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“ To superintend the emission of bills of credit.
“ To obtain from the different assemblies and conventions of the united colonies, accounts of the number of inhabitants in each colony according to the resolution of congress on that subject.”
This committee was from time to time enlarged, as the accumulation of business rendered a more numerous body necessary for its despatch ; but, under the direction of congress, they had the general control of the finances during the period of the revolution-war, uniting most of the duties now assigned to the treasury department of the United States, and the committee of ways and means in the house of representatives.
The finances were, however, from the very organization of government in the colonies in a miserable condition. The continent found itself engaged in actual hostility without preparation, without funds, without arms, provisions, or munitions of war.
Their credit had not the foundation of an established revenue. There was not, either before or after the adoption of the confederation, any power of taxation confided to the congress. The resources of the nation were held by the states; and the treasury of congress could be supplied only by the contribution of the states according to the ratio of their means, or by the issue of paper money, or by loans.
The obvious and in fact the only mode by which the immediate claims for money could be answered, was by the issue of a paper currency on the faith of the people. Congress unhesitatingly arailed themselves of this facility, and on 22d June 1775, directed an emission of “ two millions of Spanish dollars in bills of credit for the defence of America.” This sum was in July increased to three millions. Two persons were appointed, as joint treasurers to take charge of the fund ; and it was recommended to each colony “ to provide ways and means to sink its proportion of the bills ordered to be emitted by this congress, in such manner as may be most effectual and best adapted to the condition, circumstances and equal mode of levying taxes in such colony. And it was further resolved, that the proportion or quota of each colony be determined according to the number of inhabitants of all ages, including negroes and mulattoes in each colony."
The quotas of each colony were to be paid by four annual instalments, either by returning the continental paper which they were to receive for taxes, or by a remission to the continental treasurers of silver and gold. The paper, when returned to the treasurers, was to be burned under the eye of a committee of congress if in session, or in case of adjournment, of a committee appointed by the assembly or convention of the province of Pennsylvania ; but it was ordered that “ the treasurers, whenever they have silver and gold in their hands for the redemption of continental bills,
shall advertise the same, signifying that they are ready to give silver or gold for such bills to all persons requiring it in exchange.”
This was the first financial effort of the thirteen colonies. Although an army was then raised and hostilities had commenced, the smallness of the sum actually issued, and the want of preparation for additional funds, show the state of feeling as to the probably short duration of hostilities.
Unfortunate as was the result of this experiment to the holders of the bills, it answered for the time the calls of the country; and it was not attempted without being accompanied by every exertion which could be made to ensure the credit of the paper. A mode for redeeming it was pointed out. The amount, which each colony ought to provide for, was ascertained ; and as all the sources of revenue by direct and indirect taxation remained with the several colonies, congress recommended that arrangements should be made for future payment, which if they had been sufficiently regarded, would gradually but certainly have redeemed it without loss. The paper at first kept its original value, and the continental treasurers were able to raise a considerable amount in specie, as they were required to do by congress, to supply the forces which were destined against Canada.
But the sum thus emitted was shortly exhausted. Another emission of three millions in bills of credit was directed in the subsequent November, and four millions followed in February 1776. In the following May, congress “resolved that five millions of dollars be emitted in bills of credit, in part of the ten millions voted for the service of the current year, and that the thirteen united colonies be pledged for the redemption of said five millions of dollars, at such periods and in such manner and proportions as congress should hereafter direct and appoint.”
The balance of the ten millions was speedily required ; thus, in the first year of the war, congress found itself struggling with a debt of nineteen millions of dollars, without any compulsory power to provide for its payment, and with no means to preserve for it any appearance of credit but the feeble and disregarded right to recommend to the colonies to provide means for its redemption.
Bills of credit, without any fund for their payment or any right of taxation to redeem them, accumulating as they did by the clamorous demands of the community for something as the evidence of a debt, could not fail to depreciate; and it is less now to be wondered, that they should soon have become of so little value, as that congress should have been able with such feeble means to meet in any way the importunity of their creditors.
It was assigned to the committee which has been mentioned to issue, direct and maintain as far as possible this miserable representation of public wealth.
To support the credit of the colonies by controlling their expenditure was impossible, for they were engaged in a war which involved every thing that was dear to them, and had determined at any expense or sacrifice to command success. To provide funds for the payment either of principal or interest was beyond their power, for this attribute of sovereignty was reserved for the states. Their duty was limited, therefore, to the providing of palliatives for the evils, and circumscribing in as narrow bounds as was possible, the distress and ruin which inevitably must arise from a fluctuating and depreciating currency.
The principal duty, which in this respect devolved on the committee, was the examination of accounts in the vast variety of concerns to which the state of the nation required attention. Civil and military, foreign and domestic, large and small, whatever accounts indeed were presented for payment were submitted to the examination of the committee of the treasury, and the immense amount of labour daily performed by them is attested on almost every page of the journals of congress.
But their task was not confined to this arduous and useful labour. They were expected to devise and report such measures, as with the feeble means limited to congress, would tend to preserve the credit of the country.
One of the first measures of this kind was the establishment of continental loan offices. In Oc