Artifact and Analysis

Bank Notes, New York and Virginia

Two large New York printing firms produced most of the locally issued money of the Free Banking Era. The imagery on notes—the westbound trains and steamboats, the industrial and agricultural scenes—tended to be national rather than local in character.

This changed after the Mexican War, when the future of slavery in the West became America’s central question. The new Californians ratified an antislavery constitution in 1849, when there were fifteen slave states and fifteen free states. California’s admission to the Union in 1850 upset this balance. As the South’s defense of slavery became more strenuous, the images on its bank notes became more peculiarly southern. According to Smithsonian numismatics curator Richard Doty, “southern banks demanded and obtained notes which depicted their view of the African American.”

The two notes here, from banks in New York and Virginia, feature agricultural scenes that are identical but for one difference. It is the crucial difference that would divide two sections of the United States into two countries.