round silver and gold coins

The Enumerated Powers Series: To Coin Money-Part One

money cash euro pay

One thing government, scholars and really all Americans can tend to forget about the Constitution is this: yes, the Constitution gives or enumerates for government the power that it does have, BUT, in doing so, it also limits the power it has. In other words, even the specific enumerated powers were not written as a free for all in that specific realm of power for government. The powers themselves were worded in such a way as to limit the power itself. Yes, government can make laws about this topic, but on this topic only, not to be construed as an excuse to take hold of a slew of other arbitrary topics that government argues are tangential.

Why list out the specific powers in the first place? Why give the government specific enumerated powers and then tell the government that it can do anything. It’s elementary and yet also so often forgotten.

I say this to set the stage for one such enumerated power.

"To coin Money, regulate the Value thereof, and of foreign Coin, and fix the Standards of Weights and Measures"

Historical Context

crop man getting dollars from wallet

Under the Articles of Confederation, the federal and state governments issued a variety of currencies, particularly during the Revolutionary War. Specifically, both governments were guilty of issuing bills of credit to fund the Revolutionary War.

A bill of credit is non-interest bearing paper money issued on the “good credit” of the United States or state government, but with no backing of precious metal.

The issuing of various bills of credit by both the state governments and the federal government led to painful inflation in the country. This inflation, along with the chaos of having various governments issuing different forms of currency, led the founders to give this power exclusively to the federal government, namely Congress.

According to Dr. Zywicki, at George Mason University School of Law,

…this clause grants Congress the authority to ‘coin money’ from precious metals such as gold and silver. Under the Articles of Confederation, the power to coin money was a concurrent power of Congress and the states. To create a more standardized monetary system and reduce the costs of running mints, the Constitution granted this power to Congress exclusively…

Second, this clause authorizes Congress to regulate the value of the coins struck domestically and to set the value of foreign coins. Under the Articles, Congress held the former power but not the latter. The Constitution gave both powers to Congress to encourage domestic and foreign commerce by preventing the states from attaching disparate valuations to circulating coins.

The federal exclusivity of the power was hotly contested in the convention since the ability to coin money was seen as a symbol of political sovereignty and states held a firm resolve to retain and maintain their sovereignty.

However, the delegates eventually did agree on the exclusivity of a very specific enumerated “coinage” power: the ability of Congress to “coin money”. This language was carefully and specifically chosen. During the debates, some members proposed giving Congress the ability to “emit bills on the credit of the United States.” However, the framers, fearing this power to be prone to abuse, struck this language down.

As a result, the Constitution’s monetary clauses expressly grant Congress the power to coin money and to borrow money by issuing ‘notes’ (i.e., interest-bearing government bonds), but not to issue bills of credit. Given the Framers’ general hostility to paper money (James Madison, for instance, bemoaned its “pestilent effects” under the Articles), it is likely that the Framers’ intended to prohibit the federal government from issuing bills of credit, just as they expressly barred the states from doing so. Moreover, the Constitution itself created a government of enumerated powers; thus, absent an express grant, Congress lacked the power to act. In fact, both those who spoke for and those who spoke against the proposed language to grant this power to the federal government understood that striking the language amounted to a prohibition on Congress’s power to issue paper money.

Dr. Zywicki

Reading over this, I was again struck by how carefully the framers thought through every single word and clause of the Constitution. They didn’t throw words into it arbitrarily. Every word, every phrase, was intentional and carefully debated and considered. Hence, any modern day aberrations ought to be treated with delicate care.

The U.S. government is one of enumerated and limited powers and to assume each power to be a license for government to interpret and reinterpret at will is a gross misuse of the document and a justification for arbitrary power, or as Madison puts it, “It would be absurd to say, first, that Congress may do what they please; and then, that they may do this or that particular thing.” He says further, “In fact, the meaning of the general terms in question must either be sought in the subsequent enumerations which limits and details them, or they convert the government from one limited as hitherto supposed, to the enumerated powers, into a government without any limits at all.

In other words, arbitrary power is easily reached by regarding the specific enumerations as mere suggestions to be interpreted upon a whim rather than specific and direct powers.

Finally, the framers were very careful to make sure that the federal government would never have the power to force private individuals into treating bills of credit as legal tender.

silver and brown round coins

The Framers believed that in prohibiting the authority of the federal government from issuing bills of credit, they also were prohibiting their recognition as legal tender by definition. Moreover, they also separately and expressly barred the states from recognizing anything as legal tender other than gold or silver, which was generally understood as further evidence of the Framer’s hostility to legal tender laws. Even those at the Constitutional Convention who supported Congress’s power to issue bills of credit opposed granting the power to declare them legal tender

Dr. Zywicki

In other words, there’s little confusion about the theoretical foundations and expectations for the coinage power.


As you’re probably aware of while readings this, the federal government issues bills of credit all the time. Bills of credit are the dollar. However,I’ve given you enough to chew on for one sitting. Read through this again carefully for it’s the foundation against which to compare government’s behavior now.

It’s imperative that we have a solid foundation and understanding of what government is supposed to do, according to its job description, if we’re to be effective employers holding them accountable to the job description we both know and understand.

The Liberty Belle

1 thought on “The Enumerated Powers Series: To Coin Money-Part One”

  1. Pingback: To Coin Money-Part One – The Liberty Belle –

Leave a Reply

Scroll to Top