Sugar Acts (Johnson, 1997). In response to the Townshend Acts of 1767 a second major boycott started in 1768 in Boston and New York and subsequently spread to other cities leading Parliament in 1770 to repeal all of the Townshend duties except the one on tea. In addition, Parliament decided at the same time not to renew the Quartering Act.

With these actions taken by Parliament the Americans appeared to have successfully overturned the new British post war tax agenda. However, Parliament had not given up what it believed to be its right to tax the colonies. On the same day it repealed the Stamp Act, Parliament passed the Declaratory Act stating the British government had the full power and authority to make laws governing the colonies in all cases whatsoever including taxation. Legislation not principles had been overturned.

The Tea Act

Three years after the repeal of the Townshend duties British policy was once again to emerge as an issue in the colonies. This time the American reaction was not peaceful. It all started when Parliament for the first time granted an exemption from the Navigation Acts. In an effort to assist the financially troubled British East India Company Parliament passed the Tea Act of 1773, which allowed the company to ship tea directly to America. The grant of a major trading advantage to an already powerful competitor meant a potential financial loss for American importers and smugglers of tea. In December a small group of colonists responded by boarding three British ships in the Boston harbor and throwing overboard several hundred chests of tea owned by the East India Company (Labaree, 1964). Stunned by the events in Boston, Parliament decided not to cave in to the colonists as it had before. In rapid order it passed the Boston Port Act, the Massachusetts Government Act, the Justice Act, and the Quartering Act. Among other things these so-called Coercive or Intolerable Acts closed the port of Boston, altered the charter of Massachusetts, and reintroduced the demand for colonial quartering of British troops. Once done Parliament then went on to pass the Quebec Act as a continuation of its policy of restricting the settlement of the West.

The First Continental Congress

Many Americans viewed all of this as a blatant abuse of power by the British government. Once again a call went out for a colonial congress to sort out a response. On September 5, 1774 delegates appointed by the colonies met in Philadelphia for the First Continental Congress. Drawing upon the successful manner in which previous acts had been overturned the first thing Congress did was to organize a comprehensive embargo of trade with Britain. It then conveyed to the British government a list of grievances that demanded the repeal of thirteen acts of Parliament. All of the acts listed had been passed after 1763 as the delegates had agreed not to question British policies made prior to the conclusion of the Seven Years War. Despite all the problems it had created, the Tea Act was not on the list. The reason for this was that Congress decided not to protest British regulation of colonial trade under the Navigation Acts. In short, the delegates were saying to Parliament take us back to 1763 and all will be well.

The Second Continental Congress

What happened then was a sequence of events that led to a significant increase in the degree of American resistance to British polices. Before the Congress adjourned in October the delegates voted to meet again in May of 1775 if Parliament did not meet their demands. Confronted by the extent of the American demands the British government decided it was time to impose a military solution to the crisis. Boston was occupied by British troops. In April a military confrontation occurred at Lexington and Concord. Within a month the Second Continental Congress was convened. Here the delegates decided to fundamentally change the nature of their resistance to British policies. Congress authorized a continental army and undertook the purchase of arms and munitions. To pay for all of this it established a continental currency. With previous political efforts by the First Continental Congress to form an alliance with Canada having failed, the Second Continental Congress took the extraordinary step of instructing its new army to invade Canada. In effect, these actions taken were those of an emerging nation-state. In October as American forces closed in on Quebec the King of England in a speech to Parliament declared that the colonists having formed their own government were now fighting for their independence. It was to be only a matter of months before Congress formally declared it.

Economic Incentives for Pursuing Independence: Taxation

Given the nature of British colonial policies, scholars have long sought to evaluate the economic incentives the Americans had in pursuing independence. In this effort economic historians initially focused on the period following the Seven Years War up to the Revolution. It turned out that making a case for the avoidance of British taxes as a major incentive for independence proved difficult. The reason was that many of the taxes imposed were later repealed. The actual level of taxation appeared to be relatively modest. After all, the Americans soon after adopting the Constitution taxed themselves at far higher rates than the British had prior to the Revolution (Perkins, 1988). Rather it seemed the incentive for independence might have been the avoidance of the British regulation of colonial trade. Unlike some of the new British taxes, the Navigation Acts had remained intact throughout this period.

The Burden of the Navigation Acts

One early attempt to quantify the economic effects of the Navigation Acts was by Thomas (1965). Building upon the previous work of Harper (1942), Thomas employed a counterfactual analysis to assess what would have happened to the American economy in the absence of the Navigation Acts. To do this he compared American trade under the Acts with that which would have occurred had America been independent following the Seven Years War. Thomas then estimated the loss of both consumer and produce surplus to the colonies as a result of shipping enumerated goods indirectly through England. These burdens were partially offset by his estimated value of the benefits of British protection and various bounties paid to the colonies. The outcome of his analysis was that the Navigation Acts imposed a net burden of less than one percent of colonial per capita income. From this he concluded the Acts were an unlikely cause of the Revolution. A long series of subsequent works questioned various parts of his analysis but not his general conclusion (Walton, 1971). The work of Thomas also appeared to be consistent with the observation that the First Continental Congress had not demanded in its list of grievances the repeal of either the Navigation Acts or the Sugar Act.

American Expectations about Future British Policy

Did this mean then that the Americans had few if any economic incentives for independence? Upon further consideration economic historians realized that perhaps more important to the colonists were not the past and present burdens but rather the expected future burdens of continued membership in the British Empire. The Declaratory Act made it clear the British government had not given up what it viewed as its right to tax the colonists. This was despite the fact that up to 1775 the Americans had employed a variety of protest measures including lobbying, petitions, boycotts, and violence. The confluence of not having representation in Parliament while confronting an aggressive new British tax policy designed to raise their relatively low taxes may have made it reasonable for the Americans to expect a substantial increase in the level of taxation in the future (Gunderson, 1976, Reid, 1978). Furthermore a recent study has argued that in 1776 not only did the future burdens of the Navigation Acts clearly exceed those of the past, but a substantial portion would have borne by those who played a major role in the Revolution (Sawers, 1992). Seen in this light the economic incentive for independence would have been avoiding the potential future costs of remaining in the British Empire.

The Americans Undertake a Revolution

1776-77

British Military Advantages

The American colonies had both strengths and weaknesses in terms of undertaking a revolution. The colonial population of well over two million was nearly one third of that in Britain (McCusker and Menard, 1985). The growth in the colonial economy had generated a remarkably high level of per capita wealth and income (Jones, 1980). Yet the hurdles confronting the Americans in achieving independence were indeed formidable. The British military had an array of advantages. With virtual control of the Atlantic its navy could attack anywhere along the American coast at will and would have borne logistical support for the army without much interference. A large core of experienced officers commanded a highly disciplined and well-drilled army in the large-unit tactics of eighteenth century European warfare. By these measures the American military would have great difficulty in defeating the British. Its navy was small. The Continental Army had relatively few officers proficient in large-unit military tactics. Lacking both the numbers and the discipline of its adversary the American army was unlikely to be able to meet the British army on equal terms on the battlefield (Higginbotham, 1977).

British Financial Advantages

In addition, the British were in a better position than the Americans to finance a war. A tax system was in place that had provided substantial revenue during previous colonial wars. Also for a variety of reasons the government had acquired an exceptional capacity to generate debt to fund wartime expenses (North and Weingast, 1989). For the Continental Congress the situation was much different. After declaring independence Congress had set about defining the institutional relationship between it and the former colonies. The powers granted to Congress were established under the Articles of Confederation. Reflecting the political environment neither the power to tax nor the power to regulate commerce was given to Congress. Having no tax system to generate revenue also made it very difficult to borrow money. According to the Articles the states were to make voluntary payments to Congress for its war efforts. This precarious revenue system was to hamper funding by Congress throughout the war (Baack, 2001).

Military and Financial Factors Determine Strategy

It was within these military and financial constraints that the war strategies by the British and the Americans were developed. In terms of military strategies both of the contestants realized that America was simply too large for the British army to occupy all of the cities and countryside. This being the case the British decided initially that they would try to impose a naval blockade and capture major American seaports. Having already occupied Boston, the British during 1776 and 1777 took New York, Newport, and Philadelphia. With plenty of room to maneuver his forces and unable to match those of the British, George Washington chose to engage in a war of attrition. The purpose was twofold. First, by not engaging in an all out offensive Washington reduced the probability of losing his army. Second, over time the British might tire of the war.

Saratoga

Frustrated without a conclusive victory, the British altered their strategy. During 1777 a plan was devised to cut off New England from the rest of the colonies, contain the Continental Army, and then defeat it. An army was assembled in Canada under the command of General Burgoyne and then sent to and down along the Hudson River. It was to link up with an army sent from New York City. Unfortunately for the British the plan totally unraveled as in October Burgoyne’s army was defeated at the battle of Saratoga and forced to surrender (Ketchum, 1997).

The American Financial Situation Deteriorates

With the victory at Saratoga the military side of the war had improved considerably for the Americans. However, the financial situation was seriously deteriorating. The states to this point had made no voluntary payments to Congress. At the same time the continental currency had to compete with a variety of other currencies for resources. The states were issuing their own individual currencies to help finance expenditures. Moreover the British in an effort to destroy the funding system of the Continental Congress had undertaken a covert program of counterfeiting the Continental dollar. These dollars were printed and then distributed throughout the former colonies by the British army and agents loyal to the Crown (Newman, 1957). Altogether this expansion of the nominal money supply in the colonies led to a rapid depreciation of the Continental dollar (Calomiris, 1988, Michener, 1988). Furthermore, inflation may have been enhanced by any negative impact upon output resulting from the disruption of markets along with the destruction of property and loss of able-bodied men (Buel, 1998). By the end of 1777 inflation had reduced the specie value of the Continental to about twenty percent of what it had been when originally issued. This rapid decline in value was becoming a serious problem for Congress in that up to this point almost ninety percent of its revenue had been generated from currency emissions.

1778-83

British Invasion of the South

The British defeat at Saratoga had a profound impact upon the nature of the war. The French government still upset by their defeat by the British in the Seven Years War and encouraged by the American victory signed a treaty of alliance with the Continental Congress in early 1778. Fearing a new war with France the British government sent a commission to negotiate a peace treaty with the Americans. The commission offered to repeal all of the legislation applying to the colonies passed since 1763. Congress rejected the offer. The British response was to give up its efforts to suppress the rebellion in the North and in turn organize an invasion of the South. The new southern campaign began with the taking of the port of Savannah in December. Pursuing their southern strategy the British won major victories at Charleston and Camden during the spring and summer of 1780.

Worsening Inflation and Financial Problems

As the American military situation deteriorated in the South so did the financial circumstances of the Continental Congress. Inflation continued as Congress and the states dramatically increased the rate of issuance of their currencies. At the same time the British continued to pursue their policy of counterfeiting the Continental dollar. In order to deal with inflation some states organized conventions for the purpose of establishing wage and price controls (Rockoff, 1984). With few contributions coming from the states and a currency rapidly losing its value, Congress resorted to authorizing the army to confiscate whatever it needed to continue the war effort (Baack, 2001, 2008).

Yorktown

Fortunately for the Americans the British military effort collapsed before the funding system of Congress. In a combined effort during the fall of 1781 French and American forces trapped the British southern army under the command of Cornwallis at Yorktown, Virginia. Under siege by superior forces the British army surrendered on October 19. The British government had now suffered not only the defeat of its northern strategy at Saratoga but also the defeat of its southern campaign at Yorktown. Following Yorktown, Britain suspended its offensive military operations against the Americans. The war was over. All that remained was the political maneuvering over the terms for peace.

The Treaty of Paris

The Revolutionary War officially concluded with the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1783. Under the terms of the treaty the United States was granted independence and British troops were to evacuate all American territory. While commonly viewed by historians through the lens of political science, the Treaty of Paris was indeed a momentous economic achievement by the United States. The British ceded to the Americans all of the land east of the Mississippi River which they had taken from the French during the Seven Years War. The West was now available for settlement. To the extent the Revolutionary War had been undertaken by the Americans to avoid the costs of continued membership in the British Empire, the goal had been achieved. As an independent nation the United States was no longer subject to the regulations of the Navigation Acts. There was no longer to be any economic burden from British taxation.

THE FORMATION OF A NATIONAL GOVERNMENT

When you start a revolution you have to be prepared for the possibility you might win. This means being prepared to form a new government. When the Americans declared independence their experience of governing at a national level was indeed limited. In 1765 delegates from various colonies had met for about eighteen days at the Stamp Act Congress in New York to sort out a colonial response to the new stamp duties. Nearly a decade passed before delegates from colonies once again got together to discuss a colonial response to British policies. This time the discussions lasted seven weeks at the First Continental Congress in Philadelphia during the fall of 1774. The primary action taken at both meetings was an agreement to boycott trade with England. After having been in session only a month, delegates at the Second Continental Congress for the first time began to undertake actions usually associated with a national government. However, when the colonies were declared to be free and independent states Congress had yet to define its institutional relationship with the states.

The Articles of Confederation

Following the Declaration of Independence, Congress turned to deciding the political and economic powers it would be given as well as those granted to the states. After more than a year of debate among the delegates the allocation of powers was articulated in the Articles of Confederation. Only Congress would have the authority to declare war and conduct foreign affairs. It was not given the power to tax or regulate commerce. The expenses of Congress were to be made from a common treasury with funds supplied by the states. This revenue was to be generated from exercising the power granted to the states to determine their own internal taxes. It was not until November of 1777 that Congress approved the final draft of the Articles. It took over three years for the states to ratify the Articles. The primary reason for the delay was a dispute over control of land in the West as some states had claims while others did not. Those states with claims eventually agreed to cede them to Congress. The Articles were then ratified and put into effect on March 1, 1781. This was just a few months before the American victory at Yorktown. The process of institutional development had proved so difficult that the Americans fought almost the entire Revolutionary War with a government not sanctioned by the states.

Difficulties in the 1780s

The new national government that emerged from the Revolution confronted a host of issues during the 1780s. The first major one to be addressed by Congress was what to do with all of the land acquired in the West. Starting in 1784 Congress passed a series of land ordinances that provided for land surveys, sales of land to individuals, and the institutional foundation for the creation of new states. These ordinances opened the West for settlement. While this was a major accomplishment by Congress, other issues remained unresolved. Having repudiated its own currency and no power of taxation, Congress did not have an independent source of revenue to pay off its domestic and foreign debts incurred during the war. Since the Continental Army had been demobilized no protection was being provided for settlers in the West or against foreign invasion. Domestic trade was being increasingly disrupted during the 1780s as more states began to impose tariffs on goods from other states. Unable to resolve these and other issues Congress endorsed a proposed plan to hold a convention to meet in Philadelphia in May of 1787 to revise the Articles of Confederation.

Rather than amend the Articles, the delegates to the convention voted to replace them entirely with a new form of national government under the Constitution. There are of course many ways to assess the significance of this truly remarkable achievement. One is to view the Constitution as an economic document. Among other things the Constitution specifically addressed many of the economic problems that confronted Congress during and after the Revolutionary War. Drawing upon lessons learned in financing the war, no state under the Constitution would be allowed to coin money or issue bills of credit. Only the national government could coin money and regulate its value. Punishment was to be provided for counterfeiting. The problems associated with the states contributing to a common treasury under the Articles were overcome by giving the national government the coercive power of taxation. Part of the revenue was to be used to pay for the common defense of the United States. No longer would states be allowed to impose tariffs as they had done during the 1780s. The national government was now given the power to regulate both foreign and interstate commerce. As a result the nation was to become a common market. There is a general consensus among economic historians today that the economic significance of the ratification of the Constitution was to lay the institutional foundation for long run growth. From the point of view of the former colonists, however, it meant they had succeeded in transferring the power to tax and regulate commerce from Parliament to the new national government of the United States.

TABLES
Table 1 Continental Dollar Emissions (1775-1779)

Year of Emission Nominal Dollars Emitted (000) Annual Emission As Share of Total Nominal Stock Emitted Specie Value of Annual Emission (000) Annual Emission As Share of Total Specie Value Emitted
1775 $6,000 3% $6,000 15%
1776 19,000 8 15,330 37
1777 13,000 5 4,040 10
1778 63,000 26 10,380 25
1779 140,500 58 5,270 13
Total $241,500 100% $41,020 100%

Source: Bullock (1895), 135.
Table 2 Currency Emissions by the States (1775-1781)

Year of Emission Nominal Dollars Emitted (000) Year of Emission Nominal Dollars Emitted (000)
1775 $4,740 1778 $9,118
1776 13,328 1779 17,613
1777 9,573 1780 66,813
1781 123.376
Total $27,641 Total $216,376

Source: Robinson (1969), 327-28.

References

Baack, Ben. “Forging a Nation State: The Continental Congress and the Financing of the War of American Independence.” Economic History Review 54, no.4 (2001): 639-56.

Baack, Ben. “British versus American Interests in Land and the War of American Independence.” Journal of European Economic History 33, no. 3 (2004): 519-54.

Baack, Ben. “America’s First Monetary Policy: Inflation and Seigniorage during the Revolutionary War.” Financial History Review 15, no. 2 (2008): 107-21.

Baack, Ben, Robert A. McGuire, and T. Norman Van Cott. “Constitutional Agreement during the Drafting of the Constitution: A New Interpretation.” Journal of Legal Studies 38, no. 2 (2009): 533-67.

Brewer, John. The Sinews of Power: War, Money and the English State, 1688- 1783. London: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

Buel, Richard. In Irons: Britain’s Naval Supremacy and the American Revolutionary Economy. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998.

Bullion, John L. A Great and Necessary Measure: George Grenville and the Genesis of the Stamp Act, 1763-1765. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1982.

Bullock, Charles J. “The Finances of the United States from 1775 to 1789, with Especial Reference to the Budget.” Bulletin of the University of Wisconsin 1, no. 2 (1895): 117-273.

Calomiris, Charles W. “Institutional Failure, Monetary Scarcity, and the Depreciation of the Continental.” Journal of Economic History 48, no. 1 (1988): 47-68.

Egnal, Mark. A Mighty Empire: The Origins of the American Revolution. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1988.

Ferguson, E. James. The Power of the Purse: A History of American Public Finance, 1776-1790. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1961.

Gunderson, Gerald. A New Economic History of America. New York: McGraw- Hill, 1976.

Harper, Lawrence A. “Mercantilism and the American Revolution.” Canadian Historical Review 23 (1942): 1-15.

Higginbotham, Don. The War of American Independence: Military Attitudes, Policies, and Practice, 1763-1789. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1977.

Jensen, Merrill, editor. English Historical Documents: American Colonial Documents to 1776 New York: Oxford university Press, 1969.

Johnson, Allen S. A Prologue to Revolution: The Political Career of George Grenville (1712-1770). New York: University Press, 1997.

Jones, Alice H. Wealth of a Nation to Be: The American Colonies on the Eve of the Revolution. New York: Columbia University Press, 1980.

Ketchum, Richard M. Saratoga: Turning Point of America’s Revolutionary War. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1997.

Labaree, Benjamin Woods. The Boston Tea Party. New York: Oxford University Press, 1964.

Mackesy, Piers. The War for America, 1775-1783. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1964.

McCusker, John J. and Russell R. Menard. The Economy of British America, 1607- 1789. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1985.

Michener, Ron. “Backing Theories and the Currencies of Eighteenth-Century America: A Comment.” Journal of Economic History 48, no. 3 (1988): 682-92.

Nester, William R. The First Global War: Britain, France, and the Fate of North America, 1756-1775. Westport: Praeger, 2000.

Newman, E. P. “Counterfeit Continental Currency Goes to War.” The Numismatist 1 (January, 1957): 5-16.

North, Douglass C., and Barry R. Weingast. “Constitutions and Commitment: The Evolution of Institutions Governing Public Choice in Seventeenth-Century England.” Journal of Economic History 49 No. 4 (1989): 803-32.

O’Shaughnessy, Andrew Jackson. An Empire Divided: The American Revolution and the British Caribbean. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000.

Palmer, R. R. The Age of Democratic Revolution: A Political History of Europe and America. Vol. 1. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1959.

Perkins, Edwin J. The Economy of Colonial America. New York: Columbia University Press, 1988.

Reid, Joseph D., Jr. “Economic Burden: Spark to the American Revolution?” Journal of Economic History 38, no. 1 (1978): 81-100.

Robinson, Edward F. “Continental Treasury Administration, 1775-1781: A Study in the Financial History of the American Revolution.” Ph.D. diss., University of Wisconsin, 1969.

Rockoff, Hugh. Drastic Measures: A History of Wage and Price Controls in the United States. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984.

Sawers, Larry. “The Navigation Acts Revisited.” Economic History Review 45, no. 2 (1992): 262-84.

