A Counterfeit Advertisement for Counterfeit Currency

GUEST CONTRIBUTOR:  Katherine Smoak

NY Gazette 1777 Apr 14
New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury (April 14, 1777)

On April 14, 1777, the above advertisement appeared in Hugh Gaine’s New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury. Printed in New York City, which was occupied by the British during the American Revolution, the unusual advertisement alerted readers that anyone “going into the other Colonies” could buy “any Number of counterfeited Congress-Notes, for the Price of the Paper per Ream.”

Americans eagerly seized upon the advertisement as evidence of British support for the counterfeiting of Continental currency. Four days after its publication, George Washington wrote to Congress and included, among other intelligence, a copy of the advertisement, noting “that no Artifices are left untried by the Enemy to injure us.”[1] When on May 12, the Connecticut Courant informed readers that two men had been taken north of New York City with quantities of counterfeit notes on them, it re-printed the advertisement, noting that “it seems they are tempted to follow this desperate employment by the terms offered in the following advertisement, taken from Hugh Gaine’s gazette.” The account of the counterfeiters’ capture and the re-printed advertisement subsequently appeared in newspapers throughout Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania and Virginia.[2] By 1778, this one advertisement had been exaggerated into “weekly” and “repeated” advertisements in New York papers.[3] Similarly, when nineteenth- and twentieth-century historians have weighed the possibility that the British sponsored counterfeiting, they have pointed to this advertisement as a smoking gun. The only problem with all of this? The advertisement is almost certainly a fake!

Counterfeit paper money proved a significant problem during the American Revolution. In the early years of the war, printing paper money was one of the only ways the Continental Congress could finance the war effort. Maintaining the integrity of the paper money was thus of the utmost importance. Counterfeiting, however, began from virtually the first emission of Continental bills by Congress in 1775. American newspapers were full of notices warning people about various counterfeits, both of Continental notes and notes printed by individual states. And it is clear that some of these counterfeits came from New York—for those with the skill to do it, the occupied city provided a perfect base of operations: British officials in New York had little incentive to prosecute people for producing the money of the rebel government.

While some people did produce counterfeits in the New York City, and likely sold them to others to pass, it seems unlikely that the advertisement in the New-York Gazette is a real advertisement for them. Appearing on the third page of the New-York Gazette, in form and in placement in the paper it looks much like any other advertisement. Though the items being sold are a bit unusual, the description of their quality seems like what we would expect from such a piece of marketing: the bills are “exactly executed” making “risque” of passing them minimal, as “proved” by the many that had already, according to the advertisement, been circulated. It’s the last line of the advertisement that raises suspicion: the hours to inquire are listed as “11 p.m. to 4 a.m.”—the middle of the night. Even more suspicious is the pseudonym given to direct enquiries to: Q.E.D., an abbreviation for the Latin quod erat demonstrandum, a phrase typically used in mathematical proofs to indicate that what was set out to be proven has been proven.

So what exactly is going on here? Why would a loyalist newspaper run a counterfeit advertisement for counterfeit notes? And why was the advertisement re-printed and referenced so often by the Americans, despite the signs that it was a hoax?

As historian Benjamin Irvin has pointed out, Continental bills were widely ridiculed by British commentators.[4] On October 28, 1776, for example, the same New-York Gazette that printed the counterfeit advertisement ran a mock wanted ad for Continental money:

NY Gazette 1776 Oct 28
New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury (October 28, 1776)

In this context, it becomes easy to see the advertisement for counterfeits as a humorous piece meant to denigrate Congress’s paper money—it was not worth more, the notice implied, than the paper it was printed on. Perhaps, in a tongue-in-cheek way, it was a joking answer to assertions that American officials were beginning to make about British-sponsored counterfeiting; the reference to Q.E.D. certainly suggests that the advertisement might be playing with the idea. The counterfeit advertisement joined other items, ranging from poems about Continentals to reporting on their depreciation, that regularly appeared in New York papers during British occupation.

For American officials, however, the advertisement was the perfect polemical tool. The Continental had depreciated severely—by the end of 1777, the notes had lost 70 percent of their face value.[5] In January 1777, Congress had been forced to pass a resolution maintaining that paper money should pass on par with gold and silver; they also urged states to put in place legal tender laws that would make it possible to prosecute those who did not accept paper money at its full value. As faith in Continentals waned and notices of counterfeits in American newspapers mounted, it became politically convenient to blame the British for the currency’s woes. As the war wore on, British counterfeiting became one of a series of accepted explanations for paper money’s depreciation and a common trope in articles that mocked or criticized the British, including a faux runaway advertisement for General William Howe, which included, in a list of his misdeeds, “being concerned in counterfeiting the currency of this Continent.”[6]

Continental Journal 1777 Aug 14
Continental Journal (August 14, 1777).

Unpacking and tracing the history of this advertisement for counterfeit notes allows us to see the political significance of counterfeits during the American Revolution. In a loyalist paper, the advertisement served as a humorous commentary on the worthlessness of Continentals; in patriot hands, it became proof of a nefarious British plot to, as one commentator put it “cut the sinews of war.” It’s also a testament to the richness of early American advertisements—a form that could include humor and pointed political critique!

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Katherine Smoak is a Ph.D. candidate in the History department at Johns Hopkins University. Her dissertation, tentatively entitled “Circulating Counterfeits: Making Money and its Meanings in the Eighteenth-Century British Atlantic,” recovers the importance of counterfeits to economic and political life in the eighteenth century.

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[1] “From George Washington to John Hancock, 18–19 April 1777,” Founders Online, National Archives (http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-09-02-0184 [last update: 2015-12-30]). Source: The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, vol. 9, 28 March 1777 – 10 June 1777, ed. Philander D. Chase. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1999, pp. 201–204.

[2] Connecticut Courant, May 12, 1777 and reprints in Pennsylvania Gazette, May 14, 1777; Continental Journal, May 15, 1777; Providence Gazette, May 17, 1777; Boston Gazette and Country Journal, May 19, 1777. A version that condenses the story of the counterfeiters’ capture, but still reproduces the full advertisement, appears in Virginia Gazette (Dixon and Hunter), May 23, 1777.

[3] See Thomas Paine’s open letter to Howe in a 1778 pamphlet that remarks that there were “repeated advertisements of counterfeit money for sale,” The Crisis, Vol. 5 (Middleton, NJ, 1839), 135 and a letter printed in multiple newspapers describing the British’s behavior in America which observes they “weekly advertised their money for distribution in a New York paper.”

[4] Benjamin Irvin, Clothed in the Robes of Sovereignty: The Continental Congress and People Out of Doors (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 92-96.

[5] Ben Baack, “Forging a Nation State: The Continental Congress and the Financing of the War of American Independence,” Economic History Review, LIV, 4 (2001): 643.

[6] Continental Journal, August 14, 1777.

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