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Fugio cent forged from copper, tempered by bribery
By R.W. Julian
May 15, 2018

Many collectors believe that United States coinage began in 1793 with the Chain cent, but this is not correct. In 1787, the Confederation government issued the Fugio cent, the first coin struck by the United States.

Most coins have a quiet background, but not the Fugios, which were the end result of a $10,000 bribe. It all began in the early 1780s.

In 1783, the peace treaty with Great Britain made independence a reality, but our monetary system was nonexistent and the economy in a sorry state.

For countries too poor to afford their own mints, coinage was often contracted to private individuals. Some of the State coinages of the 1780s, New Jersey for example, were conducted in this manner. By 1785, the Confederation Congress had received several proposals.

A series of scandals had rocked the Confederation Treasury Board and, in early 1786, there was a major shakeup. Colonel William Duer was appointed Secretary, and Congress felt that the finances were in safe hands. Unfortunately it was the equivalent of putting a fox in charge of the hen house.

Matthias Ogden, a New Jersey coiner, applied to Colonel Duer about obtaining a contract to coin cents. The proposal was a good one, but Ogden did not offer a bribe, and Duer looked around for someone who would.

Duer found James Jarvis, who was involved with the minting of Connecticut copper coins. Jarvis’ father-in-law, Samuel Broome, was a contractor for that coinage at his New Haven mint

By early 1787, Jarvis was able to match, on paper, the proposal presented by Matthias Ogden, and he obtained the coinage contract. Duer, exceeding his authority, signed two agreements with Jarvis – after a $10,000 bribe. The arrangement called for 38 million cents to be struck, more than were needed. The government also agreed to furnish a quantity of copper.

Having paid out his available capital in bribes, Jarvis searched for a way to strike the coins. He went to his father-in-law, Samuel Broome in Connecticut. Broome agreed to use the copper obtained from the government to begin coining the Fugios.

The design on the coins had been set by Congress. The obverse had a sun dial surrounded by FUGIO (Time Flies) and MIND YOUR BUSINESS. The reverse had a chain of 13 links – for the 13 colonies – around a circle, along with the words UNITED STATES. At the center is WE ARE ONE. It is generally accepted that the design should be credited to Benjamin Franklin.

The first Fugio patterns had a reverse with AMERICAN CONGRESS instead of UNITED STATES. When Congress set the final devices in July 1787, Jarvis had little choice except to conform in the rest of the dies made. The AMERICAN CONGRESS patterns are rare.

While Broome coined the Fugios at New Haven, Jarvis went to Europe to obtain the necessary capital for his venture in coinage. He received a polite rebuff in Amsterdam, which caused him to head for Birmingham.

Birmingham was the chief place in Europe for the coining of coppers, both legal and illegal. In the end, however, the Birmingham attempt failed because Jarvis had no funds.

Jarvis was in Europe in May 1788 when Broome paid into the Treasury the 399,000 Fugios struck to date. This was the only official delivery, although it is believed that more were made unofficially.

Jarvis returned to America in the fall of 1788 to find disaster on every hand. He appealed to Congress for more time, but legislators were in no mood to humor Jarvis and voided the contract. They then demanded that he account for the 32 tons of copper he had been sold at a bargain price, but this was never done.

During 1789, the new federal government debated what to do about the 399,000 Fugios stored in the Bank of New York. Entrepreneur Royal Flint then purchased the coins at a discount, but he was not able to make good and was later arrested. He bonded out of jail, however, and left the area.

Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton sued Jarvis and Broome in 1791, obtaining a judgment of $20,000, but it is doubtful that anything was collected. Colonel Duer received a small measure of justice in 1792: he went to jail for a short time. After that, there was silence for many years.

Fugio cents were in short supply for collectors prior to 1860. In that year, the Bank of New York found several thousand Fugios in an old cask. This coincided with rise of coin collecting in America, and by 1861, many pieces had gone to collectors.

The Bank hoard did not include rare varieties, and there soon appeared individuals willing to solve that problem. Someone went to the Scovill Mint in Connecticut and had a series of dies made that resembled the original Fugios. The dies were not meant to be exact duplicates of the originals from the 1780s. Instead, it was claimed that the newly discovered dies had not been used in 1787 because the design had been rejected.

Most of the “New Haven restrikes,” as they are called, have narrow reverse rings. Many are uncirculated, though some pieces were deliberately worn to appear as originals.

At present, the collector can expect to pay about $1,000 for a Very Fine specimen of an original Fugio cent. It is a small price to pay for owning the first United States coin.

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