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The history of the United States dollar refers to more than 200 years since Continental Congress of the United States authorized the issuance of the US dollar on August 8, 1786. The term 'dollar' had already been in common usage since the colonial period when it referred to eight-real coin (Spanish dollar) used by the Spanish throughout New Spain. Although several monetary systems were proposed for the early republic, the dollar was approved by Congress to be released in a variety of denominated coins and currency bills.
By the end of 1778, Continental Currency retained between only 1/5 to 1/7 of their original face value. By 1780, Continental bills - or Continentals - were worth just 1/40th of their face value. Despite efforts by Congress to reform the currency by removing the old bills from circulation and issuing new ones, the attempt met with little or no success. By May 1781, Continentals had become so worthless they ceased to circulate as money. Benjamin Franklin noted that the depreciation of the currency had, in effect, acted as a tax to pay for the war. In the 1790s, after the ratification of the United States Constitution, Continentals could be exchanged for treasury bonds at 1% of face value.
Congress appointed Robert Morris to be Superintendent of Finance of the United States following the collapse of Continental currency. In 1782, Morris advocated the creation of the first financial institution chartered by the United States. The Bank of North America was funded in part by specie loaned to the United States by France. Morris helped finance the final stages of the war by issuing notes in his name, backed by his own money. The Bank of North America also issued notes convertible into specie. On August 8, 1785, the Continental Congress of the United States authorized the issuance of a new currency the US dollar.
However runaway inflation and the collapse of the Continental currency prompted delegates at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787 to include the gold and silver clause into the United States Constitution preventing individual States from issuing their own bills of credit. Article One states they were prohibited to "make any Thing but gold and silver Coin a Tender in Payment of Debts." This restriction of bills of credit was extended to the Federal Government, as the power to "emit bills" from the Articles of Confederation was abolished, leaving only Congress with the power "to borrow money on credit."
The United States Mint was created by Congress following the passing of the Coinage Act of 1792. It was primarily tasked with producing and circulating coinage. The first Mint building was in Philadelphia, the then-capital of the United States. The Mint was originally placed within the Department of State. Until the Coinage Act of 1873 when it became part of the Department of the Treasury (in 1981 it was placed under the auspices of the Treasurer of the United States). The Mint had the authority to convert any precious metals into standard coinage for anyone's account with no seigniorage charge beyond refining costs.
After the creation of the US dollar, the fledgling American administration of President George Washington turned its attention to monetary issues again in the early 1790s under the leadership of Alexander Hamilton, the secretary of the treasury at the time. Congress acted on Hamilton's recommendations in the Coinage Act of 1792, which established the dollar as the basic unit of account for the United States. The word dollar is derived from Low Saxon cognate of the High German Thaler, an abbreviation of Joachimsthaler – (coin) from Joachimsthal (St. Joachim's Valley, now Jáchymov, Bohemia, then part of the Holy Roman Empire, now part of the Czech Republic; for further history of the name, see dollar.) – so called because it was minted from 1519 onwards using silver extracted from a mine which had opened in 1516 near Joachimstal, a town in the Ore Mountains of northwestern Bohemia.
In the early 19th century, gold rose in relation to silver, resulting in the removal from commerce of nearly all gold coins, and their subsequent melting. Therefore in the Coinage Act of 1834, the 15:1 ratio of silver to gold was changed to a 16:1 ratio by reducing the weight of the nation's gold coinage. This created a new U.S. dollar that was backed by 1.50 g (23.22 grains) of gold. However, the previous dollar had been represented by 1.60 g (24.75 grains) of gold. The result of this revaluation, which was the first devaluation of the U.S. dollar, was that the value in gold of the dollar was reduced by 6%. Moreover, for a time, both gold and silver coins were useful in commerce.
In 1853, the weights of U.S. silver coins (except, interestingly, the dollar itself, which was rarely used) were reduced. This had the effect of placing the nation effectively (although not officially) on the gold standard. The retained weight in the dollar coin was a nod to bimetallism, although it had the effect of further driving the silver dollar coin from commerce. Foreign coins, including the Spanish dollar, were also widely used as legal tender until 1857.
With the enactment of the National Banking Act of 1863, during the American Civil War and its later versions that taxed states' bonds and currency out of existence, the dollar became the sole currency of the United States and remains so today.
In 1878, the Bland-Allison Act was enacted to provide for freer coinage of silver. This act required the government to purchase between $2 million and $4 million worth of silver bullion each month at market prices and to coin it into silver dollars. This was, in effect, a subsidy for politically influential silver producers.
