Thomas Paine, Champion of Sound Money The Foundation for Economic Education

Between writing his well-known revolutionary liberal tracts Common Sense (1776) and The Rights of Man(1791), Thomas Paine contributed knowledgeably to a 1785-6 debate over money and banking in Pennsylvania. Paine defended the Bank of North America’s charter and its operations in a number of lengthy letters to Philadelphia newspapers during 1786, followed by a December monograph that summarized his case, Dissertations on Government; The Affairs of the Bank; and Paper Money.[1]

“The natural effect of increasing and continuing to increase paper currencies is that of banishing the real money.” Paine argued that to repeal the bank’s charter violated both the rule of law and the maxims of sound economic policy. His writings show that he well understood the benefits of banking. Although proponents of the repeal accused Paine, publicly known to be in dire financial shape, of being paid by the BNA’s proprietors for defending it (one called him “an unprincipled author, who lets his pen out for hire”), Paine vociferously denied the charge, and historians (such as Philip S. Foner, who edited an anthology of Paine’s works), have found no evidence to support the accusation.

Image source: Wikimedia Commons. Thomas Paine

Prima facie evidence for Paine’s sincerity is found in his marshalling of serious arguments that were consistent with the classical liberal principles of his earlier writings.

Here’s the backstory: The Continental Congress chartered the Bank of North America, headquartered in Philadelphia and headed by Robert Morris and Thomas Willing in 1781. Considering a Commonwealth of Pennsylvania charter to be a sounder authorization, in 1782 the bank sought and received a charter from the Pennsylvania legislature. After the Revolutionary War’s end in 1783, as historian Janet Wilson noted, farmers in western Pennsylvania with large debts and tax arrears “set up a cry for paper money” to be issued by the Commonwealth.[2] These state-issued notes would not be presently redeemable, but would be receivable for future tax payments.

The clamor for irredeemable paper money, he wrote, derived from “delusion and bubble.” The inflationists understandably saw the BNA as a barrier to their plan. If the bank valued the state paper below its par value, while BNA banknotes and checks traded at par in terms of the silver dollars for which they could be immediately redeemed, real demand for the state paper currency would be low. Better for the sake of state paper to eliminate the superior alternative. Hence, with the legislature voting to authorize an issue of state notes in mid-1785, the inflationists demanded repeal of the bank’s charter.

They were further motivated by the bank proprietors’ public opposition to state paper. The legislature debated and then repealed the charter in September 1785. The BNA continued to do business, on a smaller scale, under its 1781 charter from the Continental Congress. (The 1st US Congress would not meet until March 1789.) Eighteen months after repeal, in March 1787, following a pitched public discussion and the election of pro-bank legislators in fall 1786, the charter was restored.

The clamor for irredeemable paper money, wrote Paine in 1786, derived from “delusion and bubble.”[3]Yes, the irredeemable paper currency issued during the war as a matter of necessity had provided revenue “while it lasted,” but not as a free lunch, but rather by taxing individual money-holders through price inflation and currency depreciation. Since its demise, “gold and silver are become the currency of the country.”[4] Those thinking that state paper will relieve a “shortage” of specie have it backwards: it is precisely the issue of irredeemable paper that drives out gold and silver. On this point Paine argued with impeccable Humean logic:

The pretense for paper money has been, that there was not a sufficiency of gold and silver. This, so far from being a reason for paper emissions, is a reason against them. As gold and silver are not the productions of North America, they are, therefore, articles of importation; and if we set up a paper manufactory of money it amounts, as far as it is able, to prevent the importation of hard money, or to send it out again as fast it comes in; and by following this practice we shall continually banish the specie, till we have none left, and be continually complaining of the grievance instead of remedying the cause. Considering gold and silver as articles of importation, there will in time, unless we prevent it by paper emissions, be as much in the country as the occasions of it require, for the same reasons there are as much of other imported articles.[5]

Critic of Monetary Stimulus

Paine understood that any stimulus from injecting money was only temporary, because issuing more paper money does not create any more wealth. He even offered the binge drinking / hangover analogy that has, in modern times, become commonplace:

Paper money is like dramdrinking, it relieves for a moment by deceitful sensation, but gradually diminishes the natural heat, and leaves the body worse than it found it. Were not this the case, and could money be made of paper at pleasure, every sovereign in Europe would be as rich as he pleased. But the truth is, that it is a bubble and the attempt vanity.[6]

State paper money became not just imprudent but unjust when it was combined with a legal tender law compelling the acceptance of depreciated paper dollars where a contract called for payment in silver or gold dollars:

As to the assumed authority of any assembly in making paper money, or paper of any kind, a legal tender, or in other language, a compulsive payment, it is a most presumptuous attempt at arbitrary power. … [A]ll tender laws are tyrannical and unjust, and calculated to support fraud and oppression.[7]

