What Is a Dollar?

by EDWIN VIERAMr. Vieira is an attorney specializing in constitutional law. He is the author of numerous publications on monetary law. This is a condensed version of the monograph “What Is a Dollar?,” distributed by the National Alliance for Constitutional Money. All rights to this condensed version are reserved by the National Alliance for Constitutional Money, Inc.The question “What is a ‘dollar’?” seems trivial. Very few people, however, can correctly define a “dollar,” even though a correct definition is vital to their economic and political well-being.

1. Why is a correct definition of the term “dollar” important?

In America’s free-market economy, prices are expressed in units of money. Under present law, “United States money is expressed in dollars . . .”1Moreover, all “United States coins and currency (including Federal Reserve Notes . . . ) are legal tender for all debts, public charges, taxes and dues.”2Thus, defining the noun “dollar” is necessary in order to know what is the “money” of the United States and what constitutes “legal tender.”

2. Do the present monetary statutes intelligibly define the “dollar”?

The present monetary statutes do not define the “dollar” intelligibly. a. Federal Reserve Notes. Most people mistake the Federal Reserve Note (FRN) “dollar bill” for a “dollar.” But no statute defines or ever defined the “one dollar” FRN as the “dollar” or even a “dollar.” Moreover, the United States Code provides that FRNs “shall be redeemed in lawful money on demand at the Treasury Department of the United States . . . or at any Federal Reserve bank.”3Thus, if FRNs are not themselves “lawful money,” they cannot be “dollars,” the units in which all “United States money is expressed.” b. United States coins. The situation with coinage is equally confusing. The United States Code provides for base-metallic coinage, gold coinage, and silver coinage, all denominated in “dollars.” The base-metallic coinage includes “a dollar coin,” weighing “8.1 grams,” and composed of copper and nickel.4The gold coinage includes a “fifty dollar gold coin” that “weighs 33.931 grams, and contains one troy ounce of fine gold.”5Finally, the silver coinage consists of a coin that is inscribed “One Dollar,” weighs “31.103 grams,” and contains one ounce of “.999 fine silver.”6What is the rational relationship between this “dollar” of 31.103 grams of silver, a “fifty- dollar” coin containing 33.931 grams of gold alloy, and a “dollar” containing “8.1 grams” of base metals? Obviously, these are not the amounts of the metals that exchange against each other in the free market—that is, the different weights of different metals do not reflect equivalent purchasing powers. So, on what theory are each of these disparate weights, and purchasing powers, equally “dollars”? c. Currency of “equal purchasing power.” The United States Code mandates that the latter question should not even be capable of being asked. For the Code commands that “the Secretary [of the Treasury] shall redeem gold certificates owned by the Federal reserve banks at times and in amounts the Secretary decides are necessary to maintain the equal purchasing power of each kind of United States currency.”7Obviously, the Secretary has defaulted on this obligation to keep all forms of “United States currency” at parity with one other—that is, to maintain a “dollar” of constant purchasing-power, whether it be composed of gold, silver, or base metals. In sum, the monetary statutes do not define the noun “dollar” in a unique way. Instead, completely different things have the same name, things unequal to each other are treated as equivalent, and things that should have the same characteristics (i.e., “equal purchasing power[s]”) are quite different.

3. What does American history and the Constitution identify as the “dollar”?

History shows that the real “dollar” is a coin containing 371.25 grains (troy) of fine silver. a. The “dollar” in the Constitution. Both Article I, Section 9, Clause 1 of the Constitution and the Seventh Amendment use the noun “dollar.” The Constitution does not define the “dollar,” though, because in the late 1700s everyone knew that the word meant the silver Spanish milled dollar.b. Adoption of the “dollar” as the “Money-Unit” prior to ratification of the Constitution. The Founding Fathers did not need explicitly to adopt the “dollar” as the national unit of money or to define the “dollar” in the Constitution, because the Continental Congress had already done so. The American Colonies did not originally adopt the dollar from England, but from Spain. Under that country’s monetary reforms of 1497, the silver real became the Spanish money of account. A new coin consisting of eight reales also appeared. Known as pesos, duros, piezas de a ocho (“pieces of eight”), or Spanish dollars, the coins achieved predominance in the New World because of Spain’s then-important commercial and political position.8Indeed, by 1704, the “pieces of eight” had in fact become a unit of account of the Colonies, as Queen Anne’s Proclamation of 1704 recognized, when it decreed that all other current foreign silver coins “stand regulated, according to their weight and fineness, according and in proportion to the rate . . . limited and set for the pieces of eight of Sevil, Pillar, and Mexico” (forms of Spanish dollars).9 ...

Sign up here to be notified of new articles from Gonzalo Schwarz and AIER.