Front Page Titles (by Subject) Sect. I.—: Circumstances which led to the use of Money. Principal properties which every Commodity used as such ought to possess. Not a Sign or a Measure of Value, but a real Equivalent. - Treatises and Essays on Subjects connected with Economic Policy with Biographical Sketches of Quesnay, Adam Smith & Ricardo
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Sect. I.—: Circumstances which led to the use of Money. Principal properties which every Commodity used as such ought to possess. Not a Sign or a Measure of Value, but a real Equivalent. - John Ramsay McCulloch, Treatises and Essays on Subjects connected with Economic Policy with Biographical Sketches of Quesnay, Adam Smith & Ricardo 
Treatises and Essays on Subjects connected with Economic Policy with Biographical Sketches of Quesnay, Adam Smith & Ricardo (Edinburgh: Adam and Charles Black, 1853).
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Circumstances which led to the use of Money. Principal properties which every Commodity used as such ought to possess. Not a Sign or a Measure of Value, but a real Equivalent.
Were the division of labour unknown, and did every individual or family directly produce the articles necessary for his or their consumption, there would be no exchanges, and, consequently, no money. But, after the division of labour has been established, the employment of money becomes necessary, or, at least, highly advantageous. A very small part only of a man’s wants is then directly supplied by his own exertions. The greater part is indirectly supplied by his exchanging services, or such parts of the articles he has produced as exceed his own consumption, for such parts of those produced by others as he has occasion for, and they are willing to part with. Every man thus lives by exchanging, or becomes in some measure a merchant, and the society itself grows to be what is properly a commercial society.
“But when the division of labour first began to take place, this power of exchanging must frequently have been very much clogged and embarrassed in its operations. One man, we shall suppose, has more of a certain commodity than he himself has occasion for, while another has less. The former, consequently, would be glad to dispose of, and the latter to purchase, a part of this superfluity. But, if this latter should chance to have nothing that the former stands in need of, no exchange can be made between them. The butcher has more meat in his shop than he himself can consume, and the brewer and the baker would each be willing to purchase a part of it; but they have nothing to offer in exchange except the different productions of their respective trades, and the butcher is already provided with all the bread and beer which he has immediate occasion for. No exchange can, in this case, be made between them. He cannot be their merchant, nor they his customers; and they are all of them thus mutually less serviceable to one another. To avoid the inconveniency of such situations, every prudent man, in every period of society, after the first establishment of the division of labour, must naturally have endeavoured to manage his affairs in such a manner as to have at all times by him, besides the peculiar produce of his own industry, a certain quantity of some one commodity or other, such as he imagined few people would be likely to refuse in exchange for the produce of their industry.”1
This commodity, or Marchandise banale, as it is termed by the French, whatever it may be, is money.
An infinite variety of commodities have been used as money in different countries and states of society. Those nations who chiefly subsist by the chase, such as the ancient Russians, and the greater part of the Indians who occupy the uncultivated portion of America, use the skins of wild animals as money.1 In a pastoral state of society cattle are sometimes used for that purpose. Homer tells us that the armour of Diomed cost only nine oxen, whilst that of Glaucus cost a hundred.2 The etymology of the Latin word (pecunia) signifying money, and of all its derivatives, would seem to prove that cattle (pecus) had been the primitive money of the Romans.3 And that they had been used as such by the ancient Germans is obvious; for their laws uniformly fix the amount of the penalties to be paid for offences in cattle.4 In remoter ages corn was very generally used, in agricultural countries, as money; and even now, it is by no means uncommon to stipulate for corn rents and wages. Other articles have been used in different countries. Salt is said to be the common money of Abyssinia.5 A species of shells called cowries, gathered on the shores of the Maldive Islands, are used in smaller payments throughout Hindostan, and form the only money of extensive districts in Africa.6 Dried fish serves as money in Iceland and Newfoundland;1 and Dr Smith mentions that, previously to the publication of the Wealth of Nations (1776), it was customary in a village in Scotland for workmen to carry nails, as money, to the baker’s shop and the alehouse.2
But these commodities universally want some of the principal properties which every commodity used as money ought to possess. Products must frequently be brought to market worth only part of an ox or a skin; but as an ox could not be divided, and as the division of a skin would most probably deprive it of the greater part of its value, they could not be exchanged for such money. Divisibility is not, however, the only indispensable quality in a commodity used as a medium of exchange. It is necessary that it should admit of being kept for an indefinite period without deteriorating; that it should by possessing great value in small bulk, be easily transported; and that one piece of money of a certain denomination, should always be precisely equivalent to every other piece of money of the same denomination. But none of the commodities specified above, as having been used as money, possess these properties. Though cattle had been sufficiently divisible, they could neither be preserved, nor transported from one place to another, without a great deal of trouble and expense; while, owing to the difference in their qualities, one ox might be worth two or three oxen of an inferior species. It is plain, therefore, that they could not serve as money except in a very rude state of society, when the arts were almost unknown, and the rearing of cattle formed the principal employment. Corn is sufficiently divisible; but its bulk is far too great in proportion to its value to admit of its easy transportation, and it also is of very different and not easily appreciated qualities. Salt, shells, and fish, are all liable to insuperable objections. Equal quantities of all of them differ very greatly in their values; some of them cannot be divided, and others cannot be preserved or transported without much loss.
