The US Constitution and Money

IMG Auteur
Mike S. Rozeff
From the Archives : Originally published March 28th, 2010
8191 words - Reading time : 20 - 32 minutes
( 11 votes, 3.9/5 ) , 1 commentary
Print article
  Article Comments Comment this article Rating All Articles  
Our Newsletter...
Category : Gold University





Introduction to Edwin Vieira, Jr.’s Work on Money

This article outlines what the U.S. Constitution’s clauses and references to money mean. It examines constitutional money from a legal perspective. It does not examine money and banking from an ethical, economic, or political point of view. The idea is simply to set down in the clearest terms possible what kind of money is legal in the U.S., according to the Constitution, and what kind of money is not.

My source of information on this subject is Dr. Edwin Vieira, Jr.’s 1,722 page opus Pieces of Eight. The second edition appeared in 2002, and all references in this article are to the second edition. This article summarizes the first 177 pages of Vieira’s work. I have found it necessary at times to insert explanatory material in order to provide a self-contained narrative. All errors in interpretation of his work are solely mine.

Vieira’s book (in two volumes) may be found in law and other libraries, but it is out of print. Even if it were in print, it would not provide everyday reading for most Americans because it is long and complex. Vieira summarizes and extracts from his work in his many articles and talks. This article adds to and endorses that work. It summarizes a small portion, far from all, of what

Vieira conveys to us concerning the U.S. Constitution and money.

Dr. Vieira is a lawyer who specializes in constitutional law. He has argued or briefed cases before the Supreme Court. He holds four degrees from Harvard. This does not suffice to make his work authoritative. It is the work itself that does that. Pieces of Eight goes into the legality and constitutionality of all the major issues and cases in American monetary history. It analyzes them in detail with ample excerpts from original documents. It contains the highest level of scholarly citation, footnotes, and referencing that anyone might demand. Its arguments are masterly and logical.

The knowledge of the Constitution and money that is conveyed in Pieces of Eight is separate from taking a particular political position on the Constitution. None is taken here, not on its viability, nor its validity, nor on anarchism vs. minarchism, nor on what should or should not be done about existing conditions and constitutional violations. All positions on the political spectrum, of which there are many, may possibly benefit from understanding what the Constitution says is the law of the land and what is not. Whoever wishes reform of money within a constitutional framework will have to come to grips with the understanding of the system that Vieira conveys.

Vieira’s View of Constitutional Meaning

Vieira begins by spelling out and justifying his view of constitutional interpretation in general. This preliminary is absolutely essential. For example, the Constitution uses the term “dollar” in several places. What is a dollar? The Constitution was drawn up with great care. We have to presume that the framers knew what was meant by a dollar. Vieira therefore asks the question: What is a dollar?

Those who propose a living Constitution say that each generation or each Supreme Court or government defines the dollar as they see fit, and each definition is constitutional. By contrast, the original meaning concept says instead that the dollar means what the average educated person of the time when they were being asked to ratify the Constitution thought it to mean. It turns out that the constitutionally legal meaning of the dollar that is found by looking at its original meaning is something quite definite. We today are then legally bound by that meaning. It turns out then that a Federal Reserve dollar bill is legally (by constitutional law) not a dollar at all.

One finds original meaning by examining the language and logic of the Constitution, the then contemporary meaning of words, the legal precedents prior to its passage, the then-current legal and political understanding, and history.

What if it is the case, which it is, that we are not acting in accordance with the constitutionally legal meaning? What if our government is giving us an unconstitutional money and/or WE THE PEOPLE accept such a money as constitutional when it is not? Then the possibility of legal reform opens up. But if a convincing case is made for what a constitutional dollar is, then it constrains everyone. It constrains both those who support unconstitutional money and money laws and monetary reformers who support new alternative measures. Both face legal requirements that cannot be ignored.

Vieira does not subscribe to the notion of a living Constitution, that is, a document whose words, language, and ideas are perpetually reinterpreted by successive generations, in ways that are foreign and hostile to the document’s original intent. He subscribes to the idea that the Constitution has an original meaning or original intent that holds unless and until the Constitution is amended to alter that meaning.

Why is original meaning important and essential? We need to understand the original meaning of what the Constitution says, for that tells us how it should have been construed and applied from the beginning. In turn, that enables us to see how it may have been or has been misapplied by our governments and us Americans in the past so as to give us an unconstitutional money and monetary system. If we do not maintain the doctrine of original meaning, then we have no objective way to evaluate the constitutionality of laws.

Vieira connects both the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution legally to the Declaration of Independence. For details, see his article Bedrock of the Constitution. His legal view is that WE THE PEOPLE ratified the Constitution through special state conventions. In so doing we put it forward for ourselves, as its preamble declares. We meant it, among other things, to protect our rights as affirmed in the Declaration. We created a federal system of government in which states had certain powers, and certain other powers were enumerated and lodged in the government we call the United States of America or just the United States or the federal government. In all of this, the earthly power and sovereignty rests with WE THE PEOPLE. Governments are our agents to serve our purposes according to this compact, and we ourselves pledged to live by this compact, only changing it by the amendment procedures in the document itself and not by either legislative law or judicial rulings or executive actions.