The discovery of large silver deposits in the Western United States in the late 19th century created a political controversy. Due to the large influx of silver, the value of silver in the nation's coinage dropped precipitously. On one side were agrarian interests such as the United States Greenback Party that wanted to retain the bimetallic standard in order to inflate the dollar, which would allow farmers to more easily repay their debts. On the other side were Eastern banking and commercial interests, who advocated sound money and a switch to the gold standard. This issue split the Democratic Party in 1896. It led to the famous "cross of gold" speech given by William Jennings Bryan, and may have inspired many of the themes in The Wizard of Oz. Despite the controversy, the status of silver was slowly diminished through a series of legislative changes from 1873 to 1900, when a gold standard was formally adopted. The gold standard survived, with several modifications, until 1971.
Bimetallism persisted until March 14, 1900, with the passage of the Gold Standard Act, which provided that:
Thus the United States moved to a gold standard, making both gold and silver the legal-tender coinage of the United States, and guaranteed the dollar as convertible to 1.5 g (23.22 grains) of gold.
The gold standard was suspended twice during World War I, once fully and then for foreign exchange. At the onset of the war, U.S. corporations had large debts payable to European entities, who began liquidating their debts in gold. With debts looming to Europe, the dollar to British pound exchange rate reached as high as $6.75, far above the (gold) parity of $4.8665. This caused large gold outflows until July 31, 1914 when the New York Stock Exchange closed and the gold standard was temporarily suspended. In order to defend the exchange value of the dollar, the US Treasury Department authorized state and nationally-charted banks to issue emergency currency under the Aldrich-Vreeland Act, and the newly created Federal Reserve organized a fund to assure debts to foreign creditors. These efforts were largely successful, and the Aldrich-Vreeland notes were retired starting in November and the gold standard was restored when the New York Stock Exchange re-opened in December 1914.
As the United States remained neutral in the war, it remained the only country to maintain its gold standard, doing so without restriction on import or export of gold from 1915-1917. During the participation of the United States as a belligerent, President Wilson banned gold export, thereby suspending the gold standard for foreign exchange. After the war, European countries slowly returned to their gold standards, though in somewhat altered form.
During the Great Depression, every major currency abandoned the gold standard. Among the earliest, the Bank of England abandoned the gold standard in 1931 as speculators demanded gold in exchange for currency, threatening the solvency of the British monetary system. This pattern repeated throughout Europe and North America. In the United States, the Federal Reserve was forced to raise interest rates in order to protect the gold standard for the US dollar, worsening already severe domestic economic pressures. After bank runs became more pronounced in early 1933, people began to hoard gold coins as distrust for banks led to distrust for paper money, worsening deflation and depleting gold reserves.
In early 1933, in order to fight severe deflation Congress and President Roosevelt implemented a series of Acts of Congress and Executive Orders which suspended the gold standard except for foreign exchange, revoked gold as universal legal tender for debts, and banned private ownership of significant amounts of gold coin. These acts included Executive Order 6073, the Emergency Banking Act, Executive Order 6102, Executive Order 6111, the Agricultural Adjustment Act, 1933 Banking Act, House Joint Resolution 192, and later the Gold Reserve Act. These actions were upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in the "Gold Clause Cases" in 1935.
For foreign exchange purposes, the set $20.67 per ounce value of the dollar was lifted, allowing the dollar to float freely in foreign exchange markets with no set value in gold. This was terminated after one year. Roosevelt attempted first to restabilize falling prices with the Agricultural Adjustment Act; however, this did not prove popular, so instead the next politically popular option was to devalue the dollar on foreign exchange markets. Under the Gold Reserve Act the value of gold was fixed at $35 per ounce, making the dollar more attractive for foreign buyers (and making foreign currencies more expensive for those holding dollars). This change led to more conversion of gold into dollars, allowing the U.S. to effectively corner the world gold market.
The suspension of the gold standard was considered temporary by many in markets and in the government at the time, but restoring the standard was considered a low priority to dealing with other issues.
Under the post-World War II Bretton Woods system, all other currencies were valued in terms of U.S. dollars and were thus indirectly linked to the gold standard. The need for the U.S. government to maintain both a $35 per troy ounce (112.53 ¢/g) market price of gold and also the conversion to foreign currencies caused economic and trade pressures. By the early 1960s, compensation for these pressures started to become too complicated to manage.
