From the Ludwig von Mises Institute:
On July 13th, the president of the United States angrily walked out of ongoing negotiations over the raising of the debt ceiling from its legislated maximum of $14.294 trillion dollars. This prompted a new round of speculation over whether the United States might default on its financial obligations. In these circumstances, it is useful to recall the previous instances in which this has occurred and the effects of those defaults. By studying the defaults of the past, we can gain insights into what future defaults might portend.
The Continental Currency Default of 1779
The first default of the United States was on its first issuance of debt: the currency emitted by the Continental Congress of 1775. In June of 1775 the Continental Congress of the United States of America, located in Philadelphia, representing the 13 states of the union, issued bills of credit amounting to 2 million Spanish milled dollars to be paid four years hence in four annual installments. The next month an additional 1 million was issued. A third issue of 3 million followed. The next year they issued an additional 13 million dollars of notes. These were the first of the "Continental dollars," which were used to fund the war of revolution against Great Britain. The issues continued until an estimated 241 million dollars were outstanding, not including British forgeries.
Congress had no power of taxation, so it made each of the several states responsible for redeeming a proportion of the notes according to population. The administration of these notes was delegated to a "Board of the Treasury" in 1776. To refuse the notes or receive them below par was punishable by having your ears cut off and other horrible penalties.
The notes progressively depreciated as the public began to realize that neither the states nor their Congress had the will or capacity to redeem them. In November of 1779, Congress announced a devaluation of 38.5 to 1 on the Continentals, which amounted to an admission of default. In this year refusal to accept the notes became widespread, and trade was reduced to barter, causing sporadic famines and other privations.
Eventually, Congress agreed to redeem the notes at 1,000 to 1. At a rate of 0.82 troy ounces to the Spanish milled dollar and $36 (2011) dollars to the troy ounce of silver, this first default resulted in a cumulative loss of approximately $7 billion dollars to the American public.
Benjamin Franklin characterized the loss as a tax. Memory of the suffering and economic disruption caused by this "tax" and similar bills of credit issued by the states influenced the contract clause of the Constitution, which was adopted in 1789:
No State shall enter into any Treaty, Alliance, or Confederation; grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal; coin Money; emit Bills of Credit; make any Thing but gold and silver Coin a Tender in Payment of Debts; pass any Bill of Attainder, ex post facto Law, or Law impairing the Obligation of Contracts.The Default on Continental Domestic Loans
In addition to its currency issuance, the Continental Congress borrowed money both domestically and abroad. The domestic debt totaled approximately $11 million Spanish dollars. The interest on this debt was paid primarily by money received from France and Holland as part of separate borrowings. When this source of funding dried up, Congress defaulted on its domestic debt starting on March 1, 1782. Partial satisfaction of these debts was made later by accepting the notes for payments of taxes and other indirect considerations. By the Funding Act of 1790, Congress repudiated these loans entirely, but offered to convert them to new ones with less favorable terms, thereby memorializing the default in the form of a Federal law.
The Greenback Default of 1862
After the Revolutionary War, the Congress of the United States made only limited issuance of debt and currency, leaving the problems of public finance largely to the states and private banks. (These entities defaulted on a regular basis up to the Panic of 1837, in which a crescendo of state defaults led to the invention of the term "repudiation of debts.") In August of 1861, this balance between local and federal finance switched forever when the Civil War induced Congress to create a new currency which became known as the "greenback" due to the green color of its ink. The original greenbacks were $60 million in demand notes in denominations of $5, $10, and $20 which were redeemable in specie at any time at a rate of 0.048375 troy ounces of gold per dollar. Less than five months later, in January of 1862, the US Treasury defaulted on these notes by failing to redeem them on demand....MORE