Special Issue on Money

article image

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.

When
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

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