WHAT IS A DOLLAR?

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The word "dollar" evolved from its phonetic precursor, "thaler", which was an abbreviation of "Joachimsthaler".  Joachimsthal was a mining town in Bohemia, where Count Schlick first began striking these silver "thaler" coins in 1519.

In 1789 the word "dollars" appeared in the united States' Constitution in Article I, Section 9.  At the same time Article I, Section 10 of the Constitution defined the substance of American "dollars":  "No State...shall make any Thing but gold and silver Coin a Tender in Payment of Debts." 

Two years later the word "dollars" appeared in the Bill of Rights in Article 7:

 "In Suits at common law, where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars, the right of trial by jury shall be preserved, and no fact tried by jury, shall be otherwise re-examined in any Court of the United States, than according to the rules of the common law."  

However, the first "dollars" were neither American nor English.  The "dollars" referred to in the united States' Constitution were Spanish milled dollars.  In the years leading up to the adoption of the Constitution Spanish dollars (also called "pieces of eight") were the most accepted form of money.  In 1785 Thomas Jefferson submitted a pamphlet to the Continental Congress which stated: 

"Taking into our view all money transactions, great and small, I question if a common measure, of more convenient size than the dollar, could be proposed....The unit or dollar is a known coin, and the most familiar of all to the minds of people.  It is already adopted from south to north; has identified our currency, and therefore happily offers itself as an unit already introduced."  [THE CREATURE FROM JEKYLL ISLAND by G. Edward Griffin]

At the time there were many different kinds of colonial shillings in circulation, all with different values in terms of the English shilling.  However, the Spanish silver dollar, which came in by trade across the frontier from Louisiana, which Spain later ceded to France, was the principal coin of commerce.  It contained 374 7/8 grains of silver.

On the second day of the Second Continental Congress, May 11, 1775, John Hancock of Massachusetts proposed a plan to raise funds for support of our forces in the fight for freedom, involving the use of Spanish milled silver dollars for payments of notes to be issued by the Congress.  The Journal of the Continental Congress on June 2, 1775, records a "resolve" that a sum not exceeding two missions of Spanish milled dollars be emitted by the Congress in bills of credit for the defense of America.  However, when the Constitution was ratified in 1789, Congress was henceforth prohibited from emitting bills of credit (i.e., debt-based paper money). 

The Founders had discovered during the Revolutionary War that paper money could be inflated until it was virtually worthless.  They figured the only way to finance the war was to issue notes because there was no way to tax the people.  Their original intention was for the states to redeem the paper notes with silver dollars in late 1779.  However, their plan failed because in 1780 it took forty continental paper "dollars" to equal one real silver dollar.  In 1778 General Washington complained, ”It takes a wagon load of money to pay for a wagon load of supplies”.  This is why the Constitution prohibited Congress from printing paper notes as money and then defined "money" as gold and silver coin.  Article I, Section 8 has never been amended and still states: 

"The Congress shall have Power...To coin Money, regulate the Value thereof, and of foreign Coin, and fix the Standard of Weights and Measures." 

Notice that it does not say "print" money.  The framers of the Constitution were so adamant about prohibiting the printing of paper currency that one of the delegates, George Reed of Delaware, exclaimed that if they put the words "emit bills of credit" in the Constitution it would be "as alarming as the mark of the beast in Revelation!"

On April 19, 1776, a committee of seven was appointed by the Continental Congress, to examine and ascertain the value of the species of gold and silver coins then current in the colonies and to determine the proportions "they ought to bear to Spanish milled dollars."  This committee filed such a report on September 2, 1776.  Included in the report are references to such denominations as English and French guineas, Johannes and half Johannes, Spanish and French pistole, doubloons, English and French crowns, English shillings, and the then popular Spanish milled dollars, all of which served as a medium of exchange in the colonies.

Thomas Jefferson expressed the opinion that in fixing the unit of money the following circumstances were of principal importance:

1.  That it be of a convenient size to be applied as a measure to the common money transactions of life.

2.  That its parts and multiples be in easy proportion to each other so as to facilitate the Money Arithmetic.

3.  That the Unit and its parts or divisions be so nearly of the value of some of the known coins so that they may be of easy adoption for the people.

Mr. Jefferson concluded the Spanish dollar seemed to fulfill all these conditions.

The Superintendent of Finance in the Continental Congress, Robert Morris, wrote in 1777:  "The various coins which have circulated in America have undergone different changes in their value, so that there is hardly any which can be considered as a general standard, unless it be Spanish dollars.  These pass in Georgia at five shillings, in North Carolina and New York at eight shillings, in Virginia and the four Eastern States at six shillings, and in all the other States except South Carolina at seven shillings and sixpence, and in South Carolina at thirty-two shillings and sixpence."

The dollar was established as the ideal money unit of the United States of America by the Continental Congress, on July 6, 1785.  On the eighth of August 1786, it was enacted that the standard for coinage of gold and of silver should be eleven parts fine and one part alloy, and that the money unit or dollar should contain 375-64/100 grains of fine silver.

However, the Spanish dollar varied in weight between issues, which created an inconvenience in trade.  Jefferson voiced this concern in 1785: 

"If we determine that a dollar shall be our unit, we must then say with precision what a dollar is.  This coin as struck at different times, of different weight and fineness, is of different values."

In 1789 the Constitution gave Congress the power to regulate the value of the dollar by weight and fineness.  Eventually on April 2, 1792 the first Mint Act was passed under the present Constitution and the dollar and its value were finally defined.  The coinage act of 1792 established the following:

1.  Authorized coinage of the silver dollar (of the value of Spanish milled dollar) against the deposit of silver and fixed its weight at 371.25 grains of pure silver or 416 grains of standard silver;

2.  fixed the standard for silver coins as 1485/1664 (.8924) fine;

3.  fixed the coinage ratio of gold and silver as 1 to 15;

4.  provided for free coinage; and

5.  declared silver dollars (and all other coins authorized) lawful tender.

[The five points above were taken verbatim from the US Mint web site.  Notice that they refer to "silver dollars" as "lawful tender", not "legal tender".  The terms "legal" and "lawful" are not synonymous.]

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