Coinage Acts (Major Acts of Congress)
Lawrence H. Officer
The Coinage Act of 1873 (P.L. 42-131, 17 Stat. 424) comprehensively revised and rewrote the existing laws regarding mint and coinage issues. The important sections of the act of 1873 concerned gold and silver coinage, the basis of the monetary standard of the United States at the time. The act has a legislative history that dates to the Coinage Act of 1792, and it led eventually to the enactment of the Gold Standard Act of 1900.
LEGISLATIVE HISTORY OF GOLD AND SILVER COINS
For a country to be considered to be on metallic standard, whether gold, silver, or bimetallicsing both gold and silverhe first principle is that its mint must issue coins. The Authority for Gold and Silver Coinage, 1792875 table details laws that authorized U.S. coins between 1792 and 1875. Two features are of note. First, the least valuable gold coin was worth one dollar, and the most valuable silver coin also was worth one dollar. As gold was (and still is) much more valuable per ounce than silver, a silver coin worth more than one dollar would have been too large for practical use, and a gold coin worth less than a dollar would have been too small. Second, the Act of 1873 eliminated three existing coins made of silver, of which the silver dollar was the most important, and created a "trade-dollar," a special silver dollar coin to be used in international trade.
|Authority for Gold and Silver Coinage, 1792875|
|Authorizing Act||Silver Coins||Gold Coins|
|1792, P.L. 26, 1 Stat. 246||dollara, half-dollar, quarter dollar, dime, half dimea||eagleb, half-eagle, quarter eagle|
|1849, P.L. 3009, 9 Stat. 397||gold dollarc,d, double-eaglee|
|1851, P.L. 310, 9 Stat. 587||three centsa|
|1853, P.L. 329, 10 Stat. 160||three dollarsd|
|1873, P.L. 4231, 17 Stat. 424||trade-dollarf|
|1875, P.L. 4343, 18 Stat. 478||twenty centsg|
|aDiscontinued by Coinage Act of 1873.|
|cRenamed one-dollar piece in Coinage Act of 1873.|
|dDiscontinued by Act of 1890 (P.L. 5145, 26 Stat. 485).|
|fIntended for use only in international transactions. Discontinued by Act of 1887 (P.L. 4996, 24 Stat. 634).|
|gDiscontinued by Act of 1878 (P.L. 459, 20 Stat. 47).|
A second important consideration is that the coins issued must be accepted and satisfy the owner's monetary obligations, whatever the amount. The Legal-Tender Power of Gold and Silver Coin, 1792875 table shows that from 1792 to 1875, gold coins could satisfy unlimited financial obligation (had "unlimited legal-tender power"); whereas after 1853, silver coins other than a silver dollar could only satisfy obligations up to five dollars (possessed only "limited legal-tender power"). While The Coinage Act of 1873 essentially did not address this issue, a revised statute the next year also limited the standard silver dollar to a value of five dollars as legal tender.
|Legal-Tender Power of Gold and Silver Coin, 1792875|
|Silver Coins||Gold Coins|
|1792, P.L. 26, 1 Stat. 246||all||unlimitedb||all||unlimitedb|
|1834, P.L. 235, 4 Stat. 699||all||unlimitedb|
|1837, P.L. 24, 5 Stat. 136||all||unlimited||all||unlimited|
|1849, P.L. 3009, 9 Stat. 397||double-eagle, gold dollar||unlimited|
|1851, P.L. 310, 9 Stat. 587||three cents||30 cents|
|1853, P.L. 329, 10 Stat. 160||half-dollar, quarter dollar, dime, half dime||five dollars||three dollars||unlimited|
|1873, P.L. 4231, 17 Stat. 424||trade-dollarc, half-dollar, quarter-dollar, dime||five dollars||all||unlimitedd|
|1874, P.L. 4333, 18 Stat. 113e||allf||five dollars||all||unlimitedd|
|1875, P.L. 4343, 18 Stat. 478||twenty cents||five dollars|
|aLimit, if any.|
|bCoins less that full weight at values proportional to their actual weights.|
|cLegal tender eliminated in 1876 (J.R. 44-17, 19 Stat. 215).|
|dCoins less than standard weight and limit of tolerance at valuation proportional to their actual weights.|
|eLeading to 1874, 43-3586, Rev. Stat. 708.|
A third element of a coin standard is that there be "free coinage," meaning that any private party may bring gold or silver in large quantities to the mint to be coined, and receive the coin or money equivalent. The Freedom of Coinage, 1792873 table shows that free coinage for gold was always available from 1792 to 1873 (and in fact until the United States abandoned the gold standard in 1933). However, free coinage for silver coins less than a dollar ended in 1853, and the Act of 1873 ended free coinage of the standard silver dollar. It was never restored.
