With his war bankrupting the national treasury and consuming available gold reserves, Lincoln’s solution was to create a national banking system controlled from Washington, claiming military necessity as the reason for printing paper currency of questionable value and legality. Radical Ohio Senator John Sherman knew national banking “would centralize power in Washington” and he urged congressional colleagues to “nationalize as much as possible,” even the currency, so as to “make men love their country before their States.” All private interests, all local interests, all banking interests, the interests of individuals, everything, should be subordinate now to the interest of the Government.”
Bernhard Thuersam, www.circa1865.org
Revolutionary War Financing Precedes the Federal Reserve
“At the time of the Civil War the [United States did not have a nationalized] system of banking and banknote currency, and one of the important matters of [Northern] war finance was the creation of such a system.
“[Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase] . . . in his report of December, 1862 . . . outlined his plan for national banks and national bank currency. What Chase proposed was a system of national banking associations under Federal supervision, which would issue bank notes based upon United States bonds and guaranteed by the Federal government.
It became law on February 25, 1863; but this law had certain defects, so that Congress faced the whole problem afresh and reframed the statute. It is therefore to the law of June 3, 1864, that one must turn for the legislative basis of the national banking system as it emerged from the Civil War. Other provisions of the act were concerned with the maintenance of a required reserve against both banknotes and deposits; the depositing of such reserve in “reserve cities” (which permitted the concentration of bankers’ funds in New York City); . . . and the use of banks as depositaries and financial agents for the government.
As a method of stimulating, or rather forcing, the sale of United States bonds, the national bank act became an essential feature of Civil War finance. After the war (1866) a tax was placed on State banknotes in order to tax them out of existence, so that national banks possessed a monopoly of banknote currency.
To think of the national banking system as a purely fiscal measure innocent of politics and free from exploitation would indeed be a naïve assumption. Investigation shows that it soon “developed into something that was neither national nor a banking system.
Instead it was a loose organization of currency factories designed to . . . [serve] commercial communities and confined…almost entirely to the New England and Middle Atlantic States.” One of the chief injustices of the system as actually administered was the favoritism shown after the war to the eastern States which received the lion’s share of the $300,000,000 of banknote circulation assigned by law as the maximum for the whole country.
As explained by George LaVerne Anderson, each State in the New England and Middle Atlantic regions obtained an amount of banknotes in excess of its quota, while not a State in the South received an amount equal to its quota.
“Massachusetts (writes Anderson) received the circulation which would have been necessary to raise Virginia, West Virginia, North and South Carolina, Louisiana, Florida and Arkansas to their legal quotas . . . The little State of Connecticut had more national bank circulation than Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota, Kansas, Missouri, Kentucky and Tennessee . . . Massachusetts had more than the rest of the Union exclusive of New England and Middle Atlantic States.
[An] interesting comparison [he continues] can be made between comparatively small New England towns and the Southern States. Thus Woonsocket, Rhode Island, had more national bank circulation than North and South Carolina, Mississippi and Arkansas; Waterville, Maine, had nearly as much as Alabama; New Haven, Connecticut, had more than any single Southern State.
If it be said in answer to these facts that distributing according to population is absurd . . . it should be kept in mind that not a single Southern State had obtained, by October 1869, its legal share of the $150,000,000 which was to have been apportioned according to existing banking capital, wealth and resources.”
With some modification [this] national banking system continued for half a century. Though it had some merit, it created an inelastic currency, tended toward the concentration of bank resources in New York, opened the way for serious abuse in the speculative exploitation of bank funds, and contributed to the sharp financial flurry of 1907. Proving inadequate as a nationwide control of currency and banking, it was tardily superseded by an improved plan in the federal reserve act of 1913.”
The Civil War and Reconstruction, J.G. Randall, D.C. Heath and Company, 1937, pp. 455-458)