The commodities in question were also deficient in a still more important particular. Their value was not sufficiently invariable to permit of their being advantageously used as money. They were not durable commodities, nor was it possible to adjust their supply so as to avoid sudden fluctuations of price. The occasional abundance and scarcity of pasture has a powerful influence over the price of cattle, which is still more seriously affected by the prevalence of epidemical diseases, and other contingencies. The fluctuations in the price of corn, arising from variations of the seasons, are too frequent and obvious to require to be pointed out. And in the islands where cowries are picked up, a strong gale from a particular point of the compass has frequently, in a few hours, sunk their value considerably. It was not, therefore, to be expected that such commodities could be either generally or permanently used as money in civilised societies. No person would willingly buy, or barter produce for an article, which might, in a few weeks, or even days, lose a third or a half of its value.
The desire of uniting the different qualities of invariability of value, divisibility, durability, facility of transportation, and perfect sameness, doubtless formed the irresistible reasons which have induced all civilised communities to employ gold and silver as money. The value of these metals, though far from invariable, changes only by slow degrees; they are readily divisible into any number of parts, which may be again reunited, by means of fusion, without loss; they do not deteriorate by being kept; their firm and compact texture makes them difficult to wear; their cost of production, especially of gold, is so considerable, that they possess great value in small bulk, and can, of course, be transported with comparative facility; and their identity is perfect, the pure gold and silver supplied by Russia and Australia having precisely the same qualities with that furnished by California and Peru. No wonder, therefore, when almost every property necessary to constitute money is possessed in so eminent a degree by the precious metals, that they have been used as such from a very remote æra. Their employment in this function is not ascribable to accident, to the genius of any individual, or to any peculiar combination of circumstances. It grew naturally out of the wants and necessities of society, on the one hand, and the means of supplying them possessed by these metals, on the other. They became universal money, as Turgot has observed, “not in consequence of any arbitrary agreement among men, or of the intervention of any law, but by the nature and force of things.”
