Tag Archive for: Great Depression

FDR’s Other ‘Day of Infamy’: When the U.S. Government Seized All Citizens’ Gold

Ninety years ago, Franklin Roosevelt told Americans they had less than a month to hand over their gold or face up to ten years in prison.

December 7, 1941 will forever be remembered as, in the words of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, “a date that will live in infamy.” Another infamous date is April 5, 1933—the day that FDR ordered the seizure of the private gold holdings of the American people. By attacking innocent citizens, he bombed the country’s gold standard just as surely as Japan bombed Pearl Harbor.

On this 90th anniversary of the seizure, it behooves us to recall the details of it, for multiple reasons: It ranks as one of the most notorious abuses of power in a decade when there were almost too many to count. It’s an example of bad policy imposed on the guiltless by the government that created the conditions it used to justify it. And the very fact of compliance, however minimal, is a scary testimony to how fragile freedom is in the middle of a crisis.

Suddenly on April 5, 1933, FDR told Americans—in the form of Executive Order 6102—that they had less than a month to hand over their gold coins, bullion and gold certificates or face up to ten years in prison or a fine of $10,000, or both. After May 1, private ownership and possession of these things would be as illegal as Demon Rum. After Prohibition was repealed later the same year, the sober man with gold in his pocket was the criminal while the staggering drunk was no more than a nuisance.

Hoarding gold was preventing recovery from the Great Depression, FDR declared. Government (which caused the Depression in the first place) had no choice, if you can follow the logic, but to seize the gold and do the hoarding itself. But of course, the big difference was this: In the hands of the government, huge new gold supplies could be used by the Federal Reserve as the basis for expanding the paper money supply. The President who had promised a 25 percent reduction in federal spending during his 1932 campaign, could now double spending in his first term.

What evidence suggested Americans were “hoarding” gold? Roosevelt pointed to a run on banks that immediately preceded his April 5 seizure decree. Indeed, people were showing up at tellers’ windows with paper dollars demanding the gold that the paper notes promised. But Roosevelt had prompted the bank run himself!

On March 8, three days after succeeding Herbert Hoover as the new President, FDR declared the gold standard to be safe. After all, America’s gold reserves were the largest in the world. Then out of the blue, on March 11, the President issued an executive order preventing banks from making gold payments. The message was clear: In spite of its campaign pledge to protect the integrity of the currency, this was an administration intent on spending and printing like none before. Citizens who wanted to protect their savings and financial assets suddenly had every good reason to find and keep whatever gold they could get their hands on. James Bovard writes in “The Great Gold Robbery,”

Roosevelt was hailed as a visionary and a savior for his repudiation of the government’s gold commitment. Citizens who distrusted the government’s currency management or integrity were branded as social enemies, and their gold was seized. And for what? So that the government could betray its promises and capture all the profit itself from the devaluation it planned. Shortly after Roosevelt banned private ownership of gold, he announced a devaluation of 59 percent in the gold value of the dollar. In other words, after Roosevelt seized the citizenry’s gold, he proclaimed that the gold would henceforth be of much greater value in dollar terms.

Dentists, jewelers, and industrial users were allowed to acquire gold to meet their “reasonable needs.” If you had a gold tooth, the government did not yank it out. But if you possessed more than $100 in monetary gold (coin or notes denominated in the yellow metal) after May 1, 1933, you were a villainous lawbreaker until private gold ownership was legalized four decades later.

With the passage of the Thomas Amendment to an agricultural bill on May 12, 1933, vast new presidential powers over money were affirmed by Congress. But even some of FDR’s own party still had a conscience. Democratic Senator Carter Glass of Virginia solemnly and honestly lamented,

It’s dishonor, sir. This great government, strong in gold, is breaking its promises to pay gold to widows and orphans to whom it has sold government bonds with a pledge to pay gold coin of the present standard of value. It is breaking its promise to redeem its paper money in gold coin of the present standard of value. It’s dishonor, sir.