Arguments for Original Meaning

Let’s now go through the arguments that support interpreting the Constitution by reference to its original meaning and not adhering to the living Constitution idea.

To begin with, the doctrine of original meaning is logically necessary if the Constitution is to act as a constraint on government action. The Constitution is supposed to give rise to a government that protects the rights that are declared in the Declaration. To determine if a law is not unconstitutional and infringing on rights or if the government is doing something it has no warrant to do, we have to refer to the meaning of the Constitution, i.e., we have to refer to its original intent or meaning. If we deny that such a fixed meaning is present or, at our pleasure, read new meanings into the Constitution that are not there, then we are denying that there is an objective check and balance that we are using to protect our rights. If we do that, then we are denying both the legal legitimacy and the practical efficacy of the Constitution as an instrument that institutionalizes the fixed principles of the Declaration that found the nation.. This means that those in government are being empowered or allowed to pass any laws they wish to pass, including laws that abrogate our rights. And so unless there is original meaning, we end up with the contradiction that we have a Constitution that is really not a Constitution that protects rights.

Four more arguments support the doctrine of original meaning. One is that in 1787 this doctrine already existed for hundreds of years. The second is that since the Constitution was new in 1787, it could have had no meaning to Americans of the time but what its original intent was. Third, as time passes and more and more of the Constitution’s provisions have to be understood more explicitly, any doctrine other than original intent creates legal confusion; for if subsequent generations adopt ever-changing standards of construing the Constitution other than original meaning, then instead of the Constitution being the controlling law, such things as fashion, whim, power, interest groups, and fads become the controlling law. Such a process denies the Constitution. Fourth, the Supreme Court itself, up until the late 1900s, repeatedly, in case after case after case, acknowledged the concept of original meaning.

One more argument favoring a Constitution of fixed meaning is that since all government officials take oaths of affirmations “to support the Constitution,” there must be something fixed to “preserve, protect and defend.” One cannot support, preserve, protect, and defend only the procedures of government. The Constitution is not an empty shell or blank check whose legal content is filled in by lawmakers and compliant courts. It enumerates specific powers as well as involves specific disabilities or absence of powers, and these are designed to protect rights.

Living Constitution Faulty

The concept of a living Constitution that is prevalent today is actually anti-Constitutional or antirights in nature, i.e., at bottom it is a totalitarian concept. If what the Constitution means changes depending on changing political, social, economic, and cultural fashions, ideas, and agendas, then this simply denies the Constitution, overturns it, and creates confusion. Government becomes a government of men, not of fixed laws and rights. The concept of a living Constitution turns judges into governors and determiners of rights as they see them or invent them, as opposed to protectors of known rights and laws established in the Constitution and Declaration of Independence. If the meaning of the Constitution is whatever the latest Supreme Court says it is, according to no fixed meaning but according to whatever factors determine the living Constitution, then no one can ever contend that the Court is wrong or has made an incorrect decision according to any fixed set of constitutional precepts and principles. Instead, everyone is forced into arguments on other arguable grounds, such as social conditions. These grounds are not constitutional in nature. If the Constitution’s meaning is not fixed but depends in theory or practice on errors, biases, and interests, then the government, due to its power, will reflect the worst in people, their “folly, avarice, ambition, and the lust for power.” (p. 28) Government becomes totalitarian; it gains the power to legislate on everything and anything, with no fixed bounds.

If conditions require constitutional change, the appropriate means is to amend the Constitution. If instead Federal justices override the Constitution by their decisions, the result is incoherence and chaos. These undermine the objectives of the Constitution by producing rights violations, insecurity, and injustice. The living Constitution is illegitimate.

Criticisms of Judicial Supremacy

Another modern doctrine must be debunked as well, and that is the doctrine of judicial supremacy. In ascertaining the original meaning of the Constitution in regard to money and banking, we do not defer blindly or only to Supreme Court judgments and interpretations. There are many good reasons why we do not. A partial list follows.

First, the “supreme Law of the Land,” in the words of the Constitution, is the Constitution itself, as written, not that which is handed down as a Supreme Court interpretation thereof and surely not the latter when the interpretation goes against the Constitution. The Constitution is fixed in meaning and content. The Constitution is not a living Constitution, that is, it is not what justices say it is at any given time or what they make of it at that time.

Second, observers of judges have long held that “ignorant, confused, or power-seeking judges often misapply or subvert the laws.” (p. 41) This is as true today as ever. Supreme Court judgments contains errors, misjudgments, and faulty statements of many kinds. We are under no obligation to accept them.

Third, quoting Vieira (p. 42):

“Judicial decisions, that is, can never be a source of constitutional law, from which anyone can unfalteringly induce or deduce even a correct, let alone a binding, interpretation of the Constitution. For judicial decisions are only the result of some courts’ having applied certain preëxisting legal principles, rightly or wrongly in the adjudication of particular cases or controversies.”

