Friday, June 09, 2006

Pine Trees and Sovereignty

June 10th marks the anniversary of the issuance of the Pine Tree Shilling (1652), the first coin minted by English-speaking settlers in North America. Those who might regard this as mere numismatic trivia are invited to read Mark Peterson's fascinating essay in the April 2006 issue of Common Place, "Big Money Comes to Boston." In it, Peterson notes the difference between what he calls "big money" (gold and silver coins issued by sovereign states) and "little money" (informal currencies like cowrie shells or copper farthings) in the 17th-century Atlantic world, and identifies the minting of the Pine Tree Shilling as the moment when Bostonians formally shifted to a big-money economy. He also explains how Bostonians' efforts to establish first a little-money economy, based on wampum, and then a big-money economy based on precious metals reflected the colony's ambitious territorial and commercial aspirations, linking its coinage to the fur trade, the Pequot War, the silver mines of Potosi and the West Indies. Finally, he describes the amusing -- and, for a long time, successful -- efforts of colonial officials to convince Charles II that they had not usurped his royal prerogative. (I particularly liked Sir Thomas Temple's insistence that the pine tree engraving was actually the Royal Oak, in which Charles II had hidden after losing the Battle of Worcester [1651] to Parliamentary forces, and that the coin was therefore a hidden tribute to the exiled king.) Charles' brother James was not taken in by such arguments and put an end to the new coinage when he became king, but this was merely a temporary setback for New England officials, who in the eighteenth century found a new way to produce money: by printing it.

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