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The Spanish Presence

June 2023
1min read

As always, at least one American Heritage article appears to be chosen precisely to satisfy my interests. Henry Wiencek’s “The Spain Among Us” (April) fits that description.

However (don’t letters to the editor always have a “however”?), how could he have ignored the influence of Spain on the money of the United States, most obviously, the expressions each of us use almost daily, “two bits” and “four bits,” referring to the quarter and half-dollar. The terms derive from divisions of Spanish 8 reales , the famous piece of eight, which many consider the most successful of all trade coins. The coin also was called the Spanish milled dollar.

In 1536, eighty-four years before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock, Spain established the mint in Mexico City and began producing coins, principally the 8 reales . Few coins of smaller denomination were produced, but the 1 real coin , a small silver piece, received the sobriquet “bit.” In practice, the 8 reales often was cut into quarters, ergo two bits.

Even more important, the reputation of the Spanish 8 reales influenced the establishment of United States coinage. In the “Act of April 2, 1792,” Congress established the value of the U.S. dollar to be equal to its Spanish equivalent, and the Spanish milled dollar remained legal tender in the United States until 1857.

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