In the early 1790s, the United States was still in its infancy. Although the basic framework of the nation had been laid, the country remained in a formative stage. Indeed, many important conventions of our government system had not been created until this time. For example, the Bill of Rights was appended to the constitution in 1790. The two-party political system began to form in the early 1790s. Alexander Hamilton's forward-thinking economic policies were put into place in 1791. Simply put, this was a time when many of the important aspects which define our country were developed.
It was also during this era when Congress authorized the first United States Mint and coinage. This, too, represented a landmark event in the history of this nation that has forever affected American commerce. The patterns of 1792 represent the founding fathers' efforts at devising a monetary system that was useful, efficient, and also beautiful. It was the Mint Act of 1792 that spawned the coins we currently use. Although today's currency may not bear resemblance to the crude and simple 1792 patterns, they are nevertheless direct descendants. The silver center cent, fusible alloy cent, Birch cent, half disme, disme, and quarter dollar are all the predecessors of our modern-day coins.
The coinage of 1792 actually had its beginnings a full decade earlier. In a report to Congress dated January 15th, 1782, Superintendent of Finance Robert Morris proposed that a national coinage be established. A month later, Morris also submitted a proposal for an official government mint. In response to this, several 1783 Nova Constellatio patterns were struck. However, no official plans for the United States mint came to fruition, despite the urging of Morris and other politicians. The only action taken was the approval of the dollar as the official currency unit in 1785.
In 1790, Alexander Hamilton was assigned the task of establishing a mint and creating a set of guidelines for America's coins. Hamilton submitted a report on July 20th of that year, where he made numerous suggestions regarding the composition and denominations. In addition to gold and silver, he strongly advocated copper pieces, as well. Interestingly, he felt that if coins of small value were minted, merchants would sell items in small portions for the poor. Many believe this was the inspiration for the half cent. In addition, Hamilton suggested that the ten-dollar coin be named the eagle, because as he put it, "nothing else occurred."
A major step was taken two years later with the Mint Act of April 2, 1792. This revolutionary piece of legislation set forth crucial regulations for a United States mint and what it was to produce. Although some of the provisos were adjusted as time went by, the majority of the rules specified in this Act remained in effect for many decades. Many policies, in fact, remain untouched. Essentially, it provided the basic framework on which all subsequent production was based, even though many of the specifics were modified. While the first draft of the Act stipulated that all coins would employ a portrait of the president on the obverse, the final version called for an image emblematic of liberty.
Once the Act was signed into law, Congress worked at a feverish pace to establish the new facility. The government purchased a lot for construction between Market and Arch streets in Philadelphia. The two structures on the site at the time were immediately removed to make way for the new building. On July 1st, noted American scientist David Rittenhouse was appointed director of the United States Mint. Rittenhouse laid the cornerstone for the new mint building on July 31st, 1792 amidst much excitement. In keeping with the intense tempo, the framework for the mint was erected by dusk that same day.
Even before ground had broken, a large quantity of silver coins had, apparently, been struck. According to a letter acquired by researcher Walter Breen, George Washington has deposited one hundred dollars in bullion toward the manufacture of silver coins sometime during the summer of 1792. Then, approximately 2,000 half dismes were minted in the cellar of John Harper, a New Jersey sawmaker who had premises at the corner of Sixth and Cherry Streets in Philadelphia. Their production run had ended on or before July 13th, since Jefferson recorded in a journal entry that 1,500 pieces were received on that day.
Washington also referenced these coins in his fourth annual address on November 6th, 1792. He reported that "there has been a small beginning in the coinage of half dismes; the want of small coins in circulation calling the first attention to them." Although Washington mentioned that these were minted for economic purposes, some historians believe the coins were made for political reasons. Since the minting of silver coins was considered an indicator of a country's strength in the 18th century, Washington's possible goal was to promote the United States by circulating the half dismes. This might explain his generous but rather premature bullion contribution.
By the end of the summer, the mint building was sufficiently completed such that operations could commence. The purchase of six pounds of copper was authorized on September 11th for the initial production. A mere ten days later, coinage presses were delivered, though the mint remained inactive for two more months due to a technicality spelled out in the Mint Act. According to that document, all important employees were required to post bonds before any coins could be struck. By late fall, the bonds were posted and a small quantity of dismes were produced.
