Bimetallism

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In economics, bimetallism is a monetary standard in which the value of the monetary unit is defined as equivalent both[1] to a certain quantity of gold and to a certain quantity of silver; such a system establishes a fixed rate of exchange between the two metals. The defining characteristics of bimetallism are[2]

  • Both gold and silver money are legal tender in unlimited amounts.
  • The government will convert both gold and silver into legal tender coins at a fixed rate for individuals in unlimited quantities. This is called free coinage because the quantity is unlimited, even if a fee is charged.

The combination of these conditions distinguish bimetallism from a limping standard, where both gold and silver are legal tender but only one is freely coined (example: France, Germany, or the United States after 1873), or trade money where both metals are freely coined but only one is legal tender and the other is trade money (example: most of the coinage of western Europe from the 1200s to 1700s.) Economists also distinguish legal bimetallism, where the law guarantees these conditions, and de-facto bimetallism where both gold and silver coins actually circulate at a fixed rate.

Bimetallism was intended to increase the supply of money, stabilize prices, and facilitate setting exchange rates.[3] Some authors, such as Angela Redish[4] or Charles Kindleberger[5] have argued that bimetallism was, by construction, unstable. Changes in gold-silver exchange were, in their eyes, leading to massive changes in the money supply. Bimetallism was thus inherently flawed and the advent of the gold standard was inevitable. This view has been challenged by Friedman[6] and Flandreau[7] who wrote that the option to pay in gold or in silver had in fact a stabilizing effect.

Argentina[edit]

In 1881, a currency reform in Argentina introduced a bimetallic standard, which went into effect in July 1883.[8] Units of gold and silver pesos would exchange with paper peso notes at given par values, and fixed exchange rates against key international currencies would thus be established.[8] Unlike many metallic standards the system was very decentralized: no national monetary authority existed and all control over convertibility rested with the five banks of issue.[8] The period of convertibility lasted only 17 months: from December 1884 the banks of issue refused to exchange gold at par for notes.[8] The suspension of convertibility was soon accommodated by the Argentine government, since, having no institutional power over the monetary system, there was little they could do to prevent it.[8]

France[edit]

An 1803 French law granted anyone who brought gold or silver to its mint the right to have it coined at a nominal charge over the official rate of 5 grams of 0.9 silver per franc or 3100 francs per kilogram of 0.9 fine gold.[9] This effectively established a bimetallic standard at the rate which had been used for French coinage since 1785, i.e. a relative valuation of gold to silver of 15.5 to 1. This rate was still close to the market rate in 1803, but for most of the next half century the market rate was above 15.5 to 1.[9] As a consequence, silver powered the French economy and gold was exported. Then the Forty-Niners went to California and found enough gold to make it a less precious metal. Now the market rate fell below 15.5 to 1 and stayed there until 1866. Frenchmen responded by exporting silver to India and importing nearly two-fifths of the world’s production of gold in the period from 1848 to 1870.[10] Napoleon III introduced five franc gold coins which provided a substitute for the silver five franc coins which were hoarded[11] but still maintained the formal bimetalism implicit in the 1803 law.

Latin Monetary Union[edit]

The national coinages introduced in Belgium (1832), Switzerland (1850), and Italy (1861) were based on France’s bimetallic currency. These countries joined France in a treaty signed on 23 December 1865 which established the Latin Monetary Union(LMU).[10] Greece joined the LMU in 1868 and about twenty other countries adhered to its standards.[12] The LMU effectively adopted bimetallism by allowing unlimited free coinage of gold and silver at the 15.5 to 1 rate used in France, but also began to back away from bimetallism by allowing limited issues of low denomination silver coins struck to a lower standard for government accounts.[13] A surplus of silver led the LMU to limit free coinage of silver in 1874 and to end it in 1878, effectively abandoning bimetallism for the gold standard.[13]

United States[edit]

