Gold Standard Act and Conclusion
[Editor’s note: Footnotes in the original are omitted.]
Gold Standard Act
With the enactment of the Gold Standard Act, the monetary system of the United States was formerly and clearly placed on the gold standard in 1900. This law declared that the gold dollar was the standard unit of value. It required the Secretary of the Treasury to maintain parity of all forms of money, which included the silver dollar and silver certificate. It provided for the redemption of U.S. notes and Treasury notes of 1890 in gold only and prohibited their reissue except in exchange for gold. Thus, it converted these Treasury notes, which had been used to buy silver, into government notes redeemable in gold. The law provided for silver certificates in small denominations to replace gradually the Treasury notes of 1890. Silver certificates were restricted to $10 and smaller. Also, it authorized the issuance of gold certificates, but unlike U.S. notes and gold coins, they were not made legal tender.
Although the Act did not affect the legal-tender status of the silver dollar (it remained full legal tender), it implied that by now the silver dollar had been reduced to credit money, a subsidiary coin for gold. It was no longer money in its own right. It had ceased being fiat money. The Secretary of the Treasury had to maintain the value of the silver dollar to equal a dollar in gold. He had to redeem silver dollars in gold if necessary to maintain parity.
As White notes, the silver dollar made an expensive fiat money. However, it did limit the government’s ability to inflate much more than paper fiat money if the government decided not to maintain parity with gold. Its intrinsic value would be reached much sooner than paper. With silver, the government could only cut the value (purchasing power) of the currency by 25 to 50 percent. With paper, it could reduce the value to zero. At least the silver dollar gave the people some protection that the greenback never could.
Friedman and Schwartz sum up the silver dollar era:
The fear that silver would produce an inflation sufficient to force the United States off the gold standard made it necessary to have a severe deflation in order to stay on the gold standard. In retrospect, it seems clear that either acceptance of a silver standard at an early stage or an early commitment to gold would have been preferable to the uneasy compromise that was maintained, with the uncertainty about the ultimate outcome and the consequent wide fluctuations to which the currency was subjected.Although the last three decades of the nineteenth century were deflationary, this era was one of the greatest periods of economic growth for the United States.
A highly important question remains to be answered: Why did the gold value of silver decline so much after 1873?
Friedman and Schwartz assert that supply of and demand for silver explains its decline, “The reasons for the price decline seem fairly clear: on the supply side, rich new mines were opened in the American West, and there was a world wide increase in productivity; on the demand side, a number of European countries shifted from a silver or bimetallic to a gold standard and sharply reduced their monetary use of silver.”
The monometallists, advocates of the single gold standard of this era, claim that the increase in the supply of silver caused its fall in value. However, the fall in value began before the world’s silver stock had greatly increased. Moreover, gold production was much greater than that of silver. To which the monometallists reply that the fall resulted from an anticipation of an increase in supply.
Even today, the supply argument seems weak. In recent years (decades), the increase in the supply of gold has been greater than that of silver. During this time, the demand for silver seems to have been much higher as its usages have been higher. Yet the value of silver generally lags that of gold.
Laughlin opines that the abundance of gold caused silver to lose value relative to gold. With the discovery of gold in America, enough gold came available to supplant silver coins. People preferred gold to silver because it had more value per unit weight. As the demand for gold grew, so did its value. As the demand for silver fell, so did its value. Moreover, the supply of silver began increasing after 1872.
The bimetallists, advocates of the silver-gold system with a legally fixed exchange rate between the two, claim that “demonetization” caused silver’s fall in value. They point to Germany ending the free coinage of silver in 1871, which glutted the market with silver. This action forced France and the other members of the Latin Union to abandon the silver standard, i.e., to end the free coinage of silver. The United States ended the free coinage of silver in 1873. During the 1870s other European countries ended their silver standards or bimetallic silver-gold system and adopted the monometallic gold standard. To the bimetallists, ending the free coinage of silver and by that discontinuing the use of silver as standard money caused its decline in value.
One result in discarding the silver standard was an increase in demand for gold coins. This increase demand for gold coins would account for some of the decline in the value of silver in terms of gold. Not only were countries replacing the silver standard with the gold standard, they were also replacing fiat paper monetary standards with the gold standards.
Friedman and Schwartz opine that if the United States had reverted to the silver standard, the deflation of the 1880s and ’90s would have been avoided or at least moderated. Inflation would not have occurred. Prices would have remained stable.
The abandonment of the silver standard around the world reduced the demand for silver. As countries moved onto the gold standard, the demand for gold increased. Thus, the value of silver was pushed down and that of gold was pushed up.
