1998 32¢ Celebrate the Century - 1910s: Federal Reserve
US #3183b pictures an eagle statue on the Federal Reserve building.

On December 23, 1913, President Woodrow Wilson signed the Federal Reserve Act, establishing America’s current central banking system.

The idea of a central banking system dates back to post-Revolutionary War America.  The new country had large wartime debts and needed a solid banking system.  Two of America’s founding fathers and long-time friends, Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson, were split on the issue.

Hamilton believed the US should adopt a national bank, similar to European nations, but Jefferson thought that would threaten democracy.  Jefferson also believed it would benefit the North but hurt the South, who received credit from local banks after the war.

1956 Liberty Series - $5 Alexander Hamilton
US #1053 is generally considered one of the most beautiful US portrait stamps of the 1900s.

In the end, Hamilton won and the First Bank of the United States was established in 1791.  Chartered for 20 years, the bank did successfully help the economy, but it failed to be renewed by one vote in 1811.  The Second Bank of the United States was established in 1816, also for a period of 20 years.  It was largely unpopular in the west and south and became a private bank when its charter expired in 1836.

For over 75 years, America didn’t have a central bank. During that time there were several financial panics that led some to believe that banking reform was needed.  In 1912, the National Monetary Commission submitted the Aldrich Plan (named for its chairman, Nelson W. Aldrich), which called for the creation of a National Reserve Association.  This association would provide emergency loans to member banks, produce money, and serve as the government’s fiscal agent.

1956 Liberty Series - 7¢ Woodrow Wilson
US #1040 features a portrait of Wilson based on a drawing by F. Graham Cootes.

During the election of 1912, Democratic candidate Woodrow Wilson included plans for banking and currency reform on his platform.  After he was elected and entered the White House, he made this reform one of his top priorities.  He sought to find a middle ground between the needs of the conservative Republicans and the left-wing Democrats.  The act was introduced to the house in August 1913 and signed into law by President Wilson that December 23.

The Federal Reserve Act of 1913 gave private banks control of the 12 regional Federal Reserve Banks but placed controlling interest in a central board selected by the president, with Senate approval.  The plan went into effect in 1915, later playing a major role in financing the Allied and American war efforts.

The Federal Reserve Act set the framework and guidelines for the nation’s banks, credit, and money supply that we still use today.  Commonly known as the “Fed,” this independent governmental agency manages the country’s supply of money and credit.  The Fed also provides various financial services for the federal government and the banking system and issues our paper money.

1998 32¢ Federal Reserve Fleetwood First Day Cover
US #3183b – Fleetwood First Day Cover

Congress created the Fed to provide a flexible currency for the nation and to supervise the banking system.  It controls the flow of money and credit in three ways: through open-market operations, the sale or purchase of government securities; by changing reserve requirements, the percentages of deposits that most banks must set aside before funds are made available for loans; and by changing the discount rate, the interest rate banks pay the Federal Reserve Bank when they borrow money.

1975 10¢ Banking and Commerce
US #1577-78 commemorates the Centennial Convention of the American Bankers Association.  

The Fed operates with a great deal of autonomy.  It does not rely on Congress for funding – operating expenses are collected from investment income and fees for its services.  Although the Fed reports to Congress, it is legally free to make its own policy decisions.  The Fed has promoted nationwide economic stability by working to keep interest rates low during recessions and letting them rise during periods of economic growth.

Click here for more about the Federal Reserve Act.

Discover what else happened on This Day in History.

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  1. Bankers like J.P. Morgan supported the Central Bank because it brought stability to the financial system. Free market believers don’t like its controls over the financial system even though they are indirect. To protect our gold standard money the Fed actually raised interest rates in the early 1930s making economic conditions even worse. In 2008/2009 the Fed was determined not to make the same mistake.

  2. Succinct & easy to understand, Mystic Stamp. And thank you to Mr. Miller for filling in an important historical update.

  3. There have been some brilliant economic individuals who have served on the fed. The chairman gives scheduled reports to our elected officials in Washington. For the most part the fed serves our nation well and wise presidents allow them to do their work without public criticism.

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