A considerable period must necessarily have elapsed, after the introduction of the precious metals into commerce, before they were used generally as money. But, by degrees, the various qualities which so peculiarly fit them for this purpose would become obvious; and every individual, in consulting his own advantage, would endeavour to exchange some portion of the produce of his industry for commodities which could be easily concealed or carried about, which did not deteriorate by being kept, and of which he could give a portion equivalent to any other article which he might afterwards wish to obtain. When first brought to market, gold and silver, like copper, iron, or any other metal, were in an unfashioned state, in bars or ingots. Sheep, oxen, corn and flour, etc., were then bartered for gold or silver, exactly as they were bartered for iron, copper, cloth, or anything else. The parties having agreed upon the quality and quantity of the metal to be given for the goods, the latter was ascertained by weight. Nor is this a mere conjectural statement, advanced in a later age to explain appearances, and resting on probability only. Aristotle1 and Pliny2 tell us, that such was, in fact, the method by which the precious metals were originally exchanged in Greece and Italy; and the sacred writings present us with a remarkable example of the prevalence of the same primitive practice in the East. We are there told that Abraham weighed four hundred shekels of silver, and gave them in exchange for a piece of ground he had purchased from the sons of Heth.1 It is also mentioned, that this silver was “current money with the merchant,” an expression which evidently refers to its quality only; for, had it been coined, or marked with a stamp, indicating its weight and fineness, it would not have been necessary to have weighed it. These ancient practices still subsist in various countries. In many parts of China, gold and silver do not circulate as coin under the authority of a public stamp. When exchanged, they are cut into pieces, supposed to be nearly proportioned to the value of the article they are to be given for; and the pieces are then weighed to ascertain their precise value. This practice is also prevalent in other countries.2
Before the art of metallurgy was well understood, the baser metals were frequently used as money. Iron was the primitive money of the Lacedemonians, and copper of the Romans. But these metals deteriorate by being kept; and, besides this defect, the rapid improvement of the arts, and the consequent reduction of their price, speedily rendered their bulk in proportion to their value too great to permit of their continuing to serve as money. Copper, however, is still advantageously used in the form of tokens, convertible into silver in very small payments. In Great Britain, copper pence and half-pence are rated far above their real value. But as their issue is exclusively in the hands of government, and as they are legal tender to the extent of one shilling only in any one payment, this over-valuation has not, for reasons which will be afterwards explained, had any bad effect.3
The trouble and inconvenience attending the weighing of the metal in every exchange of gold or silver for commodities, must have been early experienced. But the greatest obstacle to the use of unfashioned metals as money, would undoubtedly be found in the difficulty of determining their quality, or the degree of their purity, with sufficient facility and accuracy. The operation of assaying, is one of great nicety and delicacy; and, notwithstanding all the assistance derived from modern art, it is still no easy matter to ascertain the precise degree of purity of a particular piece of metal. In early ages, such an operation must have been performed in a clumsy and bungling manner. It is most probable, indeed, that when the precious metals were first used as money, their quality would be appreciated only by their weight and colour. A very short experience would, however, be sufficient to show the inexactness of conclusions derived from such loose and unsatisfactory criteria; and the devising of some method by which the fineness of the metal offered in exchanges might be easily and correctly made known, would very soon be felt as indispensable to the general use of gold and silver as money. Such a method was not long in presenting itself. It was early discovered, that, to indicate the purity of the metal, and also to avoid the trouble and expense of weighing it, no more was necessary than to mark each piece with a public stamp, declaring its weight and fineness. Such seem to have been the various steps which led the ancients, at a very remote æra, to the introduction of coined money.1 It was an invention of the greatest utility, and has powerfully contributed to facilitate commerce, and to accelerate the progress of civilisation and the arts.
“Without some article of known exchangeable value, such as coin, readily received as an equivalent for other things, the interchange of commodities must have been very limited, and consequently the divisions of labour very imperfectly established. Now, money obviates these evils, and by a twofold operation, augments production. In the first place, it saves all that time and labour which, while the intercourse between man and man is carried on by barter, must frequently intervene before a person can be supplied with the quantity of the commodity which he wants. In the second place, and in consequence of its saving the time and labour which must otherwise be spent in effecting exchanges, it multiplies the transactions of mercantile industry, and thus allows the divisions of employment to be more thoroughly established. By the first operation, it disengages a very considerable portion of labour from an unproductive occupation, and enables it to receive a more useful direction. By the second operation, it increases in a very high degree the productive powers of the labour already usefully employed. It assists every man in availing himself of the skill and dexterity which he may have acquired in any particular calling, and promotes cultivation in a manner suitable to the climate and soil of different districts, and of different countries. And by both these operations, coined money increases to an extent, not easy to be calculated, the wealth of civilised communities.”1
But however great the advantages attending the use of coins, their introduction had no influence over the nature of exchanges. Equivalents are still given for equivalents. The exchange of a quarter of corn for an ounce of pure unfashioned gold bullion, is undeniably as much a barter, as if it were exchanged for an ox, or a barrel of beer. But supposing the metal to be formed into a coin, that is, marked with a stamp indicating its weight and fineness, it is plain that that circumstance would make no change in the terms of the barter. The coinage saves the trouble of weighing and assaying the bullion, but it does nothing more. A coin is merely a piece of metal of a known weight and fineness; and the commodities exchanged for it are always held to be of equal value. And yet these obvious considerations have been very generally overlooked. Coined money, instead of being viewed in the same light as other commodities, has been regarded as something quite mysterious. It has been said to be both a sign and a measure of value. But a sovereign is not a sign, it is the thing signified. A promissory note, payable at some stated period, may not improperly be considered as the sign of the specie to be paid for it; but that specie is itself a commodity possessed of real exchangeable worth. It is equally incorrect to call money a measure of value, at least in the sense in which that phrase is commonly understood. Gold and silver do not measure the value of commodities, more than the latter measure the value of gold and silver. Every thing possessed of value may either measure, or be measured by, every thing else possessed of value. When one commodity is exchanged for another, each measures the value of the other. If the quartern loaf sold for a shilling, it would be quite as correct to say, that a quartern loaf measured the value of a shilling, as that a shilling measured the value of a quartern loaf.