The concept behind these ideas is that the law and its principles are known. William Blackstone made clear that judges judge according to the known law and customs of the land. They are not deputed to pronounce new laws “but to maintain and expound the old.” If they overrule precedents, they do not pretend to make a new law but “to vindicate the old one from misrepresentation. For if it be found that the former decision is manifestly absurd or unjust, it is declared, not that such a sentence was bad law, but that it was not law.” “So that the law and the opinion of the judge are not always convertible terms, or one and the same thing; since it may sometimes happen that the judge may mistake the law.”

Fourth, the Constitution itself does not grant the Supreme Court a monopoly or a final say on what the Constitution means. It does not say that Supreme Court decisions are part of the supreme Law or any law at all. It grants it only a judicial power in given cases brought before it. Specifically, the Constitution says that the “judicial Power of the United States, shall be vested in one supreme Court, and in such inferior Courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish.” Further, “The judicial Power shall extend to all Cases, in Law and Equity, arising under this Constitution, the Laws of the United States, ...” This is not a broad-reaching power of judicial review or judicial supremacy, where such power binds other branches of government, such as is claimed by modern courts. In Massachusetts v. Mellon, 262 U.S. 447, 488 (1923), the Court spelled out the older moderate and more accurate constitutional position:

“The functions of government under our system are apportioned...The general rule is that neither department may invade the province of the other...We have no power per se to review and annul acts of Congress on the ground that they are unconstitutional. That question may be considered only when the justification for some direct injury suffered or threatened, presenting a justiciable issue, is made to rest upon such an act. Then the power exercised is that of ascertaining and declaring the law applicable to the controversy. It amounts to little more than the negative power to disregard an unconstitutional enactment, which otherwise would stand in the way of the enforcement of a legal right.”

Fifth, in their deliberations, the framers had many and varied views as to the notion that the federal judiciary is supreme in spelling out and interpreting the law of the  constitution. The historical record does not indicate that they meant the Court to have the final or definitive say about what the Constitution means or whether or not a law is constitutional.

Sixth, the Supreme Court has never directly addressed all the pertinent issues concerning money and banking, so that we cannot rely solely on its rulings on cases that have come before it. The Court has not ruled on (i) what a dollar is, (ii) the lawfulness of issuing (emitting) legal tender paper that is not convertible (redeemable) in silver or gold, (iii) the lawfulness of the government’s 1933 seizure of gold, (iv) the lawfulness of making the notes of a private bank into obligations of the U.S. and legal tender, (v) the lawfulness of allowing private banks to have discretion via an administrative agency to draw money from the Treasury without a Congressional appropriation, and (vi) the lawfulness of the Federal Reserve system. In order fully to understand what the Constitution says in regard to money, we have to analyze many matters like these ourselves.

Common Law Background

Numerous Supreme Court decisions specify that pre-Constitutional English common law is a highly relevant means to understand provisions in the U.S. Constitution. Blackstone’s Commentaries was the “standard legal treatise among Americans.” (p. 67.)

Blackstone taught concerning English monetary matters and powers that the precious metals (gold and silver) are used as money, or that money consists of precious metals, both as a standard of account and as a medium of exchange. English law equated money with coin and coin with silver and gold. Silver and gold coin are also called specie. The Crown had the power to coin money, which meant stamping it and fixing its metallic content. The phrase used at the time was “fix the value.” This did not mean fixing the price. It meant fixing the weight or metal content of a coin. True money was undebased coin, meaning coins whose metal weight was not altered by the Crown. Foreign coins were fixed in value by comparing their metal weights to the domestic standard. This was called also regulating their value. In this way, foreign coins could circulate along side domestic coins. From 1603 to 1816, England had a silver standard and circulated both silver and gold coins (bimetallic media of exchange). The common law denied the Crown (Executive) the power to compel loans from the people. Government borrowing had to be consensual.

Bills of Credit

Prior to the Revolution, the American colonies by and large did not coin money or regulate the value of foreign coin, although there were at times such efforts, but Parliament forbade them in 1707. For media of exchange, the Colonies used specie, commodities (such as tobacco), book credits or advances made by merchants, and paper currencies. The coins were mostly Spanish and Portuguese coins. The paper went by the name bills of credit. A bill of credit was a debt instrument, issued or emitted, that promised redemption in the future, not in money itself, but in a value equivalent to a certain amount of specie or money. For example, an early bill issued in 1690 by the government of the Massachusetts Colony reads “No (419) 20S This Indented Bill of Twenty Shillings due from the Massachusetts Colony to the Possessor shall be in value equal to money & shall be accordingly accepted by the Treasurer and Receivers subordinate to him in all Publick payments and or any Stock at any time in the Treasury. Boston in New England February the third 1690 by Order of the General Court.”

The bill of credit was not money but made equal in value to money (coin) in paying taxes to the Treasurer. Hence, it could circulate as a medium of exchange. Its market value would depend on supply and demand. It would depend, among other things, on how great an amount was issued by the government in comparison to taxes receivable and to the demand to use it as a medium of exchange in the population.