When FDR followed up in June by abrogating the gold clauses in both private and government contracts, he asked blind Oklahoma Senator Thomas Gore, a fellow Democrat, for his opinion. Gore had lost his eyesight at the age of 12 but he saw right through FDR on this matter. He famously replied, “Why that’s just plain stealing, isn’t it, Mr. President?”

In his book, Economics and the Public Welfare, A Financial and Economic History of the United States, 1914-1946, the great economist Benjamin Anderson recalled Senator Gore’s words on the Senate floor:

Henry VIII approached total depravity, as nearly as the imperfections of human nature would allow. But the vilest thing that Henry ever did was to debase the coin of the realm. [See: “How Henry VIII Debauched English Money to Feed His Lavish Lifestyle.”

Many Americans were cowed by government threats to do the “patriotic” thing and turn in their gold as Roosevelt mandated. But true to the rugged individualism and defiance of tyranny ingrained in our culture, FDR’s order prompted widespread noncompliance. Best estimates, corroborated in this short video and elsewhere, suggest that for every one dollar in gold that Americans relinquished, they quietly kept three.

If the federal government tried today to seize the gold holdings of private American citizens, how much do you think we would turn over?

Call me a scofflaw if you want, but it would NOT get its hands on mine.

For Additional Information, See:

Great Myths of the Great Depression by Lawrence W. Reed

Media Still Peddling One of the Great Myths of the Depression by Lawrence W. Reed

The Great Gold Robbery by James Bovard

James U. Blanchard: Champion of Liberty and Sound Money by Lawrence W. Reed

FDR Campaigned on Fiscal Restraint in 1932. He Delivered Just the Opposite by Lawrence W. Reed

The Great Crash and Depression: 90 Years Later by Lawrence W. Reed

The Great Gold Robbery of 1933 by Thomas Woods


Lawrence W. Reed

Lawrence W. Reed is FEE’s President Emeritus, Humphreys Family Senior Fellow, and Ron Manners Global Ambassador for Liberty, having served for nearly 11 years as FEE’s president (2008-2019). He is author of the 2020 book, Was Jesus a Socialist? as well as Real Heroes: Incredible True Stories of Courage, Character, and Conviction and Excuse Me, Professor: Challenging the Myths of Progressivism. Follow on LinkedIn and Like his public figure page on Facebook. His website is www.lawrencewreed.com.

EDITORS NOTE: This FEE column  is republished with permission. ©All rights reserved.

3 Kinds of Economic Ignorance by Steven Horwitz

Nothing gets me going more than overt economic ignorance.

I know I’m not alone. Consider the justified roasting that Bernie Sanders got on social media for wondering why student loans come with interest rates of 6 or 8 or 10 percent while a mortgage can be taken out for only 3 percent. (The answer, of course, is that a mortgage has collateral in the form of a house, so it is a lower-risk loan to the lender than a student loan, which has no collateral and therefore requires a higher interest rate to cover the higher risk.)

When it comes to economic ignorance, libertarians are quick to repeat Murray Rothbard’s famous observation on the subject:

It is no crime to be ignorant of economics, which is, after all, a specialized discipline and one that most people consider to be a “dismal science.” But it is totally irresponsible to have a loud and vociferous opinion on economic subjects while remaining in this state of ignorance.

Economic ignorance comes in different forms, and some types of economic ignorance are less excusable than others. But the most important implication of Rothbard’s point is that the worst sort of economic ignorance is ignorance about your economic ignorance. There are varying degrees of blameworthiness for not knowing certain things about economics, but what is always unacceptable is not to recognize that you may not know enough to be speaking with authority, nor to understand the limits of economic knowledge.

Let’s explore three different types of economic ignorance before we return to the pervasive problem of not knowing what you don’t know.

