Independent Treasury System

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Independent Treasury System, in U.S. history, system for the retaining of government funds in the Treasury and its subtreasuries independently of the national banking and financial systems. In one form or another, it existed from the 1840s to 1921.

Origins of the System

After President Andrew Jackson vetoed the bill to recharter the Bank of the United States, he transferred (1833) government funds from the bank to state banks (the "pet banks" ). Those banks, however, used the funds as a basis for speculation, which was already rampant and was soon to be further increased by the distribution of the federal surplus among the states. The situation was brought to a head by Jackson's issue of the Specie Circular (1836), which led to a drain on the "pet banks" and their collapse in the Panic of 1837. President Martin Van Buren then proposed that an independent treasury be set up that would be isolated from all banks. The proposal met considerable opposition and failed to pass the House of Representatives in 1837 and again in the sessions of 1837–38 and 1838–39.

Creation of the System

In 1840 legislation for an independent treasury was passed and approved by the President; however, the following year the Whigs repealed the law. The intention of the Whigs was to establish a new central bank, but the objections of President John Tyler on constitutional grounds prevented the creation of another Bank of the United States. The Democrats won the presidential election of 1844, and measures were inaugurated to restore the Independent Treasury System.

The act of Aug., 1846, provided that the public revenues be retained in the Treasury building and in subtreasuries (see subtreasury) in various cities. The Treasury was to pay out its own funds and be completely independent of the banking and financial system of the nation; all payments by and to the government, moreover, were to be made in specie. The separation of the Treasury from the banking system was never completed, however; the Treasury's operations continued to influence the money market, as specie payments to and from the government affected the amount of hard money in circulation.

Problems and Its Demise

Although the independent Treasury did restrict the reckless speculative expansion of credit, it also tended to create a new set of economic problems. In periods of prosperity, revenue surpluses accumulated in the Treasury, reducing hard money circulation, tightening credit, and restraining even legitimate expansion of trade and production. In periods of depression and panic, when banks suspended specie payments and hard money was hoarded, the government's insistence on being paid in specie tended to aggravate economic difficulties by limiting the amount of specie available for private credit.

The most serious weaknesses in the system were revealed during the Civil War; under the pressures created by wartime expenditures, Congress passed the acts of 1863 and 1864 creating national banks. Exceptions were made to the prohibition against depositing government funds in private banks, and in certain cases payments to the government could be made in national bank notes.

After the Civil War, the independent Treasury continued in modified form, as each administration tried to cope with its weaknesses in various ways. Secretary of the Treasury Leslie M. Shaw (1902–7) made many innovations; he attempted to use Treasury funds to expand and contract the money supply according to the nation's credit needs. The Panic of 1907, however, finally revealed the inability of the system to stabilize the money market; agitation for a more effective banking system led to the passage of the Federal Reserve Act in 1913. Government funds were gradually transferred from subtreasuries to district banks, and an act of Congress in 1920 mandated the closing of the last subtreasuries in the following year, thus bringing the Independent Treasury System to an end.


See D. Kinley, The History, Organization, and Influence of the Independent Treasury of the United States (1893, repr. 1968) and The Independent Treasury of the United States (1910, repr. 1970); D. W. Dodwell, Treasuries and Central Banks (1934); P. Studenski and H. Krooss, Financial History of the United States (1963).

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INDEPENDENT TREASURY SYSTEM, an alternative to a central bank. Critics of the first and second banks of the United States were legion. Jeffersonians and Jacksonians criticized their monopoly as sole financial agents of the U.S. Treasury and feared their significant financial power. President Andrew Jackson had little use for banks, and many citizens disliked the political influence usually required to obtain state bank charters.

By late 1837 the nation had twice experienced living under a central bank, had seen it liquidated, and then had endured a panic and a depression. The Democrats blamed it all on banks and wanted the Treasury to operate independently; the Whigs wanted a third central bank. In June 1840 Congress established an Independent Treasury System, but the first act of the Whig administration of President William Henry Harrison in March 1841 was to repeal the bill. After Harrison died in April, President John Tyler vetoed all attempts to set up a third central bank.

One of the major planks in Democratic candidate James K. Polk's platform in 1844 was to re-create the Independent Treasury System. Congress reestablished the system in August 1846 to trade only in gold and silver coin. The system tended to drain money out of commercial channels into government vaults, however, which damaged the economy. Because the system operated badly, the government made increasing use of banks, which promptly loaned money left in their hands. In 1914 the Federal Reserve System (established 23 December 1913), a central bank, went into operation. The Independent Treasury System ended in 1921.


Friedman, Jean E. The Revolt of the Conservative Democrats: An Essay on American Political Culture and Political Development, 1837–1844. Studies in American History and Culture, no. 9. Ann Arbor, Mich.: UMI Research Press, 1979.

Myers, Margaret G. A Financial History of the United States. New York: Columbia University Press, 1970.

Donald L.Kemmerer/c. w.

See alsoBank of the United States ; Jacksonian Democracy ; Jeffersonian Democracy .