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Once, Gold and Silver Ruled
By Robert R. Van Ryzin, Coins Magazine
July 10, 2013

This article was originally printed in Coins Magazine.
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In my other life, I edit Bank Note Reporter, a monthly publication for paper money collectors. As such, I recently got back from the Memphis International Paper Money Show, where Heritage Auctions announced the consignment of four new specimens of extremely rare 1882 Gold Certificate varieties. The notes had been in a family’s holdings for years without that family knowing how much they were worth. Well, they’re expected to bring several million at auction and were quite a find and quite a news story from my perspective.

So what’s the link between these notes and coin collecting? It’s one of those that shows the ties between 19th century’s love of hard money and the needs of an expanding economy. Gold Certificates and Silver Certificates looked to back their pledge to pay with precious metals. This was unlike some earlier federal issues, which were not redeemable in hard money.

If you want to learn why our money was based on gold and silver, reading any of the hundreds of books from the era will give you a good idea of what led to our bimetallic coinage system and why it often didn’t work. Those books, many of which were of a “free silver” flavor, will also highlight the strong passions that were once engendered in the battle over hard money (precious metals) and soft money (paper). Much of this culminating in William Jennings Bryan’s failed bid for the presidency in 1896.

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These documents were especially prevalent in the late 1800s, when the Free Silver Movement was at its height and included the well-distributed writings of William “Coin” Harvey and Ignatius Donnelly. Both were free silver fanatics.

Harvey wrote several books, including Coin’s Financial School, in which a fictional lad, Coin, lectures financiers and prominent businessmen of his day in a classroom setting about the righteousness of the bimetallic standard and evils of a single, gold standard. Donnelly, a longtime politician from Minnesota, wrote similar pro-silver tracts and dallied in other topics, such as the lost continent of Atlantis and, in The Great Cryptogram, a supposed hidden code that reveals William Shakespeare’s writings were really by Sir Francis Bacon.

Today, other than the occasional silver coin in circulation or in a bank roll, it’s hard to imagine that precious metals were once so much a part of everyday life.

Happy collecting.



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