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bimetallism (bĪmĕtˈəlĭzˌəm) [key], in economic history, monetary system in which two commodities, usually gold and silver, were used as a standard and coined without limit at a ratio fixed by legislation that also designated both of them as legally acceptable for all payments. The term was first used in 1869 by Enrico Cernuschi (1821–96), an Italian-French economist and a vigorous advocate of the system. In a bimetallic system, the ratio is expressed in terms of weight, e.g., 16 oz of silver equal 1 oz of gold, which is described as a ratio of 16 to 1. As the ratio is determined by law, it has no relation to the commercial value of the metals, which fluctuates constantly. Gresham's law, therefore, applies; i.e., the metal that is commercially valued at less than its face value tends to be used as money, and the metal commercially valued at more than its face value tends to be used as metal, valued by weight, and hence is withdrawn from circulation as money. Working against that is the fact that the debtor tends to pay in the commercially cheaper metal, thus creating a market demand likely to bring its commercial value up to its face value. In practice, the instability predicted by Gresham's law overpowered the cushioning effect of debtors' payments, thereby making bimetallism far too unstable a monetary system for most modern nations. Aside from England, which in acts of 1798 and 1816 made gold the standard currency, all countries practiced bimetallism during the late 18th cent. and most of the 19th cent.

See J. L. Laughlin, The History of Bimetallism in the United States (1897, repr. 1968).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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