In this lesson, students move from fact finding to interpretation as they examine paper money from the time of the American Revolution. In the final exercise, they use the issue dates of the bills to construct a chronology of political changes during the Revolution.
The more they know about the period, the more significance they will see in the money. If they know that the war began in 1775, for instance, they might find it remarkable that the 1776 Pennsylvania and New Jersey bills bear the British royal coat of arms (the lion-and-unicorn emblem) and honor King George III.
You might use the bills along with other primary sources—documents such as the Olive Branch Petition, perhaps—to help students understand that the campaign for independence did not follow as an immediate echo of the shots fired at Lexington and Concord. It has been estimated that a third of the colonists remained loyal to Great Britain throughout the war. Many of those who fought the British held out hope for reconciliation with Britain right up to the Declaration of Independence.
(Note: All materials listed below are provided in PDF format under "Required Materials")
- Worksheet 1A
- Worksheet 1B
- Monetary Cut Out Sheets
Make enough copies of the worksheet 1A and the chart worksheet 1B to distribute one of each to everyone in the class. Make enough copies of the thirteen bills (Monetary Notes C-I) to distribute one bill to each student. (There might be two Delawares, three Georgias, etc.) Clip out the images so that you have a pile of this "money." Make one more set of copies of the bills ("Monetary Cut Out Sheets") and display these intact pages on the board or a wall of the classroom. Students will view all thirteen bills on a "gallery walk." The gallery might also include a copy of the Continental (please see image on this page).
Ask students what they expect to find on money from the Revolutionary War. Encourage them to think of features on our own money: dates, pictures, denominations, serial numbers, etc.
Now ask what they expect to learn from the historical money. List their ideas on the board.
Distribute the clipped-out bills and copies of worksheet 1A. Tell students to examine their bills closely before attempting to answer the questions on the worksheets.
Have students with the same bill get together to discuss their worksheet answers, then have each of these groups report on their discussion to the class.
Conduct the gallery walk so that the students can examine all of the notes.
Hand out copies of the Conclusion Chart (worksheet 1B) in preparation for a class discussion on the cumulative information found on all thirteen bills. Tell students that they will use the chart as a guide during the discussion.
Lead the class in the exercise of filling out the chart. Here are some possible entries for the Conclusion boxes:
- Every bill has a different kind of picture
- Some bills are from colonies and some are from states
- Some of money is familiar (dollars) and some is unfamiliar (pounds, shillings)
For the supporting details, students will refer to their answers on the Worksheet. If practicable, allow them to get up and look again at the gallery during the discussion.
Begin to focus the discussion on the issue dates of the bills. What can this chronology tell us about changes in America during the war? Do all of the "colony" notes have earlier dates than the "state" bills? Are all of the dollar's bills earlier than those in British denominations? The last "colony" bill in this collection has the issue date June 19, 1776 The first "state" bill is dated October 18, 1776. What happened in this space of time? The most obvious answer is that the Continental Congress declared independence on July 4, 1776.
There is no clear break between the "dollar" bills and those in British denominations. Students will discover that the Maryland bill, the earliest here, is denominated in dollars. Maryland began to use the dollar as its official unit of currency in 1767, and so began to assert a kind of independence. But this bill is still tied to the British system: the bearer could redeem it for "bills" of exchange payable in London or gold and silver at the rate of four shillings and six-pence sterling."
On the latest bills in the collection, dollars are still reckoned in terms of shillings and pence. It was not until 1792 that the United States established a completely new currency system, replacing shillings with decimal fractions of the dollar. Thomas Jefferson coined the term for a coin he does not appear on: the "disme," for one-tenth of a dollar.