Wednesday, January 12, 2011

An Interesting Slogan on Early American Money

Over at Classical Values I saw this mention of a slogan on early American money:
Such attitudes were common at the founding of the country.
The early currency of the United States was printed with the slogan "Mind your business"!

The slogan, which is attributed to Benjamin Franklin, appeared on early US coins and paper currency.
Simon interprets this as "mind your own business"--a very libertarian position.  I was curious about this, because I had never seen this slogan on U.S. money before, so I did a little digging--and what I found indicates that this slogan may not have meant what Simon thinks it meant.  I found sources such as this one that indicate that it was Franklin's rephrasing of a traditional English motto: "Be Gone About Your Business."  This older source tells approximately the same story.  This is a recent scholarly work on Ben Franklin's vision for America that also holds the slogan was emphasizing the importance of "time and industrious labor"--which any reader of Poor Richard's Almanac will recognize as a core Franklin value.  This collection of Early American figures of speech does buy into the "mind your own business" argument, but it seems to be the exception.

Of course, there was nothing terribly libertarian about Revolutionary America.  Some people like to imagine it was so as a method of arguing in favor of libertarian ideas.  But read the sodomy and buggery law of Pennsylvania adopted in 1829 (and which replaced a far more severe punishment), or this 1827 discussion of the laws prohibiting drunkenness:
Drunkenness is punished with a fine of sixty-seven cents and imprisonment for twenty-four hours. Should not a crime, which endangers so much the peace of families and society, debases the nature of man, destroys his intellectual vigour and disqualifies him for all kinds of useful exertion, be visited with a severer penalty? And the same remark will apply in this case, with regard to the standing of the offender, as in profane swearing. It would appear from the great prevalence of this evil, that nothing less than doubling the penalty on its repetition will be efficient in diminishing it.
Argue if you wish for libertarian ideas, but they are not a particularly good description of America during and immediately after the Revolution.


  1. Libertarianism is about individual economic liberty, as much or more so as it is about personal liberty. The founders where very much believers in individual economic liberty, and in economic rights. Which, compared to the current second-class status of economic rights in our courts, is very much a libertarian position.

  2. There is definitely support for minimal regulation of business in the Revolutionary period, partly in response to mercantilism. On the other hand, there was, at least in Federalist circles, a belief that governmental intervention in support of trade was a good thing (as long as it wasn't giving favors to just some)--not a libertarian idea.