Thomas, Robert P. “A Quantitative Approach to the Study of the Effects of British Imperial Policy on Colonial Welfare: Some Preliminary Findings.” Journal of Economic History 25, no. 4 (1965): 615-38.

Tucker, Robert W. and David C. Hendrickson. The Fall of the First British Empire: Origins of the War of American Independence. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1982.

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Citation: Baack, Ben. “Economics of the American Revolutionary War”. EH.Net Encyclopedia, edited by Robert Whaples. November 13, 2001 (updated August 5, 2010). URL http://eh.net/encyclopedia/the-economics-of-the-american-revolutionary-war/

The History of American Labor Market Institutions and Outcomes

Joshua Rosenbloom, University of Kansas

One of the most important implications of modern microeconomic theory is that perfectly competitive markets produce an efficient allocation of resources. Historically, however, most markets have not approached the level of organization of this theoretical ideal. Instead of the costless and instantaneous communication envisioned in theory, market participants must rely on a set of incomplete and often costly channels of communication to learn about conditions of supply and demand; and they may face significant transaction costs to act on the information that they have acquired through these channels.

The economic history of labor market institutions is concerned with identifying the mechanisms that have facilitated the allocation of labor effort in the economy at different times, tracing the historical processes by which they have responded to shifting circumstances, and understanding how these mechanisms affected the allocation of labor as well as the distribution of labor’s products in different epochs.

Labor market institutions include both formal organizations (such as union hiring halls, government labor exchanges, and third party intermediaries such as employment agents), and informal mechanisms of communication such as word-of-mouth about employment opportunities passed between family and friends. The impact of these institutions is broad ranging. It includes the geographic allocation of labor (migration and urbanization), decisions about education and training of workers (investment in human capital), inequality (relative wages), the allocation of time between paid work and other activities such as household production, education, and leisure, and fertility (the allocation of time between production and reproduction).

Because each worker possesses a unique bundle of skills and attributes and each job is different, labor market transactions require the communication of a relatively large amount of information. In other words, the transactions costs involved in the exchange of labor are relatively high. The result is that the barriers separating different labor markets have sometimes been quite high, and these markets are relatively poorly integrated with one another.

The frictions inherent in the labor market mean that even during macroeconomic expansions there may be both a significant number of unemployed workers and a large number of unfilled vacancies. When viewed from some distance and looked at in the long-run, however, what is most striking is how effective labor market institutions have been in adapting to the shifting patterns of supply and demand in the economy. Over the past two centuries American labor markets have accomplished a massive redistribution of labor out of agriculture into manufacturing, and then from manufacturing into services. At the same time they have accomplished a huge geographic reallocation of labor between the United States and other parts of the world as well as within the United States itself, both across states and regions and from rural locations to urban areas.

This essay is organized topically, beginning with a discussion of the evolution of institutions involved in the allocation of labor across space and then taking up the development of institutions that fostered the allocation of labor across industries and sectors. The third section considers issues related to labor market performance.

The Geographic Distribution of Labor

One of the dominant themes of American history is the process of European settlement (and the concomitant displacement of the native population). This movement of population is in essence a labor market phenomenon. From the beginning of European settlement in what became the United States, labor markets were characterized by the scarcity of labor in relation to abundant land and natural resources. Labor scarcity raised labor productivity and enabled ordinary Americans to enjoy a higher standard of living than comparable Europeans. Counterbalancing these inducements to migration, however, were the high costs of travel across the Atlantic and the significant risks posed by settlement in frontier regions. Over time, technological changes lowered the costs of communication and transportation. But exploiting these advantages required the parallel development of new labor market institutions.

Trans-Atlantic Migration in the Colonial Period

During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries a variety of labor market institutions developed to facilitate the movement of labor in response to the opportunities created by American factor proportions. While some immigrants migrated on their own, the majority of immigrants were either indentured servants or African slaves.

Because of the cost of passage—which exceeded half a year’s income for a typical British immigrant and a full year’s income for a typical German immigrant—only a small portion of European migrants could afford to pay for their passage to the Americas (Grubb 1985a). They did so by signing contracts, or “indentures,” committing themselves to work for a fixed number of years in the future—their labor being their only viable asset—with British merchants, who then sold these contracts to colonists after their ship reached America. Indentured servitude was introduced by the Virginia Company in 1619 and appears to have arisen from a combination of the terms of two other types of labor contract widely used in England at the time: service in husbandry and apprenticeship (Galenson 1981). In other cases, migrants borrowed money for their passage and committed to repay merchants by pledging to sell themselves as servants in America, a practice known as “redemptioner servitude (Grubb 1986). Redemptioners bore increased risk because they could not predict in advance what terms they might be able to negotiate for their labor, but presumably they did so because of other benefits, such as the opportunity to choose their own master, and to select where they would be employed.

Although data on immigration for the colonial period are scattered and incomplete a number of scholars have estimated that between half and three quarters of European immigrants arriving in the colonies came as indentured or redemptioner servants. Using data for the end of the colonial period Grubb (1985b) found that close to three-quarters of English immigrants to Pennsylvania and nearly 60 percent of German immigrants arrived as servants.

A number of scholars have examined the terms of indenture and redemptioner contracts in some detail (see, e.g., Galenson 1981; Grubb 1985a). They find that consistent with the existence of a well-functioning market, the terms of service varied in response to differences in individual productivity, employment conditions, and the balance of supply and demand in different locations.

The other major source of labor for the colonies was the forced migration of African slaves. Slavery had been introduced in the West Indies at an early date, but it was not until the late seventeenth century that significant numbers of slaves began to be imported into the mainland colonies. From 1700 to 1780 the proportion of blacks in the Chesapeake region grew from 13 percent to around 40 percent. In South Carolina and Georgia, the black share of the population climbed from 18 percent to 41 percent in the same period (McCusker and Menard, 1985, p. 222). Galenson (1984) explains the transition from indentured European to enslaved African labor as the result of shifts in supply and demand conditions in England and the trans-Atlantic slave market. Conditions in Europe improved after 1650, reducing the supply of indentured servants, while at the same time increased competition in the slave trade was lowering the price of slaves (Dunn 1984). In some sense the colonies’ early experience with indentured servants paved the way for the transition to slavery. Like slaves, indentured servants were unfree, and ownership of their labor could be freely transferred from one owner to another. Unlike slaves, however, they could look forward to eventually becoming free (Morgan 1971).

Over time a marked regional division in labor market institutions emerged in colonial America. The use of slaves was concentrated in the Chesapeake and Lower South, where the presence of staple export crops (rice, indigo and tobacco) provided economic rewards for expanding the scale of cultivation beyond the size achievable with family labor. European immigrants (primarily indentured servants) tended to concentrate in the Chesapeake and Middle Colonies, where servants could expect to find the greatest opportunities to enter agriculture once they had completed their term of service. While New England was able to support self-sufficient farmers, its climate and soil were not conducive to the expansion of commercial agriculture, with the result that it attracted relatively few slaves, indentured servants, or free immigrants. These patterns are illustrated in Table 1, which summarizes the composition and destinations of English emigrants in the years 1773 to 1776.

Table 1

English Emigration to the American Colonies, by Destination and Type, 1773-76

Total Emigration
Destination Number Percentage Percent listed as servants
New England 54 1.20 1.85
Middle Colonies 1,162 25.78 61.27
New York 303 6.72 11.55
Pennsylvania 859 19.06 78.81
Chesapeake 2,984 66.21 96.28
Maryland 2,217 49.19 98.33
Virginia 767 17.02 90.35
Lower South 307 6.81 19.54
Carolinas 106 2.35 23.58
Georgia 196 4.35 17.86
Florida 5 0.11 0.00
Total 4,507 80.90

Source: Grubb (1985b, p. 334).

International Migration in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries

American independence marks a turning point in the development of labor market institutions. In 1808 Congress prohibited the importation of slaves. Meanwhile, the use of indentured servitude to finance the migration of European immigrants fell into disuse. As a result, most subsequent migration was at least nominally free migration.

The high cost of migration and the economic uncertainties of the new nation help to explain the relatively low level of immigration in the early years of the nineteenth century. But as the costs of transportation fell, the volume of immigration rose dramatically over the course of the century. Transportation costs were of course only one of the obstacles to international population movements. At least as important were problems of communication. Potential migrants might know in a general way that the United States offered greater economic opportunities than were available at home, but acting on this information required the development of labor market institutions that could effectively link job-seekers with employers.

For the most part, the labor market institutions that emerged in the nineteenth century to direct international migration were “informal” and thus difficult to document. As Rosenbloom (2002, ch. 2) describes, however, word-of-mouth played an important role in labor markets at this time. Many immigrants were following in the footsteps of friends or relatives already in the United States. Often these initial pioneers provided material assistance—helping to purchase ship and train tickets, providing housing—as well as information. The consequences of this so-called “chain migration” are readily reflected in a variety of kinds of evidence. Numerous studies of specific migration streams have documented the role of a small group of initial migrants in facilitating subsequent migration (for example, Barton 1975; Kamphoefner 1987; Gjerde 1985). At a more aggregate level, settlement patterns confirm the tendency of immigrants from different countries to concentrate in different cities (Ward 1971, p. 77; Galloway, Vedder and Shukla 1974).

Informal word-of-mouth communication was an effective labor market institution because it served both employers and job-seekers. For job-seekers the recommendations of friends and relatives were more reliable than those of third parties and often came with additional assistance. For employers the recommendations of current employees served as a kind of screening mechanism, since their employees were unlikely to encourage the immigration of unreliable workers.

While chain migration can explain a quantitatively large part of the redistribution of labor in the nineteenth century it is still necessary to explain how these chains came into existence in the first place. Chain migration always coexisted with another set of more formal labor market institutions that grew up largely to serve employers who could not rely on their existing labor force to recruit new hires (such as railroad construction companies). Labor agents, often themselves immigrants, acted as intermediaries between these employers and job-seekers, providing labor market information and frequently acting as translators for immigrants who could not speak English. Steamship companies operating between Europe and the United States also employed agents to help recruit potential migrants (Rosenbloom 2002, ch. 3).

By the 1840s networks of labor agents along with boarding houses serving immigrants and other similar support networks were well established in New York, Boston, and other major immigrant destinations. The services of these agents were well documented in published guides and most Europeans considering immigration must have known that they could turn to these commercial intermediaries if they lacked friends and family to guide them. After some time working in America these immigrants, if they were successful, would find steadier employment and begin to direct subsequent migration, thus establishing a new link in the stream of chain migration.

The economic impacts of immigration are theoretically ambiguous. Increased labor supply, by itself, would tend to lower wages—benefiting employers and hurting workers. But because immigrants are also consumers, the resulting increase in demand for goods and services will increase the demand for labor, partially offsetting the depressing effect of immigration on wages. As long as the labor to capital ratio rises, however, immigration will necessarily lower wages. But if, as was true in the late nineteenth century, foreign lending follows foreign labor, then there may be no negative impact on wages (Carter and Sutch 1999). Whatever the theoretical considerations, however, immigration became an increasingly controversial political issue during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. While employers and some immigrant groups supported continued immigration, there was a growing nativist sentiment among other segments of the population. Anti-immigrant sentiments appear to have arisen out of a mix of perceived economic effects and concern about the implications of the ethnic, religious and cultural differences between immigrants and the native born.

In 1882, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act. Subsequent legislative efforts to impose further restrictions on immigration passed Congress but foundered on presidential vetoes. The balance of political forces shifted, however, in the wake of World War I. In 1917 a literacy requirement was imposed for the first time, and in 1921 an Emergency Quota Act was passed (Goldin 1994).

With the passage of the Emergency Quota Act in 1921 and subsequent legislation culminating in the National Origins Act, the volume of immigration dropped sharply. Since this time international migration into the United States has been controlled to varying degrees by legal restrictions. Variations in the rules have produced variations in the volume of legal immigration. Meanwhile the persistence of large wage gaps between the United States and Mexico and other developing countries has encouraged a substantial volume of illegal immigration. It remains the case, however, that most of this migration—both legal and illegal—continues to be directed by chains of friends and relatives.

Recent trends in outsourcing and off-shoring have begun to create a new channel by which lower-wage workers outside the United States can respond to the country’s high wages without physically relocating. Workers in India, China, and elsewhere possessing technical skills can now provide services such as data entry or technical support by phone and over the internet. While the novelty of this phenomenon has attracted considerable attention, the actual volume of jobs moved off-shore remains limited, and there are important obstacles to overcome before more jobs can be carried out remotely (Edwards 2004).

Internal Migration in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries

At the same time that American economic development created international imbalances between labor supply and demand it also created internal disequilibrium. Fertile land and abundant natural resources drew population toward less densely settled regions in the West. Over the course of the century, advances in transportation technologies lowered the cost of shipping goods from interior regions, vastly expanding the area available for settlement. Meanwhile transportation advances and technological innovations encouraged the growth of manufacturing and fueled increased urbanization. The movement of population and economic activity from the Eastern Seaboard into the interior of the continent and from rural to urban areas in response to these incentives is an important element of U.S. economic history in the nineteenth century.

In the pre-Civil War era, the labor market response to frontier expansion differed substantially between North and South, with profound effects on patterns of settlement and regional development. Much of the cost of migration is a result of the need to gather information about opportunities in potential destinations. In the South, plantation owners could spread these costs over a relatively large number of potential migrants—i.e., their slaves. Plantations were also relatively self-sufficient, requiring little urban or commercial infrastructure to make them economically viable. Moreover, the existence of well-established markets for slaves allowed western planters to expand their labor force by purchasing additional labor from eastern plantations.

In the North, on the other hand, migration took place through the relocation of small, family farms. Fixed costs of gathering information and the risks of migration loomed larger in these farmers’ calculations than they did for slaveholders, and they were more dependent on the presence of urban merchants to supply them with inputs and market their products. Consequently the task of mobilizing labor fell to promoters who bought up large tracts of land at low prices and then subdivided them into individual lots. To increase the value of these lands promoters offered loans, actively encourage the development of urban services such as blacksmith shops, grain merchants, wagon builders and general stores, and recruited settlers. With the spread of railroads, railroad construction companies also played a role in encouraging settlement along their routes to speed the development of traffic.

The differences in processes of westward migration in the North and South were reflected in the divergence of rates of urbanization, transportation infrastructure investment, manufacturing employment, and population density, all of which were higher in the North than in the South in 1860 (Wright 1986, pp. 19-29).

The Distribution of Labor among Economic Activities

Over the course of U.S. economic development technological changes and shifting consumption patterns have caused the demand for labor to increase in manufacturing and services and decline in agriculture and other extractive activities. These broad changes are illustrated in Table 2. As technological changes have increased the advantages of specialization and the division of labor, more and more economic activity has moved outside the scope of the household, and the boundaries of the labor market have been enlarged. As a result more and more women have moved into the paid labor force. On the other hand, with the increasing importance of formal education, there has been a decline in the number of children in the labor force (Whaples 2005).

Table 2

Sectoral Distribution of the Labor Force, 1800-1999

Share in
Non-Agriculture
Year Total Labor Force (1000s) Agriculture Total Manufacturing Services
1800 1,658 76.2 23.8
1850 8,199 53.6 46.4
1900 29,031 37.5 59.4 35.8 23.6
1950 57,860 11.9 88.1 41.0 47.1
1999 133,489 2.3 97.7 24.7 73.0

Notes and Sources: 1800 and 1850 from Weiss (1986), pp. 646-49; remaining years from Hughes and Cain (2003), 547-48. For 1900-1999 Forestry and Fishing are included in the Agricultural labor force.

As these changes have taken place they have placed strains on existing labor market institutions and encouraged the development of new mechanisms to facilitate the distribution of labor. Over the course of the last century and a half the tendency has been a movement away from something approximating a “spot” market characterized by short-term employment relationships in which wages are equated to the marginal product of labor, and toward a much more complex and rule-bound set of long-term transactions (Goldin 2000, p. 586) While certain segments of the labor market still involve relatively anonymous and short-lived transactions, workers and employers are much more likely today to enter into long-term employment relationships that are expected to last for many years.

The evolution of labor market institutions in response to these shifting demands has been anything but smooth. During the late nineteenth century the expansion of organized labor was accompanied by often violent labor-management conflict (Friedman 2002). Not until the New Deal did unions gain widespread acceptance and a legal right to bargain. Yet even today, union organizing efforts are often met with considerable hostility.

Conflicts over union organizing efforts inevitably involved state and federal governments because the legal environment directly affected the bargaining power of both sides, and shifting legal opinions and legislative changes played an important part in determining the outcome of these contests. State and federal governments were also drawn into labor markets as various groups sought to limit hours of work, set minimum wages, provide support for disabled workers, and respond to other perceived shortcomings of existing arrangements. It would be wrong, however, to see the growth of government regulation as simply a movement from freer to more regulated markets. The ability to exchange goods and services rests ultimately on the legal system, and to this extent there has never been an entirely unregulated market. In addition, labor market transactions are never as simple as the anonymous exchange of other goods or services. Because the identities of individual buyers and sellers matter and the long-term nature of many employment relationships, adjustments can occur along other margins besides wages, and many of these dimensions involve externalities that affect all workers at a particular establishment, or possibly workers in an entire industry or sector.

Government regulations have responded in many cases to needs voiced by participants on both sides of the labor market for assistance to achieve desired ends. That has not, of course, prevented both workers and employers from seeking to use government to alter the way in which the gains from trade are distributed within the market.

The Agricultural Labor Market

At the beginning of the nineteenth century most labor was employed in agriculture, and, with the exception of large slave plantations, most agricultural labor was performed on small, family-run farms. There were markets for temporary and seasonal agricultural laborers to supplement family labor supply, but in most parts of the country outside the South, families remained the dominant institution directing the allocation of farm labor. Reliable estimates of the number of farm workers are not readily available before 1860, when the federal Census first enumerated “farm laborers.” At this time census enumerators found about 800 thousand such workers, implying an average of less than one-half farm worker per farm. Interpretation of this figure is complicated, however, and it may either overstate the amount of hired help—since farm laborers included unpaid family workers—or understate it—since it excluded those who reported their occupation simply as “laborer” and may have spent some of their time working in agriculture (Wright 1988, p. 193). A possibly more reliable indicator is provided by the percentage of gross value of farm output spent on wage labor. This figure fell from 11.4 percent in 1870 to around 8 percent by 1900, indicating that hired labor was on average becoming even less important (Wright 1988, pp. 194-95).

In the South, after the Civil War, arrangements were more complicated. Former plantation owners continued to own large tracts of land that required labor if they were to be made productive. Meanwhile former slaves needed access to land and capital if they were to support themselves. While some land owners turned to wage labor to work their land, most relied heavily on institutions like sharecropping. On the supply side, croppers viewed this form of employment as a rung on the “agricultural ladder” that would lead eventually to tenancy and possibly ownership. Because climbing the agricultural ladder meant establishing one’s credit-worthiness with local lenders, southern farm laborers tended to sort themselves into two categories: locally established (mostly older, married men) croppers and renters on the one hand, and mobile wage laborers (mostly younger and unmarried) on the other. While the labor market for each of these types of workers appears to have been relatively competitive, the barriers between the two markets remained relatively high (Wright 1987, p. 111).

While the predominant pattern in agriculture then was one of small, family-operated units, there was an important countervailing trend toward specialization that both depended on, and encouraged the emergence of a more specialized market for farm labor. Because specialization in a single crop increased the seasonality of labor demand, farmers could not afford to employ labor year-round, but had to depend on migrant workers. The use of seasonal gangs of migrant wage laborers developed earliest in California in the 1870s and 1880s, where employers relied heavily on Chinese immigrants. Following restrictions on Chinese entry, they were replaced first by Japanese, and later by Mexican workers (Wright 1988, pp. 201-204).

The Emergence of Internal Labor Markets

Outside of agriculture, at the beginning of the nineteenth century most manufacturing took place in small establishments. Hired labor might consist of a small number of apprentices, or, as in the early New England textile mills, a few child laborers hired from nearby farms (Ware 1931). As a result labor market institutions remained small-scale and informal, and institutions for training and skill acquisition remained correspondingly limited. Workers learned on the job as apprentices or helpers; advancement came through establishing themselves as independent producers rather than through internal promotion.

With the growth of manufacturing, and the spread of factory methods of production, especially in the years after the end of the Civil War, an increasing number of people could expect to spend their working-lives as employees. One reflection of this change was the emergence in the 1870s of the problem of unemployment. During the depression of 1873 for the first time cities throughout the country had to contend with large masses of industrial workers thrown out of work and unable to support themselves through, in the language of the time, “no fault of their own” (Keyssar 1986, ch. 2).

