American Revolution - Finance


Britain's war against the Americans, French and Spanish cost about £100 million. The Treasury borrowed 40% of the money it needed. Heavy spending brought France to the verge of bankruptcy and revolution, while the British had relatively little difficulty financing their war, keeping their suppliers and soldiers paid, and hiring tens of thousands of German soldiers.

Britain had a sophisticated financial system based on the wealth of thousands of landowners, who supported the government, together with banks and financiers in London. The efficient British tax system collected about 12 percent of the GDP in taxes during the 1770s.

In sharp contrast, Congress and the American states had no end of difficulty financing the war. In 1775 there was at most 12 million dollars in gold in the colonies, not nearly enough to cover current transactions, let alone on a major war. The British made the situation much worse by imposing a tight blockade on every American port, which cut off almost all imports and exports. One partial solution was to rely on volunteer support from militiamen, and donations from patriotic citizens.

Another was to delay actual payments, pay soldiers and suppliers in depreciated currency, and promise it would be made good after the war. Indeed, in 1783 the soldiers and officers were given land grants to cover the wages they had earned but had not been paid during the war. Not until 1781, when Robert Morris was named Superintendent of Finance of the United States, did the national government have a strong leader in financial matters.

Morris used a French loan in 1782 to set up the private Bank of North America to finance the war. Seeking greater efficiency, Morris reduced the civil list, saved money by using competitive bidding for contracts, tightened accounting procedures, and demanded the national government's full share of money and supplies from the confederated states.

Congress used four main methods to cover the cost of the war, which cost about 66 million dollars in specie (gold and silver). Congress made two issues of paper money, in 1775–1780, and in 1780–81. The first issue amounted to 242 million dollars. This paper money would supposedly be redeemed for state taxes, but the holders were eventually paid off in 1791 at the rate of one cent on the dollar. By 1780, the paper money was "not worth a Continental", as people said, and a second issue of new currency was attempted.

The second issue quickly became nearly worthless—but it was redeemed by the new federal government in 1791 at 100 cents on the dollar. At the same time the states, especially Virginia and the Carolinas, issued over 200 million dollars of their own currency. In effect, the paper money was a hidden tax on the people, and indeed was the only method of taxation that was possible at the time.

The skyrocketing inflation was a hardship on the few people who had fixed incomes—but 90 percent of the people were farmers, and were not directly affected by that inflation. Debtors benefited by paying off their debts with depreciated paper. The greatest burden was borne by the soldiers of the Continental Army, whose wages—usually in arrears—declined in value every month, weakening their morale and adding to the hardships suffered by their families.

Beginning in 1777, Congress repeatedly asked the states to provide money. But the states had no system of taxation either, and were little help. By 1780 Congress was making requisitions for specific supplies of corn, beef, pork and other necessities—an inefficient system that kept the army barely alive.

Starting in 1776, the Congress sought to raise money by loans from wealthy individuals, promising to redeem the bonds after the war. The bonds were in fact redeemed in 1791 at face value, but the scheme raised little money because Americans had little specie, and many of the rich merchants were supporters of the Crown. Starting in 1776, the French secretly supplied the Americans with money, gunpowder, and munitions in order to weaken its arch enemy, Great Britain. When France officially entered the war in 1778, the subsidies continued, and the French government, as well as bankers in Paris and Amsterdam loaned large sums to the American war effort. These loans were repaid in full in the 1790s.

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