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This is page 4 of an 1963 informative multi-page article about Revolutionary war Continental currency and it's devaluation (inflation).  It was written almost a century later when the United States was facing another war crises, the Civil War. 


(Click here to return to first page)   Page 4 of 5

The Continental Currency

The following article is from

The New York Herald newspaper

- dated January 26, 1863

 It will be observed in the foregoing table that in 1778 -  the third year of the war - and once or twice afterward, there was a slight reaction from the depreciation of the paper money.  This improvement, on the principles to which we have just referred, is easily explained.  The legitimate demand for currency was increased by the improvement of trade and the increased activity of internal exchange.  Hence more was absorbed and its value rose.  The reaction, though temporary, was decisive.  France had recognized the young republic.  Lafayette, Kosciusko and other accomplished officers had come from Europe to fight the battles of freedom in the new World.  Thousands of disciplined troops followed, and were received into our armies.  A French fleet appeared in the Delaware.  Franklin had negotiated loans in France, in Holland and in Spain.  The consequence was an increase of public confidence and an improvement in trade.  A greater number of exchanges had to be made, and the money required from those exchanges, being more in demand, rose in value, or, at least, was prevented for a time from depreciating further.

The two hundred millions of paper emitted by Congress were then worth to those who first received them about thirty-six millions of dollars.  But the depreciation, when it began, was very irregular, being considerably aggravated by the local issues of the several colonies. At an early period of the war the old time-honored manufactories of paper money in various parts of the country began to resume their functions, and were galvanized into a spasmodic and mischievous activity.  They sent forth reams of the * colonial bills of credit, with or without guarantees of redemption; for it was observed that in either case the currency was eagerly received at par with the Continental money.  The amount of the rival issues from these subordinate sources cannot be positively ascertained.  At least two hundred millions are believed to have been put forth during the war; but in the year 1777, when the tide of depreciation began to set in, the colonial bills afloat amounted probably to not less than six millions of dollars.  As the Continental money then amounted to fourteen millions, and the whole circulation of specie had hidden itself from view, the total currency afloat from all sources was twenty millions - a sum which formed about one-tenth of the internal and external trade of the country, and allowed about seven dollars for every inhabitant.

This sum, as was afterwards inferred, was as much as could be absorbed by business of the country.  And it was because this natural limit was exceeded that depreciation began.  Had this glut been prevented, had the amount of paper money been kept precisely equal to what the aggregate of metallic money would have been if no paper were in circulation, the depreciation could not have occurred.  John Adams was one of the first to set these principles in a clear light, and to

discover their application to the anomalous state of things around him.  His views are summed up by himself as follows:-

"The amount of ordinary commerce, internal and external, of a country may be computed at a fixed sum.  A certain sum of money is needed to circulate among the society in order to carry on their business.  This precise sum is discoverable by calculation and reducible to certainty.  You may emit paper or any other currency for this purpose until you reach this rule, and it will not depreciate.  After you exceed this rule it will depreciate and no power or set of legislation hitherto invented can prevent it.  In the case of paper, if you go on emitting forever, the whole mass will be worth no more than that was which emitted within the rule."

The difficulty is that the amount of currency required, especially in commercial countries, where banking facilities are great, is a variable quantity.  Its volume fluctuates from day to day, and depends on the activity of business, the growth of opulence, the state of public confidence, the foreign exchanges and other circumstances too numerous to mention.

Of the enhancement of prices from the depreciation of the Continental money we will give a single example.  John Adams, writing on the 20th June, 1780, to the count de Virgennes, says that

"linens which cost two francs a yard in France were sold at forty dollars a yard.  Broadcloth, a lous d'or a yard, sold at two hundred and twenty for one.  Millinery of all sorts at an advance far exceeding. Bohea tea, which cost in France forty sous a pound, was selling at forty-five dollars; and salt, was forty dollars a bushel, and at times two hundred dollars in some States." 

It is curious to see how history repeats itself.  ** The rebel States are now suffering just as did the colonies of 1780, and in both cases the operation of the natural laws of finance is seen to be aggravated by the annihilation of commerce, the want of public credit, the exhaustion of internal resources and the stringency of a blockade.  In both cases the people are compelled, by exclusion from the rest of the world, to rely almost wholly on themselves for supplies, and to provide not only arms and munitions of war, but those articles of common consumption which had formerly been obtained in exchange for their raw produce.  Such necessaries as could not be procured at home must either be imported at great risk and expense or to be dispensed altogether.  Thus it was that in the colonies eighty years ago, and in the South during the past two years, internal manufactures have been fostered, and the zeal, ingenuity and industry of the people has endeavored, in the midst of great suffering and privation, to achieve independence of exterior supplies. 

Page 4 of 5

Article continues on next page with chart showing rate of inflation- - - - >

Or, Jump to page number:  1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - 5

    (Click here to return to first page)



* - The individual states/colonies also issued (colonial) paper money to pay their expenses.  These circulated along with the new, Continental, or Federal government type of paper money.

** - comparing the Continental paper money and commerce problems to that of the Civil War that was taking place at this time.


Copyright © 2001 John Lynn at

Disclaimer: This article is subject to typographical errors or errors of omission.  This does not constitute a recommendation to buy or sell. Use your good judgment, get professional advice, and read the actual publications before buying, selling, holding, or making any type of transaction based on this information.



Click here to find out more about this or purchase this actual Civil War newspaper.


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