Money may be power, but as a series of essays on Common-Place illustrate, it's quite a bit more as well. In fact, the evolution of money in the Western world tracks very closely with the philosophical, political, and logistical concerns that have preoccupied the West for centuries. And as any fruitful historical investigation is bound to be, the story of money in the West is twisting, intricate, and full of surprises. Below are a few highlights from Common-Place's 'Special Issue on Money.'
Money, Money, Money
In seventeenth-century England, the rise of colonial expansion coincided with a heated debate over how to value English currency. The problem was that the actual silver in the coins was, as raw material, worth more than the minted coin itself. Though it was illegal, a trade sprang up between England and mainland Europe where coins were melted down and then sent to the mainland as bullion. The resulting coin shortage forced a philosophical debate that included John Locke, Isaac Newton, and Daniel DeFoe.
Big Money Comes to Boston
As colonial Massachusetts looked to extend its meager power, its leaders turned to money. At the time, the colony used 'little money' -- money made from anything but gold or silver with a small, regional circulation. In order to satisfy their aspirations of power, the leaders realized that 'big money' was a necessity. Massachusetts initially focused its energies on obtaining wampum, a currency controlled by the Pequots until the colonists destroyed them. The currency collapsed, however, when furs to trade became scarce, and Massachusetts began printing its own money, which they hoped would come into widespread use. The Crown was, at the time, in disarray, and so the colony's contraband production of currency went unnoticed. A few years after they began minting, however, the colony had to employ deft diplomacy to escape Britain's anger.
Money Was Different
Once free of the Crown after the Revolutionary War, the colonies needed their own currency. However, since the US had yet to discover precious metals on their land, gold and silver coins were not an option. Similarly untenable was relying on a national currency, since government-printed paper money had devalued so sharply immediately following the Revolutionary War. Saving the day, banks picked up the slack with vigor: the article states, '[i]t has been estimated that around eight thousand banks and other institutions issued paper money of their own.'
-- Nick Rose
Go there >>Common-Place Money Issue
Go there too >>AmericanNumismatic Association
Related Links from the Utne Archive:
Comments? Story tips? Write a letter to the editor
Like this? Want more?Subscribe to Utne magazine