Katherine Smoak, Johns Hopkins University
MCEAS Consortium Fellow
“Circulating Counterfeits: Making Money and its Meanings in the Eighteenth-Century British Atlantic”
My project examines counterfeiting in Britain’s North American and Caribbean colonies from the 1690s, when paper money was first printed in British North America, through the Age of Revolutions. Counterfeiting, I argue, had wide-ranging implications for market development, cultures of money, and imperial authority. Using a varied source base, including court records, newspapers, official correspondence, personal and business papers, as well as extant paper money and coins, I position counterfeiters’ activities in the highly variegated monetary landscape of the eighteenth-century British Atlantic. I show how counterfeiters, often trained artisans, assembled networks of people that cut across class, gender, and, occasionally, racial divisions in society, taking advantage of uneven colonial legal systems to make bad money and avoid prosecution. The constant threat of counterfeits, I contend, shaped how people evaluated money, and each other, in daily economic transactions. Debates about counterfeits, and the proper governmental response to them, became proxies for larger debates about money and sovereignty in a commercial empire. During and immediately after the American Revolution, widespread counterfeiting challenged the political legitimacy and financial solvency of the newly United States. Building on recent work that examines the importance of informal economic activity to economic development and state formation as well as new scholarship on the history of money, my dissertation conceptualizes counterfeiting as an imperial crime and insists that it is an important and too often overlooked chapter in the history of money and empire in the eighteenth century.