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Men from Princeton on Money
Perspective on the News
Monday, July 11, 2011
Ed DeShields

John Witherspoon had strong words for Congress about the manipulation of currency and its affect on inflation.  That was 226 years ago.  We should have listened.

As a Founding Father, Dr. Witherspoon was undoubtedly one of the ablest, and most extensive writers of his time.   He is also my grandfather; ten generations preceding.  Therefore you can imagine my captivation when reading material penned by a distant relative who lived 250 years ago.

I recently read his Essay on Money It is one of the few books that weren’t burned when the British burned his library in retaliation of his role in signing the Declaration of Independence.  It is a brilliant work of common sense on the use and creation of money.   Had we followed his simple advice our world would be quite different today.

Witherspoon wanted gold as America's monetary standard and was able to defend it.  As an elder statesman, he had lived through the crash of the Continentals (paper money) in early America and saw how money could be easily devalued by simply printing a lot of it.

He wrote, "The evil is this:  All paper introduced into circulation… adds to the quantity of the medium, and thereby ... increases the price [e.g. inflation] of industry and its fruits." In other words paper money can be indiscriminately printed from thin air, which eventually causes inflation and the devaluing of everything.

According to James Madison, the author of our Bill of Rights, Witherspoon's influence on the Constitution can be seen in Article I, Section 8: "Clause 5: to coin money, regulate the value thereof, and of foreign coin, and fix the Standard of Weights and Measures."

Coining is a term that describes a process of metalworking.  To coin is to stamp metal.   When you coin money you stamp metal into a measured symbol where its value is regulated as currency.   According to our Constitution, American money was to be made of metal.   Coining isn’t printing.  Paper cannot be coined.

So, who was Witherspoon?

Dr. John Witherspoon was the only member of clergy to sign the Declaration of Independence.  He immigrated from Scotland to preside as the sixth President of Princeton University (then called College of New Jersey) from 1768-94.  Dr. John Witherspoon taught 469 students who directly shaped America.

Witherspoon helped design the structure of the government into a Congress of two houses, and an Executive Branch -- exactly as the Presbyterian Church was and still is governed today.   But, the most remarkable accomplishments of this great man were those whom he influenced with his teachings.

One hundred and fourteen of his students became Presbyterian ministers. Thirteen went on to become university presidents in eight different states.

One of his students, James Madison, served eight years as Secretary of State and eight years as the fourth President of the United States and wrote the Bill of Rights.

Six men were members of the Continental Congress.

Nine were appointed to Cabinet positions, twelve were Governors of states, and at least 60 became Senators or Representatives in Congress.

He awarded two honorary doctorates during his presidency, one to Thomas Jefferson and one to Alexander Hamilton.  Many of Witherspoon's former students left New Jersey to fill academic positions on the frontier of emerging America.

The aging Witherspoon did not attend the Constitutional Convention that followed the Declaration of Independence himself but one-sixth of its 55 delegates were graduates of Princeton University: Gunning Bedford Jr. of Delaware; David Brearley of New Jersey; William Richardson Davie of North Carolina; Jonathan Dayton of New Jersey; William Churchill Houston of New Jersey; James Madison of Virginia; Alexander Martin of North Carolina; Luther Martin of Maryland; and William Paterson of New Jersey.

So Witherspoon, as a Founding Father himself, was also a father of our Founding Fathers of sorts.   His influence permeated the very formation of America.   His ministerial ideals and viewpoints became part of the American fabric we enjoy today.  Well, sort of.

Within 125 years the monetary lessons of Dr. Witherspoon began to be unraveled at the hands of another Princeton graduate, and U.S. President Woodrow Wilson.  Wilson launched the Progressive Era agenda. Characteristic of Progressives he got control of the money and centralized it by forming the Federal Reserve in 1913.  Wilson led the agenda to lower import taxes on foreign goods, making us a consumption society, and compensated for loss of tariff taxes by shifting the burden to the American worker by creating the first permanent income tax.  The seeds of the Great Depression were sown. 

Wilson was what Witherspoon warned us of in his brilliant “Essay on Money”; hand the evil of printed money into the hands of a few who would control the entire system.   Thus, the country would soon get its second taste of monetary mismanagement that led us into one of the most painful economic times in American history.

It is said that no matter how frequently you warn people about a disaster that’s coming, they won’t listen.

There must be a psychological phenomenon that explains the tendency towards disbelief and inaction.  If people haven’t directly experienced an extreme event before, they are prone to believe that it can’t happen – to them.  This must explain why people refuse to evacuate their homes before a hurricane when it is clearly going to create great devastation. And, this is what is going to happen to most people who are destroyed by hyperinflationary events due to the unwise printing of money by today’s monetary leaders. Hence most people will be caught totally off-guard by the events of the future.

As certain as another hurricane will occur, governments historically refuse to pay off their debts. They always default in some form.   They always have.  They always will. 

Two hundred years after Wilson’s establishment of the Progressive agenda yet another former Princeton man, Ben Bernanke, now runs the institution of the U.S. Federal Reserve.

Outside his window at Princeton’s Department of Economics stands the statue of Founding Father Dr. John Witherspoon.  I am sure Mr. Bernanke hasn’t read, or at least considered, Dr. Witherspoon’s Essay on Money.   Or, perhaps he misplaced his copy.

Our founding fathers had a lot to say about money.  As it turned out, we should have listened.

About Ed DeShields

Last article: The Resource Curse

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