Another such bill emitted on February 4, 1736 reads :

“This Bill of Six Shillings and Eight Pence Due from the Province of the Massachusetts Bay in New England to the Possessor thereof Shall be in Value equal to One Ounce of coin’d Silver, troy weight, of Sterling Alloy, or Gold Coin at the Rate of Four Pounds eighteen Shillings p’ Ounce; and shall be accordingly accepted by the Treasurer or Receivers Subordinate to him in all Payments...”

The term legal tender refers to a means of payment that by law has to be accepted as payment for debts. The reach of legal tender varies. It may apply to public payments only, as for taxes and fees; or it may be extended to privately made debt contracts as well. The Colonial bills of credit were usually legal tender for public payments, and sometimes made legal tender for private payments.

Bills of credit had two kinds of backing. The first, already discussed, is that they were good for paying taxes and fees to issuing authorities. Secondly, colonial governments issued bills backed by mortgages on land. The colonial governments ran land banks.

These colonial bills of credit tended to be over issued by the colonial governments. They therefore tended to depreciate against silver and gold, that is, it took more and more of them to buy a given amount of silver or gold as their value sank. The extent of the depreciation varied among issuers. They also became a bone of contention between the colonial governments and Parliament. In 1740, Parliament forbade these emissions. A statute was passed that required the bills to be paid in “lawful Money”, meaning specie. In 1751, Parliament passed another such act (renewed in 1763), again forbidding any further emissions of bills of credit and also forbidding their being legal tender in any “private Bargains, Contracts, Debts, dues or Demands whatsoever.” (p. 76.)

Starting on September 5, 1774, the colonies convened a Continental Congress, the first of two. These governed until 1781 when the Articles of Confederation were adopted. Congress then convened as the Congress of the Confederation until 1789, at which time the U.S. Constitution came into being. The American Revolutionary War or War of Independence dates from the Battle of Lexington on April 19, 1775 (brought about on the previous day) to September 3, 1783, when the Treaty of Paris was signed.

From 1775 to 1779, Congress emitted bills of credit. These typically were issued by The United Colonies or the United States. They carried various small denominations such as Five Dollars or Thirty Dollars. The Bill read something like the following:

“This Bill entitles the Bearer to receive THIRTY Spanish milled Dollars, or the value thereof in Gold or Silver, according to a Resolution passed by Congress at Philadelphia,Sept. 26th, 1778.”

The Spanish milled Dollar was a silver coin carrying the name Dollar and having a weight in silver of approximately 368 to 374 grains of fine silver. It was also known as “Pieces of Eight”. Divided into 8 parts or bits, two bits were a quarter, slang still used today.

The Spanish milled Dollar, as we shall see, became the money unit or dollar of the United States or what the word Dollar means as used in the Constitution. It was not defined within the Constitution. We have to go to various surrounding documents, reports, recommendations, etc. in order to see this, but already in the promises made in these bills of credit, we have evidence of what was meant by a dollar.

These bills of credit were meant to circulate as a paper medium of exchange or as paper money. They could be passed from hand to hand: payment was to the bearer; no endorsement was required; the denominations were low; there was usually no interest paid on them; they usually carried no maturity date; and they were not issued with the many terms that attach to debts. The bills of credit were “paper money.” Money itself was precious metal, and a precious metal was also used to define the money-unit. But there is a firm economic distinction between paper money and money (specie.) Paper money is a liability of the issuer. Its features distinguish it from debt, but like debt it is a liability. As such it is a promise to pay in money or in something of equivalent worth to the money it specifies as the units being promised. Paper money cannot be defined until there exists some real asset that has value or is a standard. Hence, paper money is a derivative whose value depends on the many factors that influence the probability of payment and also the value of the gold and silver that it may promise to pay. Money (gold and silver coin) is not a liability or debt of any kind, and it is not a derivative. It is an asset whose value depends solely on what it itself as gold and silver is worth. Paper money and coin are only both termed money because they both are being used as a convenient medium of exchange.

Congress never paid off on these bills of credit; it defaulted on its promises. They became worthless for several reasons. They were not accepted by the Congress or the States as payment for dues and taxes, and so they lacked a tax foundation. Congress had no power to tax in order to pay them off, and the States made no credible commitments to supply the necessary specie. Furthermore, they were issued in very large quantities. By 1781, Congress had devalued them by 75 to 1 and eventually declared them not to “be current.” They were worthless as currency. They were a paper money that became worthless. Money itself, gold and silver coin, might fluctuate in value to some extent but the likelihood of its losing all of its value is extremely small.

The period from 1783 to 1787 was one of great economic and monetary instability. A depression set in after the prior inflation of these bills of credit. Unemployment rose, agriculture and real estate collapsed, and rates of interest were high. Trade fell off sharply.

Regulating the Value of Coin and the Spanish Dollar

The Articles of Confederation (1781) were to contain a provision, Article IX, for regulating the value of coin struck (minted) by authority of Congress or the states:

“The United States in Congress assembled shall also have the sole and exclusive right and power of regulating the alloy and value of coin struck by their own authority, or by that of the respective States...”