The growth of large factories and the creation of new kinds of labor skills specific to a particular employer created returns to sustaining long-term employment relationships. As workers acquired job- and employer-specific skills their productivity increased giving rise to gains that were available only so long as the employment relationship persisted. Employers did little, however, to encourage long-term employment relationships. Instead authority over hiring, promotion and retention was commonly delegated to foremen or inside contractors (Nelson 1975, pp. 34-54). In the latter case, skilled craftsmen operated in effect as their own bosses contracting with the firm to supply components or finished products for an agreed price, and taking responsibility for hiring and managing their own assistants.

These arrangements were well suited to promoting external mobility. Foremen were often drawn from the immigrant community and could easily tap into word-of-mouth channels of recruitment. But these benefits came increasingly into conflict with rising costs of hiring and training workers.

The informality of personnel policies prior to World War I seems likely to have discouraged lasting employment relationships, and it is true that rates of labor turnover at the beginning of the twentieth century were considerably higher than they were to be later (Owen, 2004). Scattered evidence on the duration of employment relationships gathered by various state labor bureaus at the end of the century suggests, however, at least some workers did establish lasting employment relationship (Carter 1988; Carter and Savocca 1990; Jacoby and Sharma 1992; James 1994).

The growing awareness of the costs of labor-turnover and informal, casual labor relations led reformers to advocate the establishment of more centralized and formal processes of hiring, firing and promotion, along with the establishment of internal job-ladders, and deferred payment plans to help bind workers and employers. The implementation of these reforms did not make significant headway, however, until the 1920s (Slichter 1929). Why employers began to establish internal labor markets in the 1920s remains in dispute. While some scholars emphasize pressure from workers (Jacoby 1984; 1985) others have stressed that it was largely a response to the rising costs of labor turnover (Edwards 1979).

The Government and the Labor Market

The growth of large factories contributed to rising labor tensions in the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-centuries. Issues like hours of work, safety, and working conditions all have a significant public goods aspect. While market forces of entry and exit will force employers to adopt policies that are sufficient to attract the marginal worker (the one just indifferent between staying and leaving), less mobile workers may find that their interests are not adequately represented (Freeman and Medoff 1984). One solution is to establish mechanisms for collective bargaining, and the years after the American Civil War were characterized by significant progress in the growth of organized labor (Friedman 2002). Unionization efforts, however, met strong opposition from employers, and suffered from the obstacles created by the American legal system’s bias toward protecting property and the freedom of contract. Under prevailing legal interpretation, strikes were often found by the courts to be conspiracies in restraint of trade with the result that the apparatus of government was often arrayed against labor.

Although efforts to win significant improvements in working conditions were rarely successful, there were still areas where there was room for mutually beneficial change. One such area involved the provision of disability insurance for workers injured on the job. Traditionally, injured workers had turned to the courts to adjudicate liability for industrial accidents. Legal proceedings were costly and their outcome unpredictable. By the early 1910s it became clear to all sides that a system of disability insurance was preferable to reliance on the courts. Resolution of this problem, however, required the intervention of state legislatures to establish mandatory state workers compensation insurance schemes and remove the issue from the courts. Once introduced workers compensation schemes spread quickly: nine states passed legislation in 1911; 13 more had joined the bandwagon by 1913, and by 1920 44 states had such legislation (Fishback 2001).

Along with workers compensation state legislatures in the late nineteenth century also considered legislation restricting hours of work. Prevailing legal interpretations limited the effectiveness of such efforts for adult males. But rules restricting hours for women and children were found to be acceptable. The federal government passed legislation restricting the employment of children under 14 in 1916, but this law was found unconstitutional in 1916 (Goldin 2000, p. 612-13).

The economic crisis of the 1930s triggered a new wave of government interventions in the labor market. During the 1930s the federal government granted unions the right to organize legally, established a system of unemployment, disability and old age insurance, and established minimum wage and overtime pay provisions.

In 1933 the National Industrial Recovery Act included provisions legalizing unions’ right to bargain collectively. Although the NIRA was eventually ruled to be unconstitutional, the key labor provisions of the Act were reinstated in the Wagner Act of 1935. While some of the provisions of the Wagner Act were modified in 1947 by the Taft-Hartley Act, its passage marks the beginning of the golden age of organized labor. Union membership jumped very quickly after 1935 from around 12 percent of the non-agricultural labor force to nearly 30 percent, and by the late 1940s had attained a peak of 35 percent, where it stabilized. Since the 1960s, however, union membership has declined steadily, to the point where it is now back at pre-Wagner Act levels.

The Social Security Act of 1935 introduced a federal unemployment insurance scheme that was operated in partnership with state governments and financed through a tax on employers. It also created government old age and disability insurance. In 1938, the federal Fair Labor Standards Act provided for minimum wages and for overtime pay. At first the coverage of these provisions was limited, but it has been steadily increased in subsequent years to cover most industries today.

In the post-war era, the federal government has expanded its role in managing labor markets both directly—through the establishment of occupational safety regulations, and anti-discrimination laws, for example—and indirectly—through its efforts to manage the macroeconomy to insure maximum employment.

A further expansion of federal involvement in labor markets began in 1964 with passage of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibited employment discrimination against both minorities and women. In 1967 the Age Discrimination and Employment Act was passed prohibiting discrimination against people aged 40 to 70 in regard to hiring, firing, working conditions and pay. The Family and Medical Leave Act of 1994 allows for unpaid leave to care for infants, children and other sick relatives (Goldin 2000, p. 614).

Whether state and federal legislation has significantly affected labor market outcomes remains unclear. Most economists would argue that the majority of labor’s gains in the past century would have occurred even in the absence of government intervention. Rather than shaping market outcomes, many legislative initiatives emerged as a result of underlying changes that were making advances possible. According to Claudia Goldin (2000, p. 553) “government intervention often reinforced existing trends, as in the decline of child labor, the narrowing of the wage structure, and the decrease in hours of work.” In other cases, such as Workers Compensation and pensions, legislation helped to establish the basis for markets.

The Changing Boundaries of the Labor Market

The rise of factories and urban employment had implications that went far beyond the labor market itself. On farms women and children had found ready employment (Craig 1993, ch. 4). But when the male household head worked for wages, employment opportunities for other family members were more limited. Late nineteenth-century convention largely dictated that married women did not work outside the home unless their husband was dead or incapacitated (Goldin 1990, p. 119-20). Children, on the other hand, were often viewed as supplementary earners in blue-collar households at this time.

Since 1900 changes in relative earnings power related to shifts in technology have encouraged women to enter the paid labor market while purchasing more of the goods and services that were previously produced within the home. At the same time, the rising value of formal education has lead to the withdrawal of child labor from the market and increased investment in formal education (Whaples 2005). During the first half of the twentieth century high school education became nearly universal. And since World War II, there has been a rapid increase in the number of college educated workers in the U.S. economy (Goldin 2000, p. 609-12).

Assessing the Efficiency of Labor Market Institutions

The function of labor markets is to match workers and jobs. As this essay has described the mechanisms by which labor markets have accomplished this task have changed considerably as the American economy has developed. A central issue for economic historians is to assess how changing labor market institutions have affected the efficiency of labor markets. This leads to three sets of questions. The first concerns the long-run efficiency of market processes in allocating labor across space and economic activities. The second involves the response of labor markets to short-run macroeconomic fluctuations. The third deals with wage determination and the distribution of income.

Long-Run Efficiency and Wage Gaps

Efforts to evaluate the efficiency of market allocation begin with what is commonly know as the “law of one price,” which states that within an efficient market the wage of similar workers doing similar work under similar circumstances should be equalized. The ideal of complete equalization is, of course, unlikely to be achieved given the high information and transactions costs that characterize labor markets. Thus, conclusions are usually couched in relative terms, comparing the efficiency of one market at one point in time with those of some other markets at other points in time. A further complication in measuring wage equalization is the need to compare homogeneous workers and to control for other differences (such as cost of living and non-pecuniary amenities).

Falling transportation and communications costs have encouraged a trend toward diminishing wage gaps over time, but this trend has not always been consistent over time, nor has it applied to all markets in equal measure. That said, what stands out is in fact the relative strength of forces of market arbitrage that have operated in many contexts to promote wage convergence.

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the costs of trans-Atlantic migration were still quite high and international wage gaps large. By the 1840s, however, vast improvements in shipping cut the costs of migration, and gave rise to an era of dramatic international wage equalization (O’Rourke and Williamson 1999, ch. 2; Williamson 1995). Figure 1 shows the movement of real wages relative to the United States in a selection of European countries. After the beginning of mass immigration wage differentials began to fall substantially in one country after another. International wage convergence continued up until the 1880s, when it appears that the accelerating growth of the American economy outstripped European labor supply responses and reversed wage convergence briefly. World War I and subsequent immigration restrictions caused a sharper break, and contributed to widening international wage differences during the middle portion of the twentieth century. From World War II until about 1980, European wage levels once again began to converge toward the U.S., but this convergence reflected largely internally-generated improvements in European living standards rather then labor market pressures.

Figure 1

Relative Real Wages of Selected European Countries, 1830-1980 (US = 100)

Source: Williamson (1995), Tables A2.1-A2.3.

Wage convergence also took place within some parts of the United States during the nineteenth century. Figure 2 traces wages in the North Central and Southern regions of the U.S relative to those in the Northeast across the period from 1820 to the early twentieth century. Within the United States, wages in the North Central region of the country were 30 to 40 percent higher than in the East in the 1820s (Margo 2000a, ch. 5). Thereafter, wage gaps declined substantially, falling to the 10-20 percent range before the Civil War. Despite some temporary divergence during the war, wage gaps had fallen to 5 to 10 percent by the 1880s and 1890s. Much of this decline was made possible by faster and less expensive means of transportation, but it was also dependent on the development of labor market institutions linking the two regions, for while transportation improvements helped to link East and West, there was no corresponding North-South integration. While southern wages hovered near levels in the Northeast prior to the Civil War, they fell substantially below northern levels after the Civil War, as Figure 2 illustrates.

Figure 2

Relative Regional Real Wage Rates in the United States, 1825-1984

(Northeast = 100 in each year)

Notes and sources: Rosenbloom (2002, p. 133); Montgomery (1992). It is not possible to assemble entirely consistent data on regional wage variations over such an extended period. The nature of the wage data, the precise geographic coverage of the data, and the estimates of regional cost-of-living indices are all different. The earliest wage data—Margo (2000); Sundstrom and Rosenbloom (1993) and Coelho and Shepherd (1976) are all based on occupational wage rates from payroll records for specific occupations; Rosenbloom (1996) uses average earnings across all manufacturing workers; while Montgomery (1992) uses individual level wage data drawn from the Current Population Survey, and calculates geographic variations using a regression technique to control for individual differences in human capital and industry of employment. I used the relative real wages that Montgomery (1992) reported for workers in manufacturing, and used an unweighted average of wages across the cities in each region to arrive at relative regional real wages. Interested readers should consult the various underlying sources for further details.

Despite the large North-South wage gap Table 3 shows there was relatively little migration out of the South until large-scale foreign immigration came to an end. Migration from the South during World War I and the 1920s created a basis for future chain migration, but the Great Depression of the 1930s interrupted this process of adjustment. Not until the 1940s did the North-South wage gap begin to decline substantially (Wright 1986, pp. 71-80). By the 1970s the southern wage disadvantage had largely disappeared, and because of the decline fortunes of older manufacturing districts and the rise of Sunbelt cities, wages in the South now exceed those in the Northeast (Coelho and Ghali 1971; Bellante 1979; Sahling and Smith 1983; Montgomery 1992). Despite these shocks, however, the overall variation in wages appears comparable to levels attained by the end of the nineteenth century. Montgomery (1992), for example finds that from 1974 to 1984 the standard deviation of wages across SMSAs was only about 10 percent of the average wage.

Table 3

Net Migration by Region, and Race, 1870-1950

South Northeast North Central West
Period White Black White Black White Black White Black
Number (in 1,000s)
1870-80 91 -68 -374 26 26 42 257 0
1880-90 -271 -88 -240 61 -43 28 554 0
1890-00 -30 -185 101 136 -445 49 374 0
1900-10 -69 -194 -196 109 -1,110 63 1,375 22
1910-20 -663 -555 -74 242 -145 281 880 32
1920-30 -704 -903 -177 435 -464 426 1,345 42
1930-40 -558 -480 55 273 -747 152 1,250 55
1940-50 -866 -1581 -659 599 -1,296 626 2,822 356
Rate (migrants/1,000 Population)
1870-80 11 -14 -33 55 2 124 274 0
1880-90 -26 -15 -18 107 -3 65 325 0
1890-00 -2 -26 6 200 -23 104 141 0
1900-10 -4 -24 -11 137 -48 122 329 542
1910-20 -33 -66 -3 254 -5 421 143 491
1920-30 -30 -103 -7 328 -15 415 160 421
1930-40 -20 -52 2 157 -22 113 116 378
1940-50 -28 -167 -20 259 -35 344 195 964

Note: Net migration is calculated as the difference between the actual increase in population over each decade and the predicted increase based on age and sex specific mortality rates and the demographic structure of the region’s population at the beginning of the decade. If the actual increase exceeds the predicted increase this implies a net migration into the region; if the actual increase is less than predicted this implies net migration out of the region. The states included in the Southern region are Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, Kentucky, West Virginia, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida.

Source: Eldridge and Thomas (1964, pp. 90, 99).

In addition to geographic wage gaps economists have considered gaps between farm and city, between black and white workers, between men and women, and between different industries. The literature on these topics is quite extensive and this essay can only touch on a few of the more general themes raised here as they relate to U.S. economic history.

Studies of farm-city wage gaps are a variant of the broader literature on geographic wage variation, related to the general movement of labor from farms to urban manufacturing and services. Here comparisons are complicated by the need to adjust for the non-wage perquisites that farm laborers typically received, which could be almost as large as cash wages. The issue of whether such gaps existed in the nineteenth century has important implications for whether the pace of industrialization was impeded by the lack of adequate labor supply responses. By the second half of the nineteenth century at least, it appears that farm-manufacturing wage gaps were small and markets were relatively integrated (Wright 1988, pp. 204-5). Margo (2000, ch. 4) offers evidence of a high degree of equalization within local labor markets between farm and urban wages as early as 1860. Making comparisons within counties and states, he reports that farm wages were within 10 percent of urban wages in eight states. Analyzing data from the late nineteenth century through the 1930s, Hatton and Williamson (1991) find that farm and city wages were nearly equal within U.S. regions by the 1890s. It appears, however that during the Great Depression farm wages were much more flexible than urban wages causing a large gap to emerge at this time (Alston and Williamson 1991).

Much attention has been focused on trends in wage gaps by race and sex. The twentieth century has seen a substantial convergence in both of these differentials. Table 4 displays comparisons of earnings of black males relative to white males for full time workers. In 1940, full-time black male workers earned only about 43 percent of what white male full-time workers did. By 1980 the racial pay ratio had risen to nearly 73 percent, but there has been little subsequent progress. Until the mid-1960s these gains can be attributed primarily to migration from the low-wage South to higher paying areas in the North, and to increases in the quantity and quality of black education over time (Margo 1995; Smith and Welch 1990). Since then, however, most gains have been due to shifts in relative pay within regions. Although it is clear that discrimination was a key factor in limiting access to education, the role of discrimination within the labor market in contributing to these differentials has been a more controversial topic (see Wright 1986, pp. 127-34). But the episodic nature of black wage gains, especially after 1964 is compelling evidence that discrimination has played a role historically in earnings differences and that federal anti-discrimination legislation was a crucial factor in reducing its effects (Donohue and Heckman 1991).

Table 4

Black Male Wages as a Percentage of White Male Wages, 1940-2004

Date Black Relative Wage
1940 43.4
1950 55.2
1960 57.5
1970 64.4
1980 72.6
1990 70.0
2004 77.0

Notes and Sources: Data for 1940 through 1980 are based on Census data as reported in Smith and Welch (1989, Table 8). Data for 1990 are from Ehrenberg and Smith (2000, Table 12.4) and refer to earnings of full time, full year workers. Data from 2004 are for median weekly earnings of full-time wage and salary workers derived from data in the Current Population Survey accessed on-line from the Bureau of Labor Statistic on 13 December 2005; URL ftp://ftp.bls.gov/pub/special.requests/lf/aat37.txt.

Male-Female wage gaps have also narrowed substantially over time. In the 1820s women’s earnings in manufacturing were a little less than 40 percent of those of men, but this ratio rose over time reaching about 55 percent by the 1920s. Across all sectors women’s relative pay rose during the first half of the twentieth century, but gains in female wages stalled during the 1950s and 1960s at the time when female labor force participation began to increase rapidly. Beginning in the late 1970s or early 1980s, relative female pay began to rise again, and today women earn about 80 percent what men do (Goldin 1990, table 3.2; Goldin 2000, pp. 606-8). Part of this remaining difference is explained by differences in the occupational distribution of men and women, with women tending to be concentrated in lower paying jobs. Whether these differences are the result of persistent discrimination or arise because of differences in productivity or a choice by women to trade off greater flexibility in terms of labor market commitment for lower pay remains controversial.

In addition to locational, sectoral, racial and gender wage differentials, economists have also documented and analyzed differences by industry. Krueger and Summers (1987) find that there are pronounced differences in wages by industry within well-specified occupational classes, and that these differentials have remained relatively stable over several decades. One interpretation of this phenomenon is that in industries with substantial market power workers are able to extract some of the monopoly rents as higher pay. An alternative view is that workers are in fact heterogeneous, and differences in wages reflect a process of sorting in which higher paying industries attract more able workers.

The Response to Short-run Macroeconomic Fluctuations

The existence of unemployment is one of the clearest indications of the persistent frictions that characterize labor markets. As described earlier, the concept of unemployment first entered common discussion with the growth of the factory labor force in the 1870s. Unemployment was not a visible social phenomenon in an agricultural economy, although there was undoubtedly a great deal of hidden underemployment.

Although one might have expected that the shift from spot toward more contractual labor markets would have increased rigidities in the employment relationship that would result in higher levels of unemployment there is in fact no evidence of any long-run increase in the level of unemployment.

Contemporaneous measurements of the rate of unemployment only began in 1940. Prior to this date, economic historians have had to estimate unemployment levels from a variety of other sources. Decennial censuses provide benchmark levels, but it is necessary to interpolate between these benchmarks based on other series. Conclusions about long-run changes in unemployment behavior depend to a large extent on the method used to interpolate between benchmark dates. Estimates prepared by Stanley Lebergott (1964) suggest that the average level of unemployment and its volatility have declined between the pre-1930 and post-World War II periods. Christina Romer (1986a, 1986b), however, has argued that there was no decline in volatility. Rather, she argues that the apparent change in behavior is the result of Lebergott’s interpolation procedure.

While the aggregate behavior of unemployment has changed surprisingly little over the past century, the changing nature of employment relationships has been reflected much more clearly in changes in the distribution of the burden of unemployment (Goldin 2000, pp. 591-97). At the beginning of the twentieth century, unemployment was relatively widespread, and largely unrelated to personal characteristics. Thus many employees faced great uncertainty about the permanence of their employment relationship. Today, on the other hand, unemployment is highly concentrated: falling heavily on the least skilled, the youngest, and the non-white segments of the labor force. Thus, the movement away from spot markets has tended to create a two-tier labor market in which some workers are highly vulnerable to economic fluctuations, while others remain largely insulated from economic shocks.

Wage Determination and Distributional Issues

American economic growth has generated vast increases in the material standard of living. Real gross domestic product per capita, for example, has increased more than twenty-fold since 1820 (Steckel 2002). This growth in total output has in large part been passed on to labor in the form of higher wages. Although labor’s share of national output has fluctuated somewhat, in the long-run it has remained surprisingly stable. According to Abramovitz and David (2000, p. 20), labor received 65 percent of national income in the years 1800-1855. Labor’s share dropped in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, falling to a low of 54 percent of national income between 1890 and 1927, but has since risen, reaching 65 percent again in 1966-1989. Thus, over the long term, labor income has grown at the same rate as total output in the economy.

The distribution of labor’s gains across different groups in the labor force has also varied over time. I have already discussed patterns of wage variation by race and gender, but another important issue revolves around the overall level of inequality of pay, and differences in pay between groups of skilled and unskilled workers. Careful research by Picketty and Saez (2003) using individual income tax returns has documented changes in the overall distribution of income in the United States since 1913. They find that inequality has followed a U-shaped pattern over the course of the twentieth century. Inequality was relatively high at the beginning of the period they consider, fell sharply during World War II, held steady until the early 1970s and then began to increase, reaching levels comparable to those in the early twentieth century by the 1990s.

