Jonathan Barth Tells the Monetary Story of America

Contrary to popular understanding, monetary and political history are not divorced from each other; they are intimately woven together. Jonathan Barth, an assistant professor of history at Arizona State University, argues that the story of America is founded on its monetary history, which triggered the growing tensions between the American colonists and the British crown.

Jonathan Barth

As a Ph.D. student in history at George Mason University, Barth attended a campus event hosted by the economics department, where he became more drawn to economic history. One day, Barth stumbled upon an IHS flyer in the History department and decided to apply to the Humane Studies Fellowship. “The IHS Fellowship remains one of the highlights of my academic career,” Barth says. He adds:

“The greatest benefit of IHS was the community. Sometimes it feels as though you are the only one with classical liberal views, but IHS revealed to me that there were many others. I made lifelong friendships. I found these events to be incredibly rich and engaging.

– Jonathan Barth

In addition, Barth recently received the Hayek Fund for Scholars, which assisted him in making his recent book “The Currency of Empire” (2021) more widely available through Open Access, a feature he says is very important to him. His book chronicles the rising tide of discontent among colonists over the harsh mercantilist restrictions imposed by the British in the seventeenth century. These monetary regulations left most colonists without a uniform currency, forcing them to resort to media of exchange like corn and tobacco.

Whereas many historians look at the eighteenth century as the beginning of the American Revolution, Barth inspects the seventeenth century as “it laid the groundwork for the entire American experiment; and it included extremely intense episodes of political conflict.” In other words, the early monetary story of America centers around the political forces that foreshadowed American Independence.

In future research, Barth plans on extending this monetary history into the seventeenth century, focusing on paper currency as the harbinger that led to political upheaval. “Prior to the Stamp Act crisis of 1765, paper currency was the most contentious public policy issue,” asserts Barth. It was these early debates on paper money that “prepped and armed colonial thought leaders with useful rhetorical arguments for opposing imperial control.”

All these ideas are passionately explored in Barth’s online lecture series as well, which include many other historical topics. Barth says that “teaching convinced me of the importance of the grand narrative.” It’s this big picture — the ‘so what?’ — that defines history and helps us navigate the present. Barth’s passionate and emphatic exposition of history is on full display in these online lectures, which give students a fun, but serious glimpse of the past.

As a monetary historian, Barth seeks to bridge some of the divide between history and economics by investigating the monetary situations leading up to major political events. It’s unfortunate, argues Barth, that these barriers have been erected since “the evolution of money and banking is closely tied to major political and societal developments; understanding one requires understanding the other.” These silos generate significant misunderstandings between historians and economists, leading to confusions or, in some cases, outright factual errors.

Since his first IHS event, Barth emphasizes the network of curious minds collaborating on conversations that advance a classical liberal agenda as the most valuable experience a scholar can have.

I am completely convinced that without IHS I would not be where I am today. I cannot overstate how important IHS has been for my career.”

– Jonathan Barth

Barth concludes by saying that “IHS events are invaluable to the scholar because they are opportunities to grow intellectually.” His focus on the monetary institutions that gave rise to political and social conflict in colonial America is one among many of the unique voices that enhance the conversation IHS seeks to build.

The Institute for Humane Studies is celebrating its 60th anniversary in 2021. For more scholar spotlights, video interviews, photo galleries, and in-depth conversations on classical liberal ideas, visit TheIHS.org/60.

IHS 60th Anniversary

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