An introduction to Constitutional Law 100 Supreme Court cases everyone should know

Randy E. Barnett & Josh Blackman

Without question, Congress has the power to issue paper notes as currency. However, during the Civil War, Congress debated whether it could make this paper currency a legal tender. That is, could Congress require everyone to accept the government’s paper currency as payment for a debt, even if a contract called for payment with gold or silver. At the time of the framing, the term “dollar” in the Constitution referred to a unit of silver — in particular to the Spanish Dollar coin, which was in wide circulation. It was a big deal to force people to accept dollar bills in place of silver or gold. Does the Constitution give Congress this power?

In 1862, Congress determined that it had such a power, and enacted the Legal Tender Act. Secretary of the Treasury Salmon Chase supported the constitutionality of the law. The federal government even put his face on the $1 bill, known as a greenback.

However, eight years later, Chase changed course as Chief Justice. He wrote the majority opinion in Hepburn v. Griswold (1870).

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