Abstract

Abstract:

This essay explores the material origins of gold coinage to argue that enslaved gold miners built the metallic foundations of America’s financial system. It traces two concurrent changes in the production and use of the nation’s first domestically mined specie from the 1830s to the 1850s. During America’s first gold rush in the late 1820s and early 1830s, white mine owners transported thousands of enslaved miners to goldfields in northern Georgia and western North Carolina. As mines grew, the industry shifted away from the undifferentiated workforces of the early gold rush and came to rely on enslaved women who were experts in the technically-complex work of refining gold. As the means of mining shifted, so did the kind of money that gold became. In the early 1830s, the Second Bank of the United States sought southern gold, which it used to back paper money. In the midst of the Bank War, hard money advocates and Democratic partisans came believe that coins made from Southern gold held the key to a safer and more stable currency system. As a result, the federal government provided economic and technical support to the slave-labor dependent mining industry in the name of monetary reform. Using gold mine owners’ account books and correspondence, the records of the US Mint, Congressional debates, newspapers, geological reports and scientific treatises, this article underscores the links between the material production of coin and abstract capital, demonstrating that the antebellum period’s political debates and financial institutions all revolved around acquiring and controlling gold made by enslaved men and women.

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