The name of the disme is a story in and of itself. When Jefferson and Hamilton devised America's currency system, both strongly supported using a decimal-based approach. The concept of decimals had been invented in 1640 by a French mathematician who evidently published his plan in a book entitled "La Disme," or "The Tenth." Since the ten cent piece was one tenth of the dollar, the denomination was dubbed the disme. It is believed that most Americans pronounced the word "dime," hence the s was later dropped.
After the dismes had been struck, Rittenhouse and the mint employees focused on the staple of American commerce: the one cent piece. Three different versions of the one cent coin were tested, as related in a letter from Thomas Jefferson to George Washington dated December 18, 1792:
"Th. Jefferson has the honor to send the President two cents made on Voigt's plan by putting a silver plug worth ¾ of a cent into a copper worth ¼ cent. Mr. Rittenhouse is about to make a few by mixing the same plug by fusion with the same quantity of copper. He will then make of copper alone of the same size, and lastly he will make the real cent as ordered by Congress, four times as big."
The first pattern Jefferson mentioned was the Silver Center Cent, a pattern Voigt recommended to reduce the size of the one cent coins. Voigt suggested that a small planchet worth one fourth of a cent could be perforated so that a silver plug worth three fourths of a cent could be inserted, thus raising the total value to a full cent. Although the plan was clever, the mint did not have adequate technology to make the planchets efficiently. As a result, the plan was vetoed, though David Rittenhouse proposed an alternative.
Rittenhouse, a scientist himself, suggested that the planchets be made from an alloy comprised of three fourths copper and one fourth silver J2/P2. While this would have simplified the manufacture of planchets, only an expert metallurgist would have been able to detect the presence of silver. During this era, merchants placed their trust only in coins with definite and obvious bullion content. Convincing citizens that the copper-colored coins contained silver would have been an extremely difficult task.
The only alternative was to use what Jefferson described as the "real cent order by Congress". That is, he was recommending a larger one cent piece that would follow the copper cent's standards as prescribed in the Mint Act. According to the authorized specifications, the copper cent would contain 11 pennyweights of copper, an unwieldy and cumbersome amount of metal. However, Rittenhouse speculated that the size of the weight of the copper cent would be lowered in the near future, which did happen with the Act of January 14th, 1793.
The history of the 1792 large cent patterns remains extremely mysterious. A unique large cent pattern struck in white metal features a portrait of Liberty on the obverse with the words "LIBERTY PARENT OF SCIENCE AND INDUSTRY" at the periphery. On the reverse, the words "ONE CENT" are sandwiched between two decorative sprigs surrounded by a beaded circle. Beyond that is a large wreath bordered by the words "UNITED STATES OF AMERICA." At the bottom is the abbreviation G.W.Pt., shorthand for "George Washington President."
The fact that a reference to Washington's name is present suggests that the dies were created in early 1792. Washington disagreed with mentioning the president's on American coins, as he felt it was too monarchial in nature. He also strongly opposed the clause in the original Mint Act of April 2, 1792, mandating that an image of the president be placed on every coin. In fact, the final draft of the Mint Act eliminated that phrase. Therefore, it is highly unlikely that these dies were created in or after April of 1792.
An interesting theory exists conjecturing that the dies were engraved in England by William Russell Birch, a well-known carver and cameo-cutter, in March of 1792 and then sent to America. In September, while the mint employees were not allowed to strike any coins, the large cent dies were modified by an unknown engraver. Although numerous cosmetic modifications were made, the most important adjustment was that G.W.Pt. was replaced by the fraction 1/100 and the word BIRCH was added to the truncation of the bust. Perhaps the person who updated the dies wished to give Birch credit for his work.
There is a strong parallel between the obverse designs of the large cent and the half disme. In essence, the front of the half disme is a facsimile of the large cent pattern obverse, though the portrait of Liberty is miniaturized and faces to the viewer's left rather than the right. There are two theories regarding this unusual likeness. Many numismatists attribute the half disme dies to Birch as well as those for the large cent pattern. Others believe that an official at the mint mimicked Birch's motif or the cent and altered it for use on the half disme. As with many aspects of the 1792 patterns coinage, all one can do is speculate.
In addition, the reverse of the half disme and the disme are remarkably akin in style. In both cases, the reverse features a bird of some sort with its wings outstretched. Only minor differences exist; on the half disme the bird faces to the viewer's left while the bird faces to the right on the disme. Some numismatic scholars believe that both the half disme and disme reverses were done by Birch in England. One numismatist even jumped to the conclusion that Birch worked on an entire series of American coinage designs but only selected ones were used.
