It was a long fight.
Some 40 years after President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau Jr., banned such ownership by executive order designed to strengthen the American economy, Crane used arcane rules of the House of Representatives to reverse that order and allow ownership as of Dec. 31, 1974.
Earlier that same year, he publicly forced the Secretary of the Treasury to reverse decades of federal policy that precluded visits to Fort Knox, the home of a significant part of the U.S. gold reserve. The visit was finally slated for Sept. 19, 1974, and about a dozen members of Congress and a hundred newsmen showed up to see if the gold was there.
Starting in the early 1970s, a group of “gold bugs” began to advocate private gold ownership rights and eventually, they found the ear of some congressmen and senators who bought into their fairness theory and the claimed illegality of the gold seizures and recalls of the 1930s.
After years of ineffective advocacy, in a truly bizarre episode, they tacked a resolution allowing for private gold ownership onto the foreign aid package that the Nixon Administration wanted. Presidential vetoes were threatened and an alarmist attitude prevailed at the main Treasury building.
The foreign aid bill with its non-germane gold ownership clause finally made it to a vote in which conservative members such as Crane, a Republican from Illinois, and others voted with liberal Democrats.
Crane said to me later it was the only foreign aid bill that he voted for in his 35-year congressional career. His rationale: it was more important to get private gold ownership than argue the vagaries of a single year’s foreign aid package.
When I arrived at Fort Knox, I immediately recognized Crane, who had called for an investigation into the rumors that the gold had been taken. They were popularized by conservative economic writer, Dr. Peter David Beter.
Crane was from the Chicago suburb of Arlington Heights and formerly a college history professor with a Ph.D. in economics. He entered Congress in 1969. I met him many times as he discussed the need for Americans to be able to own foreign gold coins.
I asked Crane why he had suggested a tour of Knox.
“I suggested it because of rampant rumors that significant portions of our gold reserves were gone,” he replied. “I suggested it to William Simon [Secretary of the Treasury] because, if coupled with an audit, would serve to help gain confidence in the monetary system.
“I’ll be satisfied with the audit,” he said, noting that there was a previous one in 1953, just after President Eisenhower took office. Crane noted he had held one of the 400-ounce bricks. Each weighs approximately 27 pounds. He noted its worth of $65,000 on the free market (Today it is about $500,000).
“Exciting” was the way he described his Fort Knox visit. “It was impressive how much value can be found in such a small package,” he remarked.
Ed Busch, of WFAA Radio (Dallas, Texas) questioned Crane closely. Dr. Beter, who had appeared on Busch’s show and made the original charges that gold was gone from Fort Knox, or, that the title to the gold was gone. (Sound familiar?)
Crane said that no gold would leave the depository during the audit, only that some might be moved from vault to vault (within the vault complex).
In an obituary interview with the New York Times, in 2011, Crane termed the private gold ownership legalization “the proudest achievement of his career.”
Crane also picked a fight with U.S .Mint Director Mary T. Brooks over whether the Mint should produce a gold coin commemorative for the Bicentennial. He relates the story in the official legislative history of public Law 93-127, which Nixon approved in 1973. Crane had offered an amendment to issue Bicentennial gold coinage. It was defeated 15-7 in committee.
He reflected on this in a report to the House, noting “I intend to bring it before the whole House.” The language was the same, Crane said at the time, “with that offered by Senator Hatfield and adopted by the Senate.” (The Hatfield-Crane bill would have created up to 60 million gold coins or the Bicentennial.
Crane filed an opposition statement and in a surprise move, intended to force such a vote.
In the report, on the last page, the individual views of Crane were printed. There he called Paul Volcker’s arguments “untenable” and said, “I intend to introduce language in the House which conforms to the Senate provision.” Had Crane been able to follow this course, the Bicentennial coinage bill that emerged would have been different. With the report filed, the House Banking and Currency Committee could do no more.
It was then up to the Rules Committee, the full House, and one of the least- known but most powerful employees of the Congress to determine the fate of the Bicentennial coinage bill known as H.R. 8789. The employee’s name was Lewis Deschler, his position in Congress being parliamentarian of the House of Representatives.
Before the Rules Committee, the House and Deschler could act, a recess occurred. With Congress on vacation until after Labor Day, no legislation was acted upon.
Returning from its summer recess, the House of Representatives once again had the task of taking the initiative on Bicentennial coinage legislation if the bill before its Banking Committee was to become law. The Senate had already acted, though obviously to the displeasure of the Treasury, the Federal Reserve and the director of the Mint.
Crane’s idea was defeated. He had sparred with both Paul Volcker of the Treasury and Dr Arthur Burns, chairman of the Federal Reserve. Both reiterated official opposition to gold coinage and private gold ownership.
Forty years later, this opposition to gold Bicentennial coinage seems ridiculous. It was. But the right to own gold that we all now enjoy is a permanent legacy of Phil Crane.