New Q. David Bowers Book Explores the Money of the Revolution
As a publisher and a numismatist, I’m always on the lookout for “coin books” that can leap from the hobbyist world of antiques and collectibles into the bigger river of mainstream American history. This goal is more elusive than you might expect. But the potential is always there, because the pleasures of coin collecting and the pleasures of studying history are so closely related.
If you’re an active collector of old coins, paper money, tokens, and medals, you appreciate the connections between these objects and the broad tapestry of our national story. They’re fundamental pieces of material culture—a scholarly term for the physical objects, resources, and architecture that surround us and define us (things that help us survive, that aid our labor, that create an identity, that solidify social relationships, etc.). Coins and paper money have been used in North America day in and day out for generations, going back to the colonial era. They’re as intimately connected to American life as are newspapers, family portraits, silverware, and letters mailed back home. History you can hold in your hand, as it has been said.
The study of coins and paper currency is part of the art and science of numismatics. The wider discipline covers the study of all aspects of money, as well as other payment media and systems (such as barter) that humans have used to settle debts and exchange goods. Numismatics involves other social sciences: economics, quantitative and qualitative economic history, political science, and the like. Its scope also includes mining, metallurgy, mechanics, and other hard sciences and technology that go into the physical creation of coins and printing on paper. It includes design, sculpture, engraving, and fine arts similarly involved in making coins and bank notes. For a numismatist, a coin is much more than just a coin! It’s an artifact of its times. It has a lot to tell about the people who created it, and those who used it.
In our fast-paced world, historians as a general class rarely get the credit they deserve for helping us understand the past (and thereby the present). This has been changing in recent years, and it’s gratifying to watch as serious history grows into a popular consumable. A case study: Lin-Manuel Miranda’s 2015 smash-hit musical Hamilton, itself based on historian Ron Chernow’s award-winning 2004 book Alexander Hamilton, about the Founding Father who created the nation’s financial system and was our first Treasury secretary.
The entertaining packaging of history is perhaps good and bad for numismatics. On the one hand, anything that popularizes history—assuming it’s well researched and balanced—is good for elevating knowledge overall, and has the potential to spark interest in history’s many highways and byways, including all manner of material culture. On the other hand, with so much entertainingly produced history available, in so many easily accessible formats (television, movies, online videos, even Broadway musicals), a quieter avenue like coin-collecting might get lost on the map. Numismatics, misunderstood, could run the risk of being sidelined as a narrow specialty—one where you “learn more and more about less and less, until you know everything about nothing”—rather than being appreciated as a permeating science that touches every aspect of American life.
As the subtitle of author Todd Andrlik’s 2012 book Reporting the Revolutionary War says, “Before it was history, it was news.” This applies to money as much as anything, and it’s important to remember that before coins and paper currency became historical collectibles, they were new, freshly minted or printed, often experimental, and, during the American fight for independence, a vibrant act of revolution themselves. Capturing that energy and sense of uncharted newness, while bringing order to its complexity, is a challenge. Among American historians, none is so qualified to write about the money of the American Revolutionary War as Q. David Bowers. His work in the field, which started in the 1950s, is innovative, prolific, and ongoing.
With more than fifty books to his credit, Bowers ranks among the greats of our nation’s historians—those who have lifted high the lamp of knowledge. Certainly in the field of economic history he is a unique, and uniquely productive, author.
Bowers and the Bridging of the Mainstream History / Numismatics Gap
Dave Bowers has anecdotally told the story of a well-known Civil War historian he chatted with after a lecture. He asked the expert what he knew about Civil War money. The reply was, essentially, “I know that Confederate currency was nearly worthless before the end of the conflict.” No deep knowledge of the wartime birth of new banking systems, no intimacy with the way the nation’s biggest military mobilization was financed. On the level of day-to-day life during the war, he could share nothing of, for example, the vital role played by little bronze tokens minted in the tens of millions by hundreds of private businessmen. Were those tokens “money”? Were they crucially important to Americans during the early 1860s? Yes and yes! “Civil War tokens” fueled the engine of daily commerce after all legal-tender federal coins—not just gold and silver, but even lowly copper cents—were hoarded by a fearful and war-weary public. Knowledge of this sort goes beyond valuing coins and currency as “collectibles.” It gets to the heart of their true worth, as artifacts of the American experience.
In the Guide Book of Continental Currency and Coins (publication date: March 2021), Dave Bowers has written a volume that bridges the gap between numismatics and mainstream history. He provides a fresh understanding of the American Revolution using numismatics as his lens. For many readers this will be radical and new. History buffs who know the battles, the generals, and the politics will now also understand the financial and economic forces of the Revolution. This is not a dusty math lesson or a lecture on the “dismal science” of economics. Rather, it’s a fascinating exploration of national-level financial experimentation, as well as the day-to-day monetary life of Americans, both Tory and revolutionary.
How was Continental Currency produced; how were the notes distributed? Who signed them? Before all that, how were they even authorized—when the Continental Congress had no traditional foundation for a paper-money issue, no gold or silver to back up the paper and ink? How could Congress raise money to fight a war that was partially enflamed by tax collection? How strong was the promise to redeem the paper after the war? Such a promise would require an unruly volunteer army to conquer the greatest military force on earth!
The human stories that emerge are sometimes funny, sometimes terrifying, and always enlightening. Did a New Yorker really wallpaper his rooms with Continental Currency during the war? How did General Washington threaten those who refused to accept the money as payment for goods? What happened to Quakers who, for religious reasons, refused to handle the paper money? What were Spanish silver dollars, and how did they figure into the emerging economy? How did the eccentric Massachusetts businessman “Lord” Timothy Dexter make a fortune speculating in war debt and Continental Currency?
Some facts are surprising, and rarely covered in histories of the Revolution—for example, it was illegal during the war to say anything negative about the new paper money, and many Americans were jailed for public criticism, a concept that would be unthinkable to later generations. Bowers shares and comments on newspaper accounts from both sides of the conflict, some neutrally reporting the monetary news of the day, some degrading the “dirty trash” currency. He tells of citizens “burnt in the brawn of the left thumb” for the crime of passing counterfeit money—and even being executed for the “pernicious tendency.”
On the artistic and technical side, Bowers lays out the designs and rich symbolism used on Continental Currency notes. He tells how they were printed, and the ingenious techniques employed to frustrate counterfeiters. And he tells of Benjamin Franklin and others who influenced the look and feel of the new money.
For collectors, he describes how to grade Continental Currency—a factor crucial to valuation. He gives rarity ratings, typical prices in multiple grades, and advice on market conditions.
He explores the enigmatic Continental dollar coins (or are they medals?), laying out a couple hundred years of research and speculation, including startling recent theories based on new research and insights.
A Modern-Day Benson Lossing
Within the discipline of numismatic history, Q. David Bowers has no peers. He’s extremely productive, he’s popularized the field and connected it to other social sciences, and he’s influential and inspirational to other researchers. The Guide Book of Continental Currency and Coins adds to his standing among American historians, and continues to elevate the status of numismatics as a serious branch of American history, as important as the popular works of Benson J. Lossing or Barbara Tuchman or David McCullough—a companion to presidential and other political history, social-movement history, military history, and every other highway and byway that history buffs happily explore.
By Q. David Bowers; foreword by Christopher R. McDowell; research associates Julia Casey and Ray Williams; valuations editor Bruce Hagen.
Softcover, 6 x 9 inches, 288 pages
Retail $19.95 U.S.