December 7, 1941 will forever be remembered as, in the words of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, “a date that will live in infamy.” Another infamous date is April 5, 1933—the day that FDR ordered the seizure of the private gold holdings of the American people. By attacking innocent citizens, he bombed the country’s gold standard just as surely as Japan bombed Pearl Harbor.
On this 90th anniversary of the seizure, it behooves us to recall the details of it, for multiple reasons: It ranks as one of the most notorious abuses of power in a decade when there were almost too many to count. It’s an example of bad policy imposed on the guiltless by the government that created the conditions it used to justify it. And the very fact of compliance, however minimal, is a scary testimony to how fragile freedom is in the middle of a crisis.
Suddenly on April 5, 1933, FDR told Americans—in the form of Executive Order 6102—that they had less than a month to hand over their gold coins, bullion and gold certificates or face up to ten years in prison or a fine of $10,000, or both. After May 1, private ownership and possession of these things would be as illegal as Demon Rum. After Prohibition was repealed later the same year, the sober man with gold in his pocket was the criminal while the staggering drunk was no more than a nuisance.
Hoarding gold was preventing recovery from the Great Depression, FDR declared. Government (which caused the Depression in the first place) had no choice, if you can follow the logic, but to seize the gold and do the hoarding itself. But of course, the big difference was this: In the hands of the government, huge new gold supplies could be used by the Federal Reserve as the basis for expanding the paper money supply. The President who had promised a 25 percent reduction in federal spending during his 1932 campaign, could now double spending in his first term.
What evidence suggested Americans were “hoarding” gold? Roosevelt pointed to a run on banks that immediately preceded his April 5 seizure decree. Indeed, people were showing up at tellers’ windows with paper dollars demanding the gold that the paper notes promised. But Roosevelt had prompted the bank run himself!