An important factor in the rising inequality of income since 1970 has been growing dispersion in wage rates. The wage differential between workers in the 90th percentile of the wage distribution and those in the 10th percentile increased by 49 percent between 1969 and 1995 (Plotnick et al 2000, pp. 357-58). These shifts are mirrored in increased premiums earned by college graduates relative to high school graduates. Two primary explanations have been advanced for these trends. First, there is evidence that technological changes—especially those associated with the increased use of information technology—has increased relative demand for more educated workers (Murnane, Willett and Levy (1995). Second, increased global integration has allowed low-wage manufacturing industries overseas to compete more effectively with U.S. manufacturers, thus depressing wages in what have traditionally been high-paying blue collar jobs.

Efforts to expand the scope of analysis over a longer-run encounter problems with more limited data. Based on selected wage ratios of skilled and unskilled workers Willamson and Lindert (1980) have argued that there was an increase in wage inequality over the course of the nineteenth century. But other scholars have argued that the wage series that Williamson and Lindert used are unreliable (Margo 2000b, pp. 224-28).

Conclusions

The history of labor market institutions in the United States illustrates the point that real world economies are substantially more complex than the simplest textbook models. Instead of a disinterested and omniscient auctioneer, the process of matching buyers and sellers takes place through the actions of self-interested market participants. The resulting labor market institutions do not respond immediately and precisely to shifting patterns of incentives. Rather they are subject to historical forces of increasing-returns and lock-in that cause them to change gradually and along path-dependent trajectories.

For all of these departures from the theoretically ideal market, however, the history of labor markets in the United States can also be seen as a confirmation of the remarkable power of market processes of allocation. From the beginning of European settlement in mainland North America, labor markets have done a remarkable job of responding to shifting patterns of demand and supply. Not only have they accomplished the massive geographic shifts associated with the settlement of the United States, but they have also dealt with huge structural changes induced by the sustained pace of technological change.

References

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Citation: Rosenbloom, Joshua. “The History of American Labor Market Institutions and Outcomes”. EH.Net Encyclopedia, edited by Robert Whaples. March 16, 2008. URL http://eh.net/encyclopedia/the-history-of-american-labor-market-institutions-and-outcomes/

Credit in the Colonial American Economy

David T Flynn, University of North Dakota

Overview of Credit versus Barter and Cash

Credit was vital to the economy of colonial America and much of the individual prosperity and success in the colonies was due to credit. Networks of credit stretched across the Atlantic from Britain to the major port cities and into the interior of the country allowing exchange to occur (Bridenbaugh, 1990, 154). Colonists made purchases by credit, cash and barter. Barter and cash were spot exchanges, goods and services were given in exchange for immediate payment. Credit, however, delayed the payment until a later date. Understanding the role of credit in the eighteenth century requires a brief discussion of all payment options as well as the nature of the repayment of credit.

Barter

Barter is an exchange of goods and services for other goods and services and can be a very difficult method of exchange due to the double coincidence of wants. For exchange to occur in a barter situation each party must have the good desired by its trading partner. Suppose John Hancock has paper supplies and wants corn while Paul Revere has silver spoons and wants paper products. Even though Revere wants the goods available from Hancock no exchange occurs because Hancock does not want the good Revere has to offer. The double coincidence of wants can make barter very costly because of time spent searching for a trading partner. This time could otherwise be used for consumption, production, leisure, or any number of other activities. The principle advantage of any form of money over barter is obvious: money satisfies the double coincidence of wants, that is, money functions as a medium of exchange.

Money’s advantages

Money also has other functions that make it a superior method of exchange to barter including acting as the unit of account (the unit in which prices are quoted) in the economy (e.g. the dollar in the United States and the pound in England). A barter economy uses a large number of prices because every good must have a price in terms of each other good available in the economy. An economy with n different goods would have n(n-1)/2 prices in total, not an enormous burden for small values of n, but as n grows it quickly becomes unmanageable. A unit of account reduces the number of prices from the barter situation to n, or the number of goods. The colonists had a unit of account, the colonial pound (£), which removed this burden of barter.

Several forms of money circulated in the colonies over the course of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, such as specie, commodity money and paper currency. Specie is gold or silver minted into coins and is a special form of commodity money, a good that has an exchange value separate from the market value of the good. Tobacco, and later tobacco warehouse receipts, acted as a form of money in many of the colonies. Despite multiple money options some colonists complained of an inability to keep money in circulation, or at least in the hands of those wanting to use it for exchange (Baxter, 1945, 11-17; Bridenbaugh, 153).1

Credit’s advantages

When you acquire goods with credit you delay payment to a later time, be it one day or one year. A basic credit transaction today is essentially the same as in the eighteenth century, only the form is different.2 Extending credit presents risks, most notably default, or the failure of the borrower to repay the amount borrowed. Sellers also needed to worry about the total volume of credit they extended because it threatened their solvency in the case of default. Consumers benefited from credit by the ability to consume beyond current financial resources, as well as security from theft and other advantages. Sellers gained by faster sales of goods and interest charges, often hidden in a higher price for the goods.3

Uncertainty about the scope of credit

The frequency of credit versus barter and cash is not well quantified because surviving account books and transaction records generally only report cash or goods payments made after the merchant allowed credit, not spot cash or barter transactions (Baxter, 19n). Martin (1939, 150) concurs, “The entries represent transactions with those customers who did not pay at once on purchasing goods for [the seller] either made no record of immediate cash purchases, or else there were almost no such transactions.” The results of Flynn’s (2001) study using merchant account books from Connecticut and Massachusetts found also that most purchases recorded in the account books were credit purchases (see Table 1 below).4 Scholars are forced to make general statements about credit as a standard tool in transactions in port cities and rural villages without reference to specific numbers (Perkins, 1980, 123-124).

Table 1

Percentage of Purchases by Type

Purchases by Credit Purchases by Cash Purchases by Barter
Connecticut 98.6 1.1 0.3
Massachusetts 98.5 1.0 0.4
Combined 98.6 1.0 0.4

Source: Adapted from Table 3.2 in Flynn (2001), p. 54.

Indications of the importance of credit

In some regions, the institution of credit was so accepted that many employers, including merchants, paid their employees by providing them credit at a store on the business’s account (Martin, 94). Probate inventories evidence the frequency of credit through the large amount of accounts receivable recorded for traders and merchant in Connecticut, sometimes over £1,000 (Main, 1985, 302-303). Accounts receivable are an asset of the business representing amounts owed to the business by other parties. Almost 30 percent of the estates of Connecticut “traders” contained £100 or more of receivables as part of their estate (Main, 316). More than this, accounts receivable averaged one-eighth of personal wealth throughout most of the colonial period, and more than one-fifth at the end (Main, 36). While there is no evidence that enables us to determine the relative frequencies of payments, the available information supports the idea that the different forms of payment co-existed.

The Different Types of Credit

There are three different types of credit to discuss: international credit, book credit, and promissory notes and each facilitated exchange and payments. Colonial importers and wholesalers relied on credit from British suppliers while rural merchants received credit from importers and wholesalers in the port cities and, finally, consumers received credit from the retailers. A discussion starts logically with international credit from British suppliers to colonial merchants because it allowed colonial merchants to extend credit to their customers (McCusker and Menard, 1985, 80n; Martin, 1939, 19; Perkins, 1980, 24).

Overseas credit

Research on colonial growth attaches importance to several items including foreign funds, capital improvements and productivity gains. The majority of foreign funds transferred were in the form of mercantile credit (Egnal, 1998, 12-20). British merchants shipped goods to colonial merchants on credit for between six months and one year before demanding payment or charging interest (Egnal, 55; Perkins, 1994, 65; Shepherd and Walton, 1972, 131-132; Thomson, 1955, 15). Other examples show a minimum of one year’s credit given before suppliers assessed five percent interest charges (Martin, 122-123). Factors such as interest and duration determined for how long colonial merchants could extend credit to their own customers and at what level of markup. Some merchants sold goods on commission, where the goods remained the property of the British merchant until sold. After the sale the colonial merchant remitted the funds, less his fee, to the British merchant.

Relationships between colonial and British merchants exhibited regional differences. Virginia merchants’ system of exchange, known as the consignment system, depended on the credit arrangements between planters and “factors” – middlemen who accepted colonial goods and acquired British or other products desired by colonists (Thomson, 28). A relationship with a British merchant was important for success in business because it provided the tobacco growers and factors access to supplies of credit sufficient to maintain business (Thomson, 211). Independent Virginia merchants, those without a British connection, ordered their supplies of goods on credit and paid with locally produced goods (Thomson, 15). Virginia and other Southern colonies could rely on credit because of their production of a staple crop desired by British merchants. New England merchants such as Thomas Hancock, uncle of the famous patriot John Hancock, could not rely on this to the same extent. New England merchants sometimes engaged in additional exchanges with other colonies and countries because they lacked goods desired by British merchants (Baxter, 46-47). Without the willingness of British merchant houses to wait for payment it would have been difficult for many colonial merchants to extend credit to their customers.

Domestic credit: book credit and promissory notes

Domestic credit was primarily of two forms, book credit and promissory notes. Merchants recorded book credit in the account books of the business. These entries were debits for an individual’s account and were set against payments, credits in the merchant’s ledger. Promissory notes detailed a debt, including typically the date of issue, the date of redemption, the amount owed, possibly the form of repayment and an interest rate. Book credit and promissory notes were substitutes and complements. Both represented a delay of payment and could be used to acquire goods but book accounts were also a large source of personal notes. Merchants who felt payment was either too slow in coming or the risks of default too high could insist the buyer provide a note. The note was a more secure form of credit as it could be exchanged and, despite the likely loss on the note’s face value if the debtor was in financial trouble, would not represent a continuing worry of the merchant (Martin, 158-159).5

Figure 1

Accounts of Samuell Maxey, Customer, and Jonathan Parker, Massachusetts Merchant

Date Transaction Debt (£) Date Transaction Credit (£)
5/28/1748 To Maxey earthenware by Brock 62.00 5/30/1748 By cash & Leather 45.00
10/21/1748 To ditto by Cap’n Long 13.75 8/20/1748 By 2 quintals of fish @6-0-0 [per quintal] 12.00
5/25/1749 To ditto 61.75 11/15/1748 By cash received of Mr. Suttin 5.00
6/26/1749 To ditto 27.35 5/26/1749 By sundrys 74.75
10/1749 By cash of Mr. Kettel 9.75
12/1749 By ditto 18.35

Source: John Parker Account Book. Baker Library, Harvard Business School, Mss: 605 1747-1764 P241, p.7.

The settlement of debt obligations incorporated many forms of payment. Figure 1 details the activity between Samuell Maxey and Jonathan Parker, a Massachusetts merchant. Included are several purchases of earthenware by Maxey and others and several payments, including some in cash and goods as well as from third parties. Baxter (1945, 21) describes similar experiences when he says,

…the accounts over and over again tell of the creditor’s weary efforts to get his dues by accepting a tardy and halting series of odds and ends; and (as prices were often soaring, especially in 1740-64) the longer a debtor could put off payment, the fewer goods might he need to hand over to square a liability for so much money.

Repayment means and examples

The “odds and ends” included goods and commodity money as well as other cash, bills of exchange, and third party settlements (Baxter, 17-32). Merchants accepted goods such as pork beef, fish and grains for their store goods (Martin, 94). Flynn (2001) shows several items offered as payment, including goods, cash, notes and others, shown in Table 2.

Table 2

Percentage of Payments by Category

Repayment in Cash Repayment in Goods Repayment by note Repayment by Reckoning Repayment by third- party note Repayment by Bond Repayment by Labor

Conn.

27.5 45.9 3.3 7.5 6.9 0.0 8.9
Mass. 24.2 47.6 2.8 7.5 13.7 0.2 2.3
Combined 25.6 46.9 3.0 7.5 10.9 0.1 5.0

Source: Adapted from Table 3.4 in Flynn (2001), p. 54.

Cash, goods and notes require no further explanation, but Table 2 shows other items used in payment as well. Colonists used labor to repay their tabs, working in their creditor’s field or lending the labor services of a child or yoke of oxen. Some accounts also list “reckoning,” which occurred typically between two merchants or traders that made purchases on credit from each other. Before the two merchants settled their accounts it was convenient to determine the net position of their accounts with each other. After making the determination the merchant in debt possibly made a payment that brought the balance to zero, but at other times the merchants proceeded without a payment but a better sense of the account position. Third parties also made payments that employed goods, money and credit. When the merchant did not want the particular goods offered in payment he could hope to pass them on, ideally to his own creditors. Such exchange satisfied both the merchant’s debts and the consumer’s (Baxter, 24-25). Figure 1 above and Figure 2 below illustrate this.

Figure 2

Accounts of Mr. Clark, Customer, and Jonathan Parker, Massachusetts Merchant

Date Transaction Debt (£) Date Transaction Credit (£)
9/27/1749 To Clark earthenware 10.85 11/30/1749 By cash 3.00
4/14/1750 By ditto 1.00
?/1762 By rum in full of Mr. Blanchard 6.35

Source: John Parker Account Book. Baker Library, Harvard Business School, Mss: 605 1747-1764 P241, p.2.

The accounts of Parker and his customer, Mr. Clark, show another purchase of earthenware and three payments. The purchase is clearly on credit as Parker recorded the first payment occurring over two months after the purchase. Clark provided two cash payments and then a third person Mr. Blanchard settled Clark’s account in full with rum. What do these third party payments represent? For answers to this we need to step back from the specifics of the account and generalize.

Figures 1 and 2 show credits from third parties in cash and goods. If we think in terms of three-way trade the answer becomes obvious. In Figure 1 where a Mr. Suttin pays £5.00 cash to Parker on the account of Samuell Maxey, Suttin is settling a debt with Maxey (in part or in full we do not know). To settle the debt he owes Parker, Maxey directs those who owe him money to pay Parker, and thus reduce his debt. Figure 2 displays the same type of activity, except Blanchard pays with rum. Though not depicted here, private debts between customers could be settled on the merchant’s books. Rather than offering payment in cash or goods, private parties could swap debt on the merchant’s account book, ordering a transfer from one account to another. The merchant’s final approval for the exchange implied something about the added risk from a third party exchange. The new person did not pose a greater default risk in the creditor’s opinion, otherwise (we would suspect) they refused the exchange.6

Complexity of the credit system

The payment system in the colonies was complex and dynamic with creditors allowing debtors to settle accounts in several fashions. Goods and money satisfied outstanding debts and other credit obligations deferred or transferred debts. Debtors and creditors employed the numerous forms of payment in regular and third party transactions, making merchants’ account books a clearinghouse for debts. Although the lack of technology leaves casual observers thinking payments at this time were primitive, such was clearly not the case. With only pen and paper eighteenth century merchants developed a sophisticated payment system, of which book credit and personal notes were an important part.

The Duration of Credit

The length of time outstanding for credit, its duration, is an important characteristic. Duration represents the amount of time a creditor awaited payment and anecdotal and statistical evidence provide some insights into the duration of book credit and promissory notes.

The calculation of the duration of book credit, or any similar type of instrument, is relatively straightforward when the merchant recorded dates in his account book conscientiously. Consider the following example.

Figure 3

Accounts of David Forthingham, Customer, and Jonathan Parker, Massachusetts Merchant

Date Transaction Debt (£) Date Transaction Credit (£)
10/1/1748 To Forthingham earthenware 7.75 10/1/1748 By cash 3.00
4/1749 By Indian corn 4.75

Source: John Parker Account Book. Baker Library, Harvard Business School, Mss: 605 1747-1764 P241, p.2.

The exchanges between Frothingham and Jonathan Parker show one purchase and two payments. Frothingham provides a partial payment for the earthenware at the time of purchase, in cash. However, £4.75 of debt remains outstanding, and is not repaid until April of 1749. It is possible to calculate a range of values for the final settlement of this account, using the first day of April to give a lower bound estimate and the last day to give an upper bound estimate. Counting the number of days shows that it took at least 182 days and at most 211 days to settle the debt. Alternatively the debt lasted between 6 and 7 months.

Figure 4

Accounts of Joseph Adams, Customer, and Jonathan Parker, Massachusetts Merchant

Date Transaction Debt (£) Date Transaction Credit (£)
9/7/1747 to Adams earthenware -30.65 11/9/1747 by cash 30.65
7/22/1748 to ditto -22.40 7/22/1748 by ditto 12.40
No Date7 by ditto 10.00

Source: John Parker Account Book. Baker Library, Harvard Business School, Mss: 605 1747-1764 P241, p.4.

Not all merchants were meticulous record keepers and sometimes they failed to record a particular date with the rest of an account book entry.8 Figure 4 illustrates this problem well and also provides an example of multiple purchases along with multiple payments. The first purchase of earthenware is repaid with one “cash” payment sixty-three days (2.1 months) later.9 Computation of the term of the second loan is more complicated. The last two payments satisfy the purchase amount, so Adams repaid the loan completely. Unfortunately, Parker left out the date for the second payment. The second payment occurred on or after July 22, 1748, so this date is the lower end of the interval. The minimum time between purchase and second payment is zero days, but computation of a maximum time, or upper bound, is not possible due to the lack of information.10

With a sufficient number of debts some generalization is possible. If we interpret the data as the length of a debt’s life we can use demographic methods, in particular the life table.11 For a sample of Connecticut and Massachusetts account books the average duration looks like the following.12

Table 3

Expected Duration for Connecticut Debts, Lower and Upper Bound

(a) (b) (c) (d) (e)
Size of debt in £ eo lower bound (months) Median lower bound (interval) eo upper bound (months) Median upper bound (interval)
All Values 14.79 6-12 15.87 6-12
0.0-0.25 15.22 6-12 15.99 6-12
0.25-0.50 14.28 6-12 15.51 6-12
0.50-0.75 15.24 6-12 18.01 6-12
0.75-1.00 14.25 6-12 15.94 6-12
1.00-10.00 13.95 6-12 15.07 6-12
10.00+ 7.95 0-6 10.73 6-12

Table 4

Expectation Duration for Massachusetts Debts, Lower and Upper Bound

(a) (b) (c) (d) (e)
Size of debt in £ eo lower bound (months) Lower bound median (interval) eo upper bound (months) Upper bound median (interval)
All Values 13.22 6-12 14.87 6-12
0.0-0.25 14.74 6-12 17.55 12-18
0.25-0.50 12.08 6-12 12.80 6-12
0.50-0.75 11.73 6-12 13.08 6-12
0.75-1.00 11.01 6-12 12.43 6-12
1.00-10.00 13.08 6-12 13.88 6-12
10.00+ 14.28 12-18 17.02 12-18

Source: Adapted from Tables 4.1 and 4.2 in Flynn (2001), p. 80.

For all debts in the sample from Connecticut, the expected length of time the debt is outstanding from its inception is estimated between 14.78 and 15.86 months. For Massachusetts the range is somewhat shorter, from 13.22 to 14.87 months. Tables 3 and 4 break the data into categories based on the value of the credit transaction as well. An important question to ask is whether this represents a long- term or a short-term debt? There is no standard yardstick for comparison in this case. The best comparison is likely the international credit granted to colonial merchants. The colonial merchants needed to repay these amounts and had to sell the goods to make remittances. The estimates of that credit duration, listed earlier, center around one year, which means that colonial merchants in New England needed to repay their British suppliers before they could expect to receive full payment from their customers. From the colonial merchants’ perspective book credit was certainly long-term.

Other estimates of duration of book credit

Other estimates of book credit’s duration vary. Consumers paying their credit purchases in kind took as little time as a few months or as long as several years (Martin, 153). Some accounting records show book credit remaining unsettled for nearly thirty years (Baxter, 161). Thomas Hancock often noted expected payment dates, such as “to pay in 6 months” along with a purchase, though frequently this was not enough time for the buyer. Thomas blamed the law, which allowed twelve months for people to make repayments, complaining to his suppliers that he often provided credit to country residents of “one two & more years” (Baxter, 192). Surely such a situation is the exception and not the rule, though it does serve to remind us that many of these arrangements were open, lacking definite endpoints. Some merchants allowed accounts to last as long as two years before examining the position of the account, allowing one year’s book credit without charge, and thereafter assessing interest (Martin, 157).

Duration of promissory notes

The duration of promissory notes is also important. Priest (1999) examines a form of duration for these credit instruments, estimating the time between a debtor’s signing of the note and the creditor’s filing of suit to collect payment. Of course this only measures the duration for notes that go into default and require legal recourse. Typically, a suit originated some 6 to 9 months after default (Priest, 2417-18). Results for the period 1724 to 1750 show 14.5% of cases occurred within 6 months after the initial contraction date, the execution of the debt. Merchants brought suit in more than 60% of the cases between 6 months and 3 years from execution, 21.4% from six to twelve months, 27.4% from one to two years and 14.1% from two to three years. Finally, more than 20% of the cases occurred more than three years from the execution of the debt. The median interval between execution and suit was 17.5 months (Priest, 2436, Table 3).

