November 8, 2011
[The complete text of an address presented in part to the Committee for Monetary Research and Education, Fall Meeting, 20 October 2011, at the Union League Club, New York City]
We all are familiar with Robert Frost’s poem, “The Road Not Taken”:
“Two roads diverged in a yellow wood...” it begins. And it ends with the bittersweet and equivocal observation,
shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
The peregrinations of individual men and of whole nations are not dissimilar.
On every occasion of political and economic crisis but one in her history, America has come to the point where “two monetary roads diverged in a yellow wood”—and has taken the wrong road.
That unique occasion was the ratification of the Constitution in 1788. For—
• The Constitution adopted a scientific monetary unit—the “dollar”, a coin containing 371.25 grains of pure silver; and a companion coinage, denominated “eagles”, containing gold valued at the free-market exchange rate with silver.
• The Constitution withheld from the General Government the power to “emit bills”—which was the term of art at that time for paper currency. Any kind of “bills”, whether redeemable or irredeemable in precious metals; or whether or not designated “legal tender”.
• The Constitution prohibited the States from “emit[ing] Bills”. Again, any and every kind of “Bills”. And,
• The Constitution prohibited the States from “mak[ing] any Thing but gold and silver Coin a Tender in Payment of Debts”—thereby reserving to the States the power to “make gold and silver Coin a Tender in Payment of Debts”.