Confiscation of Gold by the Federal Government: A Lesson

Confiscation of Gold by the Federal Government: A Lesson
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Historically as well as now, people in America tried to protect themselves against the government’s devaluation of their dollars by holding gold; and formerly, by buying Treasury bonds which promised to pay in gold.  The fundamental thought was and is the same that many holders of Bitcoin and other “cryptocurrencies” have now: hold something that the government cannot devalue the way it can its official currency.

Unfortunately for such an otherwise logical strategy, governments, even democratic governments, when pushing comes to shoving, may use force to control and even take away what you thought you had.  The year 1933 and the new Franklin Roosevelt presidency provide vividly memorable, though little remembered, examples.  First the U.S. Treasury defaulted on its promises to pay gold bonds in gold; then under notable executive orders, the U.S. government confiscated the gold of American citizens and threatened them with prison if they didn’t turn it in.  It moreover prohibited the future holding of any gold by Americans, an outrageous prohibition which lasted four decades, until 1974.

All this may seem unimaginable to many people today, perhaps including Bitcoin enthusiasts, but in fact happened.  Said Roosevelt in explanation, “The issuance and control of the medium of exchange which we call ‘money’ is a high prerogative of government.” 

President Hoover had warned in 1932 that the U.S. was close to having to go off the gold standard.  Running for President, Roosevelt called this “a libel on the credit of the United States.”  He furthermore pronounced that “no responsible government would have sold to the country securities payable in gold if it knew that the promise—yes, the covenant—embodied in those securities was…dubious.”  The next year, during Roosevelt’s own administration, this “covenant” was tossed overboard.  Congress and the President “abrogated”—i.e. repudiated—the obligation of the government to pay as promised.  One can argue that this was required by the desperate economic and financial times, but about the fact of the default there can be no argument.

Roosevelt’s Executive Order 6102, “Requiring Gold Coin, Gold Bullion and Gold Certificates to Be Delivered to the Government,” of April 5, 1933 marks an instructive moment in both American monetary and  political history.  To modern eyes, it looks autocratic, or perhaps could fairly be described as despotic.

The order begins, “By virtue of the authority vested in me by Section 5(b) of the Act of October 6, 1917,” without naming what act that is.  Why not?  Well, that was the Trading with the Enemy Act which was used to confiscate German property during the First World War.

The order states:

     -“All persons are hereby required to deliver on or before May 1, 1933…all gold coin, gold bullion and gold certificates now owned by them or coming into their ownership.”

     -“Until otherwise ordered any person becoming the owner of any gold coin, gold bullion or gold certificates shall, within three days after receipt thereof, deliver the same.”

    -“The Federal Reserve Bank or member bank will pay therefore an equivalent amount of any other form of coin or currency”—in other words, we will give you some nice paper money in exchange.

Lastly, the threat:

     -“Whoever willfully violates any provision of this Executive Order or of these regulations or of any rule, regulation or license issued hereunder may be fined not more than $10,000, or, if a natural person, may be imprisoned for not more than ten years, or both.”

Ten thousand 1933 dollars was a punitive fine—equivalent to about $190,000 today.  But the real punishment for trying to protect your assets was “We’ll put you in jail for ten years!”

A few months later the order was revised and tightened up by Roosevelt’s Executive Order 6260, “On Hoarding and Exporting Gold” of August 28, 1933.  It specifies that “no person shall hold in his possession or retain any interest, legal or equitable, in any gold,” and adds a reporting requirement: “Every person in possession of and every person owning gold…shall make under oath and file…a return to the Secretary of the Treasury containing true and complete information” about any gold holdings, “to be filed with the Collector of Internal Revenue.”  So the IRS was brought in as an enforcer, too.  The threat of fines and prison continued as before.

It’s a prudent idea to protect yourself against the government’s perpetual urge to depreciate its currency. But if pushing comes to shoving, how do you protect yourself against the government’s confiscating the assets you so prudently acquired—and its being willing to put you in prison if you try to keep them?  What governments, even democratic ones, are willing to do when under sufficient pressure, is a lesson Bitcoin holders and everybody else can usefully consider.

Alex J. Pollock is a distinguished senior fellow at the R Street Institute in Washington, D.C. He was President and CEO of the Federal Home Loan Bank of Chicago from 1991-2004.  

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