In March 1968, the effort to control the private market price of gold was abandoned. A two-tier system began. In this system all central-bank transactions in gold were insulated from the free market price. Central banks would trade gold among themselves at $35 per troy ounce (112.53 ¢/g) but would not trade with the private market. The private market could trade at the equilibrium market price and there would be no official intervention. The price immediately jumped to $43 per troy ounce (138.25 ¢/g). The price of gold touched briefly back at $35 (112.53 ¢/g) near the end of 1969 before beginning a steady price increase. This gold price increase turned steep through 1972 and hit a high that year of over $70 (2.25 $/g). By that time floating exchange rates had also begun to emerge, which indicated the de facto dissolution of the Bretton Woods system. The two-tier system was abandoned in November 1973. By then the price of gold had reached $100 per troy ounce (3.22 $/g).
In the early 1970s, inflation caused by rising prices for imported commodities, especially oil, and spending on the Vietnam War, which was not counteracted by cuts in other government expenditures, combined with a trade deficit to create a situation in which the dollar was worth less than the gold used to back it.
The sudden jump in the price of gold after the demise of the Bretton Woods accords was a result of the significant prior debasement of the US dollar due to excessive inflation of the monetary supply via central bank (Federal Reserve) coordinated fractional reserve banking under the Bretton Woods partial gold standard. In the absence of an international mechanism tying the dollar to gold via fixed exchange rates, the dollar became a pure fiat currency and as such fell to its free market exchange price versus gold. Consequently, the price of gold rose from $35 per troy ounce (1.125 $/g) in 1969 to almost $500 (29 $/g) in 1980.
Shortly after the gold price started its ascent in the early 1970s, the price of other commodities such as oil also began to rise. While commodity prices became more volatile, the average exchange rate between oil and gold remained much the same in the 1990s as it had been in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s.
Fearing the emergence of a specie gold-based economy separate from central banking, and with the corresponding threat of the collapse of the U.S. dollar, the U.S. government approved several changes to the trading on the COMEX. These changes resulted in a steep decline in the traded value of precious metals from the early 1980s onward.
In September 1987 under the Reagan administration the U.S. Secretary of the Treasury James Baker made a proposal through the International Monetary Fund to use a commodity basket (which included gold).
United States silver certificates were a type of representative money printed from 1878 to 1964 in the United States as part of its circulation of paper currency. They were produced in response to silver agitation by citizens who were angered by the Fourth Coinage Act, and were used alongside the gold-based dollar notes. The silver certificates were initially redeemable in the same face value of silver dollar coins, and later in raw silver bullion.
Since the early 1920s, silver certificates were issued in $1, $5, and $10 notes. In the 1928 series, only $1 silver certificates were produced. Fives and tens of this time were mainly Federal Reserve notes, which were backed by and redeemable in gold. In 1933, the Agricultural Adjustment Act was passed, which included a clause allowing for the pumping of silver into the market to replace the gold. A new 1933 series of $10 silver certificate was printed and released, but not many were released into circulation.
In 1934, a law was passed in Congress that changed the obligation on Silver Certificates so as to denote the current location of the silver.
The last government regulation regarding the silver standard was in 1963, when President John F. Kennedy issued Executive Order 11110, authorizing the US Department of Treasury to issue silver certificates for any silver held by the U.S. Government in excess of that not already backing issued certificates. These redeemable silver certificates were issued for a short period in notes of $5, but they were eventually discontinued.
World War II devastated European and Asian economies while leaving the United States' economy relatively unharmed. As European governments exhausted their gold reserves and borrowed to pay the United States for war materiel, the United States accumulated large gold reserves. This combination gave the United States significant political and economic power following the war.
The Bretton Woods agreement codified this economic dominance of the dollar after the war. In 1944 Allied nations sought to create an international monetary order that sustained the global economy and prevented the economic malaise that followed the First World War. What they produced, the Bretton Woods agreement, laid the foundations for an international monetary order that created rules and expectations for the international economic system. The agreement created the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the predecessor of the World Bank, and an international monetary system based on fixed exchange rates. The Bretton Woods agreement valued the dollar at $35 per ounce of gold and the remaining signatories pegged their respective currency relative to the dollar leading some economist to believe Bretton Woods “dethroned” gold as the default asset.
While Bretton Woods institutionalized the dollar’s importance following the war, Europe and Asia faced dollar shortages. The international community needed dollars to finance imports from the United States to rebuild what was lost in the war. In 1948 Congress passed the European Recovery Program - generally known as the Marshall Plan – giving dollars to European countries to purchase imports needed to rebuild their economies. The plan helped European countries by providing them dollars to purchase the inputs needed to produce exports, eventually allowing the countries to export enough of their own goods to obtain the dollars necessary to sustain their economies without reliance on any Marshall-like plan. At the same time, Joseph Dodge worked with Japanese officials and Congress to pass the Dodge Plan in 1949, which worked similarly to the Marshall Plan, but for Japan rather than Europe.