This power to set “value” and regulate alloy means only a power to establish a standard weight of metal in a coin across all the states, so that a dollar has the same weight (“value”) of metal across all regions. Congress took on an authority to determine the unit of account function of money. This is not a power to control the issuance of coin or determine its price in market exchange or monopolize its issuance or supply; for people could bring metal to mints and have it struck into coin form, or they could privately melt down coin and use it for other purposes.

Prior to the Articles, Congress had begun to develop a metal coinage system. A committee of Congress in 1776 recommended that the value of dollars and other coins of silver and gold should be regulated “by declaring the precise weight and fineness of the s’d Spanish milled becoming the Money-Unit or common measure of other coins in these states, and by explaining the principles and establishing the rules by which...the said common measure shall be applied to other order to determine their comparative value...” (p. 88.) The committee provided a table of values of various coins relative to the Spanish milled dollar.

In 1777, a committee of Congress recommended forming a mint and coining gold and silver bullion “into money, of such value and denominations as shall hereafter be ordered by Congress.” Also, “That any person who will bring gold and silver to the mint may have it coined on their own account.”

In 1785, Congress considered a plan to make the Spanish milled dollar “the Money-Unit.” And it noted that “the Dollar...has long been in general Use. Its Value is familiar.” Congress then “Resolved, That the money unit of the United States of America be one dollar,” but did not yet determine its silver content. In 1786, the Congressional Board of Treasury calculated that the “Money Unit or Dollar will contain three hundred and seventy five grains and sixty four hundredths of a Grain of fine Silver,” and “will be worth as much as the New Spanish Dollars.” The Articles allowed Congress various powers if a majority of States approved them. These included the authority to “coin money” and “regulate the value thereof.” Article IX of the Articles of Confederation also provided the United States in Congress with authority “to borrow money, or emit bills on the credit of the United States...” The money was gold and silver. The money-unit was a specific weight of fine silver. The Congress regulated the value of coins it did not mint, i.e., determined their metal content relative to the standard unit. And the Congress allowed a free market in coins by opening the mint to private conversions of metal to coins. The main changes to come in the Constitution that replaced the Articles were to remove the power to emit bills of credit, to forbid the states to coin money, and to make nothing but gold and silver a legal tender. In addition, the dollar received a somewhat different silver content definition.

Constitution’s Money Provisions

The U.S. Constitution, approved by the Convention in 1787 and ratified in 1788 by nine states, contains seven major provisions having to do with money.

Congress shall have Power “To borrow Money on the credit of the United States[.]” Article I, Section 8, Clause 2.

Congress shall have Power “To coin Money, regulate the Value thereof, and of foreign Coin, and fix the Standard of Weights and Measures[.]” Article I, Section 8, Clause 5.

Congress shall have Power “To provide for the Punishment of counterfeiting the Securities and current Coin of the United States[.]” Article I, Section 8, Clause 6.

A tax was allowed “not exceeding ten dollars for each Person” on the “Migration or Importation of such Persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit...” Article I, Section 9, Clause 1.

Article I, Section 9, Clause 7 reads in part: “No Money shall be drawn from the Treasury, but in Consequence of Appropriations made by Law...”

Article I, Section 10, Clause 1 reads in part: “No State shall...coin money; emit bills of credit; make any Thing but gold and silver coin a Tender in Payment of Debts...”

And Amendment VII reads in part: “In suits at common law, where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars, the right of trial by jury shall be preserved...”

Meaning of Money in the Constitution

We can grasp the meanings of these provisions at various levels of understanding and depth of analysis. No matter how deep the arguments go, the conclusions will be the same. Let’s start with the simplest arguments.

What is the Money that these articles refer to? We have seen that already that without exception in the years preceding the Constitution, Money means specie, coin, gold and silver coin, and nothing else. When Congress is given the power to coin Money, there is no mistaking the continuation of that meaning because it is metal that is made into coins. Similarly, we have seen that regulating the value of other coins, like the foreign coins mentioned, means a procedure of establishing a standard coin by its metal weight, finding the weight of metals in other coins (their “value”), and settling their relation to the standard. Congress subsequently did this in the Coinage Act of 1792. Congress may punish the counterfeiting of current coin of the United States, a further indication that by the term money is meant coin, and another indication is the article that prohibits the states from making thing but gold and silver a legal tender. Since tenders are the making of payments, this underscores that creditors could only be made by states to accept payments in gold and silver. Metallic money would be the only possible legal tender that a state could declare.

Even without going into depth, there is no little or no doubt that the Constitution sets up a system of metallic money (or hard money or commodity money).

Congress is nowhere empowered to issue or emit bills of credit, which was allowable under the Articles of Confederation. After debate in the Constitutional Convention of which we have the record (pp. 145-152), the phrase allowing this power was consciously struck out. Recall that these bills of credit were promises of various kinds, such as promises of value equivalent to money or promises eventually to redeem in money (gold and silver); they were not literally money but they were designed as paper money. This shows again that the Constitution meant to create a hard money system.

Instead of funding itself by emitting bills of credit or paper money, a power that was disabled and thus forbidden, Congress was given the power to tax and the power to borrow. It was empowered to borrow Money on the credit of the United States. This means to borrow coin since Money is lawfully supposed to be coin under the Constitution. It also means that the borrowing is to occur in a free market in which lenders lend to the U.S. on its credit as a worthy borrower that will repay the loan. Forced loans are not empowered.