The quality of serving as a measure of value is, therefore, inherent in every commodity. But the slow degrees by which the precious metals change their value, renders them peculiarly well fitted for forming a standard, by which to compare the values of other and more variable articles. To this standard reference is almost always made in estimating the value of products in civilised countries. We do not say, that one man is worth a thousand acres of land, and that another is worth a thousand sheep; but we ascertain for how much gold or silver the land and the sheep would respectively exchange, and then say, that their proprietors are worth so much money. But in this there is nothing mysterious. We merely compare the value of one commodity with the value of another. And as coin or money is the most convenient standard of comparison, the value of other commodities is usually estimated, or rated, in it.
It is obvious, from this statement, that the exchange of one commodity, or set of commodities, for another, may be adjusted, with reference to money, without any money being actually in the possession of either of the parties to the exchange. If a horse, for example, commonly sold for ten pieces of silver, an ox for five pieces, and a sheep for one piece, the animals might be exchanged in this proportion without the intervention of money. The frequent recurrence of transactions of this kind seems to have given rise to the notion of an abstract or ideal standard of value. Thus, instead of saying that a horse is worth ten pieces of silver, an ox five pieces, and a sheep one piece, it has been contended that it might as well be said that they are respectively worth 10x, 5x, and 1x; and, since the comparative values of commodities may be as clearly expressed in this way as in sums of money, that the latter may be discarded as a standard, and a set of arbitrary terms adopted in its stead. But those who argue thus completely mistake the nature and functions of a standard. Its object is not so much to mark the known relations between different commodities, as to enable those which are unknown to be easily discovered. And although a series of arbitrary terms may perhaps serve well enough for the first of these purposes, it is quite impossible that it can ever serve for the second. This, however, is the principal object of a standard; and it is sufficiently plain that nothing can be used as such unless it possess the same properties as the things with which it is to be compared. To measure length, a standard must have length; to measure value, it must have value. The value of commodities is ascertained by separately comparing their cost with the cost of money, and we express their relation to each other by stating the result of our inquiries; that is, by mentioning the number of dollars, of pounds, or of fractions of a pound, they are respectively worth. And, when any new commodity is offered for sale, or when any change is made in the cost of an old one, we ascertain its relation to the rest, by comparing it with a dollar or a pound. It is impossible, however, that we could do this, were the terms dollar or pound purely arbitrary, and referable to no really valuable article. We might as well try to estimate distances by an imaginary inch or an imaginary foot, as to estimate prices or values by an imaginary shilling or an imaginary sovereign. When we say that an ox is worth £5 and a sheep £1, we not only mean that each is worth a certain amount of gold or silver, but also, that when an ox and a sheep are compared together—that is, when the one serves as a standard by which to estimate the value of the other—one ox is worth five sheep. But, suppose that we wish to ascertain what is the relative value of some other commodity—a hat, for example—to oxen or sheep. Of what use would it be to be told that one ox was worth five sheep, or that, when the value of an ox was represented by the term “5x,” the value of a sheep was represented by the term “1x”? It is not the relation between oxen and sheep, but the relation between these animals and hats, that we are desirous of learning. And, though this relation may be learned by comparing the cost of oxen and sheep with the cost of hats, or by ascertaining for how much of some other really valuable commodity an ox, a sheep, and a hat will respectively exchange, it is obvious it could never be learned by comparing them with x, or z, or other arbitrary term or symbol. It would not, in truth, be more absurd to attempt to ascertain it by comparing them with the hieroglyphics on an Egyptian sarcophagus. Nothing that will not exchange for something else, can ever be a standard, or measure of value. Commodities are always compared with commodities, and not with abstract terms. Men go to market with real values, and not with the signs of values, in their pockets. And it is to something possessed of real worth—to the gold contained in a sovereign, and not to the word sovereign—that they always have referred, and must continue to refer, in estimating value.1
This principle has been neatly and perspicuously stated by Locke:—“Men, in their bargains,” says he, “contract not for denominations or sounds, but for the intrinsic value; which is the quantity of silver (or gold), by public authority, warranted to be in pieces of such denominations. And it is by having a greater quantity of silver (or gold) that men thrive and grow richer, and not by having a greater number of denominations; which, when they come to have need of their money, will prove but empty sounds, if they do not carry with them the real quantity of silver (or gold) that is required.”1
In common mercantile language, the giving of money for a commodity is termed buying, and the giving of a commodity for money, selling. Price, unless when the contrary is particularly mentioned, always means the value of a commodity rated in money.
