It’s been 75 years since the federal government, on the spurious grounds of fighting the Great Depression, ordered the confiscation of all monetary gold from Americans, permitting trivial amounts for ornamental or industrial use. This happens to be one of the episodes Kevin Gutzman and I describe in detail in our new book, Who Killed the Constitution? The Fate of American Liberty from World War I to George W. Bush. From the point of view of the typical American classroom, on the other hand, the incident may as well not have occurred.
A key piece of legislation in this story is the Emergency Banking Act of 1933, which Congress passed on March 9 without having read it and after only the most trivial debate. House Minority Leader Bertrand H. Snell (R-NY) generously conceded that it was "entirely out of the ordinary" to pass legislation that "is not even in print at the time it is offered." He urged his colleagues to pass it all the same: "The house is burning down, and the President of the United States says this is the way to put out the fire. [Applause.] And to me at this time there is only one answer to this question, and that is to give the President what he demands and says is necessary to meet the situation."
Among other things, the act retroactively approved the president’s closing of private banks throughout the country for several days the previous week, an act for which he had not bothered to provide a legal justification. It gave the secretary of the Treasury the power to require all individuals and corporations to hand over all their gold coin, gold bullion, or gold certificates if in his judgment "such action is necessary to protect the currency system of the United States."
The Emergency Banking Act reached back in time to amend the Trading with the Enemy Act of 1917, which had originally been intended to criminalize economic intercourse between American citizens and declared enemies of the United States. One provision of the act granted the president the power to regulate and even prohibit "under such rules and regulations as he may prescribe … any transactions in foreign exchange, export or earmarkings of gold or silver coin or bullion or currency … by any person within the United States." In 1918, the act was amended to extend its provisions two years beyond the conclusion of hostilities, and to allow the president to "investigate, regulate, or prohibit" even the "hoarding" of gold by an American.
Thomas E. Woods, Jr. [view his website; send him mail] is senior fellow in American history at the Ludwig von Mises Institute and the author, most recently, of Who Killed the Constitution? The Fate of American Liberty from World War I to George W. Bush (with Kevin R.C. Gutzman), Sacred Then and Sacred Now: The Return of the Old Latin Mass and 33 Questions About American History You’re Not Supposed to Ask. His other books include How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization (get a free chapter here), The Church and the Market: A Catholic Defense of the Free Economy (first-place winner in the 2006 Templeton Enterprise Awards), and the New York Times bestseller The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History.