Meaning of the Dollar

In What Is A Dollar?, Vieira summarizes and excerpts his longer work. The bottom line is this: “Thus did the first Congress - which knew what the Constitution meant if any Congress ever did - rigorously apply the Constitution's mandate: It determined as a fact ‘the value of a Spanish milled dollar as the same is now current,’ and thereby permanently fixed the constitutional standard of value, or ‘money of account,’ as a unit of weight consisting of 371.25 grains of fine silver in the form of coin. It coined American ‘dollars’ as ‘Money’, containing this intrinsic value of silver.”

Dollars are mentioned in two places in the Constitution. As explained above, just two years prior, in 1785-6, a previous pre-Constitutional Congress had designated the dollar as the money-unit and identified it with a Spanish silver dollar with a known weight of fine silver. Other evidence overwhelmingly, one might say definitively, supports the conclusion that this is what the dollar meant in the Constitution.

Queen Anne’s Proclamation of 1704 regulated all other current foreign coins in proportion to the rate set for various pieces of eight. There was variation among these coins in silver weight that settled down over time. Sumner notes that it was not a definite unit in 1704 but that it became so between 1728 and 1772:

“...but in practice a Spanish piece of eight always was a discharge for 6 shillings colonial, whatever the laws might say. Seventeen-and-a-half pennyweights worth 4 s. 6 d., put for 6 shillings colonial, gave 386.694 grains pure silver as 6 shillings. The same amount, assumed to be sterling fine, gave 388.5 grains. At 6 s. 8 d. per ounce, 6 shillings colonial would be 399.6 grains of pure silver. As we have just seen, the milled dollars of 1728 and the following years were down to 377.4 grains fine contents. This last was, therefore, the

definition of the ultimate money of reference, 1728-1772.”

Robert Morris, Superintendent of the Office of Finance, in a letter dated January 15, 1782 states that there “can be no doubt therefore that our money standard ought to be affixed to silver...there is hardly any which can be considered as a general standard, unless it be Spanish dollars.” Thomas Jefferson (July 24, 1784) in his money plan endorsed the Spanish dollar as a money-unit. After listing three conditions that included a convenient size coin, with parts and multiples in easy proportions, and having value near that of known coins, he concluded “The Spanish dollar seems to fulfill all these conditions.” “If we adopt the Dollar for our Unit,” he recommended four coins. The second coin was “The unit or Dollar itself, of silver.” The others were a gold coin worth ten dollars, a tenth of a dollar coin in silver, and a one hundredth of a dollar coin in copper. He strongly favored the dollar over the pound, observing that “Happily, the dollar is familiar to...all.” Due to the small variation in silver weight in the Seville, Mexico, and Pillar pieces of eight, he recommended taking a sample and assaying them to find an average. He recommended to Congress that it instruct a committee to prepare an ordinance with one principle being “That the Money Unit of these States shall be equal in value to a Spanish milled dollar containing so much fine silver as the assay, before directed, shall show to be contained, on an average, in dollars of the several dates in circulation with us.”

On April 8, 1786, the Board of Treasury reported to Congress. It noted first that Congress “by their Act of the 6th July last resolved, that the Money Unit of the United States should be a Dollar, but did not determine what number of Grains of Fine Silver should constitute the Dollar.” The Board “made our calculations accordingly.” It determined that

“The Money Unit or Dollar will contain three hundred and seventy five grains and sixty four hundredths of a Grain of fine silver. A Dollar containing this number of Grains of fine Silver, will be worth as much as the New Spanish Dollars.”

Congress adopted this standard on August 8, 1787 as “the money Unit of the United States.” Hence, on the eve of the Constitution, we know what was meant by money and the dollar. The unit of money was a coin with a fixed weight of silver equal in weight to the Spanish dollars of the time. However, no coins were issued of that weight. The weight was subsequently slightly adjusted downward (to 371.25 grains) in 1792, and that settled once and for all what became the permanent weight of the constitutional standard of value.

After the Constitution was adopted, Alexander Hamilton made his Report on the Subject of a Mint. He recommended that the dollar be the money unit and that it contain 371.25 grains of fine silver. The Coinage Act of 1792 stated that “the money of account of the United States shall be expressed in dollars or units.” It defined the “DOLLARS or UNITS [as] of the value of a Spanish milled dollar as the same as is now current, and to contain three hundred and seventy-one grains and four sixteenth parts of a grain of pure...silver.”

Vieira makes a subtle point (p. 194) about the dollar. Before the time and by the time that the Constitution was enacted, the framers and past Congresses already recognized the Spanish dollar as money. They did not make it into money or authorize its use as money. The market already had been using it for decades. The market already recognized the value in the Spanish dollar due to its silver content. The framers did not create a value by assigning the name dollar to an arbitrary coin made of base metal. They decided that U.S. dollar coins would have a certain weight of silver so that they would match the existing value of a Spanish milled dollar. That made such a coin and weight into an official U.S. unit of account. The Coinage Act of 1792 is a statute or legislative enactment that defines the statutory dollar of 1792 as “the value of a Spanish milled dollar as the same as is now current,” and the latter is the value of a constitutional dollar.