The duration of promissory notes provides an important complement to estimates of book credit’s term. Median estimates of 17.5 months make promissory notes, more than likely, a long-term credit instrument when balanced against the one year credit term given colonial importers. The estimates for book credit range between three months and several years in the literature to between 13 and 16 months in Flynn (2001) study. Duration results show that merchants waited significant amounts of time for payment, raising the issue of the time value of money and interest rates.

The Interest Practices of Merchants

In some cases credit was outstanding for a long period of time, but the accounts make no mention of any interest charges, as in Figures 1 through 4. Such an omission is difficult to reconcile with the fairly sophisticated business practices for the merchants of the day. Accounting research and manuals from the time demonstrate clearly an understanding of the time value of money. The business community understood the concept of compound interest. Account books allowed merchants to charge higher and variable prices for goods sold on book credit (Martin, 94). While in some cases interest charges entered the account book as an explicit entry in many others interest was an added or implicit charge contained in the good’s price.

Advertisements from the time make it clear that merchants charged less for goods

purchased by cash, and accounts paid promptly received a discount on the price,

One general pricing policy seems to have been that goods for cash were sold at a lower price than when they were charged. Cabel[sic] Bull advertised beaver hats at 27/ cash and 30/ country produce in hand. Daniel Butler of Northampton offered dyes, and “a few Cwt. of Redwood and Logwood cheaper than ever for ready money.” Many other advertisements carried allusions to the practice but gave no definite data. A daybook of the Ely store contained this entry for October 21, 1757: “William Jones, Dr to 6 yds Towcloth at 1/6—if paid in a month at 1/4. (Martin, 1939, 144-145)

Other advertisements also evidence a price difference, offering cash prices for certain grains they desired. Connecticut merchants likely offered good prices for products they thought would sell well as they sought remittances for their British creditors. Hartford merchants charged interest rates ranging from four and one-half to six and one-half percent in the 1750s and 1760s, though Flynn (2001) arrives at different rates from a different sample of New England account books (Martin, 158). Many promissory notes in South Carolina specified interest, though not an exact rate, usually just the term “lawful interest” (Woods, 364).

Estimates of interest rates

Simple regression analysis can help determine if interest was implicit in the price of goods sold on credit though there are numerous technical issues, such as borrower characteristics, market conditions and the quality of the good that make a discussion here inappropriate.13 In general, there seems to be a positive correlation, with the annual interest rates falling between 3.75% and 7%, which seem consistent with the results from interest entries made in account books. There is some tendency for the price of a good to increase with the time waited for repayment, though many other technical matters need resolution.

Most annual interest rates in Flynn’s (2001) study, explicit and implicit, fall in the range of 4 to 6.5 percent making them similar to those Martin found in her examination of accounts and roughly consistent with the Massachusetts lawful rate of 6 percent at the time, though some entries assess interest as high as 10 percent (Martin, 158; Rothenberg, 1992, 124). Despite this, the explicit rates are insufficient on their own to form a conclusion about the interest rate charged on book credit; there are too few entries, and many involve promissory notes or third parties, factors expected to alter the interest rate. Other factors such as borrower characteristics likely changed the assessed rate of interest too, with more prominent and wealthy individuals charged lower rates, either due to their status and a perceived lower risk, or possibly due to longer merchant-buyer relationships. Most account books do not contain information sufficient to judge the effects of these characteristics.

Merchants gained from credit use by charging higher prices; credit required a premium over cash sales and so the merchant collected interest and at the same time minimized the necessary amount of payments media (Martin, 94). Interest was distinct from the normal markups for insurance, freight, wharfage, etc. that were often significant additions to the overall price and represented an attempt to account for risk and the time value of money (Baxter, 192; Thomson, 239).14

Conclusions

Credit was significant as a form of payment in colonial America. Direct comparisons of the number of credit purchases versus barter or cash are not possible, but an examination of accounting records demonstrates credit’s widespread use. Credit was present in all forms of trade including international trade between England and her colonies. The domestic forms of credit were relatively long-term instruments that allowed individuals to consume beyond current means. In addition, book credit allowed colonists to economize on cash and other means of payment through transfers of credit, “reckoning,” and other means such as paying workers with store credit. Merchants also understood the time value of money, entering interest charges explicitly in the account books and implicitly as part of the price. The use of credit, the duration of credit instruments, and the methods of incorporating interest show credit as an important method of exchange and the economy of colonial America to be very complex and sophisticated.

References

Baxter, W.T. The House of Hancock: Business in Boston, 1724-1775. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1945.

Bridenbaugh, Carl. The Colonial Craftsman. Dover Publications: New York, 1990.

Egnal, Marc. New World Economies: The Growth of the Thirteen Colonies and Early Canada. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Flynn, David T. “Credit and the Economy of Colonial New England.” Ph.D. dissertation, Indiana University, 2001.

McCusker, John J., and Russel R. Menard. The Economy of British America, 1607-1789. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1985.

Main, Jackson Turner. Society and Economy in Colonial Connecticut. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985.

Martin, Margaret. “Merchants and Trade of the Connecticut River Valley, 1750-1820.” Smith College Studies in History. Department of History, Smith College: Northampton, Mass. 1939.

Parker, Jonathan. Account Book, 1747-1764. Mss:605 1747-1815. Baker Library Historical Collections, Harvard Business School; Cambridge, Massachusetts

Perkins, Edwin J. The Economy of Colonial America. New York: Columbia University Press, 1980.

Perkins, Edwin J. American Public Finance and Financial Services, 1700-1815. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1994.

Price, Jacob M. Capital and Credit in British Overseas Trade: The View from the Chesapeake, 1700-1776. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980.

Priest, Claire. “Colonial Courts and Secured Credit: Early American Commercial Litigation and Shays’ Rebellion.” Yale Law Journal 108, no. 8 (June, 1999): 2412-2450.

Rothenberg, Winifred. From Market-Places to a Market Economy: The Transformation of Rural Massachusetts, 1750-1850. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.

Shepherd, James F. and Gary Walton. Shipping, Maritime Trade, and the Economic Development of Colonial North America. Cambridge: University Press 1972.

Thomson, Robert Polk. The Merchant in Virginia, 1700-1775. Ph.D. dissertation, University of Wisconsin, 1955.

Further Reading:

For a good introduction to credit’s importance across different professions, merchant practices and the development of business practices over time I suggest:

Bailyn, Bernard. The New England Merchants in the Seventeenth-Century. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1979.

Schlesinger, Arthur. The Colonial Merchants and the American Revolution: 1763-1776. New York: Facsimile Library Inc., 1939.

For an introduction to issues relating to money supply, the unit of account in the economy, and price and exchange rate data I recommend:

Brock, Leslie V. The Currency of the American Colonies, 1700-1764: A Study in Colonial Finance and Imperial Relations. New York: Arno Press, 1975.

McCusker, John J. Money and Exchange in Europe and America, 1600-1775: A Handbook. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1978.

McCusker, John J. How Much Is That in Real Money? A Historical Commodity Price Index for Use as a Deflator of Money Values in the Economy of the United States, Second Edition. Worcester, MA: American Antiquarian Society, 2001.

1 Some authors note a small amount of cash purchases as well as small numbers of cash payments for debts as evidence of a lack of money (Bridenbaugh, 153; Baxter, 19n).

2 Presently, credit cards are a common form of payment. While such technology did not exist in the past, the merchant’s account book provided a means of recording credit purchases.

3 Price (1980, pp.16-17) provides an excellent summary of the advantages and risks of credit to different types of consumers and to merchants in both Britain and the colonies.

4 Please note that this table consists of transactions mostly between colonial retail merchants and colonial consumers in New England. Flynn (2001) uses account books that collectively span from approximately 1704 to 1770.

5 In some cases with the extension of book credit came a requirement to provide a note too. When the solvency of the debtor came into question the creditor, could sell the note and pass the risk of default on to another.

6 I offer a detailed example of such an exchange going sour for the merchant below.

7 “No date” is Flynn’s entry to show that a date is not recorded in the account book.

8 It seems that this frequently occurs at the end of a list of entries, particularly when the credit fully satisfies an outstanding purchase as in Figure 4.

9 To calculate months, divide days by 30. The term “cash” is placed in quotation marks as it is woefully nondescript. Some merchants and researchers using account books group several different items under the heading cash.

10 Students interested in historical research of this type should be prepared to encounter many situations of missing information. There are ways to deal with this censoring problem, but a technical discussion is not appropriate here.

11 Colin Newell’s Methods and Models in Demography (Guilford Press, 1988) is an excellent introduction for these techniques.

12 Note that either merchants recorded amounts in the lawful money standard or Flynn (2001) converted amounts into this standard for these purposes.

13 The premise behind the regression is quite simple: we look for a correlation between the amount of time an amount was outstanding and the per unit price of the good. If credit purchases contained implicit interest charges there would be a positive relationship. Note that this test implies forward looking merchants, that is, merchants factored the perceived or agreed upon time to repayment into the price of the good.

14 The advance varied by colony, good and time period,

In 1783, a Boston correspondent wrote Wadsworth that dry goods in Boston were selling at a twenty to twenty-five percent ‘advance’ from the ‘real Sterling Cost by Wholesale.’ The ‘advances’ occasionally mentioned in John Ely’s Day Book were far higher, seventy to seventy-five per cent on dry goods. Dry goods sold well at one hundred and fifty per cent ‘advance’ in New York in 1750… (Martin, 136).

In the 1720s a typical advance on piece goods in Boston was eighty per cent, seventy-five with cash (Martin, 136n). It should be noted that others find open account balances were commonly kept interest free (Rothenberg, 1992, 123).

13

Citation: Flynn, David. “Credit in the Colonial American Economy”. EH.Net Encyclopedia, edited by Robert Whaples. March 16, 2008. URL http://eh.net/encyclopedia/credit-in-the-colonial-american-economy/

The Fisherman?s Cause: Atlantic Commerce and Maritime Dimensions of the American Revolution

Author(s):Magra, Christopher P.
Reviewer(s):Surdam, David

Published by EH.NET (April 2010)

Christopher P. Magra, The Fisherman?s Cause: Atlantic Commerce and Maritime Dimensions of the American Revolution . Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009. x + 243 pp. $75 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-521-51838-3.

Reviewed for EH.NET by David Surdam, Department of Economics, University of Northern Iowa.

Christopher Magra, Assistant Professor at California State University, Northridge, has proposed a startlingly new interpretation of the American War for Independence. He believes that participants in the cod fishing industry, whether owners of fishing boats, merchants of cod, fishermen, and associated businesses were crucial instigators of the Revolution and necessary ingredients for the Revolution?s success.

He opens with a thrilling account of a British man-of-war intercepting a fishing brig, the Pitt Packet, in order to press gang some of the crewmen. When the crew fought the boarding party, fatally injuring a navy lieutenant, the event was another flashpoint along the road to revolution. John Adams, who later defended the British soldiers involved in the Boston ?Massacre,? defended the Pitt Packet?s crew, winning an acquittal on the grounds of self defense. This is an effective beginning of Magra?s tale; he draws the reader in.

Magra takes the reader through a step-by-step investigation. The first part of his book describes the colonial cod fishing industry. He then examines the Atlantic origins of the war before finishing with a discussion of the fishing industry?s participation in the war. Magra describes how the Massachusetts cod fishing industry ended up at the forefront of New England?s discontent with the British government. He acknowledges that his account differs from the traditional accounts that apportion the lion?s share of the revolution?s fervor to rural agrarian factions. Arguing that the Pitt Packet affair ?serves as a stark reminder that colonial resistance to British authority during the Revolutionary Era cannot be fully explained without investigating why those who made their living from the sea participated in this resistance? (p. 5), his purpose, therefore, is to ?investigate the connections between commercial fishing and the American Revolution? (p. 13).

There are no tables in the book. While official statistics on the value and weight of cod exports may be spotty, some sort of table would have aided his verbal description of the industry?s growth. This point aside, Magra has marshaled an impressive body of sources to support his arguments, including much archival information. He has delved deeply into sources held at Marblehead, Massachusetts, a key fishing port during the 1700s. He also examined records at Kew, England. These sources are meticulously mined.

His description of the attributes of cod is well done. Readers learn more about cod fishing than they ever thought to ask. Not only can cod be easily preserved, but the preservation process allows the meat to be stored for years. Cod has more food value per pound than beef or pork, having more protein and less fat. Cod was also cheaper than beef or pork. Cod are prolific, so that, given the existing technology, the fishing industry was unlikely to exhaust the supply. Catholics in French and Spanish colonies ate cod on meatless Fridays. Because cod was cheap, British and French plantation owners fed their slaves with cod.

The New England cod fishing industry competed with fishermen from Newfoundland and the West Country of England. The West Country fishermen grew envious of New England?s burgeoning trade with British and French West Indian sugar plantation owners. The New England fishermen had the advantage of being closer to the islands and of returning with molasses and sugar for the New England rum industry. The West Country businessmen were better connected with Parliament and got the Sugar Act passed. A decade later, Parliament passed the New England Trade and Fishery Prohibitory Bill. From the colonists? point of view, this bill was the final Parliamentary insult. The bill sought to prohibit New England colonies from trading with French sugar growers, among others, and to end their fishing in the Great Banks off Newfoundland.

While historically-literate Americans can enumerate the obnoxious policies enacted in the years between the French and Indian War and Lexington and Concord in April 1775, it is only fair to point out that the colonists benefited from British military and naval protection. The New England cod fishing industry grew out of the turmoil of the English Civil War and associated military victories over France. While the slogan protesting ?taxation without representation? is memorable, the colonists-turned-Americans also disliked ?taxation with representation.? The Continental Congress began enacting policies with more than a passing similarity to British policies during the Revolutionary War. Many of these policies adversely affected the cod fishing industry.

Magra?s third section on the fishing industry?s activities during the war is perhaps the least satisfying of the book. The cod fishing industry?s contributions to the war effort were many. Owners of fishing vessels, crews, and other members of the industry served in the American army and navy in greater proportions than average. Fishermen helped Washington cross the Delaware; Congress leased fishing boats for use as warships; and fishermen served as crewmen on the warships. Some of the fishing vessels shipped crucial war materiel from the West Indies to American ports. While such contributions were valuable, I?m not sure how key their contributions were. Sorting out the indispensable from the merely valuable is tricky business.

This is an impressive effort from a young scholar. I anticipate that Christopher Magra will continue to provide us with interesting and well-written books in the future.

David Surdam is an Associate Professor at the University of Northern Iowa. He has a forthcoming book, Can?t Anyone Here Make Any Money? Major League Baseball during the Depression, from the University of Nebraska Press. Email: David.surdam@uni.edu.

Subject(s):Military and War
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):18th Century

American Treasure and the Price Revolution in Spain, 1501-1650

Author(s):Hamilton, Earl J.
Reviewer(s):Munro, John

Classic Reviews in Economic History

Earl J. Hamilton, American Treasure and the Price Revolution in Spain, 1501-1650. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1934. xii + 428 pp.

Review Essay by John Munro, Department of Economics, University of Toronto.

Hamilton and the Price Revolution: A Revindication of His Tarnished Reputation and of a Modified Quantity Theory

Hamilton and the Quantity Theory Explanation of Inflation

As Duke University’s website for the “Earl J. Hamilton Papers on the Economic History of Spain, 1351-1830″ so aptly states: Hamilton “helped to pioneer the field of quantitative economic history during a career that spanned 50 years.”[1] Certainly his most important publication in this field is the 1934 monograph that is the subject of this “classic review.” It provided the first set of concrete, reliable annual data on both the imports of gold and silver bullion from Spain’s American colonies ? principally from what is now Bolivia (Vice Royalty of Peru) and Mexico (New Spain) ? from 1503 to 1660 (when bullion registration and thus the accounts cease); and on prices (including wages) in Spain (Old and New Castile, Andalusia, Valencia), for the 150 year period from 1501 to 1650.[2] His object was to validate the Quantity Theory of Money: in seeking to demonstrate that the influx of American silver was chiefly, if not entirely, responsible for the inflation of much of the Price Revolution era, from ca. 1520 to ca. 1650: but, principally only for the specific period of ca. 1540 to ca. 1600. Many economic historians (myself included, regrettably) have misunderstood Hamilton on this point, concerning both the origins and conclusion of the Price Revolution. Of course the Quantity Theory of Money, even in its more refined modern guise, is no longer a fashionable tool in economic history; and thus only a minority of us today espouse a basically monetary explanation for the European Price Revolution (ca. 1515/20-1650) ? though no such explanation can be purely monetary.[3]

If inflations had been frequent in European economic history, from the twelfth century to the present, the Price Revolution was unique in the persistence and duration of inflation over a period of at least 130 years.[4] Furthermore, if commodity money ? i.e., gold and especially silver specie ? was not the sole monetary factor that explains the Price Revolution that commodity money certainly played a relatively much greater role than it did in the subsequent inflations (of much shorter duration) from the mid-eighteenth century to the present. The role of specie, and specifically Spanish-American silver, in “causing” the Price Revolution was a commonplace in Classical Economics and Hamilton cites Adam Smith’s statement in The Wealth of Nations (p. 191) that “the discovery of abundant mines of America seems to have been the sole cause of this diminution in the value of silver in proportion to that of corn [grain].”[5]

The Comparative Roles of Spanish-American Silver and Coinage Debasements: The Bodin Thesis

According to Hamilton (p. 283) ? and indeed to most authorities to this very day ? the very first scholar to make this quantity-theory link between the influx of American “treasure” and the Price Revolution was the renowned French philosopher Jean Bodin, in his 1568 response to a 1566 treatise by the royal councilor Jean Cherruyt de Malestroit on the explanations for the then quite evident rise in French prices over the previous several decades. Malestroit had contended that coinage debasements were the chief culprit ? as indeed they most certainly had been in the periodic inflations of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.[6] Bodin responded by dismissing those arguments and by contending that the growing influx of silver from the Spanish Americas was the primary cause of that inflation.[7]

Hamilton (in chapter 13) was therefore astounded to find, after voluminous and meticulous research in many Spanish treatises, letters, and other relevant documents, that no Spanish writer of the sixteenth century had voiced similar opinions, all evidently ignorant of Bodin’s views. Hamilton, however, had neglected to find (as Marjorie Grice-Hutchinson did, much later) one such Spanish treatise, produced in 1556 ? i.e., twelve years before Bodin ? in which Azpilcueta Navarra, a cleric of the Salamanca School, noted that: “even in Spain, in times when money was scarcer, saleable goods and labor were given for very much less than after the discovery of the Indies, which flooded the country with gold and silver.”[8]

Hamilton also erred, if forgivably so, in two other respects. First, in utilizing what were then, and in many cases still are, imperfect price indexes for many countries ? France, England, Germany, Italy (but not for the Low Countries) ? Hamilton (1934, pp. 205-10) concluded that the rise in the general level of prices during the Price Revolution was the greatest in Spain. In fact, more recent research, based on the Phelps Brown and Hopkins (1956) Composite Price Index for England and the Van der Wee (1975) Composite Price Index (hereafter: CPI) for Brabant, in the southern Low Countries, reveals the opposite to be true. If we adopt a common base of 1501-10 = 100, in comparing the behavior of the price levels in Spain, England, and Brabant, for the period 1511-1650, we find that the Hamilton’s CPI for Spain rose from a quinquennial mean of 98.98 in 1511-15 to one of 343.36 in 1646-50 (for silver-based prices only: a 3.47 fold rise); in southern England, the CPI rose from a quinquennial mean of 103.08 in 1511-15 to one of 697.54 (a 6.77 fold rise); and in Brabant, the CPI rose from a quinquennial mean of 114.80 in 1511-15 to one of 845.07 (a 7.36 fold rise).[9] Both the Phelps Brown and Hopkins and the Van der Wee price indexes are, it must be noted, weighted, with roughly the same weights (80 percent foodstuffs in the former and 74 percent in the latter). Hamilton, while fully admitting that “only index numbers weighted according to the expenditures of the average family accurately measure changes in the cost of living,” was forced to use a simple unweighted arithmetic mean (or equally weighted for all commodities), for he was unable to find any household expenditure budgets or any other reliable guides to produce such a weighted index.[10]

Undoubtedly, however, the principal if not the only explanation for the differences between the three sets of price indexes ? to explain why the Spanish rose the least and the Brabantine the most ? is the one offered by Malestroit: namely, coinage debasements. Spain, unlike almost all other European countries of this era, underwent no debasements of the gold and silver coinages (none from 1497 to 1686),[11] but in 1599 the new Spanish king Philip III (1598-1621) did introduce a purely copper “vellon” coinage, a topic that requires a separate and very necessary analysis. The England of Henry VIII (1509-1547) is famous ? or infamous ? for his “Great Debasement.” He had begun modestly in 1526, by debasing Edward IV’s silver coinage by 11.11% (reducing its weight and silver contents from 0.719 to 0.639 grams of fine silver); but in 1542, he debased the silver by another 23.14% (to 0.491 grams of fine silver). When the Great Debasement had reached its nadir under his successor (Northumberland, regent for Edward VI), in June 1553, the fine silver contents of the penny had been reduced (in both weight and fineness) to just 0.108 grams of fine silver: an overall reduction in the silver content of 83.1% from the 1526 coinage. In November 1560, Elizabeth restored the silver coinage to traditional sterling fineness (92.5% fine silver) and much of the weight: so that the penny now contained 0.480 grams of fine silver (i.e., 75.1% of the silver in the 1526 coinage). The English silver coinage remained untouched until July 1601, when its weight and fine silver contents were reduced by a modest 3.23%. Thereafter the English silver coinage remained untouched until 1817 (when the silver contents were reduced by another 6.06%). Thus for the entire period of the Price Revolution, from ca. 1520 to 1650, the English silver coinage lost 35.5% of its silver contents.[12] In the southern Low Countries (including Brabant), the silver coinage was debased ? in both fineness and weight ? a total of twelve times from 1521 to 1644: from 0.33 grams to 0.17 grams of fine silver in the penny, for an overall loss of 48.5%.[13]

A New Form of Debasement: The New “Fractional” Copper or Vellon Coinages in Spain and Elsewhere

In terms of the general theme of coinage debasement, a very major difference between Spain and these other two countries, from 1599, was the issue of a purely copper coinage called vellon, to which Hamilton devotes two major chapters.[14] Virtually all countries in late medieval and early modern Europe issued a series of petty or low-denomination “fractional” coins ? in various fractions of the penny, chiefly to enable the populace to buy such low-priced commodities as bread and beer (or wine). But in all later-medieval countries the issues of the petty, fractional coinage almost always accounted for a very small proportion of total mint outputs (well under 5% of the aggregate value in Flanders).[15] They were commonly known as monnaie noire (zwart geld in Flemish): i.e., black money, because they contained so much copper, a base metal. Indeed all coins? both silver and gold ? always required at least some copper content as a hardening agent, so that the coins did not suffer too much erosion or breakage in circulation.