If the United States had gone onto the silver standard, they would have abated much of the value change between the two metals. While reducing the demand for gold, they would have increased the demand for silver. If the United States were on the silver standard, other countries then on the silver standard might have remained on the silver standard instead of converting to the gold standard. Increasing the monetary demand for silver and decreasing it for gold would have greatly lessened the rise in the value of gold and fall in the gold-value of silver. Thus, the deflation during this era would have been significantly diminished if not eliminated.
Although silver ceased to be used as standard money in most countries (China and some Latin American countries being notable exceptions), it was still used in subsidiary coins in most countries and as fiat money in the United States. If merely ending the use of silver as standard money caused its fall in value, why did gold soar in value (in terms of standard fiat currencies) when its last legal connection to money was severed in 1971? Whatever explanation used to explain silver decline in value after 1873 needs to be able to explain golds rise in value after 1971.
(Charles Rist offers this explanation for why silver’s value declined and gold’s value rose when their free coinage ended. When the free coinage of silver ended, people replaced silver with gold. Gold adequately performed all the basic functions of money. Silver was not needed to perform any of these functions. Therefore, the monetary demand for silver declined. As demand fell, so did its value. When the free coinage of gold ended, people replaced gold with irredeemable paper money. Irredeemable paper money does not perform all the basic functions of money. As it nearly always depreciates in value, it fails as a store of value. Gold continued to perform a monetary function as a store of value. Therefore, a monetary demand for gold remained after its free coinage ended. Thus, when gold replaced silver, it fulfilled all silver’s monetary functions. When irredeemable paper money replaced gold, it failed to fulfill all gold’s monetary functions.)
The pro-silver folks are not the sole blame for the deleterious effects of the silver dollar. For the most part, they did not want fiat silver money. They wanted commodity silver money. They wanted to open the mint to the free coinage of silver.
Most of the blame belongs to the pro-gold and antisilver folks. To thwart the pro-silver folks’ attempt to allow the free coinage of silver, the pro-gold faction compromised. These compromises resulted in the Bland-Allison Act and the Sherman Act. Thus, the pro-gold folks are mostly responsible for the detrimental effects of fiat silver money between 1878 and 1900.
Politics prevented them from completely abandoning silver as legal tender. To allow the free coinage of silver at the then legal ratio of 16 to 1 would have reverted the country to the silver standard. Ardently, they opposed the silver standard; they wanted the gold standard that most of the world was on or moving toward.
Instead of compromising by making silver fiat money, the pro-gold should have compromised by allowing the free coinage of silver and raising the legal ratio above the market ratio. That would have preserved the gold standard until the legal ratio fell below the market ratio. However, when amendments were offered to change the ratio, they were voted down. Even better than changing the ratio, would have been to eliminate it. Elimination of the ratio was never seriously considered.
Many politicians of this era suffered from the same false delusion that has inflicted politicians throughout the ages. The ancient myth that the king’s (Congress’) edict gives money its value enthralled many of these politicians. Congress’ decree could force both gold and silver coins to circulate together at the current ratio of 16 to 1. After all, Congress had declared them to have the equal value at this ratio.
Not all politicians suffered from this superstition. Many knew that free coinage of silver at the current legal ratio of 16 to 1 would cause overvalued silver to circulate and send gold into hiding or to Europe. Most inflationists and pro-gold folks knew this outcome. It is this outcome that the inflationists wanted. It is this outcome that the pro-gold folks did not want.
In Open Mints and Free Banking, William Brough gave the best solution to the silver problem. His solution was to eliminate the legal exchange ratio and open the mint to the free coinage of silver. Thus, the mint would coin all gold and silver brought to it for coinage. Eliminating the ratio and allowing the free coinage of silver would have allowed the people themselves to decide how many silver coins and gold coins that they want. Both coins could have circulated together without either driving the other out of circulation. Both could have circulated side-by-side without the inflation and following depression caused by the Treasury notes of 1890. If Congress had adopted Brough’s recommendation, it would have eliminated most of the problems associated with silver in the between 1878 and 1900. The most likely outcome would have been silver coins being used for day-to-day retail buying and selling and for wages. Gold would have been used for the export-import business, large purchases and investments, and long-term savings. The drain on the Treasury’s gold would have been significantly lessened. As no legal exchange rate existed between gold and silver, Gresham’s Law would not have been at work converting overvalued silver into gold for export as occurred under the Bland-Allison Act and especially under the Sherman Act. The money supply would have more closely matched the actual needs of the people.
