Encouraging Student Interest in the Economic Context of the Constitution with Continental Currency

This post is by Lee Ann Potter, Director of Educational Outreach at the Library of Congress.

In the September 2014 issue of Social Education, the journal of the National Council for the Social Studies, our “Sources and Strategies” article focused on the economic challenges facing the young United States at the time of the Constitutional Convention.  We suggested that continental currency might ignite student interest in the subject.

Continental currency was paper money issued during the revolution that had no backing in gold or silver.  These notes were backed by the “anticipation” of tax revenues.  Without solid backing and easily counterfeited, they quickly lost value, giving rise to the phrase “not worth a Continental.”  Not only did the federal Congress issue such paper money, but the individual colonies did, as well.  Values varied, and rarely was currency from one colony accepted in another.

 FiveShillings  ThreeShillings  Nine_Pence

After ratification of the Articles of Confederation in 1781 and the end of the war two years later, the new nation, the states, and individuals were in debt; inflation was high; there was a severe shortage of specie; the trade imbalance with foreign nations was significant; and yet Congress and the state governments continued to produce paper money, further contributing to the young country’s economic problems.  Calls to strengthen the national government and its control of the economy by 1787 were loud and clear.

Understanding this economic situation may help students better understand the many enumerated powers given to Congress in Article I, Section 8, of the Constitution involving economic issues or financial responsibilities.

The examples of currency included in the article were featured in two Library of Congress exhibitions: “Creating the United States,”  and “Benjamin Franklin . . . in His Own Words.”

If you’ve used continental currency to help your students learn about economic challenges at the time of the Constitution, to what extent did the paper money encourage student interest?


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