The term “debasement” is in fact derived from the fact that the most common mechanism for reducing the silver contents of a coin had been to replace it with more and more copper, a great temptation for so many princes who often derived substantial seigniorage revenues from the increased mint outputs that debasements induced (in both reminting current coin and in attracting bullion from abroad). In this respect, England was an exception ? apart from the era of the Great Debasement (1542-1553) ? for its government virtually always maintained sterling silver fineness (92.5% silver, 7.5% copper), and reduced the silver contents for all denominations equally, by reducing the size and weight of the coin. In continental Europe, the extent of the debasement, whether by fineness or by weight, or by both together, did vary by the denomination (to compensate for the greater labor costs in minting the greater number of lower-valued coins); but the petty “black money” coins ? also known (in French) as billon, linguistically related to vellon, always contained some silver, and always suffered the same or roughly similar proportional reduction of silver as other denominations during debasements until 1543. In that year, the government of the Habsburg Netherlands was the first to break that link: in issuing Europe’s first all-copper coin. France followed suit with an all copper denier (1 d tournois) in 1577; but England did not do so until 1672.[16]

Hamilton gives the erroneous impression that Spain (i.e., Castile) was the first to do so, in issuing an all copper vellon coin in 1599. Previously, Spanish kings (at least from 1471) had issued a largely copper fractional coinage called blancas , with a nominal money-of-account value of 0.5 maraved?, but with a very small amount of silver ? to convince the public that it was indeed precious-metal “money.” The blanca issued in 1471 had a silver fineness of 10 grains or 3.47% (weighing 1.107g).[17] In 1497, that fineness was reduced to 7 grains (2.43% fine); in 1552, to 5.5 grains (1.909% fine); in 1566, to 4 grains (1.39% fine). In 1597, Philip II (1556-1598) had agreed to the issue of a maraved? coin itself, with, however, only 1 grain of silver (0.34% fine), weighing 1.576g.; but whether any were issued is not clear.[18]

Hamilton commends Philip II on his resolute stance on the issue vellon coinages: for, in “believing that it could be maintained at parity only by limitation of its quantity to that required for change and petty transactions, he was exceedingly careful to restrict the supply.”[19] That is a very prescient comment, in almost exactly stating the principle of maintaining a sound system of fractional or petty coinage that Carlo Cipolla (1956) later enunciated,[20] in turn inspiring the recent monograph on this subject by Sargent and Velde (2002).[21] But neither of them gave Hamilton (1934) any credit for this fundamentally important observation, one whose great importance Hamilton deduced from the subsequent, seventeenth-century history of copper coinages in Spain.

Thus, as indicated earlier, in the year following the accession of the aforementioned Philip III, 1599, the government issued Spain’s first purely copper coin (minted at 140 per copper marc of 230.047 g), and from 1602 at 280 per marc: i.e., reducing the weight by half from 1.643 g to 0.8216 g).[22] Certainly some of the ensuing inflation in seventeenth-century Spain, with a widening gap between nominal and silver-based prices, ranging from 4.0 percent in 1620 to 104.2 percent in 1650, has to be explained by such issues of a purely copper coinage. Indeed, in Hamilton’s very pronounced view, the principal cause of inflation in the first half of the seventeenth century lay in such vellon issues ? more of a culprit than the continuing influx of Spanish American silver.[23]

If, however, we use Hamilton’s own CPI based on the actual nominal prices produced with the circulation of the vellon copper coinage, from 1599-1600, we find that this index rose only 4.61 fold from the quinquennial mean of 1511-15 (98.98) to the mean of 1646-50 (457.07) ? again well less than the overall rise of the English and Brabant composite price indexes. Nevertheless, the differences between the silver-based and vellon-based price indexes in Spain for the first half of the seventeenth century are significant. For the former (silver), the CPI rose from a mean of 320.98 in 1596-1600 to one of 343.36 in 1646-50, an overall rise of just 6.97%. For the latter (vellon-based) index, the CPI rose to 457.09 in 1646-50, for a very substantial overall rise of 41.41%. What certainly did now differentiate Spain from the other two, and indeed almost all other European countries in this period, is that in all the latter countries the purely copper petty coinage formed such a very much smaller, indeed minuscule, proportion of the total coined money supply.[24]

The Evidence on Spanish-American Silver Mining and Silver Imports into Seville to 1600

What this discussion of the vellon coinage makes crystal clear is that Hamilton did not attribute all of the inflation of the Price Revolution era to the “abundant mines of the Americas.” Nevertheless many economic historians, after carefully examining Hamilton’s data on prices and imports of Spanish American bullion, noted ? as Hamilton himself clearly demonstrated ? that the Price Revolution had begun as early as the quinquennium 1516-20, long before, decades before, any significant amounts of Spanish American silver had reached Seville. Virtually none was imported in the 1520s; and an annual mean of only 5,090.8 kg in 1531-35.[25] The really substantial imports took place only after by far the two most important silver mines were brought into production: those of Potosi in “Peru” (modern-day Bolivia) in 1545, and Zacatecas, in Mexico, the following year, 1546. From that quinquennium of 1546-50, mean annual silver imports into Seville rose from 18,698.8 kg to 273,704.5 kg in the quinquennium of 1591-95, marking the peak of the silver imports. Between these two quinquennia, the total mined silver outputs of Potosi and Zacatecas (unknown to Hamilton) rose from an annual mean of 64,848.9 kg to one of 219,457.4 kg (indicating that silver was coming from other sources than just these two mines).[26] Even then, their production began to boom only with the application of the mercury amalgamation process (which Hamilton barely mentioned ? only on p. 16), greatly aided by abundant local supplies of mercury ? at Zacatecas, from about 1554-57, and at Potosi, from 1572.[27]

The Alternative Explanation for the Price Revolution: Population Growth

If all this evidence does indeed prove that the influx of Spanish silver was certainly not the initial cause of the European Price Revolution, surely the data should indicate that the subsequent influx of that silver, especially from the 1550s, very likely did play a significant role in fueling an ongoing inflation. But so many of the anti-monetarist historians leapt to an alternative ? and in my view ? false conclusion that population growth was the initial and the prime-mover in “causing” the Price Revolution.[28] My objections to this demographic-oriented thesis are two-fold.

In the first place, the now available evidence on demographic recovery and growth in England and the southern Low Countries (Brabant) does not at all correspond to the statistical evidence on inflation during the early phase of the Price Revolution ? in the early sixteenth century. For England the best estimate of population in the early 1520s, when the Price Revolution was already underway, is 2.25 or 2.30 million, about half of the most conservative estimate for England’s population in 1300: about 4.5 million ? an estimate still rejected by the majority of medieval economic historians, who prefer the more traditional estimate of 6.0 million.[29] If England in the early 1520s was obviously still very unpopulated, compared to its late-medieval peak, and if its population had just begun to recover, how could any such renewed growth, from such a very low level, have so immediately sparked inflation: how could it have caused a rise in the CPI (Phelps Brown and Hopkins) from a quinquennial mean of 96.70 (1451-75 = 100) in 1496-1500 to one of 146.05 in 1521-25?

We find a similar demographic situation in Brabant. From the 1437 census to the 1496 census, the number of registered households fell from 92,738 to just 75,343: a fall of 18.76 percent.[30] If we further assume that a fall in population also involved a decline in the average family or household size, the demographic decline would have been much greater than these data indicate. According to Herman Van der Wee (1963), Brabant, like England, did not commence its demographic recovery until the early sixteenth century; and his estimated average annual rate of population growth from 1496 to 1526 was 0.96%.[31] For this same period, Van der Wee’s CPI for Brabant shows a rise from 115.35 in 1496-1500 (again 1451-75 = 100) to one of 179.94 in 1521-25. How can any such renewed population growth explain that inflation?

In the second place, the arguments and analyses supplied involve faulty economics: an erroneous transfer of micro-economic analysis to macro-economics. One can well argue, for early-modern western Europe, that the effect of sustained population growth for the agrarian sector, with necessary additions of “marginal lands” that were generally inferior in fertility and more distant from markets, and without a widespread diffusion of technological changes to offset diminishing returns in this sector, inevitably led to sharply rising marginal costs. That in turn resulted in price increases for grains and other agricultural commodities (including timber) that were greater than those for non-agrarian and especially industrial commodities, certainly in both England and the southern Low Countries during the course of the sixteenth and first half of the seventeenth century.[32] But that basically micro-economic model concerning individual, relative commodity prices is, however, very different from a macro-economic model contending that population growth by itself led to an overall increase in the level of prices ? i.e., in the CPI.

We should remember that, almost 35 years ago, Donald McCloskey (1972), in a review of Ramsey (1971), responded to these demographic-oriented explanations of the Price Revolution by contending that, if both monetary variables (M and V) were held constant, then population growth (if translated into an increased T or y, in MV = Py) should have led to a fall in P, in the CPI. Nevertheless, there is some validity to the argument that population growth and changes in the demographic structures may have influenced the role of another monetary factor in the Price Revolution: namely changes in the income velocity of money, to be discussed as a separate topic later in this review.

Hamilton’s Explanations for the Origins of the Price Revolution before the Influx of Spanish Treasure: The Roles of Gold, South German Silver Mining, and Changes in Credit

How then did Hamilton ? and how do we ? explain the origins of the Spanish and indeed European-wide Price Revolution, in the early sixteenth century, i.e., for the period well before any significant influxes of American silver, and also before there was any significant population growth (at least in England and the Low Countries). Was Hamilton that ignorant of the implications of his own data? Certainly not. On p. 299, in his chapter XIII entitled “Why Prices Rose,” he stated that: “the gold imports from the Antilles significantly influenced Andalusian and New Castilian prices even in the first two decades of the sixteenth century,” without, however, elaborating that point any further.[33] More important are his observations on p. 301, where he explicitly moderates his emphasis on the role of Spanish-American treasure imports, in stating that: “Only at the beginning of the sixteenth century, when, as has been shown, colonial demand, credit expansion, and the increased output of German silver made themselves felt, and at the end of the century, when a devastating epidemic, and an over issue of vellon coinage took place, did other factors play important roles in the price upheaval [i.e., the Price Revolution].” Indeed, in his own view, the paramount role of the influxes of Spanish-American bullion apply to only, at most, 65 years of the 130 years of the Price Revolution era, i.e., to just half the era ? from ca. 1535 to 1600, though the evidence for that role seems to be more clear for just the half-century 1550-1600.

It is most regrettable that Hamilton himself failed to elaborate the role of any these factors, principally monetary, in producing inflation in early-sixteenth century Spain. Had he done so, surely he would have been spared the subsequent and really unfair criticism that he was offering a simplistic monocausal explanation of the Price Revolution, and one in the form of a very crude Quantity Theory of Money. The most important of “initial causes” that Hamilton lists was surely the question of “German silver,” or more specifically, the South-German and Central European silver-copper mining boom from about the 1460s to the 1540s. Where he derived his information is not clear, but from other footnotes it was presumably from the publications of two much earlier German economic historians, Adolf Soetbeer and Georg Wiebe. The latter was, in fact, the first to write a major monograph on the Price Revolution (Geschichte der Preisrevolution des XVI. und XVII. Jahrhunderts), and he seems to have coined (so to speak) the term.[34] The former, though a pioneer in trying to quantity both European and world supplies of precious metals, providing a significant influence on Wiebe, produced seriously defective data on German mining outputs in the later fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, greatly underestimating total outputs, as John Nef demonstrated in a seminal article published in 1941, subsequently elaborated in Nef (1952).[35] In Nef’s view, this South German mining boom may have quintupled Europe’s supply of silver by the 1530s, and thus before any major influx of Spanish-American silver.[36]

Since then a number of economic historians, me included, have published their research on this South German-Central European silver-copper mining boom.[37] These mountainous regions contained immensely rich ores bearing these two metals, which, however were largely inaccessible for two reasons: first, there was no known method of separating the two metals in smelting the argentiferous-cupric ores; and second, the ever-present danger of flooding in the regions containing these ore bodies made mined extraction very difficult and costly. In my view, the very serious deflation that Europe experienced during the second of the so-called “bullion famines,” from the 1440s to the 1460s, provided the profit incentive for the necessary technological changes to resolve these two problems. Consider that since virtually all of Europe’s money-of-account pricing system was based on, tied to, the silver coinage, deflation (low prices) ipso facto meant a corresponding rise in the real value of silver, gram per gram (just as inflation means a fall in the real value of silver, per gram). The solutions lay in innovations in both mechanical engineering and chemical engineering. The first was the development of water-powered or horse-powered piston vacuum pumps (along with slanted drainage adits in the mountain sides) to resolve the water-flooding problem. The second was the so-called Saigerh?tten process by which lead was added to the ore-bodies in smelting (also using hydraulic machinery and the new blast furnaces) ? during the smelting process the lead combined with the silver to precipitate the copper, and the silver-lead amalgam was then resmelted to remove the lead.

Both processes were certainly in operation by the 1460s; and by my very conservative estimates, certainly incomplete, the combined outputs of mines in Saxony, Thuringia, Bohemia, Slovakia, Hungary, and the Tyrol rose from a quinquennial mean of 12,973.4 kg in 1471-75 (when adequate output data can first be utilized) to a peak production in 1536-40 (thus later than Nef’s estimates), with a quinquennial mean output of 55,703.8 kg ? a 4.29-fold increase overall (i.e.. 329.36% increase) ? close enough to Nef’s five-fold estimate, given the likely lacunae in the data.[38] Consider that this output, for the late 1530s, was not exceeded by Spanish-American silver influxes until a quarter of a century later, in 1561-65, when, thanks to the recently applied mercury amalgamation process, a quinquennial mean import of 83,373.92 kg reached Seville (compared to a mean import of just 27,145.03 in 1556-60).[39]

But where did all this Central European silver go? Historically, from the mid-fourteenth century, most of the German silver-mining outputs had been sent to Venice, whose merchants re-exported most of that silver to the Levant, in exchange for Syrian cotton and Asian spices and other luxury goods. Two separate factors helped to reverse the direction of that flow, down the Rhine, to Antwerp and the Brabant Fairs. The first was Burgundian monetary policy: debasements in 1466-67, which, besides attracting silver in itself, reversed a half-century long pro-gold mint policy to a pro-silver policy, offering a relative value for silver (in gold and in goods) higher than anywhere else in Europe.[40] Thus the combined Flemish and Brabantine mint outputs, measured in kilograms of fine silver rose from nil (0) in 1461-65 to 9,341.50 kg in 1476-80 ? though much of that was recycled silver coin and bullion in quite severe debasements. But in 1496-1500, after the debasements had ceased, the mean annual output in that quinquennium was 4,872.96 kg; and in 1536-40, at the peak of the mining boom (and, again, before any substantial Spanish-American imports) the mean output was 5,364.99 kg.[41]

The second factor in altering the silver flows was increasingly severe disruptions in Venice’s Levant trade with the now major Ottoman conquests in the Balkans and the eastern Mediterranean, from the 1460s (and especially from the mid-1480s) culminating (if not ending) with the Turkish conquest of the Mamluk Levant (i.e., Egypt, Palestine, Syria) itself in 1517 (along with conquests in Arabia and the western Indian Ocean). While we have no data on silver flows, we do have data for the joint-product of the Central European mining boom ? copper, a very important export as well to the Levant. In 1491-95, 32.13% of the Central European mined copper outputs went to Venice, but only 5.22% went to Antwerp; by 1511-15, the situation was almost totally reversed: only 3.64% of the mined copper went to Venice, while 58.36% was sent to Antwerp. May we conjecture that there was a related shift in the flows of silver? By the 1530s, the copper flows to Venice, which now had more peaceful relations with the Turks, had risen to 11.07%, but 53.88% of the copper was still being sent to the Antwerp Fairs.[42] Of course, by this time the Portuguese, having made Antwerp the European staple for their recently acquired Indian Ocean spice trade (1501), were shipping significant (if unmeasurable) quantities of both copper and silver to the East Indies. Then in 1549, the Portuguese moved their staple to Seville, to gain access to the now growing imports of Spanish-American silver.

The Early Sixteenth-century “Financial Revolutions”: In Private and Public Credit

The other monetary factor that Hamilton mentioned ? but never discussed ? to help explain the rise of prices in early sixteenth-century Spain was the role of credit. Indeed, as Herman Van der Wee (1963, 1967, 1977, 2000) and others have now demonstrated, the Spanish Habsburg Netherlands experienced a veritable financial revolution involving both negotiability and organized markets for public debt instruments. As for the first, the lack of legal and institutional mechanisms to make medieval credit instruments fully negotiable had hindered their ability to counteract frequent deflationary forces; and at best, such credit instruments (such as the bill of exchange) could act only to increase ? or decrease ? the income velocity of money.[43] The first of two major institutional barriers was the refusal of courts to recognize the legal rights of the “bearer” to collect the full proceeds of a commercial bill on its stipulated redemption date: i.e., the financial and legally enforceable rights of those who had purchased or otherwise licitly acquired a commercial bill from the designated payee before that redemption date. Indeed, most medieval courts were reluctant to recognize the validity of any “holograph” bill: those that not been officially notarized and registered with civic authorities. The second barrier was the Church’s usury doctrine: for, any sale and transfer of a credit instrument to a third party before the stipulated redemption date would obviously have had to be at some rate of discount ? and that would have revealed an implicit interest payment in the transaction. Thus this financial revolution, in the realm of private credit, in the Low Countries involved the role of urban law courts (law-merchant courts), beginning with Antwerp in 1507, then most of other Netherlander towns, in guaranteeing such rights of third parties to whom these bills were sold or transferred. Finally, in the years 1539-1543, the Estates General of the Habsburg Netherlands firmly established, with national legislation, all of the legal requirements for full-fledged negotiability (as opposed to mere transferability) of all credit instruments: to protect the rights of third parties in transferable bills, so that bills obligatory and bills of exchange could circulate from hand to hand, amongst merchants, in commercial and financial transactions. One of the important acts of the Estates-General, in 1543 ? possibly reflecting the growing influence of Calvinism ? boldly rejected the long-held usury doctrine by legalizing the payment of interest, up to a maximum of 12% (so that anything above that was now “usury”).[44] England’s Protestant Parliament, under Henry VIII, followed suit two years later, in 1545, though with a legal maximum interest of 10%.[45] That provision thereby permitted the openly public discounting of commercial credit instruments, though this financial innovation was slow to spread, until accompanied, by the end of the sixteenth century, with the much more common device of written endorsements.[46]

The other major component of the early-sixteenth century “financial revolution” lay in public finance, principally in the Spanish Habsburg Netherlands, France, much of Imperial Germany, and Spain itself ? in the now growing shift from interest-bearing government loans to the sale of annuities, generally known as rentes or renten or (in Spain) juros, especially after several fifteenth-century papal bulls had firmly established, once and for all, that they were not loans (a mutuum, in both Roman and canon law), and thus not subject to the usury ban.[47] Those who bought such rentes or annuities from local, territorial, or national governments purchased an annual stream of income, either for a lifetime, or in perpetuity; and the purchaser could reclaim his capital only by finding some third party to purchase from him the rente and the attached annuity income. That, therefore, also required both the full legal and institutional establishment of negotiability, with now organized financial markets.