In 1787 the United States Constitution established gold and silver as the legal tender of the United States[14] at a floating exchange rate. Then in 1792, Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton proposed fixing the silver to gold exchange rate at 15:1, as well as establishing the mint for the public services of free coinage and currency regulation "in order not to abridge the quantity of circulating medium.".[15] With its acceptance, Sec.11 of the Coinage Act of 1792 established: "That the proportional value of gold to silver in all coins which shall by law be current as money within the United States, shall be as fifteen to one, according to quantity in weight, of pure gold or pure silver;" the proportion had slipped by 1834 to sixteen to one. Bimetallism was effectively abandoned by the Coinage Act of 1873, but not formally outlawed as legal currency until the early 20th century. The merits of the system were the subject of debate in the late 19th century. If the market forces of supply and demand for either metal caused its bullion value to exceed its nominal currency value, it tends to disappear from circulation by hoarding or melting down.

Political debate[edit]

In the United States, bimetallism became a center of political conflict toward the end of the 19th century. During the Civil War, to finance the war the U.S. switched from bimetallism to a fiat money currency. After the war, in 1873, the government passed the Fourth Coinage Act and soon resumption of specie payments began without the free and unlimited coinage of silver. This put the U.S. on a mono-metallic gold standard. This angered the proponents of monetary silver, known as the silverites. They referred to this act as "The Crime of '73," as it was judged to have inhibited inflation. The Panic of 1893 was a severe nationwide depression that brought the money issue to the fore. The "silverites" argued that using silver would inflate the money supply and mean more cash for everyone, which they equated with prosperity. The gold advocates said silver would permanently depress the economy, but that sound money produced by a gold standard would restore prosperity.

1896 Republican poster warns against free silver.

Bimetallism and "Free Silver" were demanded by William Jennings Bryan who took over leadership of the Democratic Party in 1896, as well as the Populist and Silver Republican Parties. The Republican Party nominated William McKinley on a platform supporting the gold standard which was favored by financial interests on the East Coast. A faction of Republicans from silver mining regions in the West known as the Silver Republicans endorsed Bryan.

Bryan, the eloquent champion of the cause, gave the famous "Cross of Gold" speech at the National Democratic Convention on July 9, 1896 asserting that "The gold standard has slain tens of thousands." He referred to "a struggle between 'the idle holders of idle capital’ and 'the struggling masses, who produce the wealth and pay the taxes of the country;’ and, my friends, the question we are to decide is: Upon which side will the Democratic party fight?" At the peroration, he said "You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns, you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold." However, his presidential campaign was ultimately unsuccessful; this can be partially attributed to the discovery of the cyanide process by which gold could be extracted from low grade ore. This process and the discoveries of large gold deposits in South Africa (Witwatersrand Gold Rush of 1887 - with large-scale production starting in 1898) and the Klondike Gold Rush (1896) increased the world gold supply and the subsequent increase in money supply that free coinage of silver was supposed to bring. The McKinley campaign was effective at persuading voters that poor economic progress and unemployment would be exacerbated by adoption of the Bryan platform. 1896 saw the election of McKinley. The direct link to gold was abandoned in 1934 in FDR’s New Deal program and later the link was broken by Nixon when he closed the gold window.

Economic analysis[edit]

In 1992, economist Milton Friedman concluded that abandonment of the bimetallic standard in 1873 led to greater price instability than would have occurred otherwise, and thus resulted in long-term harm to the US economy. His retrospective analysis led him to write that the act of 1873 "... was a mistake that had highly adverse consequences."[16]