The 1792 statute does not make the dollar into money by labeling the coin as a dollar, but by identifying it with, as nearly as they could, the same fixed weight of silver that gave value to the Spanish milled dollar of the time. This means that the dollar designated in the Constitution existed before the 1792 Act and, as we have seen, before the Constitution was even adopted. To a certainty, we know what a constitutional dollar was and still is, namely, a certain and fixed weight of pure silver (371.25 grains). We know that the U.S. adopted a silver standard by its Constitution.

The original meaning of the Constitution with respect to money has not altered since its adoption because the provisions relating to money have not been amended, nor have other amendments weakened them or changed their substance. The constitutional money of the U.S. was and still is a silver standard dollar or coin or unit of this weight of silver.

Although the U.S. has, constitutionally, always had a single metal standard and never had a dual monetary standard, the Congress has exercised its power to regulate the coinage so as, at times, to promote the circulation of gold coins. A silver standard by no means rules out a parallel coinage of gold because the Constitution gives Congress the power to regulate the value of gold and foreign coins, by which is meant establish their weights relative to the standard dollar of silver. Done properly, both silver and gold will be money. Done improperly, Gresham’s law will come into play, and one metal will disappear from circulation.

Legal Tender, Borrowing, and Counterfeiting

We may now consider several remaining constitutional money issues.

What constitutional power does government have regarding making money legal tender? Since the states have the reserved power to declare that gold and silver, and nothing else but gold and silver, are legal tender, the Constitution approves of or allows one or more states’ making gold and silver legal tender for their states. The U.S. government has no explicit or delegated power to make gold and silver a legal tender. If it has any implicit legal tender power, as, for example, through the regulation of commerce, then that power cannot conflict with the states’ reserved power, which means that any such legal tender power of the federal government is restricted to making gold and silver into legal tender. For if the federal government could make one thing like copper a legal tender and a state had made silver a legal tender, then a constitutional dilemma would occur since the Constitution is the supreme law of the land. This means that Congress cannot make something into legal tender that the states cannot themselves make into legal tender.

What constitutional power to emit bills of credit does the Constitution grant? The states are specifically forbidden or disabled from issuing bills of credit by Article I, Section 10, Clause 1. As noted above, the framers debated allowing Congress to continue the power to emit bills that it had under the Articles of Confederation, but in drafting the Constitution they changed the language by eliminating the phrase “emit bills on the credit of the united states” that was in the Articles. Hence, they saw to it that the federal government has no constitutional power to emit bills of credit or paper money, as these bills are also termed. The vote in the Convention was 9 states to 2 to eliminate the phrase “and emit bills” from appearing after “To borrow Money”. The final language is that Congress shall only have Power “To borrow Money on the credit of the United States”, which is Article I, Section 8, Clause 2.

The only possible argument in support of Congress still having a power to issue paper money or bills of credit, despite what the Constitution says, is by way of mis-construing the borrowing of money on the credit of the United States to include emitting bills. A superficial economic argument to that end is to say that emitting a bill of credit is like issuing non-interest bearing bearer debt in small denominations that lack a maturity date. But borrowing money involves receiving coin now in exchange for paying it back later with interest on a specified date. The coin received is already in existence. By contrast, emitting a bill involves no receipt of coin. It involves creating a paper instrument to function as money. It is an addition to the media of exchange. Furthermore, if the government pays people, for example, with bills of credit, they provide goods and services to the government, not money. That exchange is not empowered by the Constitution. It is also not necessary to the exercise of a Congressional power since the Congress is equipped with powers to tax and borrow. If it can borrow on its credit, there is no need to issue paper money on its credit. This bars invoking the “necessary and proper” proviso. Possibly Congress might pay people using bills of credit that it declares to be legal tender. This is unconstitutional in two ways. The first is that if Congress has any legal tender capacity, it is to make gold and silver legal tender and nothing else. Second, forcing people to accept bills because they are made legal tender is a forced loan. Congress is not empowered to make forced loans. It can only borrow, and only borrow on the credit of the United States. Borrowing on credit means borrowing on the basis of trust in lenders that the borrower will repay; to force a loan is not to borrow on credit.

Congress shall have Power “To provide for the Punishment of counterfeiting the Securities and current Coin of the United States[.]” Article I, Section 8, Clause 6. Among other things, this clause has interest in its relations to the other clauses. It recognizes two and only two categories of financial items that can be counterfeited, which means that they are mutually exclusive and cover all possibilities. They are securities, a class that includes the evidence of borrowing, and coin, which is money. The Constitution here underscores that money is to be coined, money is to be regulated in value, and money is to be borrowed. Money is not a security and securities are not money. Borrowing money is not the same as creating money, as by issuing a bill of credit; and coining money is not the same as borrowing. The Constitution is all of one piece and consistent in its provisions regarding money.


