As coins circulated freely for the first time
ever in the 1850s, the United States continued its drift toward civil
war. Tensions between the North and South grew to a fever pitch.
|The Compromise of 1850 Postpones the Crisis|
By the end of 1849, California's population had
ballooned to over 100,000, more than enough to qualify for statehood. A
convention met in Monterey and drafted a state constitution, which
included a slavery prohibition, later to be approved by the people. In
1850, when California applied for admission to the Union as a free
state, a raucous Congressional debate erupted. Southerners were furious
over the prospect of California, and perhaps other states later to be
formed out of the Mexican Cession, entering the Union as a free state,
thus upsetting the balance of power in Washington. Some spoke openly of
Southern secession. As the debate raged, the United States stood at the
precipice of disunion and civil war.
Against this ominous backdrop, 72-year old Henry
Clay stepped forward
to offer a compromise to save the Union. First elected to Congress in
1810 and a three-time presidential candidate, Clay was a towering
figure in American politics.
Clay's proposals were followed by one of the
most critical Senate
debates in American history. Day after day, the Senate gallery was
filled with important spectators and newspaper reporters. Magnificent
speeches went on for hours and sometimes longer. John C. Calhoun of
South Carolina, also elected to Congress for the first time in 1810,
wrote a stinging condemnation of Clay's compromise. Too sick to deliver
the address himself, another southern senator read the impassioned
speech for him. Calhoun warned that while it was important to preserve
the Union, he was willing to rip it apart if the interests of the South
were at stake.
|Coin Availability Improves During the 1850's|
While the North-South crisis continued to
simmer, both sides could at
least agree that something needed to be done to retain more coins in
circulation. The problem stemmed from the fact that US silver coins
contained a high percentage of the precious metal, and were worth more
in silver content than face value when the metals market increased even
slightly. These conditions led to hoarding and a reduction in the
quantity of coins available for public use.
"We give way to this debasement [of silver] as inevitable... Let it now be solemnly enacted that gold is the national standard of value... Let the silver coinage be altered to conform to the fact, but let the standard of gold be unvarying evermore -- silver being used as change..."
On February 21, 1853, two weeks after Greeley's
Congress passed a law reducing the silver content of all silver coins,
with the exception of the already debased trime, and the silver dollar,
by about 7%, to make their metal value less than face value. Now that
American coinage was less attractive to metals speculators, coin
production at the US Mints kicked into high gear, and for the first
time in history, an adequate flow of coins were circulating in the
channels of commerce.
In addition, the new law limited the legal
tender status of silver
coins to transactions less than five dollars. In effect the nation was
put on a gold standard, by fixing its value while letting silver float,
and by making gold coins acceptable as payment for any debt size,
without regard to the five dollar limit.
|The Kansas-Nebraska Act Revives Tensions|
Old wounds were reopened with the passage of the
Kansas-Nebraska Act in
1854. Sponsored by Senator Stephen A. Douglas, the act organized Kansas
and Nebraska into territories, authorizing settlement of the areas. It
also repealed the Missouri Compromise and gave both territories popular
sovereignty, allowing settlers to decide for themselves whether or not
they would permit slavery in their territory.
A vicious, dramatic attack, foreshadowing
national future events,
occurred on the Senate floor on May 22, 1856.
|The New Small Cent|
As the number of United States coins in
circulation increased, the necessity for the use of foreign and private
coins decreased. Congress enacted a law in 1857 to prohibit the
continued use of foreign and private coins in circulation. The 1857 law
also called for the elimination of the half cent coin, and replaced the
large copper cent by a smaller cent design having a metallic
composition of 88% copper and 12% nickel. The large coppers were
unpopular (“too ugly, too heavy”) with the public and were costly to
produce at the mint.
The new small cent authorized by the 1857 law
was called the Flying
Eagle cent. Actually, about 1000 or so trial specimens of the coin were
minted in 1856 to verify the suitability of the copper-nickel alloy.
|The First Shots of the American Civil War|
As the 1850’s came to a close, the stage was set
for a fracture between
the North and the South. The election of Abraham Lincoln in November
1860 was the earthquake that finally split the nation asunder, along
predictable economic, geographic, and political fault lines.
|U.S. Coins and History Chapters|
|The American Revolution|
|We the People|
|The Mint Survives Political Strife|
|A Rising Spirit of Nationalism|
|The Mint Branches Out|
|The Nation Drifts Toward War|
|The Money of the Civil War|
|The Reconstruction Era|
|More Chapters to Come ....|
|1||Allen, Jack, and John L. Betts. History:
New York, NY: American Book Company, 1967.
|2||Brinkley, Douglas. History of the United States.
New York, NY: Penguin Putnam, Inc., 1998.
|3||Schwarz, Ted. A History of United States Coinage.
London, England: A.S. Barnes & Company, Inc. 1980.
|4||Taxay, Don. The U.S. Mint and Coinage.
New York, NY: Arco Publishing Company, 1966.
|5||Doty, Richard. America's Money, America's Story.
Sydney, OH: Amos Press, Inc., 1998.
|6||Jordan, Winthrop D., Miriam
Greenblatt, & John S. Bowes. The Americans.
Evanstan, IL: McDougall, Littell & Company, 1988.