In honor of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, an excerpt from my book Face Value. During the Civil War, Lincoln’s opponents saw African Americans in uniform and Greenback dollars as the same thing: inflated. We can see the same phenomenon today.
The Civil War wasn’t all that popular in the North. Despite a short wave of enthusiastic enlistment, many northerners either sympathized with the South or argued Lincoln should “let the erring sisters go.” That caused Lincoln a lot of financial problems. Anticipating crisis, people hoarded gold, silver, and copper coins. When private citizens began issuing their own small denomination notes, and even using postage stamps as currency, the Union issued its own “postage currency,” small notes that looked like stamps but lacked glue. Also known as “fractional currency,” or as “sticking plasters,” these notes stayed in circulation well after the war. But fractional notes of less than a dollar made an inconvenient foundation for a large war.
Lincoln knew taxing people to fund the war would be a political loser, and so he resorted to simply printing money, the famous “greenbacks.” These bills were legal tender–you could not refuse them. Soldiers took their pay in greenbacks. Businesses selling pork or cloth or guns to the Union took greenbacks and liked it. 1
With similar reluctance, Lincoln enlisted African Americans in the Union Army. Although African Americans volunteered for the Union army immediately after Ft. Sumter, Lincoln at first refused their service. 2 Lincoln saw restoring the Union, not ending slavery, as his first priority. Necessity and practical facts forced his hand.
As the Union marched into the deep South, African Americans abandoned their plantations, declared themselves free, and sought to make themselves useful to the Union cause. By mid 1862 these de facto soldiers, along with manpower shortages, public pressure from abolitionists, and the deepening crisis of the war, persuaded Lincoln to allow African Americans to enlist in the regular army.
Critics of Lincoln’s decision claimed that it raised “colored” soldiers to a level of equality with whites; they argued that blacks lacked the basic qualities of discipline, courage, and intelligence necessary for battle. They saw the soldiers as inflated, valueless. An 1862 song attacking Lincoln criticized the “fractional currency”—paper notes for amounts of less than one dollar—that the North also issued during the war. These “Shin-plasters sure were bad enough,” the song argued:
That is when Rebels used them;
And well the Nigger-worshippers,
In consequence abused them,
But now to cap the climax, of
Our manifold disasters,
We’ve had to come to one and two
And three cent sticking plasters.
This song sees African American soldiers, “an abomination,” as the next logical step after the issue of “cheap” fractional paper currency. It superficially makes no sense—what do “colored troops” have to do with paper money? But the author clearly saw a connection between purely “fiat” currency, a piece of paper named “three cents,” and the representation of African Americans as equal citizens through the Union uniform.
Or consider The Colored Brigade, a minstrel show song written and published shortly after the enlistment of African Americans:
O when we meet de enemy I s’pec we make ‘em stare,
I tink he’ll catch a tartar when he meets de woolly hair;
We’ll fight while we are able, and in greenbacks we’ll be paid,
And soon I’ll be a colonel in de colored brigade.
Chor.—A colonel, a colonel, in de darkey brigade,
And soon I’ll be a colonel in de colored brigade.
In the 1864 Presidential campaign, these links became more explicit. “Jokes, Niggers, Greenbacks—all play’d out,” mocked the chorus of Who Will Care for Old Abe Now? McClellan stood for the return of gold, the song continued. “When ‘Little Mac’ is in the White House, Greenbacks will vanish—Gold come down!4
“We’re fighting for the nigger now,” went another song:
I calculate of niggers we soon shall have our fill,
With Abe’s proclamation and the nigger army bill.
Who would not be a soldier for the Union to fight?
For, Abe’s made the nigger the equal of the white.5
This song also claimed that the soldier “must be loyal, and his officers obey, / Though he lives on mouldy biscuit, and fights without his pay. . . . / Though he waits six months for Green-Backs, worth forty-five per cent.” The song treats greenbacks, elevated to a position of equality with gold they can’t sustain, as part of the same politics that elevated African Americans to a counterfeit equality.
For Lincoln’s opponents the return to gold meant the return to racial hierarchy, while paper money meant freedom for slaves: “Oh! we want no… ‘Greenbacks,’ such as Chase used to utter” went another campaign song:6 “We want no more rank niggers near the White House frying pan; / Nor to sit at the head of the table!”
This song treated greenbacks as part of a general scheme to upset the “natural” order of things. A third campaign song chided those who “while worshipping the nigger, they’d let the Union slide.” It concluded that under McClellan, “we’ll chase away all greenbacks, and gather in our gold, / And then we will prosper, as in the days of old.”7 All these critics linked paper money to a confusion of the line between thing and symbol, black and white. Paper money had helped depreciate the white man while it inflated the black; it had destabilized not just financial value but the differences between things and people.
The Lincoln administration, proclaimed a Democratic partisan, is composed of “stock jobbers, negro fanatics, bubble blowers, [and] broken-down wildcat [banknote] distributors.” 8 “Negro-worshipers,” the New York Herald insisted, have pushed through a policy of financial inflation. In depreciating the currency they have also depreciated the value of white men.9 “For finance, issue Greenbacks; for war, Blackbacks,” one critic of the administration argued.10
Arguments about money are never just about money, and monetary value is never separate from what we call “values” more generally. Discussions about money are always discussions other “values:” the value of social position, the nature of self and character, the “rightness” of hierarchy; the “order” of the world. Modern discussion of gold, or inflation, is never free of the same racial taint. Just do a google image search for “Obama” and “dollar” and see what turns up. Some samples below (and much thanks to Adam Rothman for pointing this out.)
In these images Obama stands for inflated paper–the notes are either worthless, because of inflation, or worth millions of inflated dollars. The fact that little or no actual inflation has occurred as of this writing has no bearing, because it’s not really about money. It’s not actual monetary inflation that’s at issue here: it’s about the “social inflation” Obama’s election represents. Like the presence of black men in the Union uniform, it upsets what many people still believe to be the natural order of things.
This is one of the many reasons to treat arguments about gold money with the most extreme skepticism.
- Lincoln’s greenbacks were not exactly like modern paper money. They were printed entirely at the Treasury’s discretion. Our modern paper money is governed by the Federal Reserve, a unique public/private hybrid. ↩
- Lincoln probably regarded African Americans as inferior, at least initially: he also famously hoped to keep the border states out of the conflict while drawing the Southern states back into the Union. Putting black men in uniform, he thought, would enrage whites and doom reunification. ↩
- “The Broker’s ‘Stamp Act’ Lament” (July 1862); American Memory, Library of Congress. ↩
- J. F. Feeks, “Shouting our Battle-cry, ‘McClellan,’” The Democratic Presidential Campaign Songster (New York, 1864); American Memory, Library of Congress. ↩
- William Kiernan, “I Am Fighting for the Nigger” (New York, n.d.); American Memory, Library of Congress. ↩
- Feeks, “Shouting our Battle-cry, ‘McClellan.’” ↩
- John A. McSorley, “McClellan Campaign Song” (New York, 1864); American Memory, Library of Congress. ↩
- Alexander Delmar, The Great Paper Bubble, or, The Coming Financial Explosion (New York, 1864), 54 ↩
- New York Herald, January 27, 1863 ↩
- Albany, New York Atlas and Argus, January 19, 1863, quoted in Forrest G. Wood, The Black Scare: The Racist Response to Emancipation and Reconstruction (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1970), 44. ↩