The U.S. Constitution’s provisions on money are clearly written, well-defined, consistent, and well-thought out. The result has no little beauty and simplicity. The Framers asked WE THE PEOPLE to commit (or not) to a specific set of monetary principles and not to others. Certain powers and disabilities are spelled out. The constitutional monetary system is a hard money or metallic money system as opposed to a system of government-issued paper. It is a free market system in which the government does not control the money supply, but opens the mint to private coinage.

In this system, the federal government has several specific roles. One is to mint coins of a known weight of metal. Another is to regulate the value of other coins, including foreign coins, so as to be of proportionate worth based on their metal content as compared to the standard constitutional dollar, which is a silver standard coin as the money-unit or unit of account. The system envisages gold and silver coins as media of exchange and such coins, properly regulated, being the sole legal tender.

The Constitution outlaws the emission of bills of credit (paper money) by both state governments and the federal government. Only gold and silver coin may be made legal tender. Congress may not levy forced loans.

The Ninth and Tenth Amendments to the Constitution make clear that the monetary powers and disabilities that constrain government do not foreclose lawful or traditional rights of the People. The governmental money system is that which the government must use as it goes about its business, if it is to behave constitutionally. Hence when people interact with government as in the payment of taxes, they are obligated to use the money that the Constitution requires the government to use. For their private transactions, they may choose whatever media of exchange they want to and contract with them as they see fit. They are masters of their own forms of legal tender in private transactions if they spell them out in contracts.

The money and money system of today’s government are entirely divorced from gold and silver in any form. The system uses a combination of paper money and electronic credits created by the Federal Reserve system. This system is evidently unconstitutional.

The remainder of Vieira’s exacting work provides a comprehensive account of the legislative enactments and Supreme Court decisions and non-decisions that produced this astounding transformation from a constitutional into an unconstitutional system that is its polar opposite. He examines such major turning points as:

1. The First and Second Banks of the United States.

2. The first emission of government legal-tender paper currency in 1862.

3. The establishment of the Federal Reserve System in 1913.

4. The gold seizure and abrogation of gold contracts in 1933 that demonetized gold domestically.

5. The 1971 demonetization of gold internationally.

6. The 1968 demonetization of silver.

Vieira provides an extensive account of the Federal Reserve and its unconstitutionality. He closes the work with a roadmap to the reconstruction of America’s constitutional systems of money and banking.


Michael S. Rozeff

March 16, 2010



Michael S. Rozeff is a retired Professor of Finance living in East Amherst, New York. He publishes regularly his ideas and analysis on .

By permission 






<< Previous article
Rate : Average note :3.9 (11 votes)
>> Next article
Michael S. Rozeff is a retired Professor of Finance living in East Amherst, New York. He is the author of the free e-book Essays on American Empire. He publishes regularly his ideas and analysis on . Copyright © 2009 by
Comments closed
  All Favorites Best Rated  
Thank you for the time and effort put in to this well written article. I have a particular interest in the how the Constitution is viewed in the courts today. I agree that the “original intent” is important and that the statement that it is a “living document” is for people, as I observe, who are living in a round room. In other words they can't be cornered on anything. The psychologist would say they are “pathological liars” as apposed to intentional liars who fear the truth. There is considerable confusion as to the nature and jurisdiction of the Supreme Court and thus there is much displeasure with certain opinions of the court as those displeased view the Courts interpretation based on the Constitution ratified in 1787 and that the courts jurisdiction encompasses everyone living in the several States.
Your statement from the Constitution “judicial Power of the United States, shall be vested in one supreme Court, and in such inferior Courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish.” Further, “The judicial Power shall extend to all Cases, in Law and Equity, arising under this Constitution, the Laws of the United States” where the “United States” is an important entity. It is not referencing the several States of the union but the entity created by the States and is the basic working entity of the Congress. The laws of the United States are the laws of that entity and all that it controls, thus the “one supreme Court and such inferior Courts” are the courts to adjudicate “the Laws of the United States”. This is not how most people view the courts. Because it is widely supposed that the Marbury v. Madison decision as Wikipedia states “formed the basis for judicial review in the United States” which it does however the definition of United States means the entity controlled by the Congress not the several States. The Code of Federal Regulations and many Federal Administrative agencies define to U.S., United States etc. in accordance with the same definition that the Supreme Court defines “state”. Marbury v. Madison was, as you remember, a dispute over a Justice of the Peace position in the District of Columbia which the court had jurisdiction over because the District of Columbia belongs to the United States as does all of the territories and Federal districts. Theses entities are administered by the Congress and any agency that has been created by Congressional act. The people affected by the Supreme Court opinions are not the people of the several States. They are the territorial and district citizens. The Constitution of 1787 has no affect in the territories and federal districts as the court has ruled in many cases in the past. The Congress has general and plenary powers in the territories and federal districts.
Latest comment posted for this article
Thank you for the time and effort put in to this well written article. I have a particular interest in the how the Constitution is viewed in the courts today. I agree that the “original intent” is important and that the statement that it is a “living d  Read more
billgreenjeans - 4/5/2012 at 7:40 PM GMT
Top articles
World PM Newsflow