Most Americans don't know about Black Friday 1869, a day that saw one of the many Wall Street Panics that have wracked our nation's history. Yet given the numbskull proposals for economic reform being bandied about today, a close look would be illuminating.
Typical treatments in American History books provide little insight. Take, for example, this passage from The American Pageant by Stanford historian Thomas Bailey:
"The low ethics of the [Ulysses S.] Grant era are well illustrated by a fantastic scheme of "Jubilee Jim" Fisk and Jay Gould. This precious pair conceived the plot, in 1869, of cornering all the gold on the New York market and netting additional millions. Their cunning game could succeed only if the Federal Treasury would hold back its funds. The conspirators worked on Grant directly, and also on his brother-in-law, who received $25,000 for his complicity. On "Black Friday" September 24, Fisk and Gould madly bid the price of gold skyward, while scores of honest businessmen were driven to the wall. The bubble broke when the Treasury, contrary to Grant's earlier assurances, was forced to release gold."
Returning to the gold standard is a hallmark of Ron Paul's presidential campaign. Running parallel to the current gold bubble (which may already be popping), the idea that gold is the only sound form of money (excepting maybe silver) has become quite popular. The idea only appeals because people have had time to forget just how unworkable the gold standard used to be. Black Friday 1869 illustrates that, and more.
The debate about creating a sound money and banking policy for the United States dates back to the colonial era. Money, until the 1900's, was thought of as either being metallic or paper. Metallic money tended to maintain its value better, but the U.S. had to import most of its gold and silver until gold was discovered in California in 1848. Prior to that time the economy was constrained by a lack of gold currency. While paper money could easily be printed to alleviate the shortage of coins, the temptation to just keep printing it has been difficult for politicians and bankers to resist. Too much paper money causes the prices of goods in terms of money to go up: we get inflation. It should be noted, however, that when new sources of gold were found, that also caused too much money to be coined, resulting in inflation. Gold has less inflationary danger as a whole because you can't just print all you want, so for the most part the gold standard has been associated with either price stability or deflation resulting from the constraint on trade from insufficient gold in circulation.
But wrap your head around this: most money today is electronic. That is right. While Tea Party economists prescribe gold as an antidote for Federal Reserve Notes, only a tiny percent of American money today is paper. Money now sits on computers. Bank computers, grouped together, are an accounting system that electronically registers how much money each person has or owes. What is important is not that it is in electronic form (it used to be on old-fashioned paper ledgers), but that the accounting system itself is fair, accountable, and manageable. The Federal Reserve's real job is to keep our economy, and our individual stakes in it, accountable. That is a very hard concept for people who shy away from abstract and complex thoughts, which is most of us most of the time.
The United States economy had seen numerous boom and bust cycles before the Civil War, each with their own unique aspects. The expense of the Civil War led to a number of important economic changes. Paper money was issued by the Federal government; previously it had been issued by private banks. These federal "greenbacks" were meant to supplement, not substitute for, the gold supply and bank-issued money. They could be redeemed for government gold. They allowed for a tremendous expansion of economic activity in the North during the war.
A national banking reserve system was also put in place before 1869. To make bank notes roughly equivalent and prevent bank failures, smaller (typically rural) banks had to keep reserves in larger (urban) banks, and in turn New York City banks held reserves of the banks around the country. While this helped with many old problems, it left a seasonal liquidity problem. Even after the Civil War America's wealth was largely farming-based. In the fall, when farmers sold their crops, "actual cash money" was needed to pay them. This drained the local banks, who in turn called in their reserves. In New York City the reserves drained out of the major banks, and out of the stock and commodities markets. Since this happened each year, and could be predicted, while some banks tried to be prepared, certain speculators took advantage of the situation. In the simplest version, if you wanted to take over a corporation, you could usually buy its stock cheaper in the fall than during the rest of the year.
As described in The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt by T. J. Stiles, railroads were the biggest American corporations of that era. "Commodore" Vanderbilt had achieved successful railroad takeovers partly by purposefully creating money crunches, then buying the stock of rivals cheap. Sometimes he even forced down the price of stocks he owned, so that he could buy back a larger share at low prices. On September 19, 1869 he dumped his stock in the Lake Shore railroad. Lockwood & Company, a large Wall Street brokerage house, had borrowed money to invest in Lake Shore, and was driven to bankruptcy.
Jim Fisk and Jay Gould were rivals of Vanderbilt. Vanderbilt's Lake Shore scheme came during the Gould-Fisk gold corner scheme, which was part of a bigger plan. If dollars sank in price compared to gold, then American crops would be more competitive overseas. Hence, they would need to be exported, and to do that they would have to be shipped to East Coast ports via railroads owned by Fisk and Gould. They would make money on the gold corner and make money for their railroads. They acquired large amounts of gold starting in August, and by mid-September gold was in a bubble, which they planned to deflate while taking profits and after the crops had been shipped.
On September 24, 1869, the Federal Government announced it would sell some (not that much, a few million dollars worth) of its gold. The price of gold collapsed; stocks followed gold down. Many Wall Street companies failed. Neither the gold supply nor the banking reserve system could supply enough liquidity to allow the markets to right themselves.
Vanderbilt, probably the richest man in America, calmed the markets. He had not meant to sink the entire American economy, just some of his railroad rivals. As gold dropped in value, people stopped hoarding it, so gradually both gold and paper money supplies returned to normal.
The nation had several more lessons in the need for a money system that could expand and contract in line with both short term economic conditions and longer trends. Finally, in 1913, the Federal Reserve System was formed.
There are certainly problems with the Federal Reserve System. The Great Depression was not prevented by Federal Reserve action. Neither was the inflation of the 1970s. Nor can the Federal Reserve by itself make up for the stupidity of Congress, or of Wall Street guys who, like Fisk and Gould, outsmart themselves.
But forget the Gold Standard. It is suitable only for antique shows along with muskets, horse-drawn trams, and cowrie-shell money.
Fix and improve the Federal Reserve System; don't abolish it. Clearly it needs to be run by better decision makers. They should put the public interest above the current mission of insuring profitability for bankers and their fat-cat Wall Street shenanigans.
Just as we really need to increase math and science literacy in the United States, we need to increase business and economics literacy. An ill-informed electorate is apt to elect ill-informed and crooked men who can break any system, no matter how well-constructed the system itself is. Discussing the gold standard is a great opportunity to explain how the modern electronic-money economy can be made to work.