Paper Money

New book redefines history of Continental dollars

A new book written by Farley Grubb, professor of economics at the University of Delaware, offers a radically different interpretation of the first U.S. currency, the Continental dollar.

Image courtesy of the University of Chicago Press.

A new book written by Farley Grubb, professor of economics at the University of Delaware and a research associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research, offers a radically different interpretation of the first U.S. currency — the Continental dollar.

The book, The Continental Dollar, “is a revelatory history of how the fledgling United States paid for its first war,” according to the publisher, the University of Chicago Press. “Farley Grubb upends the common telling of this story, in which the United States printed cross-colony money, called Continentals, to serve as an early fiat currency — a currency that is not tied to a commodity like gold, but rather to a legal authority. As Grubb details, the Continental was not a fiat currency, but a ‘zero-coupon bond’ — a wholly different species of money. As bond payoffs were pushed into the future, the money’s value declined, killing the Continentals’ viability years before the Revolutionary War would officially end,” according to the publisher.

“Drawing on decades of exhaustive mining of eighteenth-century records, The Continental Dollar is an essential origin story of the early American monetary system, promising to serve as the benchmark for critical work for decades to come.”

According to Grubb, “They resembled today’s US saving bonds more than today’s United States dollar bills, with the exception that Continental dollars were transferable and redeemable in specie equivalents, and they did not list the bearer’s name on the bill. As such, the current non-money real value of a Continental dollar was not its face value, but its present value, namely its face value reduced by time-discounting from its future redemption (maturity) date.”

The book details the history of Continental dollars, authorized in May 1775 by the Continental Congress and printed in 11 issues from the original date to January 1779. It looks at the traditional interpretation of previous authors and researchers, then offers Grubb’s new interpretation of the Continental currency.

The book is priced at $65. It can be purchased at https://press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/chicago/C/bo195976255.html.

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