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New document sheds light on 1792
By R.W. Julian
May 19, 2014

This article was originally printed in Numismatic News.
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Even though most collectors cannot afford to own a United States coin or pattern from 1792, there has always been a strong interest in the operations of the Mint during its opening year. As early as the 1840s there were published accounts of the coinage but most of the documentation from the 19th century is tantalizingly short of the details necessary to understand this year completely.

With the discovery of a new document from 1792 that throws light on an area little known in the past, it is time to do a study of the 1792 coinage from the perspective of what we now know about such matters.

One of the enduring disputes connected with the early Mint, for example, is the question of the portrait on the famous half disme of that year. The new document tells us the probable name of the artist preparing the designs for the disme and half disme and perhaps even a connection with Martha Washington, the person believed by some numismatists to be portrayed on the half disme.

In addition there are some new thoughts on facts once thought to be absolute but now open to question. These include, for example, numismatic materials published by Mint Director James Ross Snowden in 1860.

The United States Mint, as we know it today, was organized under a law passed by Congress and signed by President George Washington on April 2, 1792. Most researchers start with that date as the foundation of the patterns and coinage executed that year but in reality the process had been a long one; to properly understand the actions taken during 1792 one must take into account that which came about in preceding years.

In this essay, which will require more than one issue of Numismatic News, we will also examine those coinage schemes that came before 1792. In some cases the discussion will be cursory but in others more detailed information will be given based on discoveries of the past few years. On occasion the history of a given coinage is well known, but a few additional facts have been found that help fill in the holes.

The present article will not delve into certain topics, however. These include, for example, lists of known coins and their provenances. Such matters will be left to others with better access to such records. The various state coinages, except perhaps in a minor way, will also not be discussed as they are not relevant.

For those interested in the coinage of 1792 there are several references necessary for a thorough understanding. The first is the book by Donald Taxay – The U.S. Mint and Coinage – published by Arco in 1966. The second is the monumental reference entitled Walter Breen’s Complete Encyclopedia of U.S. and Colonial Coins, published in 1988 by F.C.I. press.

Taxay’s book is especially important as it reports, for the first time, the entry in Thomas Jefferson’s account book for the delivery of 1,500 half dismes by the Mint to him on July 13, 1792. This discovery was the first critical material published on the subject in more than a century. There is an earlier Breen monograph on the Mint in 1792, published by Wayte Raymond in the Coin Collector’s Journal issue for March-April 1954, but the information contained therein is superseded by his 1988 Encyclopedia.

The last important reference was published by Whitman in 2011. Leonard D. Augsburger and Joel J. Orosz wrote The Secret History of the First U.S. Mint, which is a detailed account of the original Philadelphia Mint as well as the role played by researcher Frank Stewart. This work presents many new facts concerning both Stewart and the First Mint and is essential for understanding these topics. It is particularly well illustrated.

(Messrs Augsburger and Orosz, aided by Pete Smith, are presently working on a book to cover additional aspects of the 1792 coinage. No publication date has been set, however.)

There are also some monographs presenting detailed information on certain areas of the early coinage and these will be mentioned as necessary. Some of these date to the early 1950s and not all are easily obtained for a numismatic library. Those who own the Breen book noted above, however, will find that he provided an extensive bibliography of the works consulted for his Encyclopedia.

Early Coins of America, published in 1875 by Sylvester S. Crosby, is slightly out of date in certain aspects but does present a considerable amount of documentary material that remains very useful in research. This book may be found on the Internet and is easily downloaded for use.

There are other books on the early Philadelphia Mint that have been published over the past couple of decades but most have used information from the Breen and Taxay books.

Prologue.

The earliest attempt at a national coinage appears to have taken place in 1776 when the well-known Continental dollars were struck. Almost nothing is known about these pieces except for the fact that the initials “E.G.” on some dies have been identified by Eric P. Newman as a New York engraver named Elisha Gallaudet.

Several theories have been advanced about these pieces but the most likely explanation is that they were patterns for a private coinage to be authorized by Congress. There was a chronic shortage of money during the Revolutionary War and the idea of funding a mint would have gotten short shrift among the delegates.

It is probable that a consortium, perhaps led by Gallaudet, was formed to petition Congress to allow a private contract coinage under congressional oversight. The lack of silver, as well as the bleak prospects for maintaining the specie value of the ever-increasing amounts of Continental paper currency, no doubt doomed the project at an early stage.

Most of the known Continental dollars are in pewter, an alloy easily struck by the crude equipment available to the presumed consortium. Rumors that these pewter pieces were meant to pass as pennies can be dismissed out of hand. Taxay reports a letter from a British soldier to this effect but one suspects that someone was deliberately misleading the soldier, to make him think that the United States was better off than was actually the case.

Other writers have claimed that patriotic merchants would have accepted the pewter pieces as equivalent to Spanish dollars but this can also be immediately dismissed; any merchant doing this would soon have seen his business collapse with major debts.

It is far more likely that the pewter specimens were struck as souvenirs or pocket pieces once the idea of a proposed contract coinage had been abandoned. The striking of such pieces may have gone on for several years.



Follow the disme journey in Numismatic News.

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