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Wrong coin fineness scandal subsides
By R.W. Julian
November 22, 2017

The year 1793 is often thought of the Mint’s first full year of regular production but this is not quite true. Only copper coins were struck in 1793 while silver was added in 1794. Gold was first truck in 1795 but it was not until 1796 that the full range of denominations stipulated by law was in fact minted for the public. The year 1796 was also the first full year in office for Mint Director Elias Boudinot, a dynamic individual who helped preserve the Mint in difficult times.

The silver coinage of 1796 was light compared to 1795 for several reasons, one of which was a major scandal. In 1794, when silver coinage had commenced, Mint Director David Rittenhouse, with advice from Assayer Albion Coxe, had changed the amount of pure silver put in the coinage. He added precious metal to each coin, but did not change the gross weight.

Rittenhouse’s action in effect defrauded each depositor of about one percent. When Elias Boudinot became director in late October 1795, he discovered what was going on and ordered an immediate return to the legal standard. Word got out, however, and depositors stayed away in droves during 1796 and 1797.

With less silver coming in and the public wary of the Mint, Boudinot had fresh problems. Less bullion means less work and the skilled workmen needed to be retained for those times in which silver and gold would come in heavily once more.

The year 1796 was also played out against a backdrop of Congressional sniping at the expenses of the Mint. The director spent a considerable amount of time defusing these criticisms.

With all of the above in mind, Boudinot decided to coin the quarter dollar for the first time, as a “make-work” project. None was struck in 1794 or 1795 for the simple reason that plenty of Spanish two reales (equal to the quarter) were in daily use throughout the United States, even on the frontier. These were mostly struck at the Mexico City Mint, though a fair number were made at Spanish mints in South America.

During February and March 1796 Chief Engraver Robert Scot prepared the necessary hubs and dies for this new coinage. In early April a mere 1,800 quarters were delivered and this was followed by another 4,000 or so pieces in May and June. The total of 1796 quarters was only 6,146 pieces, counting a further 252 struck in February 1797.

Because the 1796 quarter is not only the first year of issue, but also a type coin in great demand, the collector will pay well to obtain a high-quality specimen. In VF-20, for example, the book value, shown in the monthly price guide appearing in Numismatic News, is $30,000.

Oddly enough, there are several 1796 quarters known in prooflike uncirculated. The Mint normally kept such coins on hand to sell at face value and perhaps a visitor obtained several pieces at one time and these were kept intact for a century or so until they passed into collecting circles.

Although 1796 half dollars are known, they were not struck in 1796 but rather 1797. Those readers interested in the 1796-1797 half dollars should obtain the recent work by Jon Amato covering these two years in detail.

There were about 10,000 half dimes made in this year, however, and one variety is of importance in that it shows that coinage plans for 1795 were aborted. This is the well-known overdate, 1796/5.

When Elias Boudinot became director in October 1795 he had, as noted above, ordered a suspension of the silver coinage and all accounts brought up to date. After that he specifically directed that all silver coins meet the legal standard, .8924, as established by the 1792 mint law.

It is thought that Boudinot intended to coin half dimes in late 1795 because a die with this date existed before being redated to 1796. Had it not been for the unexpected death of Assayer Albion Coxe in late November, today’s collector would have the opportunity to own a 1795 Draped Bust half dime.

The 1796 half dime is also interesting for another variety. The word LIBERTY appears as LIKERTY because the letter “B” in the die was not properly punched in and part of the die disintegrated at this particular point. Only the 1796/5 variety is special, however, in terms of value. In VF-20 the regular and LIKERTY varieties are worth about $4,100 while the overdate weighs in somewhat higher in the same grade.

Unlike the half dimes, the dimes of 1796 are more straightforward although there do exist minor varieties. Apparently Boudinot had not planned for the dime in 1795 because there is no overdate known for this year. The dime, however, is much like the quarter in that this is the first coinage for the denomination. (The first delivery of dimes was in mid-January 1796, indicating that the dies were being prepared in late 1795, however.)

Because the same design for the dime was also coined in 1797 there is less demand for the 1796 version from type collectors. In VF-20 the 1796 dime books at about $7,500, not far from the value of the 1797s; the latter are worth a bit more. Only about 22,000 pieces were coined in 1796, but it is possible that the 1796 dies were used for a short time in 1797.

There was little demand for dimes in 1796 because of the widespread use of the Spanish one real piece. It was equivalent to 12.5 cents, which was the reason many items were priced this way in the early United States. (There were eight reales in a dollar, which is why that we sometimes say “two bits” for 25 cents.)

The 1796 calendar-year mintage for the silver dollar was nearly 73,000 pieces, which was fairly heavy considering the small amounts of silver bullion that came in during the year. There are quite a few collectors who specialize in early silver dollars by die varieties but 1796 does not attract the attention of 1797. (For the 1796 silver dollar the major varieties are for large and small dates against the size of the letters.)

In the gold coinage for 1796 we find the third new denomination, the quarter eagle. In the meantime the mint had struck both half eagles and eagles, as they had done in 1795. There was no change of design for either of these denominations. It is interesting to note that all of the half eagles dated 1796 are from an overdated obverse die, 1796/5. This is a rare coin in general, with book value in VF-20 (the lowest grade normally sought after) of about $30,000. This coin, like much of the gold for this period, is rare in uncirculated.

Except that it is not an overdate, the 1796 eagle ($10 gold) is similar to the half eagle. Only about 4,100 were struck in 1796 (about 2,000 less than the half eagle) but the values are roughly the same. The 1796 eagle is worth somewhat less in the upper grades, however, and is more available in uncirculated than its smaller brother.