In 1531, Antwerp, now indisputably the commercial and financial capital of at least northern Europe, provided such an institution with the establishment of its financial exchange, commonly known as the beurse (the “purse” ? copied by Amsterdam in 1608, and London in 1695, in its Stock Exchange). Thanks to the role of the South German merchant-bankers ? the Fuggers, Welsers, H?chstetters, Herwarts, Imhofs, and Tuchers ? the Antwerp beurse played a major role in the international marketing of such government securities, during the rest of the sixteenth century, in particular the Spanish juros, whose issue expanded from 3.586 million ducats (escudos of 375 maraved?s) in 1516 to 80.040 million ducats in 1598, at the death of Philip II ? a 22.4-fold increase. Most these perpetual and fully negotiable juros were held abroad.[48] According to Herman Van der Wee (1977), this sixteenth-century “age of the Fuggers and [then] of the Genoese [merchant-bankers, who replaced the Germans] was one of spectacular growth in public finances.”[49] Finally, it is important to note the relationship between changes in money stocks and issues of credit. For, as Frank Spooner (1972) observed (and documented in his study of European money and prices in the sixteenth century), even anticipated arrivals of Spanish treasure fleets would induce these South German and Genoese merchant-bankers to expand credit issues by some multiples of the perceived bullion values.[50]

The Debate about Changes in the Income Velocity of Money (or Cambridge “k”)

The combined effect of this “revolution” in both private and public finance was to increase both the effective supply of money ? in so far as these negotiable credit instruments circulated widely, as though they were paper money ? and also, and even more so, the income velocity of money. This latter concept brings up two very important issues, one involving Hamilton’s book itself, in particular his interpretation of the causes of the Price Revolution. Most postwar (World War II) economic historians, myself included (up to now, in writing this review), have unfairly regarded Hamilton’s thesis as a very crude, simplistic version of the Quantity Theory of Money. That was based on a careless reading (mea culpa!) of pp. 301-03 in his Chapter XIII on “Why Prices Rose,” wherein he stated, first, in explaining the purpose his Chart 20,[51] that:

The extremely close correlation between the increase in the volume of [Spanish-American] treasure imports and the advance ofcommodity prices throughout the sixteenth century, particularly from 1535 on, demonstrates beyond question that the “abundant mines of America” [i.e., Adam Smith’s description] were the principal cause of the Price Revolution in Spain. We should note, first, that the “close correlation” is only a visual image from the graph, for he never computed any mathematical correlations (few did in that prewar era). Second, Ingrid Hammarstr?m was perfectly correct in noting that Hamilton’s correlation between the annual values of treasure imports (gold and silver in pesos of 450 marevedis) and the composite price index is not in accordance with the quantity theory, which seeks to establish a relationship between aggregates: i.e., the total accumulated stock of money (M) and the price level (P).[52] But that would have been an impossible task for Hamilton. For, if he had added up the annual increments from bullion exports in order to arrive at some estimate of accumulated bullion stocks, he would have had to deduct from that estimate the annual outflows of bullion, for which there are absolutely no data. Furthermore, estimates of net (remaining) bullion stocks are not the same as estimates of the coined money stock; and the coined money stock does not represent the total supply of money.[53]

Third, concerning Hamilton’s views on the Quantity Theory itself, his important monetary qualifications concerning the early sixteenth century and first half of the seventeenth century have already been noted. We should now note his further and very important qualification (p. 301), as follows: “The reader should bear in mind that a graphic verification of that crude form of the quantity theory of money which takes no account of the velocity of circulation is not the purpose of Chart 20.” He did not, however, discuss this issue any further; and it is notable that his bibliography does not list Irving Fisher’s classic 1911 monograph, which had thoroughly analyzed his own concepts of the Transactions Velocity of Money.[54]

Most economics students are familiar with Fisher’s Equation of Exchange, to explain the Quantity Theory of Money in a much better fashion than nineteenth-century Classical Economists had done: namely, MV = PT. If many continue to debate the definition of M, as high-powered money, and of P ? i.e., on how to construct a valid weighted CPI ? the most troublesome aspect is the completely amorphous and unmeasurable “T” ? as the aggregate volume of total transactions in the economy in a given year. Many have replaced T with Q: the total volume of goods and services produced each year. But the best substitute for T is “y” (lower case Y: a version attributed to Milton Friedman) ? i.e., a deflated measure of Keynesian Y, as the Net National Product = Net National Income (by definition).[55]

The variable “V” thus becomes the income velocity of money (rather than Fisher’s Transactions Velocity) ? of the unit of money in the creation of the net national income in the course of a year. It is obviously derived mathematically by this equation: V = Py/M (and Py of course equals the current nominal value of NNI). Almost entirely eschewed by students (my students, at least), but much preferred by most economists, is the Cambridge Cash Balances equation: whose modernized form would similarly be M = kPy, in which Cambridge “k” represents that share of the value of Net National Income that the public chooses to hold in real cash balances, i.e., in high-powered money (a straight tautology, as is the Fisher Equation). We should be reminded that both V and k are mathematically linked reciprocals in that: V = 1/k and thus k = 1/V. Keynesian economists would logically (and I think, rightly) contend that ceteris paribus an increase in the supply of money should lead to a reduction in V and thus to an increase in Cambridge “k.” If V represents the extent to which society collectively seeks to economize on the use of money, the necessity to do so would diminish if the money supply rises (indeed, to create an “excess”). But this result and concept is all the more clear in the Cambridge Cash Balances approach. For the opportunity cost of “k” ? of holding cash balances ? is to forgo the potential income from its alternative use, i.e., by investing those funds. If we assume that the Liquidity Preference Schedule is (in the short run) fixed ? in terms of the transactions, precautionary, and speculative motives for holding money ? then a rightward shift of the Money Supply schedule along the fixed or stationary LP schedule should have led to a fall in the real rate of interest, and thus in the opportunity cost of holding cash balances. And if that were so, then “k” should rise (exactly reflecting the fall in V).

What makes this theory so interesting for the interpretation of the causes of at least the subsequent inflations of the Price Revolution ? say from the 1550s or 1560s ? is that several very prominent economic historians have argued that an equally or even more powerful force for inflation was a continuing rise in V, the income velocity of money (i.e., and thus to a fall in “k”): in particular, Harry Miskimin (1975), Jack Goldstone (1984, 1991a, 1991b), and Peter Lindert (1985). Furthermore, all three have related this role of “V” to structural changes in the economy brought about by population growth. Their theories are too complex to be discussed here, but the most intriguing, in summary, is Goldstone’s thesis. He contended, in referring to sixteenth-century England, that its population growth was accompanied by a highly disproportionate growth in urbanization, a rapid and extensive development of commercialized agriculture, urban markets, and an explosive growth in the use of credit instruments. In such a situation, with a rapid growth “in occupationally specialized linked networks, the potential velocity of circulation of coins grows as the square of the size of the network.” Lindert’s somewhat simpler view is that demographic growth was also accompanied by a two-fold set of changes: (1) changes in relative prices ? in the aforementioned steep rise in agricultural prices, rising not only above industrial prices, but above nominal wages, thus creating severe household budget constraints; and (2) in pyramidal age structures, and thus with changes in dependency ratios (between adult producers and dependent children) that necessitated both dishoarding and a rapid reduction in Cambridge “k” ( = rise in V).

Those arguments and the apparent contradiction with traditional Keynesian theory on the relationships between M and V (or Cambridge “k”) intrigued and inspired Nicholas Mayhew (1995), a renowned British medieval and early-modern monetary historian, to investigate these propositions over a much longer period of time: from 1300 to 1700.[56] He found that in all periods of monetary expansion during these four centuries, the Keynesian interpretation of changes in V or “k” held true, with one singular anomalous exception: the sixteenth and early seventeenth-century Price Revolution. That anomaly may (or may not) be explained by the various arguments set forth by Miskimin, Goldstone, and Lindert.

The Debates about the Spanish and European Distributions of Spanish American “Treasure” and the Monetary Approach to the Balance of Payments Theorem

We may now return to Hamilton’s own considerations about the complex relationships between the influx of Spanish-American silver and its distribution in terms of various factors influencing (at least implicitly) the “V” and “y” variables, in turn influencing changes in P (the CPI). He contends first (pp. 301-02) that “the increase in the world stock of precious metals during the sixteenth century was probably more than twice ? possibly as much as four times ? as great as the advance of prices” in Spain. He speculates, first, that some proportion of this influx was hoarded or converted, not just by the Church, in ecclesiastical artifacts, but also by the Spanish nobility (thus leading to a rise in “k”), while a significantly increasing proportion was exported in trade with Asia, though mentioning only the role of the English East India Company (from 1600), surprisingly ignoring the even more prominent contemporary role of the Dutch, and the much earlier role of the Portuguese (from 1501, though the latter used principally South German silver). We now estimate that of the total value of European purchases made in Asia in late-medieval and early modern eras, about 65-70 percent were paid for in bullion and thus only 25-30 percent from the sale of European merchandise in Asia.[57] Finally, Hamilton also fairly speculated that “the enhanced production and exchange of goods which accompanied the growth of population, the substitution of monetary payments for produce rents [in kind] … and the shift from wages wholly or partially in kind to monetary remunerations for services, and the decrease of barter tended to counteract the rapid augmentation of gold and silver money:” i.e., a combination of interacting factors that affected both Cambridge “k” and Friedman’s “y.” Clearly Hamilton was no simplistic proponent of a crude Quantity Theory of Money.

From my own studies of monetary and price history over the past four decades, I offer these observations, in terms of the modernized version of Fisher’s Equation of Exchange, for the history of European prices from ca. 1100 to 1914. An increase in M virtually always resulted in some degree of inflation, but one that was usually offset by some reduction in V (increase in ” k”) and by some increase in y, especially if and when lower interest rates promoted increased investment.[58] Thus the inflationary consequences of increasing the money supply are historically indeterminate, though usually the price rise was, for these reasons, less than proportional to the increase in the monetary stock, except when excessively severe debasements created a veritable “flight from coinage,” when coined money was exchanged for durable goods (i.e., another instance in which an increase in M was accompanied by an increase in V).[59]

One of the major issues related to this debate about the Price Revolution is the extent to which the Spanish-American silver that flowed into Spain soon flowed out to other parts of Europe (i.e., apart from the aggregate European bullion exports to Asia and Russia). There is little mystery in explaining how that outflow took place. Spain, under both Charles V (I of Spain) and Philip II, ruled a vast, far-flung empire: including not only the American colonies and the Philippines, but also the entire Low Countries, and major parts of Germany and Italy, and then Portugal and its colonies from 1580 to 1640. Maintaining and defending such a vast empire inevitably led to war, almost continuous war, with Spain’s neighbors, especially France. Then, in 1568, most of the Low Countries (Habsburg Netherlands) revolted against Spanish rule, a revolt that (despite a truce from 1609 to 1621) merged into the Thirty Years War (1618-48), finally resolved by the Treaty of Westphalia. As Hamilton himself suggests (but without offering any corroborative evidence ? nor can I), vast quantities of silver (and gold) thus undoubtedly flowed from Spain into the various military theaters, in payment for wages, munitions, supplies, and diplomacy, while the German and then Genoese bankers presumably received considerable quantities of bullion (or goods so purchased) in repayment of loans.[60] Other factors that Hamilton suggested were: adverse trade balances, or simply expanding imports, especially from Italy and the Low Countries (with an increased marginal propensity to import); and operations of divergent bimetallic mint ratios. What role piracy and smuggling actually played in this international diffusion of precious metals cannot be ascertained.[61]

But Outhwaite (1969, 1982), in analyzing the monetary factors that might explain the Price Revolution in Tudor and early Stuart England, asserted (again with no evidence) that: “Spanish silver … appears to have played little or no part before 1630 and a very limited one thereafter.”[62] That statement, however, is simply untrue. For, as Challis (1975) has demonstrated, four of the five extant “Melting Books,” tabulating the sources of bullion for London’s Tower Mint, between 1561 and 1599, indicate that Spanish silver accounted for proportions of total bullion coined that ranged from a low of 75.0% (1561-62) to a high of 86.3% (1584-85). The “melting books” also indicate that almost all of the remaining foreign silver bullion brought to the Tower Mint came from the Spanish Habsburg Low Counties (the southern Netherlands, which the Spanish had quickly reconquered).[63] Furthermore, if we ignore the mint outputs during the Great Debasement (1542-1553) and during the Elizabethan Recoinage (1561-63), we find that the quantity of silver bullion coined in the English mints rose from a quinquennial mean of 1,089.012 kg in 1511-15 (at the onset of the Price Revolution) to a peak of 18,653.36 kg in 1591-95, after almost four decades of stable money: a 17.13 fold increase. Over this same period, the proportion of the total value of the aggregate mint outputs accounted for by silver rose from 12.32% to 90.35% ? and (apart from the Great Debasement era) without any significant change in the official bimetallic ratio.[64]

Those economists who favor the Monetary Approach to the Balance of Payments Theorem in explaining inflation as an international phenomenon would contend that we do not have to explain any specific bullion flows between individual countries, and certainly not in terms of a Hume-Turgot price-specie flow mechanism.[65] In essence, this theorem states that world bullion stocks (up to 1914, with a wholesale shift to fiat money) determine the overall world price level; and that individual countries, through international arbitrage and the “law of one price,” undergo the necessary adjustments in establishing a commensurate domestic price level and the requisite money supply (in part determined by changes in private and public credit) ? not just through international trade in goods and services, but especially in capital flows (exchanging assets for money) at existing exchange rates, without specifically related bullion flows.

Nevertheless, in the specific case of sixteenth century England, we are naturally led to ask: where did all this silver come from; and why did England shift from a gold-based to a silver-based economy during this century? More specifically, if Nicholas Mayhew (1995) is reasonably close in his estimates of England’s Y = Gross National Income (Table I, p. 244), from 1300 to 1700, as measured in the silver-based sterling money-of-account, that it rose from about ?3.5 million pounds sterling in 1470 (with a population of 2.3 million) to ?40.88 million pound sterling in 1670 (a population of 5.0 million) ? an 11.68-fold increase ? then we again may ask this fundamental question. Where did all these extra pounds sterling come from in maintaining that latter level of national income? Did they come from an increase in the stock of silver coinages, and/or from a vast increase in the income velocity of money? Indeed that monetary shift from gold to silver may have had some influence on the presumed increase in the income velocity of money since the lower-valued silver coins had a far greater turnover in circulation than did the very high-valued gold coins.[66]

Statistical Measurements of the Impact of Increased Silver Supplies: Bimetallic Ratios and Inflation

There are two other statistical measures to indicate the economic impact within Europe itself of the influx of South German and then Spanish American silver during the Price Revolution era, i.e., until the 1650s. The first is the bimetallic ratio. In England, despite the previously cited evidence on its relative stability in the sixteenth-century, by 1660, the official mint ratio had risen to 14.485:1 (from the low of 10.333:1 in 1464).[67] In Spain, the official bimetallic ratio had risen from 10.11:1 in 1497 to 15.45:1 in 1650; and in Amsterdam, the gold:silver mint ratio had risen from 11.21 in 1600 to 13.93:1 in 1640 to 14.56:1 in 1650.[68] These ratios indicate that silver had become relatively that much cheaper than gold from the early sixteenth to mid-seventeenth century; and also that, despite very significant European exports of silver to the Levant and to South Asia and Indonesia in the seventeenth century, Europe still remained awash with silver.[69] At the same time, it is also a valid conjecture that the greatest impact of the influx of Spanish American silver (and gold) in this era was to permit a very great expansion in European trade with Asia, indeed inaugurating a new era of globalization.

The second important indicator of the change in the relative value of silver is the rise in the price level: i.e., of inflation itself. As noted earlier, the English CPI experienced a 6.77-fold from 1511-15 to 1646-50, at the very peak of the Price Revolution; and the Brabant CPI experienced a 7.36-fold rise over the very same period (expressed in annual means per quinquennium).[70] Since these price indexes are expressed in terms of silver-based moneys-of-account, that necessarily meant that silver, gram per gram, had become that much cheaper in relation to tradable goods (as represented in the CPI) ? though, as noted earlier, the variations in the rates of change in these CPI are partly explained by differences in their respective coinage debasements.

A Comparison of the Data on Spanish-American Mining Outputs and Bullion Imports (into Seville)

Finally, how accurate are Hamilton’s data on the Spanish-American bullion imports? We can best gauge that accuracy by comparing the aggregate amount of fine silver bullion entering Seville with the now known data on the Spanish-American silver-mining outputs, for the years for which we have data for both of these variables: from 1551 to 1660.[71] One will recall that the Potosi mines were opened only in 1545; and those of Zacatecas in 1546; and recall, furthermore, that production at both began to boom only with the subsequent application of the mercury amalgamation process (not fully applied until the 1570s). The comparative results are surprisingly close. In that 110-year period permitting this comparison, total imports of fine silver, according to Hamilton, amounted to 16,886,815.3 kg; and the combined outputs from the Potosi and Zacatecas mines was very close to that figure: 17,057,938.2 kg.[72] It is also worth noting that the outputs from the Spanish-American mines and the silver imports both peak in the same quinquennium: 1591-95, when the annual mean mined silver output was 219,457.4 kg and the annual mean silver import was 272,704.5 kg. By 1626-30, the mean annual mined output had fallen 18.7% to 178,490.0 kg and the mean annual import had fallen even further, by 24.7%, to 206,045.26 kg (both sets of data indicate that the silver imports for these years were not based just on these two mines). Thereafter, the fall in imports is much more precipitous: declining by 86.4%, to an annual mean import of just 27,965.33 kg in the final quinquennium of recorded import data, in 1656-60. The combined mined output of the Potosi and Zacatecas mines also fell during this very same period, but not by as much: declining by 27.1%, with a mean output of 130,084.23 kg in 1656-60: i.e., a mean output that was 4.65 times more than the mean silver imports into Seville in that quinquennium.

