William Pitt, the Bank of England, and the 1797 Suspension of Specie Payments: Central Bank War Finance during the Napoleonic Wars

Article excerpt

Modern military engagements are made possible by a state's ability to easily acquire revenue. Central banking and the circulation of fiat currency enable the state to control the money supply and to fund any national interest the government deems worthy. By either taking the money from its citizens via taxation, borrowing funds through bonds or loans from private financiers or other governments, or inflating the currency by issuing bank notes without the backing of specie or another commodity, Western governments wield enough power over money and banking to fund any venture. British involvement in the Napoleonic Wars was no exception to the rule. By manipulating the currency and controlling the supply of money through the policies of William Pitt the Younger, Parliament, and the Bank of England, the British were able to satisfy its military ambitions. The Suspension of Payments in 1797, moreover, played a central role in wartime financial policy. Suspending payments of specie enabled the British government to fund its engagements abroad by inflating the currency and expanding the public debt, which was ultimately paid by acquiring funds through taxation. This paper examines the role of the British government, including William Pitt and Parliament, and the Bank of England in manipulating the currency, by borrowing, taxing, and issuing Bank notes to fund the war with Napoleonic France in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

British Central Banking

Central banking in England rose out of the British government's demand for funds to continue King William's War in the 1690s, on the heels of the Glorious Revolution. Public confidence in the government reduced dramatically as a result of ongoing war and rising military expenditures. Private creditors became hesitant to loan money to the government in this time when revenue ran desperately low. In 1694, the British government accepted the proposal from William Paterson to establish the Bank of England; the government received its badly needed loans in return for granting special privileges to the Bank. Paterson further demanded that the government deem the new Bank's notes legal tender. The British government refused, but Parliament did grant the Bank the power to issue new notes to pay for government debt and the advantages of holding all government deposits. The Bank of England was thus created as a way to serve the military interests of the British Empire. (1)

Two years after its founding, the Bank experienced its first experiment with suspending payments, an act that foreshadowed the Bank's enormous influence in the future. To buy government debt, the Bank of England issued 760,000 [pounds sterling] in bank notes, which immediately caused inflationary effects on the British economy. A run on the Bank ensued, and the central bank became insolvent. In May 1696, Parliament allowed the Bank to suspend payments of specie. In other words, the Bank could refuse to pay its "contractual obligations of redeeming its notes in gold ... yet in operation, issuing notes and enforcing payments upon its own debtors." (2) Accordingly, the Bank of England suspended specie payments, effecting a severe depreciation of bank notes in circulation because of the uncertainty of the Bank in the future to resume payments in gold. Specie payments resumed two years later, but the early history of the Bank continued to be plagued with a record of periodic suspensions of payment, and Parliament continued to grant special privileges to the Bank to serve the interests of government revenue. The Bank of England, thus, wielded impressive power over the supply of money that made it easier for Britain to engage in military conflict without having to persuade private investors for loans. (3)

In 1708, the Bank of England received a generous gift from the British government. During a war with Louis XIV, Parliament restricted associations and banks of more than six individuals from engaging in banking business in England. …