For a legislator even to propose such a tyranny should be a capital crime [!]:

The laws of a country ought to be the standard of equity, and calculated to impress on the minds of the people the moral as well as the legal obligations of reciprocal justice. But tender laws, of any kind, operate to destroy morality, and to dissolve, by the pretense of law, what ought to be the principle of law to support, reciprocal justice between man and man: and the punishment of a member who should move for such a law ought to be death.[8]

Responding to an anti-BNA petition, which claimed that “the said bank has a direct tendency to banish a great part of the specie from the country, so as to produce a scarcity of money, and to collect into the hands of the stockholders of the said bank, almost the whole of the money which remains amongst us,” [387-8 n] Paine argued that the issue of immediately gold-redeemable banknotes gives a commercial bank like the BNA a strong reason to retain sufficient gold reserves:

Specie may be called the stock in trade of the bank, it is therefore its interest to prevent it from wandering out of the country, and to keep a constant standing supply to be ready for all domestic occasions and demands. … While the bank is the general depository of cash, no great sums can be obtained without getting it from thence, and as it is evidently prejudicial to its interest to advance money to be sent abroad, because in this case the money cannot by circulation return again, the bank, therefore, is interested in preventing what the committee would have it suspected of promoting. It is to prevent the exportation of cash, and to retain it in the country, that the bank has, on several occasions, stopped the discounting notes till the danger had been passed.[9]

Here Paine failed to add that the public’s voluntary substitution of banknotes for specie, although it does not banish any specie that is still wanted, does allow the payment system to conduct a given volume of payments more economically, with less specie. The ability to export the share of specie thus rendered redundant, in exchange for productive machines and material inputs, was a growth-enhancing benefit of banking that Adam Smith had emphasized in The Wealth of Nations published ten years earlier.

In response to the claim that the bank “will collect into the hands of the stockholders” the specie remaining in the country, Paine explained that a bank’s specie reserves are not the net worth owned by its shareholders. Rather the reserves are held to redeem its liabilities, and thus are “the property of every man who holds a bank note, or deposits cash there,” or otherwise has a claim on the bank.

The Bank of North America at the time held the first and as yet only bank charter granted by the legislature of Pennsylvania. Critics damned the BNA as a privileged monopoly. Legislator John Smiley asserted that the charter repeal “secured the natural rights of the people from invasion by monopolies.” This view – later echoed by the Jeffersonians and Jacksonians in their opposition to the First and Second Bank of the United States – is of course paradoxical.

The Cure for Monopoly Power

The cure for monopoly power created by exclusive charter (incorporation) is to grant charters freely, to go from one to a multiplicity of charters. It is not to go from one to zero charters. If more banks were free to enter but simply hadn’t yet, then the BNA was a monopolist only in the benign sense that the entrepreneur who creates a new market (thus expanding and not restricting trade) is the single seller until others arrive. Eventually additional chartered banks did enter the Pennsylvania market: the (First) Bank of the United States (chartered by the US Congress) in 1791, and the Bank of Pennsylvania (state-chartered) in 1793.

In a later work criticizing the Bank of England (which did have an exclusive charter to issue banknotes as a corporation), Paine unfortunately seemed to blur the distinction between banknotes and irredeemable paper money. He made the valid point that banknotes held, unlike gold held, are not net national wealth (because they are liabilities of the issuer). Then he declared:

the rage that overran America, for paper money or paper currency, has reached to England under another name. There it was called continental money, and here it is called bank notes. But it signifies not what name it bears, if the capital is not equal to the redemption. … The natural effect of increasing and continuing to increase paper currencies is that of banishing the real money. The shadow takes place of the substance till the country is left with only shadows in its hands.[10]

To reconcile this passage with his previous writings, we must suppose that Paine is not criticizing banknotes in general, but the Bank of England in particular for holding inadequate reserves relative to its growing note-issue.

But this raises the question: Why would the BOE want to hold inadequate reserves when the BNA (as he had argued) did not? Paine might have explained this (but unfortunately did not) by Parliament’s implicit guarantee that it would not penalize the BOE for a suspension of payments, giving the Bank a moral-hazard incentive to skimp on reserves. When the Bank of England did suspend payments in 1797, forced by a run on the bank prompted by the threat of an invasion by Napoleon’s troops, Parliament did in fact immunize the Bank against note-holder lawsuits. Paine ten years ahead warned that the BOE might suspend in 1796, which was only one year off if we consider it a prediction:

A stoppage of payment at the bank is not a new thing. Smith in his “Wealth of Nations,” book ii. chap. 2, says, that in the year 1696, exchequer bills fell forty, fifty and sixty per cent; bank notes twenty per cent; and the bank stopped payment. That which happened in 1696 may happen again in 1796.[11]

To be clear, Paine anticipated trouble from the growing British public debt, not from threat of invasion. But the two were not unrelated.

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