|Freedom of Coinage, 1792873|
|1792, P.L. 26, 1 Stat. 246||all||all|
|1837, P.L. 24, 5 Stat. 136||all||all|
|1853, P.L. 329, 10 Stat. 160||silver dollar only|
|1873, P.L. 4231, 17 Stat. 424||trade-dollar only||all|
The "fine weight" of a coin is the amount of the pure metal (either gold or silver) that it contains. The "standard fineness" is the percentage of the coin's weight consisting of the pure metal, the remainder being essentially a worthless alloy. The "standard weight" is the total weight of the coin (pure metal plus alloy). The Legal Gold and Silver Value of Dollar, 1792873 table lists the legislated fine and standard weights of the gold and silver dollar from 1792 to 1873. The table also shows the legal gold/silver price ratio (number of ounces of silver compared to ounces of gold in a coin), the "mint ratio." Not shown is the fineness, which is 1485/1664 and 11/12 for gold and silver coins, respectively (Act of 1792), 116/129 for gold coin (Act of 1834), and 9/10 for gold and silver coins (Acts of 1837 and 1873).
|Legal Gold and Silver Value of Dollar, 1792873|
|Weight of Dollar (grainsa)|
|Authorizing Act||Fine||Standard||Fine||Standard||Gold/Silver Price Ratiob|
|1792, P.L. 26, 1 Stat. 246||371.25||416||24.75c||27c||15.0000|
|1834, P.L. 235, 4 Stat. 699||23.2c||25.8c||16.0022|
|1837, P.L. 24, 5 Stat. 136||371.25||412.5||23.22c||25.8c||15.9884|
|1873, P.L. 4231, 17 Stat. 424||378d||420d||23.22||25.8||/td>|
|aUnder the customary "avoirdupois" measurement system (16 ounces = 1 pound), 1 ounce = 437.5 grains.|
|bRatio of fine-silver to fine-gold content of dollar, when both gold and silver are unlimited legal tender.|
|cInferred as one-tenth weight of eagle ($10 gold piece).|
|dTrade-dollar, limited legal tender.|
All of the coins worth less than one dollaralled fractional coinsere made of silver. Fractional coins were much more important in the nineteenth century than today, because prices were so much lower. In fact, retail transactions were conducted largely with such coins. The Fine-Silver Content of Fractional Coin, 1792875 table summarizes the legislated fine-metal content of such coin compared to the standard silver dollar. Until the Act of 1853, the relative value (the fine-weight to total-weight ratio) of fractional silver coins (except for the three-cent coin) was the same as the silver dollar. The Act of 1853 reduced the ratio, thus overvaluing fractional coins relative to the dollar. The Act of 1873 slightly increased this ratio for fractional coins.
|Fine-Silver Content of Fractional Coin, 1792875|
|Authorizing Act||Coins||Divergence from Silver Dollar|
|1792, P.L. 26, 1 Stat. 246||all||zero|
|1837, P.L. 24, 5 Stat. 136||all||zero|
|1851, P.L. 310, 9 Stat. 587||three cents||6.67 percent|
|1853, P.L. 329, 10 Stat. 160||all except three cents||.91 percent|
|1853, P.L. 326, 10 Stat. 181||three cents||.91 percent|
|1873, P.L. 4231, 17 Stat. 424||all except twenty cents||.47 percent|
|1875, P.L. 4343, 18 Stat. 478||twenty cents||.47 percent|
EFFECTS OF COINAGE LEGISLATION
Legally, the Coinage Acts of 1792 and 1837 placed the United States on a bimetallic (gold and silver) standard, and all other amendments until 1853 were consistent with this standard. However, a bimetallic standard is inherently unstable, because the mint ratio (the ratio of value of gold to value of silver in coins set by legislation) can differ from the world market ratio (the ratio of the market value of gold to the market value of silver). Private parties melted down the undervalued coins, and sold the metal on the free marketealizing a profit they coined the "overvalued" metal at the mint and used it for domestic money. In the early 1790s the mint ratio of 15:1 (gold being worth fifteen times more per ounce than silver) was close to the market ratio; but the market ratio increased (gold becoming even more valuable relative to silver) so that by the turn of the ninteenth century, with gold undervalued at the mint, gold-coin was melted down and ceased to circulate, while silver (overvalued at the mint) was coined and circulated domestically: the United States was on an effective silver standard.
The Coinage Act of 1834 increased the mint ratio sufficiently so that the relationship between legal and market ratio was reversed. Overvalued gold drove out silver coins; but the situation did not become that bad for fractional silver coin (because of the expense in collecting and processing a given dollar value of such coins, compared to the silver dollar) until Australian and Californian gold discoveries greatly increased world gold production in the late-1840s, reducing the market ratio and enhancing the legal overvaluation of gold. It then became profitable even to ship fractional coin abroad, and retail trade suffered.
The impact of the gold dollar, authorized in the Coinage Act of 1849, was minimal, because its small size made the coin unpopular and its denomination was too high to complete most retail trades. More effective was the three-cent silver piece authorized by the Postage Act of 1851. This was the first U.S. subsidiary silver coin, meaning that its legal (denominational) value was higher than its intrinsic (metallic) value. Such overvaluation protected silver coins from being melted into bullion and/or exported, even in the face of a favorable (low) market gold/silver price ratio. The Secretary of the Treasury enhanced the overvaluation of the coin by interpreting the act as if it included essentially free coinage: the mint allowed private parties freely to exchange any U.S. gold or silver coin for the new piece (in lots of 100 coins worth $3.00). Though a temporary success, the coin was too small in size (the smallest coin ever to circulate in the United States) and too low a denomination to solve the "small-change" shortage.
