How California stayed with gold when the rest of the U.S. adopted fiat money?

Brilliant JP Koning in this brilliant post looks at this 1861 US monetary history. In this case, California refused to adopt greenbacks which were used in other states and continued to accept gold payments.

We are ten years into the age of bitcoin. But people are still using national currencies like yen, dollars, and pounds to buy things. What does history have to say about switches from one type of monetary system to another? In this post I’ll dig for lessons from California’s successful resistance to a fiat standard that was imposed on it in the 1860s by the rest of the U.S.

Not long after the war American Civil War broke out in 1861, a run on New York banks forced most of the country’s banks to stop redeeming their banknotes with gold. A few months later Abraham Lincoln’s Union government began to issue inconvertible paper money in order to finance the war. These notes were popularly known as Greenbacks.

$1 legal tender note, or greenback

Thus the 19 states in the Union shifted from a commodity monetary standard onto a fiat monetary standard. But Californians, who had been using gold as a payments medium for the previous decade-and-a-half, chose not to cooperate and continued to keep accounts in terms of gold. As a result, California stayed on a gold standard while the rest of the Union grappled with fiat money.

This had very different repercussions for prices in each region. As the Union issued ever more greenbacks to finance the war, the perceived quality of these IOUs deteriorated. Through much of 1863 and 1864, their price fell relative to gold. Because prices in the Union were set in terms of greenbacks, consumer and wholesale prices rose rapidly.

U.S. Index of Wholesale Prices (NBER)

In California, on the other hand, prices continued to be set in gold. Thus Californians did not experience significant inflation during the Civil War.

Hmm.

Why so?

Why did the east so easily switch onto a fiat dollar standard whereas California continued to define the dollar in terms of gold? By the 1860s, most Americans who lived east of the Rockies dealt primarily in banknotes. These notes, which were issued by private banks and convertible into gold on demand, circulated widely. Gold coins, which were heavy and prone to wear, were largely confined to bank vaults.

But Californians had never been fond of banknotes. The 1849 First State Constitutional Convention had prohibited the chartering of banks and issuing of bank notes:

but no such association shall make, issue, or put in circulation
any bill, check, ticket, certificate, promissory note, or other
paper, or the paper of any bank, to circulate as money
[California, 1853 #64, Article IV, Section 34]

Suspicion of banknotes ran so strong in California that when businessman Samuel Brannan tried to establish a note-issuing bank in 1857, the following was printed in the Evening Bulletin:

Mr. Brannan, attempts to violate the Constitution of the State, and to fasten upon the community that most pernicious of all evils, a shin-plaster currency….The evils of shin-plaster currency are so great, and the wishes of nine-tenths of our people are so bitterly opposed to its introduction, that we call upon every individual who has any regard for the interest of our State financially or otherwise, to repudiate Mr. Brannan and his shin plasters. (Cross, 1944)

According to Cross (1944), people referred to banknotes as shin-plasters because they were about the size of the plasters put on the injured shins of farmers and other outdoor workers.

Needless to say, Brannan’s notes never took hold. In place of banknotes, Californians had always preferred to pay each other with physical gold. With the discovery of the yellow metal in 1848 in California, the state had plenty of the stuff. Gold dust, despite its inconvenience (see below) was a popular early medium of exchange. Later on, private and government-issued gold coins also became important. Non-chartered private banks existed, but they issued only deposits, not notes.

Wow..

He says same thing goes for bitcoin as well.

Californians rejected the greenback because they had long adhered to gold as a form of payments. Any given merchant expected the rest of the mercantile community to continue paying with gold coin, which made it costly to adopt greenbacks. The reverse happened in the east, the monetary system tipping towards the more familiar banknote. Even as the greenback inflated, easterners still preferred to set prices in terms of paper. It was too costly for an individual merchant to shift onto gold given that every one else already accepted paper.

This same stickiness explains why new technologies like bitcoin haven’t got much usage as a way to pay. It also accounts for why Venezuelans have been slow to shift away from a bolivar monetary system to a dollar-based one despite the collapse of the bolivar. When groups of people collectively adopt a habit, this habit is very difficult to change.

 

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