See also[edit]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ Oxford English Dictionary, bimetallism, "The system of allowing the unrestricted currency of two metals (e.g. gold and silver) at a fixed ratio to each other, as coined money."
  2. ^ Velde and Webber, A Model of Bimetallism, Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis Research Department
  3. ^ Encyclopedia Britannica, Bimetallism
  4. ^ Redish, Angela, 1995, “The persistence of bimetallism in nineteenth century France”. Economic History Review, 717–736
  5. ^ Kindleberger, Charles, 1984, A financial history of Western Europe, London: Allen and Unwin.
  6. ^ Friedman, Milton, 1990, “Bimetallism Revisited”, Journal of Economic Perspectives, American Economic Association, 4(4), 85–104.
  7. ^ Flandreau, Marc, 1996, “The French Crime of 1873: An Essay on the Emergence of the International Gold Standard, 1870–1880”, The Journal of Economic History, 56(4), 862–897.
  8. ^ a b c d e della Paolera, Gerardo; Taylor, Alan M. (2001). "The Argentine Currency Board and the Search for Macroeconomic Stability, 1880–1935". University of Chicago Press. pp. 46–48. Archived from the original on 2011-12-30. 
  9. ^ a b Dickson Leavens, Silver Money, Chapter IV Bimetallism in France and the Latin Monetary Union, page 25
  10. ^ a b Dickson Leavens, op. cit. page 26
  11. ^ John Porteous, Coins in History, page 238
  12. ^ Robert Friedberg, Gold Coins of the World, fourth edition, page 11
  13. ^ a b John Porteous, op. cit. page 241
  14. ^ U.S. Constitution
  15. ^ 2 Annals of Cong. 2115 (1789–1791), cited in Arthur Nussbaum, The Law of the Dollar, Columbia Law Review, Vol. 37, No. 7 (Nov., 1937), pp. 1057–1091
  16. ^ Milton Friedman, Money Mischief (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1992) 78.

Primary sources[edit]

References[edit]

  • Epstein, David A. (2012). Left, Right, Out: The History of Third Parties in America. Arts and Letters Imperium Publications. ISBN 978-0-578-10654-0.
  • James A. Barnes, "Myths of the Bryan Campaign," Mississippi Valley Historical Review, 34 (December 1947) online in JSTOR
  • David T. Beito and Linda Royster Beito, "Gold Democrats and the Decline of Classical Liberalism, 1896-1900," Independent Review 4 (Spring 2000), 555-75.
  • Bordo, Michael D. "Bimetallism." in The New Palgrave Encyclopedia of Money and Finance edited by Peter K. Newman, Murray Milgate and John Eatwell. 1992.
  • Dighe, Ranjit S. ed. The Historian's Wizard of Oz: Reading L. Frank Baum's Classic as a Political and Monetary Allegory (2002)
  • Flandreau, Marc, 2004, The Glitter of Gold. France, Bimetallism and the Emergence of the International Gold Standard, 1848–1873, Oxford, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 343 p.
  • Friedman, Milton, 1990a, "The crime of 1873," Journal of Political Economy, Vol. 98, No. 6, December, pp. 1159–1194 in JSTOR
  • Friedman, Milton, 1990b, "Bimetallism revisited," Journal of Economic Perspectives, Vol. 4, No. 4, Fall, pp. 85–104. in JSTOR
  • Friedman, Milton, and Anna J. Schwartz, 1963, A Monetary History of the United States, 1867–1960Princeton University Press. ISBN 0-691-00354-8.
  • Jeansonne, Glen. "Goldbugs, Silverites, and Satirists: Caricature and Humor in the Presidential Election of 1896." Journal of American Culture 1988 11(2): 1–8. Issn: 0191-1813
  • Jensen, Richard J. (1971). The Winning of the Midwest: Social and Political Conflict 1888–1896. 
  • Jones, Stanley L. (1964). The Presidential Election of 1896. 
  • Littlefield, Henry M., 1964, "The Wizard of Oz: Parable on Populism," American quarterly, Vol. 16, No. 1, Spring, pp. 47–58.
  • Angela Redish, "Bimetallism"
  • Rockoff, Hugh, 1990, "The Wizard of Oz as a monetary allegory," Journal of Political Economy, Vol. 98, No. 4, August, pp. 739–760. in JSTOR
  • Velde, Francois R. "Following the Yellow Brick Road: How the United States Adopted the Gold Standard" Economic Perspectives. Volume: 26. Issue: 2. 2002.
  • Richard Hofstadter (1996). "Free Silver and the Mind of "Coin" Harvey". The Paranoid Style in American Politics and Other Essays. Harvard University Press. Harvard. ISBN 0-674-65461-7. 

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