The decline in the Spanish-American mining outputs of silver can be largely attributed to the expected rate of diminishing returns in a natural-resource industry without further technological changes. The differences between the two sets of data, on output and imports, were actually suggested by Hamilton himself (even though he lacked any knowledge of the Spanish-American production figures for this era): a higher proportion of the silver was being retained in the Spanish Americas for colonial economic development, and also for export (from Acapulco, in Mexico) across the Pacific to the Philippines and China, principally for the silk trades. Indeed, as TePaske (1983) subsequently demonstrated, the share of pubic revenues of the Viceroyalty of Peru retained for domestic development rose from 40.8% in 1591-1600 to a peak of 98.9% in 1681-90. We have no comparable statistics for the much less wealthy Mexico (in New Spain); but TePaske also supplies data on its silver exports to the Philippines. Those exports rose from an annual mean of 1,191.2 kg in 1591-1600 (4.8% of Mexican total silver outputs) to a peak of 9,388.2 kg in 1631-40 (29.6% of the total silver outputs). Though declining somewhat thereafter, such exports then recovered to 4,990.0 kg in 1681-90 (29.0% of the total silver outputs).[73]

The Morineau Challenge to Hamilton’s Data: Speculations on Post-1660 Bullion Imports and Deflation

Hamilton’s research on Spanish-American bullion imports into Seville ceased with the year, 1660, because that latter date marked “the termination of compulsory registration of treasure” at Seville.[74] Subsequently, the French economic historian Michel Morineau (1968, 1985) sought to remedy the post-1660 lacuna of bullion import data by extrapolating statistics from Dutch gazettes and newspapers. In doing so, contended that Spanish-American bullion imports strongly revived after the 1660s, a view that most historians have uncritically accepted.[75] But his two publications on this issue present a number of serious problems. First, there is the problem of comparing Spanish apples (actual data on bullion imports) with Dutch oranges (newspaper reports, many being speculations). Second, the statistics in the two publications differ strongly from each other. Third, except for one difficult-to-decipher semi-logarithmic graph, they do not provide specific data that allow us to distinguish clearly between gold and silver imports, either by weight or value.[76] Fourth, the statistics on bullion imports are vastly larger in kilograms of metal than those recorded for Spanish American mining outputs, and also differ radically in the trends recorded for the Spanish-American mining output data.[77]

Nevertheless, these Spanish American mining output data do indicate some considerable recovery in production in the later seventeenth century. Thus, while the output of the Potosi mines continued to fall in the later seventeenth century (to a mean of 56,884.9 kg in 1696-1700, and to one of just 30,990.86 kg in 1711-15), those at Zacatecas recovered from the low of 26,373.4 kg in 1656-60 to more than double, reaching an unprecedented peak of 64,139.87 kg in 1676-80. Then, shortly after, a new and very important Mexican silver mine was developed at Sombrerete, producing an annual mean output of 30,492.83 kg in 1681-85. Thus the aggregate (known) Spanish-American mining output rose from a low 101,533.96 kg in 1661-65 (mean annual output) to a high of 143,212.93 kg in 1686-90: a 1.41-fold increase.[78]

Whatever are the actual figures for the imports of Spanish-American silver between the 1660s and the 1690s, we are in fact better informed about the export of precious metals, primarily silver, by the two East India Companies: in those four decades, the two companies exported a total of 1,3345,342.0 kg of fine silver to Asia.[79] An indication of some relative West European scarcity of coined silver money, from the 1660s to the 1690s, can be found in the Consumer Price Indexes for both England and Brabant. In England, the quinquennial mean CPI (1451-75=100) fell from the Price Revolution peak of 734.39 in 1646-50 to a low of 547.58 in 1686-90: a fairly dramatic fall of 25.43%. By that time, however, the London Goldsmiths’ development of deposit and transfer banking, with fully negotiable promissory notes and rudimentary paper bank notes, was providing a financial remedy for any such monetary scarcity ? as did the subsequent vast imports of gold from Brazil.[80] Similarly, in Brabant, the quinquennial mean CPI (1451-75=100) fell from the aforementioned peak of 1015.138 in 1646-50 to a low of 652.217 ? an even greater fall of 35.8% ? similarly in 1686-90. In Spain (New Castile), the deflation commenced somewhat later, according to Hamilton (1947), who, for this period, used a CPI whose base is 1671-80=100. From a quinquennial mean peak of 103.5 in 1676-80 (perhaps reflecting the ongoing vellon inflation), the CPI fell to a low 59.0 in 1686-90 (an even more drastic fall of 43.0%): i.e., the very same period for deflationary nadir experienced in both England and Brabant.

These data are presented in Hamilton’s third major monograph (1947), which appeared thirteen years later, shortly after World War II, covering the period 1651-1800: in Table 5, p. 119. In between these two, Hamilton (1936), published his second monograph: covering the period 1351-1500 (but excluding Castile) One might thus be encouraged to believe that, thanks to Hamilton, we should possess a continuous “Spanish” price index from 1351-1800. Alas, that is not the case, for Hamilton kept shifting his price-index base for each half century over this period, without providing any overlapping price indexes or even similar sets of prices (in the maraved?s money-of-account) to permit (without exhaustive labor) the compilation of such a continuous price index.[81] That, perhaps, is my most serious criticism of Hamilton’s scholarship in these three volumes (though not of his journal articles), even if he has provided an enormous wealth of price data for a large number of commodities over these four and one-half centuries (and also voluminous wage data).[82]

Supplementary Criticisms of Hamilton’s Data on Gold and Silver Imports

One of the criticisms leveled against Morineau’s monetary data ? that they do not allow us to distinguish between the influxes of gold and silver ? can also be made, in part, against Hamilton’s 1934 monograph. The actual registrations of Spanish American bullion imports into Seville, from 1503 to 1660, were by the aggregate value of both gold and silver, in money-of-account pesos that were worth 450 marevedis, each of which represented 42.29 grams pure silver (for the entire period concerned, in which, as noted earlier, no silver debasements took place). Those amounts, for both public and private bullion imports, are recorded in Table 1 (p. 34), in quinquennial means. His Table 2 (p. 40) provides his estimates ? or speculations ? of the percentage distribution of gold and silver imports, by decade, but by weight alone: indicating that from the 1530s to the 1550s, about 86% was in silver, and thereafter, to 1660, from 97% to 99% of the total was consistently always in silver.[83] His table 3 (p. 42) provides his estimate of total decennial imports of silver and gold in grams. What is lacking, however, is the distribution by value, in money-of-account terms, whether in maraved?s, pesos, or ducats (worth 375 maraved?s). Since these money-of-account values remained unchanged from 1497 to 1598, and with only a few changes in gold thereafter (to 1686), Hamilton should have calculated these values as well, utilizing as well his Table 4 gold:silver bimetallic ratios (p. 71). Perhaps this is a task that I should undertake ? but not now, for this review. A more challenging task to be explored is to analyze the impact of gold inflows, especially of Brazilian gold from the 1690s, on prices that are expressed almost everywhere in Europe in terms of a silver-based money of account (e.g., the pound sterling). Obviously one important consequence of increased gold inflows was the liberation of silver to be employed elsewhere in the economy: i.e., effectively to increase the supply of silver for the economy.

At the same time, we should realize that the typical dichotomy of the role of the two metals, so often given in economic history literature ? that gold was the medium of international trade while silver was the medium of domestic trade ? is historically false, especially when we view Europe’s commercial relations with the Baltic, Russia, the Levant, and most of Asia.[84]

Conclusions

EH.Net’s Classic Reviews Selection Committee was certainly justified in selecting Hamilton’s American Treasure and the Price Revolution in Spain, 1501-1650 as one of the “classics” of economic history produced in the twentieth century; and Duke University’s website (see note 1) was also fully justified in declaring that Hamilton was one of the pioneers of quantitative economy history. In his preface, Hamilton noted (p. xii) that he and his wife spent 30,750 hours in collecting and processing this vast amount of quantitative data on Spanish bullion imports and prices and wages, “entirely from manuscript material,” with another 12,500 hours of labor rendered by hired research assistants ? all of this work, about three million computations, done without electronic calcula

Subject(s):International and Domestic Trade and Relations
Geographic Area(s):Latin America, incl. Mexico and the Caribbean
Time Period(s):17th Century

The Making of National Money: Territorial Currencies in Historical Perspective

Author(s):Helleiner, Eric
Reviewer(s):Officer, Lawrence H.

Published by EH.NET (September 2003)

Eric Helleiner, The Making of National Money: Territorial Currencies in Historical Perspective. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2003. xii + 277 pp. $32.50 (hardcover), ISBN: 0 8014 4049-1.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Lawrence H. Officer, Department of Economics, University of Illinois at Chicago.

Eric Helleiner (Trent University) defines territorial currencies as currencies that are (1) homogeneous, (2) national, and (3) exclusive. This is a broader definition than “national currency,” the concept that most monetary historians would use. A “national” currency is not “territorial” unless and until there are no other currencies — whether foreign or privately issued domestic — in the land, and the currency is homogeneous in quality. It is doubtful that any currency has ever been “territorial” in that pure sense, and in fact Helleiner’s usage is looser than he admits.

After an introduction, which summarizes the entire book excellently, the author divides the volume into two parts, each with five chapters. Part 1 (“The Birth of Territorial Currencies in the Nineteenth Century”) focuses on the origins of territorial currencies; Part 2 (“The Contestation and Spread of Territorial Currencies”) deals with expansion of territorial currencies in the twentieth century and the challenges to territorial currencies, both historical and present-day.

Contradicting the conventional wisdom of international-relations scholars (but certainly not of monetary historians), Helleiner observes that prior to the nineteenth century, monetary systems everywhere diverged from the territorial-currency model: foreign money circulated with domestically-issued money, low-denomination money was not rigidly related to official currency, and even officially issued domestic currency was non-standardized and varied in value in different regions of the sovereign territory. In the nineteenth century, all three deviations from the territorial-currency norm were corrected.

How did this happen, and why in the nineteenth century, rather than earlier? Helleiner sees the answer as double-layered. First, new industrial technologies (for example, steam power, steel plates, and siderography) enabled standardization of coin and note production. Second, nation-states emerged with the power to achieve territoriality in their money (for example, via enforcement of legal-tender laws) and with trust of the citizenry in the state’s capability of managing money. Second, the authorities had the motivation to create territorial currencies. There were four reasons for this motivation, according to Helleiner. A territorial currency was seen as a means to (1) reduce currency-related transactions costs, (2) control the money supply for macroeconomic purposes, (3) extract seigniorage, and (4) strengthen national identity. The technology and nation-state prerequisites, and at least some of the reasons for the motivation, were not in existence (or of insufficient strength) until the nineteenth century.

Challenges to the territorial currency in that century took the forms of the free-banking movement and international currency unions; but the territorial-currency movement prevailed. In the interwar period, territorial currencies reached their pinnacle. Powerful central bankers in center countries provided substantial support for strong and independent central banking (an important ingredient of a territorial currency) in countries not yet within the territorial-currency rubric. Montagu Norman, Governor of the Bank of England, “was so keen to see central banks created abroad that he even refused to visit countries that did not yet have them” (p. 147). Benjamin Strong, Governor of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, felt the same way. The advisory missions of Edwin Kemmerer in enabling creation of central banks (and therefore territorial currencies) in Latin American and elsewhere are, properly, emphasized.

Attention (an entire chapter) is devoted to colonial currency reforms, where, surprisingly, distinct colonial currencies were generally created, usually in the form of currency boards. With many newly independent countries generated from ex-colonies after World War II, the creation of territorial currencies received a new impetus. In addition to the usual rationales, some new ones were involved: the desire to increase transactions costs (in connection with the abandonment of colonial currency unions) and the objective of national macroeconomic management. Monetary reforms involving territorial currencies were supported by the United States, but generally opposed by Britain and France (naturally, as these were the ex-colonial powers).

In the final chapter, Helleiner addresses current challenges to territorial currencies. He sees four such challenges. First, there is the movement to monetary unions, spurred largely by European monetary union, which resulted in creation of the euro. Second, there is increasing use of foreign currencies within poorer countries of the world, taking the form of dollarization and, in some cases, even abolition of national currencies in favor of entering the “dollar zone.” The weakness of the nation state is viewed as the ultimate cause. Third is the development of “local currencies” — important in previous eras, including (in the interwar period) during the Great Depression. This development, little known in the literature, is properly noted by Helleiner as potentially important because, unlike in the 1930s, the impetus is more than just a temporary response to a depression. Fourth, perhaps most interestingly, “electronic money” (corporate currencies, such as value cards, and electronic payments) is coming to the fore. This is a new technology of producing money that now acts against territorial currencies.

The author concludes with an adroit summary of his findings: “territorial currencies have had a relatively short life, and they have experienced constant challenges in various regions of the world throughout their existence” (pp. 243-44).

Helleiner deserves praise on several grounds. First, the work is a history of thought as much as a history, and the two themes are cleverly welded together. Second, an interdisciplinary approach (economics, political science, sociology) is used throughout. Third, in refreshing contrast to the tendency of economic historians to concentrate on the Anglo-Saxon or European experience, much attention is given to other areas of the world: Japan, China, Latin America, Africa, and the Middle East. The typical economic historian can learn much in this context. Fourth, to help the specialist, there is an extensive bibliography, covering 25 pages. Fifth, the author does what economic historians tend to say is important but rarely do: relate historical experience to the present day. Sixth, the book is well organized and the author sticks to his focus relentlessly.

One hesitates to criticize an author with these virtues; but there are as many or more limitations of the volume. First, and perhaps foremost, Helleiner does not work with data at all. There are no tables and almost no figures at all in the book. Without measurement, the study becomes qualitative in nature, and the author’s statements lack quantitative support. Second, although there is breadth, there is not much depth in the analysis. Third (and related), the author’s treatment tends to be disjoint. For example, the U.S. national banking system is discussed in several contexts and places in the book, with no over-all consideration. Fourth, Helleiner’s concern is with ideology more than effective influence on policy, with motivation more than outcome. The relative importance (in Helleiner’s judgment) of various ideologies does not necessarily correspond with their practical impact — a feature that diminishes the value of the book to the economic historian. Fifth, the author does not distinguish between the monetary base and the money stock, nor between the money stock and its velocity.

Finally, the author’s strictures against the optimum-currency-area (OCA) approach are overblown and perhaps unfair. Helleiner, in effect, claims that the OCA theory is purely economic, thereby ignoring political implications, and contains the prediction that countries make a rational judgment that their country is now an OCA and therefore decide to create a territorial currency. He also observes that “most countries are not optimum currency areas” (p. 11). In response, first, an OCA character can be acquired via a territorial currency (or forming/joining an existing currency union); OCA is not a property that is only endowed. Second, economists are well aware of the importance of political as well as economic factors in this context. For example, Leland B. Yeager (International Monetary Relations, second edition, New York, Harper & Row, 1976, p. 133) distinguishes the following attributes of a country that would favor creation of a currency union: “flexible prices, large size, openness of its members to each other but closedness to the outside world, homogeneity, factor mobility, policy prudence, and acceptability of a union-wide government.” Several of these qualities are at least partially political in nature!

In sum, this book can be recommended to economic historians for its virtues but with an eye to its limitations.

Lawrence H. Officer is Professor of Economics at University of Illinois at Chicago. As Editor, Special Projects, EH.Net, he has recently completed “What Was the UK GDP Then?” which is available on the EH.Net website.

Subject(s):Financial Markets, Financial Institutions, and Monetary History
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII

Hamilton Unbound: Finance and the Creation of the American Republic

Author(s):Wright, Robert E.
Reviewer(s):Bodenhorn, Howard

Published by EH.NET (August 2003)

Robert E. Wright, Hamilton Unbound: Finance and the Creation of the American Republic. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2002. xii + 230 pp. $62.95 (cloth), ISBN: 0-275-97816-8.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Howard Bodenhorn, Department of Economics, Lafayette College.

Robert Wright, formerly of University of Virginia, now of New York University, lays out his objective up front. He writes: “A financial interpretation of early U.S. history can increase scholars’ understanding of important historical issues” (p. 1). In six substantive, loosely-connected chapters, Wright provides finance-based interpretations of important events, from the underlying causes of the American Revolution to the adoption of the U.S. Constitution, from economic growth to the role of banks and urban finance in the election of 1800, from dueling to the subjugation of women. My reading of the book is that Wright’s target audience is not so much financial or economic historians as historians proper with minimal training in modern economics or finance. Although he raises issues that will be of interest to economic historians, his book is decidedly old-style, pre-cliometric economic history. Wright is a gifted storyteller and makes exceptional use of documentary archival sources, such as ledgers, letterbooks, and diaries. Economic historians of the cliometric persuasion, however, will be frustrated as often as they are enlightened. Wright offers a number of insightful, interesting, and potentially testable hypotheses at several turns, but relies on anecdotes, commentaries and reflections from contemporary observers instead of marshaling much in the way of quantitative data to support his hypotheses. Economic history is a large enough tent to accommodate a number of methodological approaches, and there is certainly room for Wright’s. Nevertheless, a little data often go a long way in tempering speculation and to that end we can regard this review as a call for Wright and, perhaps, others to take up the challenge to provide refinements and tests of his more provocative theses.

In the first chapter Wright argues that one of the driving influences behind the American Revolution was rising and volatile interest rates. Consistent with Benjamin Franklin’s contention that money matters were a common cause of complaint, Wright contends that interest rate volatility, aggravated by British refusal to cede the colonies much control over their own monetary institutions, aligned the interests of Boston’s merchants and Virginia’s planters. Rapid and unexpected inflation drove up nominal rates, which (holding all else constant) was associated with falling asset prices, which had deleterious effects on balance sheets, firm solvency, and the ‘pursuit of happiness.’

In the second essay Wright contends that the framers of the Constitution understood the fundamental principal-agent problems inherent in representative democracies and constructed a system that largely aligned the interests of the electorate and the elected. Such now commonplace institutions as tripartite governments, bicameral legislatures, judicial review, bills of rights, and term limits were seen as solutions to the principal-agent problem. Each limitation tied the government’s hands, and made it more responsive to the desires of the electorate.

Chapter 3 provides a case for the importance of British-style legal institutions and a vibrant and innovative financial system in laying the groundwork for broader economic growth. In Chapter 4 Wright argues that Jefferson won the election of 1800 not because he appealed to the rural yeoman farmer, but because the Republicans were more responsive to artisans’ calls for greater access to bank-supplied credit. Artisans did not shift allegiance because they feared moneyed institutions and a commercial elite. Rather artisans jumped ship because the Federalists were more concerned with protecting the privileged monopoly position of the then existing banks. Chapter 5 provides a financial interpretation of dueling, its decline in the North, and its continuance in the South. Dueling, according to Wright, signaled character and banks, in the absence of objective credit criteria, relied on signals of character (e.g., dueling) to determine who received loans. Northern banks adopted more formal credit assessments sooner than Southern banks. Thus, dueling continued in the South after it had disappeared in the North. Finally, Chapter 6 argues that declining relative female education in the early nineteenth century prompted by the emergence of the so-called cult of womanhood changed investment opportunities open to women. Instead of active investors in their own businesses, the increasing complexity of business and credit transactions forced undereducated women to the sidelines, left to passive investments in government debt and investment-grade corporate equity.

As I wrote at the outset, this is old-style economic history in that it is much less empirical than a typical group of articles in the Journal of Economic History. It is also highly speculative at many points. Wright is trained as an historian and wants to address important economic issues. Given that his economics is mostly self-taught, he does have a remarkable grasp of the big issues in the banking and finance literature, but his discussions sometimes reveal his lack of appreciation for the subtle nuances of a complex and technical literature. Before writing this collection of essays, Wright seemingly came to grips with the modern information-theoretic approach to financial intermediation, and like the proverbial carpenter with a hammer, everything seemingly looked like a nail. Most of the time, his intonations of information asymmetries, principal-agent problems, moral hazard and adverse selection, and so on are plausible, but there are also instances where the enterprise does not ring quite true. Thus, I have some minor quibbles with some parts of the book; larger ones with other sections.

In the first essay concerning interest rate volatility, for example, Wright recognizes that asset prices will be driven by productivity growth, changes in supply and demand, and interest rates, but dismisses the first three as irrelevant and ignores them rather than adopting a more sophisticated approach of decomposing asset price movements into parts driven by each of the four factors. It is probably accurate to assert that productivity growth was slow, but we know that commodity prices were as volatile as interest rates, which may have led to equally volatile short-term fluctuations in asset prices and lots of bankruptcies unrelated to movements in the interest rate.

In the second essay, Wright offers several gross oversimplifications that actually undermine his main point; namely, that the founding fathers understood the principal-agent problem and devised a government likely to mitigate its worst effects. I was more disappointed, however, in his lack of explanations for how a tripartite structure (executive, legislative, judicial branches) or a bicameral legislature aligns the incentives of the electorate and the elected. He leaves it to the reader to fill in far too many blanks. Relative to the existing literature, the third essay does not add much value to what we already think. Much of what is said here has been said before by such notable economic historians as Douglass North, Rondo Cameron, Lance Davis and Robert Gallman, and economists such as Rafael LaPorta, Andrei Shleifer, Robert Vishny and Daron Acemoglu. These scholars have plowed this ground before, generally more productively.

My concern with Wright’s dueling essay is that dueling was really acceptable only among the wealthy to begin with. These were men, like Andrew Jackson, Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, who could borrow in personal markets because lenders had a good sense of their business acumen, as well as their assets and liabilities (though some were remarkably adept at hiding large debts). It was small farmers, even middling planters, who had the hardest time conveying information about their acumen and assets, yet among this group dueling was frowned upon. A second problem with Wright’s interpretation is that it relies on an outdated notion of southern society as precapitalist aristocracy. It is an interesting irony that in a book purporting to show that Americans became financially sophisticated at an early stage of development, Wright reverts to an old argument that southerners were financially backward, forced to rely on ancient notions of honor instead of modern capitalist allocation mechanisms.

Despite my quibbles with some of Wright’s conclusions, the book is well worth reading. The author writes in an engaging style and offers more than a couple provocative, well-defended hypotheses. I would characterize Wright’s book as an ambitious attempt to apply the techniques of modern finance to a number of topics not generally thought to be amenable to such an approach. While his reach exceeds his grasp at several points, this shortcoming does not deal a fatal blow to Wright’s book. I fully expect the author, and others, to revisit and refine many of the conclusions offered in this book. I look forward to seeing the results of that research.

Howard Bodenhorn is an associate professor of economics at Lafayette College. His recent publications include A History of Banking in Antebellum America: Financial Markets and Economic Development in an Era of Nation Building (Cambridge University Press, 2000) and State Banking in Early America: A New Economic History (Oxford University Press, 2003).

Subject(s):Markets and Institutions
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):19th Century