The lettering provides many fascinating clues. On the disme, the obverse and reverse dies share a common typeface, denoting that both were produced at the same location. The engraver of the obverse is most certainly Adam Eckfeldt, as supported by two pieces of evidence. First, the 1793 half cent and the 1792 disme have very similar obverses. Based on the description of an Uncirculated half cent in an October 1863 W.E. Woodward auction catalogue, it can be reasonably deduced that Eckfeldt engraved the 1793 half cent. The description reads, in part:
"A particular interest attaches to this coin. Nearly sixty years since it was presented to a gentleman, by Mr. Adam Eckfeldt, as a specimen of his work, and has remained in the possession of the person referred to within a few days."
The second piece of evidence is a quote from B.L.C. Wailes, who visited the Philadelphia Mint in 1829 and met Adam Eckfeldt. Wailes recorded in his journal that Eckfeldt "is an artist and has been In the Mint since its first establishment… he made the first dye [sic] used in it." This except is of paramount importance, as Wailes identifies Eckfeldt as having engraved the first coin struck at the Philadelphia Mint, which was the disme. Interestingly, he is mentioned as having made only one die and not a pair thereof. Thus, it appears that another person should be credited with the disme reverse. The variable is who the unknown craftsman is, and no evidence exists to determine this.
The final 1792 pattern discussed herein is the quarter dollar, which is regarded as one of the most interesting coins to appear during this historic year for American numismatics. The intended denomination of this coin has been debated for many years, as no indication of value was engraved into the obverse or reverse die. The coin, instead, has a simple but superbly executed profile of a woman with LIBERTY written atop and the date below. As for the reverse, an eagle is featured standing on a globe with the words UNITED STATES OF AMERICA surrounding it. Due to its size, many numismatists believed that the piece was intended as a half eagle or a cent.
In addition, the engraver of this pattern has been debated. A popular belief was that French engraver Jean Pierre Droz was responsible for the design. In the late 1780s, Droz communicated from time to time with Thomas Jefferson via a mutual friend. Jefferson was impressed with several of Droz's French coins and requested patterns from him for further examination. However, the French political turmoil of the time prevented Droz from sending any items to Jefferson, so no further action was taken by the United States.
An internal mint memorandum shed light on both the denomination and maker of this pattern. The notice dated September 11, 1793 recounts the following:
"Joseph Wright being very ill and not expecting to recover requested as follows: That the said Joseph Wright had presented an account against the United States for cutting a medal amount fifty Guineas. Two essays of a Quarter Dollar, cut by direction of David Rittenhouse, Esqr. and presented to him (broke in hardening) value worth about 40 Guineas."
As mentioned in the above notice, Wright was in very poor health for the last year or so of his life. His bout with the yellow fever was debilitating and prevented him from designing just two. The quarter dollar dies were used to strike a half dozen pieces, at most, in addition to a pair on Uniface die trials. After creating the quarter dollar pattern, Wright designed the Liberty Cap cent in the late summer and fall of 1793. In September of 1793, he succumbed to his illness.
In many ways, the 1792 Wright quarter dollar is a quintessential 1792 pattern. The design is very plain and uncomplicated, but is nevertheless considered beautiful. It is also a mysterious coin; if not for the memorandum quoted above, numismatists may not have ever known the true denomination and engraver of the piece. Finally, it is an extremely rare coin. Only six pieces are known today 2 in copper and 4 in white metal, 2 of which were recently discovered in 2002 sitting in the New York Historical Society. There are also one-sided die trials known as well.
In conclusion, the pattern coins of 1792 are among the rarest, most puzzling, and most historical of all American coinage. These fascinating items are national treasures which reflect the young and developing United States. Although they may not display the signatures of the founding fathers like the Declaration of Independence does, their influence is still very much in evidence on these coins. Just as the early leaders such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson all played a role in the creation of the Constitution, which governs our nation today, the coins of today follow the Mint Act of 1792 they drafted. The 1792 silver center cent, fusible alloy cent, Birch cent, half disme, disme, and quarter dollar were the ancestors of the "penny," nickel, dime, and quarter that are commonly used today.
Numismatists have often referred to coins as "history in your hands." The pattern coins of 1792 exemplify this more than any others.