EH.net is owned and operated by the Economic History Association
with the support of other sponsoring organizations.

Bimetallism: An Economic and Historical Analysis

Author(s):Redish, Angela
Reviewer(s):Officer, Lawrence H.

Published by EH.NET (November 2000)

Angela Redish, Bimetallism: An Economic and Historical Analysis.

Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000. xii + 275 pp. $54.95 (cloth),

ISBN: 0-521-57091-3.

Reviewed by Lawrence H. Officer, Department of Economics, University of

Illinois at Chicago.

Any historian of monetary standards needs not only to read Bimetallism: An

Economic and Historical Analysis but also to keep a copy nearby. The book,

based on a number of previously published articles of the author (who is

Professor of Economics at the University of British Columbia), provides an

analytical and descriptive history of the monetary standard, primarily in

England and France, secondarily in the United States, with some attention

also to the countries of the Latin Monetary Union. Redish sees a dichotomy

between the economics literature, which is scanty on the details of a

commodity (metallic) monetary standard, and the historical literature, which

is overly detailed. “The book attempts to straddle the gap between these two

literatures, to allow for a more complex monetary system than the economists’

‘commodity money’ and to find generalities that are buried in the historians’

details” (p. 12). Redish succeeds admirably in this goal.

Chapter 1 outlines the themes of the book and offers a sweep of the

monetary-standard history of Western economies. Two important questions that

will be addressed are (1) why bimetallism evolved into the gold standard, and

(2) why the gold standard did not occur earlier than it, in fact, did. The

answers hinge on two elements not generally viewed as central to

monetary-standard determination: the role of small-denomination money, and the

technology of coining money.

Redish devotes chapter 2 to theoretical issues. She explains the need for

multiple denominations of a medium of exchange. For a commodity standard, this

means either multiple commodities (gold, silver, and copper coins) or a single

commodity with variously sized pure coin, various-fineness pure coin, or

convertible token coin. The latter, monometallic, standard has problems of

coin size (too small or too large) and of susceptibility to counterfeiting.

Therefore the former, multicommodity, standard was adopted. Its big problem is

divergence between the fixed mint ratio of gold and silver and the market

relative price of the metals. A good summary of the literature on Gresham’s

Law is provided. The author notes the traditional response of monetary

authorities to an undervalued coined metal: depreciate the undervalued metal.

Sometimes this policy was followed also to raise revenue for the monetary

authority.

Chapter 3 considers the historical experience of problems with

large-denomination coin. The bimetallic solution led to chronic

undervaluation. The English and French experience from the mid-fourteenth to

the early-nineteenth centuries is examined meticulously. Especially

praiseworthy is a new data set on mint price and mint equivalent (the

difference between which is seignorage), including the fineness and weight of

gold and silver coins issued in these countries. Running to 15 pages, this

tabulation will prove immensely useful to researchers. Other tables provide

details of great debasements of coinage in the countries.

The corresponding experience of England and France with small-denomination

coin is explored in chapter 4. Full-bodied coins had the problem of size (too

small if silver, too large if copper), while token coins could be replicated

and converted into full-bodied coins to the disadvantage of the monetary

authority, or, if not convertible, could be overissued by the authority. Again

there are useful tables and in this chapter, as elsewhere, the author exhibits

a strong understanding of both the contemporary and current literature.

Chapter 5, on the transition to the gold standard in England, is extremely

interesting and provocative. As Redish summarizes: “After centuries of

uncertainty about how to issue small-denomination coins, the early nineteenth

century saw the British government adopt the principles of a ‘sound’ token

currency. The raison d’?tre of bimetallism had been removed and England was on

the gold standard.” Very important in Redish’s view (and she persuades this

reviewer) was new technology for minting coin, which made token coins

difficult to counterfeit. Also pertinent was the willingness of the Bank of

England to convert silver coins (and bank notes) at par into gold.

In chapter 6, Redish studies the transition to the gold standard in France.

The French mint modernized later than the English. After the mid-nineteenth

century the Latin Monetary Union countries (France, Belgium, Italy,

Switzerland) switched from a de facto silver to a de facto gold standard.

Redish disputes the conventional wisdom that the Union was an attempt to

achieve international bimetallism. Rather, she argues that the Union

constituted an optimal currency area and its formation reflected contemporary

interest in economic integration.

The U.S. experience is discussed in chapter 7. This history has been much

discussed elsewhere. The author’s contributions are important, nevertheless.

She places the history in its international context, emphasizes the role of

mint technology, and provides an excellent analysis of legislative

developments. The U.S. experience is consistent with the author’s analysis, as

is that of the other countries examined. “In the United States, as elsewhere,

the use of token silver coins eliminated the medium of exchange basis for

bimetallism” (p. 234).

Chapter 8 is the concluding chapter. It not only summarizes the work but also

carries the history to the late nineteenth century and beyond, through

abandonment of the gold standard, to the current interest in currency unions

and currency boards. Fittingly, Redish observes that, at least in this

respect, history does not repeat itself. These developments do not mean a

return to the nineteenth century; the situation is different from the past.

In sum, Redish has produced a wonderful book that any scholar of monetary

standards will admire. Nevertheless, Redish’s work leaves some questions open.

First, the relationship between the monetary standard and the macroeconomy is

not addressed. There is some attention to the seignorage gain of the monarch

in comparison to normal revenue, but that is all. The impact of the monetary

standard on prices, wages, and output is not considered. Granted, that would

go beyond the author’s theme, but the issue is not unimportant. Second, data,

or lack thereof, on circulation (as distinct from issue) of large and

small-denomination coin are not discussed. Third, the author makes some

tantalizing observations that cry out for elaboration. For example, the

relationship of England with Brazil, a gold-producing country, as a factor

leading to England’s adoption of the gold standard, is mentioned only in

passing.

However, these are issues that can be explored in future research, and that

research will certainly benefit from Redish’s work. All in all, my reaction to

Bimetallism: An Economic and Historical Analysis is unqualified

admiration.

Lawrence H. Officer, Professor of Economics at University of Illinois at

Chicago, is author of Between the Dollar-Sterling Gold Points: Exchange

Rates, Parity, and Market Behavior (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,

1996) and co-editor of Monetary Standards and Exchange Rates (London:

Routledge, 1997).

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