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History Of Money

( Originally Published 1853 )



WE live in a very imperfect world. Mankind are imperfect, and so are all the works of man. But I think the world is growing better. Under the influence of the gospel of Jesus Christ mankind are every year improving and by the new and wonderful inventions which are so often made in our day, the works of man are becoming more and more perfect. We have a thousand conveniences now which our fathers - did not enjoy. How much easier and quicker we can travel a hundred miles than they could ; how much more conveniently we can hear from our absent friends, and obtain the valuable productions of distant lands ! With how much less labor the raw materials of wool, and cotton, and flax are now manufactured into cloths than they could have been fifty years ago, and how much more elegant are the cloths now made ! With how much greater ease and skill the farmer cultivates the earth, and gathers in its productions now, than he did a half-century since ! Even the school-boy can obtain a better knowledge of arithmetic or geography now in three months, than could be gained in a whole year from such books and methods of instruction as were used when our fathers were lads. In those days the lightning was only an agent of terror and destruction ; now it is our readiest and fleetest messenger to convey intelligence from land to land.

Surely wonderful inventions and vast improvements have been made within a few years ; and some suppose that these improvements will continue to go on until all the evils in the world shall be overcome, and mankind shall be restored to as high a degree of virtue and knowledge and happiness as our first parents enjoyed before they committed the fatal act of disobedience to the command of God.

I fear that all this will not be realized in this world ; and yet it is hardly possible for us to say what improvements may not yet be brought about by the providence of God, for the benefit of our race.

But I must not yield to these cheering anticipations so far as to forget the object of the present chapter, which is to show that money has not been stationary while all things else have been advancing. I must trace out the progress of money, and show how it has grown up, from very small and rude beginnings, to its present state of convenience and perfection.

If any one supposes that the man who first needed money, went and obtained some silver or gold, and melted it and cut it and stamped it, so as to make a regular coin of it, and then used it for money, I must tell you that that is a very erroneous notion. And if any one supposes that nothing but gold and silver and bank-bills has ever been used for money, I must tell you that that also is a great mistake.

I wish I could give you an account of the very first instance in which anything was used as money. But the matter was not then deemed of sufficient importance to be written down, and transmitted to after ages. Indeed money was undoubtedly used long before the art of writing was at all known.

I suppose it must have been among those old patriarchs who lived before the flood, and whose lives were lengthened out to nine hundred years or more, that money was first used. But I do not suppose that their money was like ours.

Anything which an individual might receive in pay for what be had to sell, and then pay out for what he wished to buy, was a medium of exchange. It served the purpose of money, indeed it was money. It might have been a kid, it might have been a handful of fruit, it might have been a precious stone, it might have been a quantity of uncoined silver . or gold, or it might have been anything else.

The first instance of the use of money which is mentioned in any history, we find in the twenty-third chapter of Genesis.

Abraham purchased of the sons of Heth the field and cave of Machpelah for a place of burial. He paid four hundred shekels of silver. The shekel was a certain weight, equal to about half an ounce of our avoirdupois weight.

Afterwards a silver coin of just that weight was stamped and called the shekel. It was not coined silver which Abraham paid, for he weighed it out to the sons of Heth.

Although this is the first instance mentioned in history of the use of money, yet it is evident from this very account, that it was not the first instance in which money was used, for this silver wag called " current money with the merchant." This language indicates that the silver was of the same quality as that which was generally used as money by the traveling merchants or traders of those times.

It must have been very inconvenient to weigh out the precious metals every time they were used in exchange for other articles. Any one could easily see that it would save a great deal of trouble to have the silver and gold cast or cut into pieces of known weight, and a mark put on the pieces to show what their weight was. This would in fact be a commencement, in a rude way, of the practice of coining money. This was done at a very early period, and the names of the coins originally denoted their weight. In many instances the weight of the coins was afterwards very much reduced, although they retained their former names and values.

Among the rude tribes of early times, and indeed among the uncivilized nations of our own age, various articles besides the precious metals have been used for money. Homer tells us that one of the heroes in the siege of Troy paid nine oxen for his armor. Some one inquires how he would have paid for it, if it had cost only half as much ?

Four oxen and a half would not be very convenient change.

In Africa and the East Indies small white shells, called cowries, have been extensively used for money. In some countries salt has been used for that purpose. I presume this must have been in those parts of the earth where it never rains ; for if showers were frequent, the people would need water proof purses, or their money would soon evaporate. Some years ago, in the State of Virginia, tobacco was very commonly used in' making exchanges of property between man and man.

One would suppose that a man would need a hogshead for a pocket-book. This, however, was only used for a time, while more convenient money was so scarce, that the people could not obtain enough to carry on their business.

Among the North American Indians strings of wampum were formerly used for money, and also for purposes of ornament. These were small beads of various colors made of shells. They perhaps served the purpose well enough for the few exchanges which would need to be made among savages.

In all these instances the rude article adopted as a medium of exchange was selected, either because a more convenient article could not be found, or because the people were so uncivilized and ignorant that they were not acquainted with any more suitable mode of carrying on their imperfect commerce. But ancient history gives us one singular instance in which the precious metals were purposely banished from circulation, and a baser metal adopted in their stead.

Lycurgus, a celebrated Grecian statesman, who lived more than two thousand seven hundred years ago, was the author of that singular law. He changed many of the laws of Sparta, his native State, and by the new laws' which he introduced made his countrymen a very warlike people. He thus gave Sparta great influence among the Grecian States.

He thought that the great amount of silver and gold in the country was the source of much luxury and dissipation among the people. In order to banish these vices, he expelled all the silver and gold from circulation, and introduced, as the only money of the country, pieces of iron which had been heated red-hot, and then suddenly cooled in vinegar. By this means the iron was rendered brittle and useless for any other purpose. He fixed a very low value to these iron coins, so that it is said if a man had a hundred dollars of that money he would need a cart and yoke of oxen to carry it. This change had the effect which the lawgiver intended, for the fortunetellers, the sophists, and all the lovers of pleasure and gain left the country as soon as the silver and gold were gone.

I do not know that any of the iron coins of Sparta are now in existence. I presume they are not, for iron, if exposed The more ancient coins are of very rude workmanship. Some of them are stamped only on one side, and that was done by hand, with very imperfect instruments, little more being intended by the stamp than just to indicate the value of the piece. In later coins the devices are more perfectly executed and have a more varied signification. But it is only within a few years that the art of coining has been carried to a great degree of perfection. We have all admired the beauty of the gold and silver coins recently issued from the mint of the United States. Perhaps the money now coined is as beautiful and convenient as it can be made; and certainly I think no one will deny that the coins of our country are as beautiful as any money in the world.

But how short-lived is all earthly beauty ! Even though stamped upon solid metal, time soon effaces it. After passing from hand to hand, and from purse to purse, for a few years, the most elegant coin becomes worn so smooth that you can scarcely distinguish what it was ; and perhaps it has to pass for considerably less than its original value.

So it is with all things earthly. The most perfect beauty fades, the most durable materials wear out, the most gigantic strength becomes weak. Who can tell what desolation one hundred years will make with all that is now lovely and charming and wonderful upon earth ? But one hundred years from this, what will the writer and reader of this little book have to do with earthly things ? No matter with what beauty and strength our bodies may now be clothed, they will be nothing but dust one hundred years hence.

Happy will it be for us if, by the grace of God, we shall secure that inheritance which is incorruptible and undefiled, and that fadeth not away.

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