Four other changes were also desirable. First, U.S. notes, greenbacks, should have been permanently removed from circulation as they were redeemed for gold or paid into the Treasury. Second, bank notes should have been issued based on and backed by real bills of exchange instead of U.S. governmental securities. Third, the U.S. government should have ceased issuing gold and silver certificates and should have retired those redeemed. Banks and other private institutions should have assumed the task of issuing gold and silver certificates. Fourth, all legal tender laws should have been repealed.
An argument used by the silverites was that the U.S. government should not discriminate against either metal. As long as it had a legal ratio, it would always discriminate against the undervalued metal in favor of the overvalued metal. At 16 to 1, silver was overvalued and gold was undervalued. At this ratio, silver coins would have quickly replaced gold coins in circulation. If the silverites really wanted to eliminate discrimination, they should have supported the elimination of the legal exchange ratio. Then the markets would have decided how many coins of each metal were needed. As they wanted to maintain the ratio of 16 to 1, they wanted the U.S. government to discriminate against gold. If the silverites wanted silver money for the sake of having silver money, they would have accepted an offer to eliminate the legal ratio. If it were currency depreciation that they wanted, they would have rejected the offer. As the offer seems never to have been made, we may never know for sure their preference. However, based on their comments and actions, they probably would have rejected the offer.
According to Rothbard, the silver movement destroyed the hard-money, limited government, laissez faire political party, the Democratic party of Jefferson, Jackson, and Cleveland. It ushered in an era, which continues to this day, of statist control of both the Republican and Democratic parties. Until 1896, the Democratic party stood for limited government with minimal governmental intervention in economic and social affairs. For the Democrats, remaking man was not a function of government.
The Republican party was the party of the progressives, pietists, and Hamiltonians (advocates of central banking, governmental protection and promotion of big business, and protective tariffs). It sought to use government to mold man into perfection. It was the party of the greenback and inflation, prohibition of liquor, the public school system to remake mankind, blue laws, Protestantization of Catholics, and high tariffs. “. . . the Republicans glorified in calling themselves throughout this period [i.e., last half of the nineteenth century] ‘the party of great moral ideals,’ while the Democrats declared themselves to be ‘the party of personal liberty.’”
After Cleveland won in a landside in 1892 and the Democrats captured both houses of Congress, the Republican party had to remake itself or remain a minority party. It remade itself. It abandoned the prohibitionists, modified its immigration policy, and move toward the center away from its extreme pietism.
Meanwhile, the Democratic party began to fractionalize. Pietism had come into the party in the South with a call for prohibition. In the West where the silver mines were, the Democrats adopted a pro-silver stance. Moreover, people blamed Cleveland for the Panic of 1893 although it resulted from the actions of the Republican Harrison administration. Seeing that the hard-money laissez-faire Cleveland faction was weak, the pietist faction in the South and the silverites in the West united under William Jennings Bryan to gain control of the Democratic party. Thus, the progressives, pietists, and Hamiltonians gained complete control of the Democratic party, which was once the party of liberty, and have never since loosened their grip.
J.P. Morgan and other financiers through Henry Cabot Lodge offered to support the Republican party if it supported the gold standard, which was Cleveland’s basic economic issue. Otherwise, they would support Bryan. William McKinley accepted the deal, and the Republican party abandoned its traditional easy money policy.
The pietist-silverite take over of the Democratic party caused many Democrats to sit out the election. Others voted for McKinley. Since the election of McKinley, both parties and all presidents have been statists and progressives in varying degrees. Voter turn out has trended down ever since.
The most devastating and long-lasting effect of the silver dollar fiat money was the utter destruction of a party of liberty in the United States. Since 1896, no party advocating laissez-faire economics, limited government, personal responsibility, and personal liberty has won the presidency or taken control of either house of Congress. Only a few such candidates have won congressional elections. State governors and legislatures have not fared any better.
[Editor’s note: The appendix, which contained eight tables of monetary statistics, and the list of references are omitted.]
1. Horace White, Money and Banking (Boston, Massachusetts: Ginn & Company, 1896), p. 204.
2. Milton Friedman and Anna Jacobson Schwartz, A Monetary History of the Untied States, 1867-1960 (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1963), pp. 133-134.
3. Ibid., p. 114.
4. J. Laurence Laughlin, The Elements of Political Economy (New York, New York: American Book Co., 1887), p. 311.
5. Friedman and Schwartz, p. 134.
6. Charles Rist, The Triumph of Gold, trans. Philip Cortney (New York, N.Y.: Philosophical Library, 1961, pp. 122-124, 151-153.
7. Murray N. Rothbard, A History of Money and Banking in the United States: The Colonial Era to World War II (Auburn, Alabama: Ludwig von Mises Institute, 2005), pp. 175-179.
8. Ibid., p. 174.
Copyright © 2010 by Thomas Coley Allen.
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