The Power of Gold: The History of an Obsession

By Peter L. Bernstein | Go to book overview

15
The Badge of Honor

The international gold standard shimmers from the past like the memory of a lost paradise, embodying all the nostalgia of the Victorian and Edwardian eras—stability, harmony, respectability. The glow attached to this nostalgia is not based in myth but stems from a vivid reality. From the end of the American Civil War to the outbreak of World War I—a brief period of only fifty years—the international gold standard acquired a mystique that radiated far beyond the simple discipline that it imposed on its members. The control of gold over the affairs of human beings has never been so absolute, nor the worship of gold by hard-headed financiers and statesmen so humble.

As we shall see, the gold standard developed all the trappings of a full-fledged religion: shared beliefs, high priests, strict codes of behavior, creed, and faith. The gospel had been drafted by the Bullion Committee of 1810, inspired by Ricardo. The altars at which the members of this religion worshipped were the meticulously mounted stacks of gleaming gold bricks in the vaults of the banks. The high priests were the monetary authorities, in most cases the managers of the central banks such as the Bank of England or the Bank of France, in less frequent cases the finance ministers or secretaries of the Treasury; controversy exists over whether there was a pope or the equivalent. Like many great religions, the gold standard compelled dreaded punishments for those who dared to stray from the straight-and-narrow, but it also promised absolution to those who pledged to reject apostasy by vowing to return to

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