From Venetian goldsmiths issuing paper receipts, to America's first and second central banks – the Bank of North America in 1781, and the First Bank of the United States in 1791 – we arrive at the year 1836.
Chapter Two, on the beginnings of central banking, ended with: "The Second Bank (of the United States, chartered in 1817) was bitterly opposed by President Andrew Jackson, who made the existence of the Bank, and its power over the people, a central issue in his campaign… Jackson won, and in 1836 the Second Bank of the United States' charter expired, along with another central banking experiment."
So, why did Andrew Jackson, after a successful first term as President of the United States, bet a second term on breaking up the huge, monumentally successful bank?
John Meacham's biography of Andrew Jackson, American Lion, lays bare the General's very Jeffersonian fear of the power and influence of banking interests.
Jackson exercised his veto power when a bill for the Bank's recharter passed the Senate and (narrowly) the House, after a former recharter opponent, Samuel Pierce Carson, "had obtained a loan of $20,000 from the Bank, and had changed his opinion."
Jackson eventually overcame the Bank's arsenal of loans and favors by appealing directly to the voters.
He reminded them, "It is to be regretted that the rich and powerful too often bend the acts of government to their selfish purposes… artificial distinctions, to grant titles, gratuities, and exclusive privileges, to make the rich richer and the potent more powerful, the humble members of society – the farmers, mechanics, and laborers – who have neither the time nor the means of securing like favors to themselves, have a right to complain of the injustice of their Government."
Unfortunately for a democracy of the people, by the people, and for the people, the start of the Civil War – while emancipating slaves on one hand – enslaved the American public forever in a prison of government debt, courtesy of a plutocracy of banking masters.
Without a central bank and with State banks holding what was left of federal deposits – which had been disbursed among them by Jackson in his assault on the Second Bank – financing the Union's war efforts became almost impossible.
In 1862, pushed by Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase, Congress authorized the Treasury to print $150 million worth of "bills of credit," which it declared legal tender for all private debts. The bills of credit became known as greenbacks, because they were printed in green ink and backed by the United States.
It didn't matter to President Lincoln, or the Treasury Secretary, or Congress that emitting bills of credit without the backing of specie – gold or silver – was constitutionally dubious, at best. Such are the exigencies of war.
But it certainly did matter to the bankers.
For the first – and what would be the last – time in America's history, the Treasury was creating money, not the country's bankers.
Lincoln had no problem issuing fiat money from the Treasury, for free, to pay for the Union's war expenses, as opposed to borrowing from bankers and paying them interest when they created, free of charge to themselves, their own fiat money.
By the end of the Civil War, over $432 million worth of greenbacks had been issued, but much more was needed – immediately.
So, in 1863 Congress passed the National Banking Act. While it was well and good to issue greenbacks with no real backing but the government's promises, Lincoln and Chase were fearful that, if the war continued to go badly for the North, the public would lose faith in greenbacks.
The National Banking Act chartered "national" banks across the Union under Washington's regulatory oversight. The new scheme was based on old, familiar ways – with a twist. The new national or "federal" banks, with the presumed backing of Washington, would create a market for the bonds that the Union desperately needed to issue.
Banks bought government bonds – with whatever depositor monies they had – and deposited those same bonds back with the Treasury as "reserves." The Treasury then issued banknotes – against those reserves – to the various banks, with their name on the new notes. In essence, the banks got more money back from the government by buying more of their bonds, now with their new bank notes.
In fact, the scheme is still going on today, only to an infinitely larger degree. Banks buy Treasurys and use those government-backed bonds as reserves, in lieu of cash reserves. They use their massive holdings of Treasurys as "risk-free" collateral against loans of cash, from the Fed and other bank, which they use to buy more Treasurys – always to create more money to lend, against which they collect interest.
It was brilliant for both the Union and the bankers. The scheme financed the Union's war and created a growing and prosperous banking industry. But it worked out better for the bankers, who amassed enough power to convince the government that they could continue the scheme without the government printing any more of its own money on account of political fighting over taxing the citizenry to pay for Reconstruction.
Bankers cemented their position as the ultimate financiers of government expenditures, especially when taxes are politically anathema.
Then – miraculously – in 1870, the new Chief Justice of the United States, Salmon P. Chase (yes, the former Treasury Secretary who issued greenbacks) ruled that the government's issuance of bills of credit (greenbacks) was – surprise – unconstitutional.
The bankers had won. It was game over.
Who were these bankers? There were many of them.
One in particular – not a single banker, but a European banking dynasty – was the richest, most powerful player in the the history of America's banking past and future. They created an American banking behemoth.
The Rothschilds, of Frankfurt, Germany, were fabulously wealthy by the early 19th century. They had banking and merchant operations in Germany, Austria, Italy, Paris, and London. The Rothschilds also had interests in the new United States of America.
Rothschild interests financed both the Union and the Confederacy in the Civil War. But when the Confederacy appeared to be losing, the family bankers rushed support to the Union by buying massive amounts of bonds – and famously bought up the South's distressed debts for mere pennies – with an astute insider's perspective that the North would make good on all the nation's debts.
As far back as 1837, London-based Nathan Rothschild backed an American merchant, George Peabody. Peabody came to Britain to sell canal-construction bonds and later became the City of London's largest issuer of letters of credit to transatlantic shippers.
Peabody befriended American banker Junius Morgan in 1850 and, with the Rothschilds' backing, established Peabody, Morgan & Company in 1854.
Peabody, Morgan & Company became fiscal agents for the sale of Union bonds in London – and profited handsomely, financing trade between Europe, the United States and the Confederacy.
Junius Morgan's son, John Pierpont Morgan, eventually took over his father's banking interests. He would become the principal power behind the creation of the Federal Reserve System.
It's important to understand that, because of certain common backers, banking giants in New York were essentially friendly competitors. But the Westward Expansion of the United States was opening up new opportunities farther and farther afield from the locus of New York banking power. Upstart Western banks were growing rapidly.
Still, not much had changed from the original banking model, which meant banks didn't keep adequate reserves in gold or silver or cash. Panics, booms, and busts were almost regular, cyclical events.
The late 19th century saw serious crashes in 1873, 1884, and 1893.
And then there was the Panic of 1907.
The crisis in 1907 shook the nation. The banking system, with all of its obvious pretenses exposed, came close to total collapse.
The system was saved by J.P. Morgan… but it was too close for comfort.
Something had to be done to squash the Western banking upstarts who were out-gaining their New York and Eastern rivals. Somehow, the New York banking cartel had to have a "lender of last resort" to infinitely perpetuate their monumentally profitable banking schemes.
That's when the "Creature from Jekyll Island" was hatched.
You'll hear about that soon.
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About the Author
Shah Gilani boasts a financial pedigree unlike any other. He ran his first hedge fund in 1982 from his seat on the floor of the Chicago Board of Options Exchange. When options on the Standard & Poor's 100 began trading on March 11, 1983, Shah worked in "the pit" as a market maker.
The work he did laid the foundation for what would later become the VIX - to this day one of the most widely used indicators worldwide. After leaving Chicago to run the futures and options division of the British banking giant Lloyd's TSB, Shah moved up to Roosevelt & Cross Inc., an old-line New York boutique firm. There he originated and ran a packaged fixed-income trading desk, and established that company's "listed" and OTC trading desks.
Shah founded a second hedge fund in 1999, which he ran until 2003.
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