The most interesting gold coin of 1796 is the quarter eagle. There was little demand for this denomination in the 1790s and it was another of Boudinot’s “make-work” projects. The new coin also marked an interesting departure from earlier designs.

In Europe it was traditional for the national coat of arms to appear on the coinage. It is likely that Director Boudinot, after consultation with President George Washington, decided to put the Great Seal of the United States on the coinage; this would put our coins on a par with the Europeans.

During July and August 1796 Chief Engraver Robert Scot prepared the necessary hubs and dies for this coinage. (Assistant engraver John Smith Gardner prepared the working dies while Scot was otherwise occupied.) The first obverse quarter eagle die did not have stars on it because, no doubt, it was felt that the Great Seal on the reverse showed the stars effectively and they were not needed on both sides.

The first quarter eagle coinage came in September 1796 with a mere 66 pieces delivered by the coiner. As there are two reverse varieties, it seems possible that the first reverse broke after the 66th piece and another reverse had to be made before the coinage resumed in early December with a further 897 pieces.

With only 963 pieces struck of this first coinage, the demand from type collectors is very heavy. In VF-20 the book value is about $70,000 while in strictly uncirculated condition the price is considerably higher.

In early 1797 a second obverse die, with stars on the obverse but dated 1796, was used to strike another 432 pieces. Even though fewer were made, the revised design is the same as was coined through 1807 and therefore has less type-collector pressure, resulting in a slightly lower price.

The Great Seal reverse has come under criticism for having the arrows in the eagle’s right claw. By the rules of heraldry, if the eagle has the arrows in its right claw it is preparing for war while in the other signifies peaceful intentions.

It is the opinion of this writer that there was no mistake in the coinage design. The engraver, Robert Scot, was the same person who had cut the original Great Seal die in 1782 while Elias Boudinot was on the committee that fixed the final design. It seems likely that the American government was signaling to the world that we were ready to fight to defend threats to our liberties, both on the frontier and from abroad.

The signal was direct primarily at the British who were still occupying parts of what is now northern Michigan in violation of the 1793 peace treaty. In addition British agents had been very active on the American frontier, including in particular northern Indiana and northwestern Ohio, urging Indians to rebel against American authority. The Great Seal point would have been lost on the Indians, but not on the Europeans who stirred them up.

The last factor in the coinage of 1796 was copper. It is as interesting as the silver and gold although no new denominations were introduced. At the end of 1795, due to the rising cost of copper, the weights of the cent and half cent had been reduced by a considerable margin in order that the Mint not issue coins at a loss.

From 1793 to 1795 the cent and half cent had lettered edges, but with the change in weight this device was scrapped and plain-edged pieces were now the standard. The reduced-weight coinage began at the end of December 1795 and carried the old date of 1795 for several months into 1796. The Mint was not one to waste dies of a previous year if they were still usable.

For the half cent the plain-edged coinage dated 1795 extended at least until March 1796. There were about 109,000 half cents delivered of this variety but there are some interesting variations. In early 1795 the Mint had purchased a large quantity of Talbot, Allum and Lee cent tokens; these had been made for a New York firm when cent coins were scarce. These tokens were rolled down to the proper thickness and half cent planchets cut out of them.

It is possible for the careful collector to locate 1795 plain-edged half cents with the Talbot, Allum and Lee undertype. Sometime it is even possible to find part of the lettered edge from the tokens.

There were half cents made with the 1796 date, but only a few exist today and these are all extremely rare. A few thousand were made but the number struck is uncertain although various estimates (usually in the 6,000 to 7,000 range) have been made. These were struck at various times in the summer and fall of 1796.

The 1796 half cents come in two varieties: with and without pole for the Liberty cap. The most “common” variety of the 1796 has the pole but the type without the pole is a great rarity. In F-12 even the variety with pole brings close to $30,000. Most of these coins were badly struck and it would appear that they were little better than a by-product of the cent coinage.

As with the half cents, the reduced-weight cents dated 1795 were struck well into 1796. These are not especially difficult to locate, but the condition obtained is merely a matter of cost. In F-12, usually considered acceptable for the early copper coinage, the tab is about $1,250.

In about April the current date of 1796 was finally used for the Liberty Cap coinage. About 110,000 pieces were struck in April and May and the value is about the same as the 1795 plain-edged pieces in fine condition; for higher grades they are somewhat scarcer.

There was no copper coinage between May and July, but in the latter month the Mint began to coin the 1796 Draped Bust cents. These were struck through the end of the year or perhaps a few weeks into 1797. The design had first been seen on the silver coinage of October 1795; the original sketches for this design had been done by the eminent artist Gilbert Stuart.

Because of continuing troubles with a supply of copper, the coinage of the 1796 Draped Bust cents was fitful over the next several months; it was either boom or bust. There is a general estimate that about 365,000 pieces were struck of this date.

In F-12 the value of the 1796 Draped Bust cent is roughly $1,000 but in the upper grades there is a much stronger tab. In strictly uncirculated the Draped Bust cents of the late 1790s bring very good prices at auction, usually in the many thousands of dollars. There are several varieties of the 1796 cent coinage, mostly depending on the style of the reverse.

As the year 1796 closed, one suspects that Director Elias Boudinot was happy to see it go. With all of the new denominations, shortage of bullion, and design changes, the year had certainly been a trying one. Those collectors who specialize in the issues of 1796 have their work cut out for them.

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