All Commentary
Wednesday, September 1, 1982

Book Review: Private Gold Coins and Patterns of the United States by Donald H. Kagin

(Arco Publishing, 219 Park Avenue South, New York, N.Y. 10003), 1981 • 432 pages • $29.95

The market is a great problem solver. Where there is a need, and people are free to fill that need, solutions soon appear.

One such problem is the need for a stable, reliable medium of exchange. When the government has failed to provide such currency, and private minters were free to fill the void, the mintmasters performed admirably well.

But, until now, the story of the private minters has received little attention. They aren’t mentioned in books on money and banking, even though in the years 1830 to 1862 they minted an estimated $75,000,000 in $1 to $50 denominations. Coin books contain only a few paragraphs, while numismatic magazines run an occasional article.

Now, however, Donald H. Kagin, the first American to earn a Ph.D. in Numismatics, has written a definitive study on the private minters and their coins. The result is a fascinating history of rugged individuals, frontier towns, and feisty competition.

Private minters coined gold in Georgia, North Carolina, California, Utah, Oregon, and Colorado. Their coins weren’t legal tender, so no one was forced to accept them.

How well were the coins received? Just like any other product offered in the market. The good ones were readily accepted and used. The bad ones quickly fell into disuse. In a free market, good money drives out bad—the exact opposite of what happens to legal tender coins.

More than a century has passed since the federal government ira-posed its legal monopoly over coinage. The needs of commerce have changed. Yesterday’s gold coins might not prove popular if today’s markets were suddenly freed from government intervention.

But certain principles remain. When competition is permitted, it is still the great discipliner of monopoly. When markets are free, they still bring forth solutions. And when people have a choice, they still prefer a stable, reliable medium of exchange.