The Marshall and Dodge plans' successes brought new challenges. In 1959 American dollars in circulation around the world exceeded U.S. gold reserves, and the dollar became susceptible to dollar owners demanding more gold from the U.S. than the U.S. had in reserves; the dollar was vulnerable to the currency equivalent of a bank run. In 1960, Yale economist Robert Triffin described the problem to Congress: either the dollar was not freely available and other countries could not afford to import American goods, or the dollar was freely available but confidence the dollar could be converted to gold would wane.
Eventually, the United States needed to devalue the dollar. During the early sixties American officials largely prevented the conversion of dollars to gold with a series of "gentlemanly" agreements and other policies – which included the London Gold Pool - but these actions were not sustainable; the danger of a run on U.S. gold reserves was too high. With Nixon's election in 1968, American officials became increasingly concerned until Nixon finally issued Executive Order 11615 in August 1971, ending the direct convertibility of dollars to gold. He said, "We must protect the position of the American dollar as pillar of monetary stability around the world… I am determined that the American dollar must never again be hostage in the hands of the international speculators." This became known as the Nixon Shock and marked the dollar's transition from the gold standard to a fiat currency.
The United States enjoys many benefits because the dollar serves as the international reserve currency. The United States could not face a balance of payments crisis as American debts are denominated in dollars, thus the Federal Reserve could simply print more dollars. In other words, the United States cannot suffer a debt crisis, per se, but would instead face an inflation crisis. The cost of producing a dollar to the United States is simply the cost of printing the note, whereas a foreign government must provide a dollar’s worth of goods for that dollar; the difference between these two values is called seigniorage and its benefits go directly to the American government. Further, the United States dollar's position in the world allows the American federal government to borrow money at exceptionally low interests rates due to high demand for the dollar. This phenomena is generally called "exorbitant privilege" and allows the United States to run a balance of payments deficit "without tears," as French economist Jacque Rueff said.
The position of the dollar as the international reserve currency also came with costs; the American government would be more likely to forego fiscal expansionary policies in order to maintain confidence in the dollar.
A United States Note, also known as a Legal Tender Note, was a type of paper money that was issued from 1862 to 1971 in the U.S. Having been current for over 100 years, they were issued for longer than any other form of U.S. paper money. They were known popularly as "greenbacks" in their day, a name inherited from the Demand Notes that they replaced in 1862.
While issuance of United States Notes ended in January 1971, existing United States Notes are still valid currency in the United States today, though rarely seen in circulation.
Both United States Notes and Federal Reserve Notes are parts of the national currency of the United States, and both have been legal tender since the gold recall of 1933. Both have been used in circulation as money in the same way. However, the issuing authority for them came from different statutes. United States Notes were created as fiat currency, in that the government has never categorically guaranteed to redeem them for precious metal - even though at times, such as after the specie resumption of 1879, federal officials were authorized to do so if requested.
The difference between a United States Note and a Federal Reserve Note is that a United States Note represented a "bill of credit" and was inserted by the Treasury directly into circulation free of interest. Federal Reserve Notes are backed by debt purchased by the Federal Reserve, and thus generate seigniorage for the Federal Reserve System, which serves as a lending intermediary between the Treasury and the public.
Today, like the currency of most nations, the dollar is fiat money, unbacked by any physical asset. A holder of a federal reserve note has no right to demand an asset such as gold or silver from the government in exchange for a note. Consequently, some proponents of the intrinsic theory of value believe that the near-zero marginal cost of production of the current fiat dollar detracts from its attractiveness as a medium of exchange and store of value because a fiat currency without a marginal cost of production is easier to debase via overproduction and the subsequent inflation of the money supply.
In 1963, the words "PAYABLE TO THE BEARER ON DEMAND" were removed from all newly issued Federal Reserve notes. Then, in 1968, redemption of pre-1963 Federal Reserve notes for gold or silver officially ended. The Coinage Act of 1965 removed all silver from quarters and dimes, which were 90% silver prior to the act. However, there was a provision in the act allowing some coins to contain a 40% silver consistency, such as the Kennedy Half Dollar. Later, even this provision was removed, with the last circulating silver-content halves minted in 1969. All previously silver coins minted for general circulation are now clad. During 1982 the composition of the cent was changed from copper to zinc with a thin copper coating. The content of the nickel has not changed since 1946. Silver and gold coins are produced by the U.S. government, but only as non-circulating commemorative pieces or in sets for collectors.
