Paper Money and the Original Understanding of the Coinage Clause

By: Robert G. Natelson, Professor of Law, The University of Montana School of Law

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Below is the abstract from Natelson’s article Paper Money and the Original Understanding of the Coinage Clause

Over a century ago, the Supreme Court decided the Legal Tender Cases, holding that Congress could authorize legal tender paper money in addition to metallic coin. In recent years, some commentators have argued that this holding was incorrect as a matter of original understanding or original meaning, but that any other holding would be absolutely inconsistent with modern needs. They further argue that the impracticality of functioning without paper money demonstrates that originalism is not a workable method of constitutional interpretation.

Those who rely on the Legal Tender Cases to discredit originalism are, however, in error. This Article shows that the holding, although not all the reasoning, of those cases was fully consistent with the original understanding of the Coinage Clause. This Article tells the intriguing story of Colonial America’s extraordinary monetary innovations, examines contemporaneous law and language, and shows how the paper money question was addressed during the framing andratification of the Constitution.

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