- Spanish Dollars and Sister Republics: The Money That Made Mexico and the United States by Tatiana Seijas and Jake Frederick
Currency, United States, Mexico, Gold, Silver, Coins
In this concise volume, Tatiana Seijas and Jake Frederick attempt to provide the reader with a sweeping tour of the history of gold and silver coinage in the United States and Mexico. Designed mainly as a classroom text, this nicely illustrated book begins with a handy timeline of major events and concludes with a useful glossary of terms. The text itself is highly descriptive, explaining vignettes in the history of these sister republics through the lives of eight individuals.
The book begins by placing the Spanish American real de a ocho or “piece-of-eight” at the center of the global trading network of the late eighteenth century, emphasizing its importance for the early development of the U.S. monetary system. Lacking in specie, the United States depended on the wide circulation of Spanish coins until the middle of the nineteenth century, when they finally possessed enough native coinage to ban foreign money. Revolutionary leaders such as (little-known) Virginia congressman John Page recognized their dependence on Spanish coins for trade, and thus adopted both the terminology (“dollars”) and the symbols ($) from the Spanish for the nascent United States currency. [End Page 370]
In successive chapters, the authors recount the experiences of early U.S. banking through the eyes of Philadelphia banker Stephen Girard, Mexican independence from Spain through Mexican Treasury Secretary José Ignacio Esteva, the fight for Texas independence from Mexico through the life of Sam Houston, the Mexican–American War from the perspective of General Antonio López de Santa Anna, the settling of the new border between the nations from the experiences of John Russell Bartlett, the California gold rush through the eyes of the director of the United States Mint Dr. Robert Maskell Patterson, and the French intervention in Mexico through Emperor Maximilian I.
The reciprocal monetary relationship between the United States and Spanish North America is apparent in a few of the stories—especially surrounding the twin revolutions in the United States and Mexico and the Texas rebellion. Several of the chapters, however, get too caught up in the biographies of the protagonists (such as Girard or Santa Anna) or on textbook accounts of commonly discussed events (the politics of the founding of the First and Second Bank of the United States, or the Mexican–American War) and lose the monetary thread altogether. Although the stated intention of the book is the interrelated monetary history of these sister republics, many of the chapters focus exclusively on the experiences of only one of these entities, with any relationship being merely tangential or accidental. For example, the chapter on the gold rush has the tightest focus on monetary issues but is exclusively about the U.S. experience; only California’s recent acquisition as part of the Mexican Cession connects the event to her sister republic. On the other hand, the authors present the monetary history of Mexico as being equally dependent on its relationship with Great Britain, France, and the United States.
For the reader whose main knowledge base is U.S. or Mexican history, the book succeeds in providing a useful sketch of the parallel history of her sister republic. Although the importance of Spanish coinage is well-documented in most monetary histories of the United States, the reminder of this relationship is important for the more general student of U.S. history. But as a larger monetary history of the relationship between the two nations, it falls short. [End Page 371]
Sharon Ann Murphy is professor of history at Providence College, and author of Investing in Life: Insurance in Antebellum America (Baltimore, 2010), winner of the 2012 Hagley Prize for the best book in business history, and Other People’s Money: How Banking Worked in the Early American Republic (Baltimore, 2017). Her latest project...