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National Bank Act of 1863


The National Bank Act of 1863 was designed to create a national banking system, float federal war loans, and establish a national currency. Congress passed the act to help resolve the financial crisis that emerged during the early days of the American Civil War (18611865). The fight with the South was expensive and no effective tax program had been drawn up to finance it. In December 1861 banks suspended specie payments (payments in gold or silver coins for paper currency called notes or bills). People could no longer convert bank notes into coins. Government responded by passing the Legal Tender Act (1862), issuing $150 million in national notes called greenbacks. However, bank notes (paper bills issued by state banks) accounted for most of the currency in circulation.

In order to bring financial stability to the nation and fund the war effort, the National Bank Act of 1863 was introduced in the Senate in January of that year. Republican congressman from Pennsylvania Thaddeus Stevens (17921868) opposed the act; Secretary of the Treasury Salmon Chase (180873), aided by Senator John Sherman (18231900) of Ohio, promoted it. The bill was approved in the Senate by a close vote of 23 to 21, and the House passed the legislation in February. National banks that were organized under the act were required to purchase government bonds as a condition of start-up. As soon as those bonds were deposited with the federal government, the bank could issue its own notes up to 90 percent of the market value of the bonds on deposit.

The National Bank Act improved but did not solve the nation's financial problemssome of the 1500 state banks, which had all been issuing bank notes, were converted to national banks by additional legislation (that amended the original Bank Act and was passed June 1864). Other state banks were driven out of business or ceased to issue notes after the 1865 passage of a 10 percent federal tax on notes they issued (which made it unprofitable for them to print money). The legislation created $300 million in national currency in the form of notes issued by the national banks. But because most of this money was distributed in the East, the money supply in other parts of the country remained precarious; the West demanded more money. This issue would dominate American politics in the years after the Civil War. Nevertheless, the nation's banking system stayed largely the samedespite the Panic of 1873until the passage of the Federal Reserve Act in 1913.

See also: Federal Reserve Act, Greenbacks

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