Article 1, Section 8, Clause 5
[Volume 3, Page 1]
William Blackstone, Commentaries 1:264--681765
Secondly, the regulation of weights and measures. These, for the advantage of the public, ought to be universally the same throughout the kingdom; being the general criterions which reduce all things to the same or an equivalent value. But, as weight and measure are things in their nature arbitrary and uncertain, it is therefore expedient that they be reduced to some fixed rule or standard: which standard it is impossible to fix by any written law or oral proclamation; for no man can, by words only, give another an adequate idea of a foot-rule, or a pound-weight. It is therefore necessary to have recourse to some visible, palpable, material standard; by forming a comparison with which, all weights and measures may be reduced to one uniform size: and the prerogative of fixing this standard, our antient law vested in the crown; as in Normandy it belonged to the duke. This standard was originally kept at Winchester: and we find in the laws of king Edgar, near a century before the conquest, an injunction that the one measure, which was kept at Winchester, should be observed throughout the realm. Most nations have regulated the standard of measures of length by comparison with the parts of the human body; as the palm, the hand, the span, the foot, the cubit, the ell, (ulna, or arm) the pace, and the fathom. But, as these are of different dimensions in men of different proportions, our antient historians inform us, that a new standard of longitudinal measure was ascertained by king Henry the first; who commanded that the ulna or antient ell, which answers to the modern yard, should be made of the exact length of his own arm. And, one standard of measures of length being gained, all others are easily derived from thence; those of greater length by multiplying, those of less by subdividing, that original standard. Thus, by the statute called compositio ulnarum et perticarum, five yards and an half make a perch; and the yard is subdivided into three feet, and each foot into twelve inches; which inches will be each of the length of three grains of barley. Superficial measures are derived by squaring those of length; and measures of capacity by cubing them. The standard of weights was originally taken from corns of wheat, whence the lowest denomination of weights we have is still called a grain; thirty two of which are directed, by the statute called compositio mensurarum, to compose a penny weight, whereof twenty make an ounce, twelve ounces a pound, and so upwards. And upon these principles the first standards were made; which, being originally so fixed by the crown, their subsequent regulations have been generally made by the king in parliament. Thus, under king Richard I, in his parliament holden at Westminster, A.D. 1197, it was ordained that there shall be only one weight and one measure throughout the kingdom, and that the custody of the assise or standard of weights and measures shall be committed to certain persons in every city and borough; from whence the antient office of the king's aulnager seems to have been derived, whose duty it was, for a certain fee, to measure all cloths made for sale, till the office was abolished by the statute 11 & 12 W. III. c. 20. In king John's time this ordinance of king Richard was frequently dispensed with for money; which occasioned a provision to be made for inforcing it, in the great charters of king John and his son. These original standards were called pondus regis, and mensura domini regis; and are directed by a variety of subsequent statutes to be kept in the exchequer, and all weights and measures to be made conformable thereto. But, as sir Edward Coke observes, though this hath so often by authority of parliament been enacted, yet it could never be effected; so forcible is custom with the multitude, when it hath gotten an head.[Volume 3, Page 2]
Thirdly, as money is the medium of commerce, it is the king's prerogative, as the arbiter of domestic commerce, to give it authority or make it current. Money is an universal medium, or common standard, by comparison with which the value of all merchandize may be ascertained: or it is a sign, which represents the respective values of all commodities. Metals are well calculated for this sign, because they are durable and are capable of many subdivisions: and a precious metal is still better calculated for this purpose, because it is the most portable. A metal is also the most proper for a common measure, because it can easily be reduced to the same standard in all nations: and every particular nation fixes on it it's own impression, that the weight and standard (wherein consists the intrinsic value) may both be known by inspection only.
As the quantity of precious metals increases, that is, the more of them there is extracted from the mine, this universal medium or common sign will sink in value, and grow less precious. Above a thousand millions of bullion are calculated to have been imported into Europe from America within less than three centuries; and the quantity is daily increasing. The consequence is, that more money must be given now for the same commodity than was given an hundred years ago. And, if any accident was to diminish the quantity of gold and silver, their value would proportionably rise. A horse, that was formerly worth ten pounds, is now perhaps worth twenty; and, by any failure of current specie, the price may be reduced to what it was. Yet is the horse in reality neither dearer nor cheaper at one time than another: for, if the metal which constitutes the coin was formerly twice as scarce as at present, the commodity was then as dear at half the price, as now it is at the whole.
The coining of money is in all states the act of the sovereign power; for the reason just mentioned, that it's value may be known on inspection. And with respect to coinage in general, there are three things to be considered therein; the materials, the impression, and the denomination.
With regard to the materials, sir Edward Coke lays it down, that the money of England must either be of gold or silver; and none other was ever issued by the royal authority till 1672, when copper farthings and half-pence were coined by king Charles the second, and ordered by proclamation to be current in all payments, under the value of six-pence, and not otherwise. But this copper coin is not upon the same footing with the other in many respects, particularly with regard to the offence of counterfeiting it.
As to the impression, the stamping thereof is the unquestionable prerogative of the crown: for, though divers bishops and monasteries had formerly the privilege of coining money, yet, as sir Matthew Hale observes, this was usually done by special grant from the king, or by prescription which supposes one; and therefore was derived from, and not in derogation of, the royal prerogative. Besides that they had only the profit of the coinage, and not the power of instituting either the impression or denomination; but had usually the stamp sent them from the exchequer.
The denomination, or the value for which the coin is to pass current, is likewise in the breast of the king; and, if any unusual pieces are coined, that value must be ascertained by proclamation. In order to fix the value, the weight, and the fineness of the metal are to be taken into consideration together. When a given weight of gold or silver is of a given fineness, it is then of the true standard, and called sterling metal; a name for which there are various reasons given, but none of them entirely satisfactory. And of this sterling metal all the coin of the kingdom must be made by the statute 25 Edw. III. c. 13. So that the king's prerogative seemeth not to extend to the debasing or inhancing the value of the coin, below or above the sterling value: though sir Matthew Hale appears to be of another opinion. The king may also, by his proclamation, legitimate foreign coin, and make it current here; declaring at what value it shall be taken in payments. But this, I apprehend, ought to be by comparison with the standard of our own coin; otherwise the consent of parliament will be necessary. There is at present no such legitimated money; Portugal coin being only current by private consent, so that any one who pleases may refuse to take it in payment. The king may also at any time decry, or cry down, any coin of the kingdom, and make it no longer current.
Blackstone, William. Commentaries on the Laws of England: A Facsimile of the First Edition of 1765--1769. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979.
© 1987 by The University of Chicago