Having thus endeavoured to explain the circumstances which led to the introduction of money, and to show what it really is, and what it is not, we proceed to investigate the laws by which its value is regulated. It is chiefly from the prevalence of erroneous opinions on this subject, that the theory of money has been so much misunderstood.
[1 ] Wealth of Nations, M‘Culloch’s ed., in one vol., p. 10.
[1 ] Storch, Traité d’Economie Politique, tome iii. p. 16; Ulloa, Mémoires Philosophiques sur l’Amérique, tome ii. p. 100.
[2 ] Iliad, lib. 6, lin. 235. Garnier contends, in a note to his translation of the Wealth of Nations (v. p. 18, ed. 1822), that by oxen in the statement now referred to, Homer did not mean the animals so called, but coins impressed with the figure of an ox. But though the oldest Attic and some other ancient coins were marked with an ox, it does not follow that cattle were not used as money previously to their being issued. Indeed, the fair presumption is, that that circumstance was the cause of their figures being impressed on the coins.
[3 ] Morellet, Prospectus d’un Nouveau Dictionnaire de Commerce, p. 115.
[4 ] Storch, in loco citato.
[5 ] Wealth of Nations, p. 10.
[6 ] “Dans les pays ou le cuivre a trop de valeur pour pouvoir représenter celle des plus menues denrées, on est encore obligé lui substituer quelque autre matière plus commune. C’est cette circonstance qui a fait adopter aux Indiens l’usage des cauris en guise des petite monnoie. Cet usage pourroit paroître étrange dans les pays aussi riches et d’une civilisation aussi ancienne que le Bengale et l’Indoustan: mais le cuivre y est si rare, et les vivres y sont à si bon marchè qu’une pièce de la valeur de 1 cop. et ¼ [about a halfpenny English] peut y acheter une quantite des denrées suffisante pour la subsistence journalière d’un homme du peuple. On est donc obligé de deviser la plus petite monnoie de cuivre en plusieurs fractions; et comme une monnoie d’aussi peu de valeur couteroit plus à fabriquer qu’elle ne pourroit valoir, on la remplace par un coquillage dont la nature fait presque tous les fraix. Quelque mince que soit la valeur d’un cauris, elle suffit dans ces contrées fertiles pour acheter une piece des bananes ou quelque autre fruit commun.”—Le Goux de Flaix, Essai sur l’Indoustan, tome i. pp. 143-226, quoted by Storch, Economie Politique, tome iii. p. 133.
[1 ] Smith, ubi supra; and Horrebow, Description de l’Islande, tome ii. p. 90.
[2 ] Wealth of Nations, loc. cit.
[1 ] Polit. lib. i. cap. 9.
[2 ] Hist. Nat. lib. 33, cap. 3.
[1 ] Genesis, chap. xxiii. ver. 16.
[2 ] Goguet, De l’Origine des Loix, etc. tom. i. p. 268, 4to edit. See also Park’s Travels, vol. i. p. 464, 8vo. edit.
[3 ] See Memorandum on the Silver Coinage of 1817, by the Master of the Mint, p. 378, of the Appendix to the Lord’s Report on the Resumption of Cash Payments by the Bank.
