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Katie Moore, Review of Joshua R. Greenberg, Bank Notes and Shinplasters: The Rage for Paper Money in the Early Republic

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Author: Katie Moore

Joshua R. Greenberg’s Bank Notes and Shinplasters: The Rage for Paper Money in the Early Republic transports readers back to a time when ordinary Americans understood the rules of the monetary system because they had to. Early republic currency was amazingly heterogeneous, a dizzying array of some ten thousand bank notes issued by hundreds of state-chartered and state-regulated corporations, innumerable quasi-official “shinplasters” circulated by business owners and municipal governments, bad paper money emitted by fraudulent “wildcat” institutions, “zombie notes” of shuttered banks, and military land scrip outstanding from the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812. Making matters more complicated, as they traveled away from their points of origin, most bank notes circulated at highly variable and rapidly fluctuating discounts to face value based on public perception of their market worth and faith in the issuing bank’s ability to redeem them for specie.

Greenberg convincingly frames currency in the early United States as a negotiation as much as a thing. Except for the professional “paper money men” who made their livings moving currency around the country, most people sought paper money in order to participate in the market. Unlike Civil War “greenbacks” or today’s Federal Reserve notes, early republic bank notes lacked legal-tender status, meaning people were not obligated to take them. So the choice to accept the notes turned on the knowledge and status of the diff erent parties involved. To navigate this “endlessly complicated” (47) monetary system successfully, Americans consulted a range of published sources such as arithmetic textbooks, counterfeit detectors, bank note tables, and the notes themselves, but even the best monetary intelligence was worth only so much to those who lacked social or financial leverage in their face-to-face transactions. Early republic currency, Greenberg illustrates, reproduced power and privilege. Perhaps no monetary negotiations were more fraught than those between Indigenous peoples and the federal government, as one federal agent after another refused to grant the Cherokee Nation’s repeated requests to receive annual treaty payments in specie or universally accepted bills from the Bank of the United States, flooding the Nation with subpar bank notes instead. Enslaved women and men found ways to wield paper money “as tools of liberation” (66), using it to purchase their freedom and that of family members or to pay travel expenses as they fled bondage, while mentions of paper money in runaway advertisements marked African American escapees as outsiders and thieves.

The major theme animating Greenberg’s discussion of how various Americans navigated the market economy is the physicality of the money itself and its relation to public trust. Banks used vignettes and text “to inspire confidence in their money and convince consumers of their stability” (85). Paper money vignettes ranged from the titillating (half-dressed women) to the allegorical (Roman gods), but most depicted regional economic stereotypes, like the textile mill girls gracing bills from Maine or the enslaved field hands on North Carolina notes; historical events, such as the Battle of Bunker Hill or the signing of the Treaty of Fort Stanwix; or celebrity figures, from staid figures such as presidents and war heroes to daredevils and adventurers such as Sam Patch and Daniel Boone. Yet as Greenberg shows, early republic currency was easily manipulated by its owners, folded, torn, and stamped to various ends, not all of them financial; store advertisements, political slogans, bad poetry, and obscene words covered the backsides of bank notes that the author studied in archives. Alive with sociality, “Rather than isolating or atomizing individuals in the growing market economy, bank notes and shinplasters helped facilitate associations” (131).

Katie Moore, Review of Joshua R. Greenberg, Bank Notes and Shinplasters: The Rage for Paper Money in the Early Republic in Journal of the Early Republic Vol. 41, Issue 4 (Winter 2021): 679-681.