All circulating notes, issued from 1861 to present, will be honored by the government at face value as legal tender. This means only that the government will give the holder of the notes new federal reserve notes in exchange for the note (or will accept the old notes as payments for debts owed to the federal government). The government is not obligated to redeem the notes for gold or silver, even if the note itself states that it is so redeemable. Some bills may have a premium to collectors.
The only exception to this rule is the $10,000 gold certificate of Series 1900, a number of which were inadvertently released to the public because of a fire in 1935. A box of them was literally thrown out of a window. This set is not considered to be "in circulation" and, in fact, is stolen property. However, the government canceled these banknotes and removed them from official records. Their value, relevant only to collectors, is approximately one thousand US dollars.
According to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, there was $829 billion in total US currency in worldwide circulation as of December 2007.
In September 2004, it was estimated that if all the gold held by the U.S. government (287.13 million ounces = 8.14 million kilograms = 8,140 metric tonnes) were again required to back the circulating U.S. currency ($733,170,953,704), gold would need to be valued at $2,800/ounce ($90/gram).
The federal government began issuing currency that was backed by Spanish dollars during the American Civil War. As photographic technology of the day could not reproduce color, it was decided the back of the bills would be printed in a color other than black. Because the color green was seen as a symbol of stability, it was selected. These bills were known as "greenbacks" for their color and started a tradition of the United States' printing the back of its money in green. The author of that invention was chemist Christopher Der-Seropian. In contrast to the currency notes of many other countries, Federal Reserve notes of varying denominations are the same colors: predominantly black ink with green highlights on the front, and predominantly green ink on the back. Federal Reserve notes were printed in the same colors for most of the 20th century, although older bills called "silver certificates" had blue highlights on the front, and "United States notes" had red highlights on the front.
In 1928, sizing of the bills was standardized (involving a 25% reduction in their current sizes, compared to the older, larger notes nicknamed "horse blankets"). Modern U.S. currency, regardless of denomination, is 2.61 inches (66.3 mm) wide, 6.14 inches (156 mm) long, and 0.0043 inches (0.109 mm) thick. A single bill weighs about one gram and costs approximately 4.2 cents for the Bureau of Engraving and Printing to produce.
Another series started in 1996 with the $100 note, adding the following changes:
Annual releases of the 1996 series followed. The $50 note on June 12, 1997, introduced a large dark numeral with a light background on the back of the note to make it easier for people to identify the denomination. The $20 note in 1998 introduced a new machine-readable capability to assist scanning devices. The security thread glows green under ultraviolet light, and "USA TWENTY" and a flag are printed on the thread, while the numeral "20" is printed within the star field of the flag. The microprinting is in the lower left ornamentation of the portrait and in the lower left corner of the note front. As of 1998[update], the $20 note was the most frequently counterfeited note in the United States.
On May 13, 2003, the Treasury announced that it would introduce new colors into the $20 bill, the first U.S. currency since 1905 (not counting the 1934 gold certificates) to have colors other than green or black. The move was intended primarily to reduce counterfeiting, rather than to increase visual differentiation between denominations. The main colors of all denominations, including the new $20 and $50, remain green and black; the other colors are present only in subtle shades in secondary design elements. This contrasts with notes of the euro, Australian dollar, and most other currencies, where strong colours are used to distinguish each denomination from the other.
The new $20 bills entered circulation on October 9, 2003, the new $50 bills on September 28, 2004. The new $10 notes were introduced in 2006. The new $5 bills on March 13, 2008. Each will have subtle elements of different colors, though will continue to be primarily green and black. The Treasury said it will update Federal Reserve notes every 7 to 10 years to keep up with counterfeiting technology. In addition, there have been rumors that future banknotes will use embedded RFID microchips as another anti-counterfeiting tool.
The 2008 $5 bill contains significant new security updates. The obverse side of the bill includes patterned yellow printing that will cue digital image-processing software to prevent digital copying, watermarks, digital security thread, and extensive microprinting. The reverse side includes an oversized purple number 5 to provide easy differentiation from other denominations.
On April 21, 2010, the US Government announced a heavily redesigned $100 bill that featured bolder colors, color shifting ink, microlenses, and other features. It was scheduled to start circulating on February 10, 2011, but was delayed due to the discovery of sporadic creasing on the notes and "mashing" (when there is too much ink on the paper, the artwork on the notes are not clearly seen). The redesigned $100 bill was released on October 8, 2013. It will cost 11.8 cents to produce each bill.
"The soundness of a nation's currency is essential to the soundness of its economy. And to uphold our currency's soundness, it must be recognized and honored as legal tender and counterfeiting must be effectively thwarted," Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan said at a ceremony unveiling the $20 bill's new design. Prior to the current design, the most recent redesign of the U.S. dollar bill was in 1996.