[1 ] Goguet, De l’Origine des Loix, etc., tom. i. p. 269.
[1 ] Torrens on the Production of Wealth, p. 305.
[1 ] The following passage of Montesquieu has often been referred to in proof of the existence of an ideal standard:—“Les noirs de la côte d’Afrique ont un signe des valeurs sans monnoie; c’est un signe purement idéal fondé sur le degré d’estime qu’ils mettent dans leur esprit à chaque marchandise, à proportion du besoin qu’ils en ont; une certaine denrée, ou marchandise, vaut trois macutes; une autre, six macutes; une autre, dix macutes; c’est comme s’ils disoient simplement trois, six, dix. Le prix se forme par la comparaison qu’ils font de toutes les marchandises entre elles: pour lors, il n’y a point de monnoie particulière, mais chaque portion de marchandise est monnoie de l’autre.”—Esprit des Loix, liv. xxii. cap. 8.
But, instead of giving any support to the notion of an abstract standard, this passage might be confidently referred to in proof of its non-existence. Had Montesquieu said that the blacks determined the values, or prices; of commodities, by comparing them with the arbitrary term macute, the statement, though erroneous, would have been at least in point. But he says no such thing. On the contrary, he states distinctly that the relative values of commodities (marchandises) are ascertained by comparing them with each other (entre elles), and that it is merely the result of the comparison that is expressed in arbitrary terms.
So much for the weight to be attached to this statement, supposing it to be well founded. The truth is, however, that the term macute is not really arbitrary, and employed only to mark an ascertained proportion, but that it has a reference to, and is in fact, the name of an intrinsically valuable commodity. “On a bien dit,” says l’Abbé Morellet, “que ce mot macute étoit une expression abstraite et générale de la valeur, et cela est vrai au sens où nous l’expliquerons plus bas; mais on n’a pas remarqué que cette abstraction a été consequente et posterieure à l’emploi du mot macute pour signifier une marchandise, une denrée réelle à laquelle on avoit longtems comparé toutes les autres.
“Macute en plusieurs lieux de la côte d’Afrique, est encore le nom d’une certaine étoffe: ‘Chez les negres de la côte d’Angola,’ dit le voyageur Angelo, ‘les macutes sont des pièces de nattes d’une aune de long;’ Jobson dit aussi que les macutes sont une espèce d’étoffe.
“Les étoffes ont toujours été l’objet d’un besoin tres-pressant chez des peuples aussi barbares, depourvus de toute espèce d’industrie.—Les nattes en particulier leur sont de la plus grande nécessité. Elles sont divisées en morceaux peu considerables et d’une petite valeur; elles sont très-uniformes dans leurs parties, et les premières qu’on a faites auront pu être semblables les unes aux autres, et d’une bonté égale, sous la même dénomination; toutes ces qualités les ont rendu propres à devenir la mésure commune des valeurs.”—Prospectus d’un Nouveau Dictionnaire de Commerce, p. 121.
The following extract from Park’s Travels gives an example of a similar kind:—“In the early intercourse of the Mandingoes with the Europeans, the article that attracted most notice was iron. Its utility in forming the instruments of war and husbandry made it preferable to all others; and iron soon became the measure (standard) by which the value of all other commodities was ascertained. Thus a certain quantity of goods, of whatever denomination, appearing to be equal to a bar of iron, constituted, in the trader’s phraseology, a bar of that particular merchandise. Twenty leaves of tobacco, for instance, were considered as a bar of tobacco; and a gallon of spirits (or rather half spirits and half water) as a bar of rum; a bar of one commodity being reckoned equal in value to a bar of another commodity. As, however, it must unavoidably happen that, according to the plenty or scarcity of goods at market, in proportion to the demand, the relative value would be subject to continual fluctuation, greater precision has been found necessary; and, at this time, the current value of a single bar of any kind is fixed by the whites at two shillings sterling. Thus, a slave, whose price is L.15, is said to be worth 150 bars.”—Travels in the Interior of Africa, 8vo. edit., vol. i. p. 39.
[1 ] Farther Considerations concerning Raising the Value of Money. Locke’s Works, ii. 94. 4to. 1777.