You walk out to pick up your mail one afternoon when you find that someone has stuffed a massive wad of cash into your mailbox.
After carefully ensuring that there isn't an index finger wrapped inside of it, you click your heels and rush off to spend it as quickly as you can. Amazingly, when you tell your friends about it later over the phone, each one of them reveals that they, too, were visited by the money fairy. The next day, there are even more dollars waiting for you next to the electric bill and the Value City mass mailing. Pretty soon you're finding money lying on the sidewalk, caught in bushes and blowing down the street like tumbleweeds. You even see an ad in the newspaper offering to sell you money for the cost of the paper it's printed on.
Congratulations: You are a victim of a plot to destroy America.
What? When Did This Happen?
The first organized American attempt to print money occurred in 1775 at the outset of the Revolutionary War, when the Continental Congress issued paper money known as Continentals to help fund the war effort. Actually, the Continentals were pretty much identical to modern U.S. currency -- promissory notes insured by the government for a printed value. The economy was not yet based on the gold standard, so the Continentals didn't represent anything physical (pay attention, this is important).
Why the hell don't we have any thirty-three-and-a-third-cent coins?
The British navy, in an equal effort to thwart the upstart colonists and engage in unbridled hilarity, set up a printing press on board the HMS Phoenix docked in New York Harbor and churned out phony Continentals by the skullduggerous truckload. It was the first recorded instance of financial sabotage during wartime, and it nearly worked.
The plan was to undermine the colonists' confidence in the new money and crash the fragile revolutionary economy to help bring about a quick British victory. The quality of the counterfeit Continentals was so good, and the market was so inundated with them, that colonists became suspicious of all Continental currency and pretty much refused to deal with it. Nobody would spend it, and even fewer would accept it.
"We'll use bullets for money instead. Those are always worth something."
The British were so confident in their plan and the quality of their fakes that they didn't even try to hide what they were doing. They literally put an ad in New York newspapers in 1777, offering to sell the fake money to British loyalists for the cost of the paper. With the supply of colonial currency effectively poisoned with counterfeits and the value of Continentals plummeting steadily every year, Congress decided to get out of the money game, and by 1781 Continentals stopped circulating altogether. It was then up to the individual states to raise their share of the money for the war, forever ending the debate on how involved the federal government should be in the nation's economy.
Chris Holmes roams the Internet as the Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. You can catch him on his website, Facebook, Twitter or Tumblr.
For more ways money can be screwed up, check out 6 Great Ways to Remind Yourself That You're Poor. Or learn about 7 Bizarre Things (And 1 Bodily Fluid) People Use as Money.