1. What Isn’t Debated

Let’s start with the least excusable type of economic ignorance: not knowing agreed-upon theories or results in economics. There may not be a lot of these, but there are more than nonspecialists sometimes believe. Bernie Sanders’s inability to understand why uncollateralized loans have higher interest rates would fall into this category, as this is an agreed-upon claim in financial economics. Donald Trump’s bashing of free trade (and Sanders’s, too) would be another example, as the idea that free trade benefits the trading countries on the whole and over time is another strongly agreed-upon result in economics.

Trump and Sanders, and plenty of others, who make claims about economics, but who remain ignorant of basic teachings such as these, should be seen as highly blameworthy for that ignorance. But the deeper failing of many who make such errors is that they are ignorant of their ignorance. Often, they don’t even know that there are agreed-upon results in economics of which they are unaware.

2. Interpreting the Data

A second type of economic ignorance that is, in my view, less blameworthy is ignorance of economic data. As Rothbard observed, economics is a specialized discipline, and nonspecialists can’t be expected to know all the relevant theories and facts. There are a lot of economic data out there to be searched through, and often those data require careful statistical interpretation to be easily applied to questions of public policy. Economic data sources also requiretheoretical interpretation. Data do not speak for themselves — they must be integrated into a story of cause and effect through the framework of economic theory.

That said, in the world of the Internet, a lot of basic economic data are available and not that hard to find. The problem is that many people believe that certain empirical facts are true and don’t see the need to verify them by actually checking the data. For example, Bernie Sanders recently claimed that Americans are routinely working 50- and 60-hour workweeks. No doubt some Americans are, but the long-term direction of the average workweek is down, with the current average being about 34 hours per week. Longer lives and fewer working years between school and retirement have also meant a reduction in lifetime working hours and an increase in leisure time for the average American. These data are easily available at a variety of websites.

The problem of statistical interpretation can be seen with data on economic inequality, where people wrongly take static snapshots of the shares of national income held by the rich and poor to be evidence of the decline of the poor’s standard of living or their ability to move up and out of poverty.

People who wish to opine on such matters can, again, be forgiven for not knowing all the data in a specialized discipline, but if they choose to engage with the topic, they should be aware of their own limitations, including their ability to interpret the data they are discussing.

3. Different Schools of Thought

The third type of economic ignorance, and the least blameworthy, is ignorance of the multiple perspectives within the discipline of economics. There are multiple schools of thought in economics, and many empirical questions and historical facts have a variety of explanations. So a movie like The Big Short that clearly suggests that the financial crisis and Great Recession were caused by a lack of regulation might be persuasive to people who have never heard an alternative explanation that blames the combination of Federal Reserve policy and misguided government intervention in the housing market for the problems. One can make similar points about the Great Depression and the difference between Hayekian and Keynesian explanations of business cycles more generally.

These issues involving schools of thought are excellent examples of Rothbard’s point about the specialized nature of economics and what the nonspecialist can and cannot be expected to know. It is, in fact, unrealistic to expect nonexperts to know all of the arguments by the various schools of thought.

Combining Ignorance and Arrogance

What is missing from all of these types of economic ignorance — and what is often missing from knowledgeable economists themselves — is what we might call “epistemic humility,” or a willingness to admit how little we know. Noneconomists are often unable to recognize how little they know about economics, and economists are often unable to admit how little they know about the economy.

Real economic “expertise” is not just mastery of theories and facts. It is a deeper understanding of the variety of interpretations of those theories and facts and humility in the face of our limits in applying that knowledge in attempting to manage an economy. The smartest economists are the ones who know the limits of economic expertise.

Commentators with opinions on economic matters, whether presidential candidates or Facebook friends, could, at the very least, indicate that they may have biases or blind spots that lead to uses of data or interpretive frameworks with which experts might disagree.

The worst type of economic ignorance is the type of ignorance that is the worst in all fields: being ignorant of your own ignorance.

Steven HorwitzSteven Horwitz

Steven Horwitz is the Charles A. Dana Professor of Economics at St. Lawrence University and the author of Hayek’s Modern Family: Classical Liberalism and the Evolution of Social Institutions.

He is a member of the FEE Faculty Network.