“Money is money, and paper is paper” - Thomas Paine, apparently quoting a farmer.
What makes a person or a country wealthy? What gives anything its value? These are important questions that have troubled economists, historians, and philosophers for generations. The U.S. is commonly considered to be the wealthiest nation in the world today, at least when articulated through Gross Domestic Product in United States Dollars – but both GDP and USD are modern concepts, which have developed historically. The American concepts of wealth and money have changed over time.
In high school, where students are required to think critically about the face value of any concept, they ought also to question something as ubiquitous as the dollar – assess what the value of our currency is and examine how forms of currency in America have changed over time.
For homework, students should read what Thomas Paine has to say about paper currency (pages 43-53). Paine – intelligent, articulate, and not particularly easy to confine to a set ideology – discusses the concept of money with an earnestness that is arguably lacking in modern discourse. Nevertheless, he is very dismissive of “paper money” and spells out his reasons carefully.
On the other hand, Paine did think that “promissory notes” – such as those issued by the BNA – were acceptable (because, in his own words, that sort of paper note “continually points to the place and person where, and of whom, the money is to be had … and, as it were, unlocks its master’s chest and pays the bearer.”) Many examples of this sort of currency are held in the Bank of North America Collection at HSP. Sixty-two examples of those notes are available and digitized for this project.
It should also be interesting to contrast Paine’s ideas about paper currency with those of his contemporary, Benjamin Franklin. Franklin was arguably more optimistic about paper currency than Paine. Throughout his public career and private enterprise, Franklin saw great usefulness in paper currency, and was concerned with issues of liquity and counterfeiting.