The Coinage Act of 1853 provided the solution by making subsidiary all fractional silver from the half-dime to the half-dollar. Though free coinage was expressly forbidden, the act authorized the mint to purchase bullion to produce the coins and to exchange them (in lots of $100) for gold coin. The three-dollar gold coin, authorized in the same act, was an odd denomination, never popular, and only a small number were ever issued.
The Coinage Act of 1873, in eliminating the free coinage of silver, added to the upward pressure on the price of gold emanating from other countries adopting the gold standard and a smaller increase of gold output. Nobel Laureate Milton Friedman believes that deflation and financial panics resulted from the adoption of the act, and that legal bimetallism, involving an alternating effective gold or silver standard, would have provided greater economic stability in subsequent decades.
RATIONALES FOR COINAGE LEGISLATION
A mint ratio of 16:1 (gold to silver) in the Coinage Act of 1834 was suddenly, at the end of the legislative process, included in the bill as a substitute for the original ratio of 15.625 (one much closer to the market rate). Several reasons for this shift have been offered: (1) to bring about an effective gold standard, desired by eastern businesses and commercial interests; (2) to enhance profits from gold production, thereby assisting gold-mining companies in southern states; (3) to help destroy the Second Bank of the United States, by substituting gold coin for its notes, in response to pressure from President Andrew Jackson and his allies.
It is thought that the gold coin's unwieldy fineness (116/129) resulted from this hurried amendment procedure. Combined with the fineness of silver coins (1485/1664) prescribed in the 1792 Coinage Act, the legislated proportion of alloy in coin was inconvenient for the mint to produce. The Act of 1837 provided a fineness of 9/10, thus correcting an arithmetic difficultyn unusual reason for any legislation.
The one-dollar gold piece authorized by the Coinage Act of 1849 was an attempt to provide a substitute for vanishing fractional silver coins. The three-cent silver piece authorized by the Postage Act of 1851 was intended simply to make it convenient to purchase the three-cent postage stamp legislated by that act (replacing the five-cent rate). Unintentionally, the coin helped fulfill the need for a fractional coinage.
The rationale for the Coinage Act of 1853 is controversial. One interpretation is that the purpose of the act was simply to render a proper subsidiary coinage, which it indeed accomplished; and also formal bimetallism was preserved. Another view is that the reduction of fractional silver to subsidiary status with restricted legal-tender power was a move toward adoption of the gold standard. That the standard silver dollar was left unaffected by the act mitigates against the latter interpretation, although it is also possible that the silver dollar was unmentioned because it was virtually unknown (none had been coined from 1806 to 1835, and few thereafter issued compared to the half-dollar).
Because the Coinage Act of 1873 discontinued coinage of the silver dollar, it is viewed by many as the formal end of bimetallism in the United States. An alternative interpretation is that omission of the silver dollar merely modified the coinage law to reflect the reality that the coin had not been in circulation for many years. Indeed, historians have described the silver dollar as a coin unknown to most Americans at the time.
Subsequent to the 1873 act, bimetallism supporters (and silver producers, who found they could no longer have their bullion coined) argued that the act was the "Crime of 1873"he result of a conspiracy against silver and bimetallism. Modern scholars believe that accusation to be absurd; but scholars generally agree that proponents of the bill feared that an effective silver standard would result from continuing free silver coinage in the face of an imminent decline in the market price of silver (increase in the market gold/silver price ratio). Some think that most members of Congress were ignorant of the intricacies and implications of the 1873 act; but it has been pointed out that this was probably true for all the coinage laws and all complex legislation.
The Act of 1873 left undisturbed the full legal-tender power of existing silver dollars. The general revision of all statutes adopted in 1874 implicitly included the silver dollar in the restricted legal tender of "all" silver coins (see the Legal-Tender Power of Gold and Silver Coin, 1792875 table). It was this 1874 revision that accomplished the true demonetization of silver and thereby placed the country on a legal gold standard. Whether the revision respected the intent of Congress manifested in the Act of 1873 depends on whether the omission of silver-dollar coinage in the act was deliberate or intentional.
See also: BLAND-ALLISON ACT; COINAGE ACT OF 1792; GOLD STANDARD ACT OF 1900
Carothers, Neil. Fractional Money. New York: John Wiley, 1930.
Friedman, Milton. "The Crime of 1873." Journal of Political Economy 98, no. 6 (1990): 1159194.
Friedman, Milton, and Anna Jacobson Schwartz. A Monetary History of the United States, 1867-1960. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1963.
Laughlin, J. Laurence. The History of Bimetallism in the United States. New York: D. Appleton, 1900.
Officer, Lawrence H. Between the Dollar-Sterling Gold Points. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press, 1996.
Weinstein, Allen. "Was There a 'Crime of 1873'? The Case of the Demonetized Dollar." Journal of American History 54, no. 2 (1967): 307-326.