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Early silver struck to illegal fineness

This article was originally printed in the latest issue of Numismatic News.
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The early silver coinage of the United States has long fascinated collectors. When numismatics became a national pastime in the late 1850s there was strong competition for a number of the early silver coins, in particular the 1794 silver dollar. For this very special coin the demand by advanced collectors has continued until this very day.

The basic Mint law was passed by Congress in April 1792 but it stipulated bonds of $10,000 each for the chief coiner and assayer, and neither of these officers could find sureties for this amount. (The precious metals could not be handled until the officers were bonded.) Because of this problem Mint Director David Rittenhouse was forced to limit his operations to copper in 1793, with only cents and half cents being struck.

In December 1793, to jump start the coinage of precious metals, Rittenhouse asked Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson – the Cabinet officer responsible for Mint affairs – to approach Congress with a request that the bonds be lowered to more reasonable levels. As one of his final official acts before resigning as Secretary on the last day of 1793, Jefferson did just that; Congress responded in March 1794 by reducing the bonds to levels where they were soon met by Chief Coiner Henry Voigt and Assayer Albion Coxe.

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It is believed that Rittenhouse intended to begin the silver coinage with the half dime and in fact Engraver Robert Scot executed a pair of dies to strike a few patterns for examination by the powers-that-be. Only one piece, in copper, is now known and this specimen presently resides in the National Numismatic Collection in the Smithsonian.

Just when Scot prepared the pattern half dime dies in unknown but perhaps this came soon after Congress had approved the change in bond requirements. It was not long, however, before Rittenhouse decided that the Mint ought to begin with the silver dollar instead. He spread the word, that the Mint was now open to deposits of silver for coinage, and on July 18 the first such deposit was made by the Bank of Maryland, worth more than $80,000.

This first deposit was not exactly a good thing, however, as much of it was in French billon coins, where the amount of silver was less than 50 percent. It was to take several months and considerable expense to refine this silver to United States coinage standards. Because of this particular deposit, Congress later changed the law to provide an extra coining fee for deposits of silver or gold bullion under the legal fineness.

About the time of the Maryland Bank deposit, Assayer Albion Coxe approached Director Rittenhouse with an odd suggestion. Coxe felt that the legal standard for silver coin in the United States, .8924, was too low and ought to be raised to .900. Cox’s rationale for this strange request was two-fold: first he thought, or said he did at any rate, that silver coins of less than .900 fineness would turn black in daily use, thus embarrassing the government. He also claimed that ingots of the legal standard would be more difficult to roll down to coin thickness.

Rittenhouse, whose health was precarious at best, inexplicably agreed to the Coxe proposal and secretly ordered that the silver fineness be changed to .900. So that the public would not be aware of the change, Rittenhouse also stipulated that the gross weight of the silver dollar, and the other silver coins in proportion, not be changed. This meant that too much silver was being put into each coin, thus cheating depositors out of about one percent of their money.

Perhaps the worst part of the decision to change the fineness was a failure to consult President Washington or even to let him know what had been decided. When the matter became known to the public, as it would in due course, it was Washington who would be blamed by many people even though he was not responsible.

Chief Engraver Robert Scot had worked out the basic designs for the new silver coinage in close consultation with the Director Rittenhouse and Secretary of State Jefferson. The latter two men then met with President Washington, who must have made the final decision. The Flowing Hair dollar dies were finished by early October 1794 but progress had been slow because of Scot’s relative inexperience in preparing dies this large.

In the meantime, due to the ongoing problems in refining the Maryland silver, on Aug. 22 Mint Director Rittenhouse and his friend Charles Gilchrist each brought in additional ingots of silver, with a total value of $3,000. Another $22,000 worth of silver ingots was deposited by the Bank of North America, a Philadelphia bank, on Aug. 23, the day following those of Rittenhouse and Gilchrist.
At last, in mid-October 1794, all was in readiness for the first regular silver coinage under the United States government. On Oct. 15 some 1,758 silver dollars were coined under the close supervision of Chief Coiner Voigt and the director of the Mint.

It is little known, but the first silver dollars used planchets that were hand-fed into the coining press. One has to wonder who had the honor of placing the first planchet; after the first few from dignitaries, however, workmen would have taken over this task.

It is known that the standard screw press of that year was capable of striking about 12 to 14 coins per minute, which in turn meant that the 1,758 dollars were all struck in less than two and one-half hours. As this was perhaps a ceremonial coinage with invited guests, it is likely that the process began about 10 o’clock in the morning and ended somewhat after the noon hour.

There were a certain number of lightly struck pieces held back by the coiner and not delivered to Mint Treasurer Tristam Dalton. These defective pieces were later (May 1795) used as planchets when the coinage of dollars resumed. In a few rare cases the undertype from 1794 can be detected by sharp-eyed collectors on dollars of 1795.

Because there was difficulty adjusting some of the dollar planchets to the correct weight, the odd expedient of boring a hole (in the planchet) and inserting a plug of silver was adopted. Several such pieces are known for the silver dollars of 1795 but only one or two for 1794.

The dollars of 1794 were criticized at the time for the overall weakness of striking. In fairness to Rittenhouse, however, there was considerable pressure from government officials and the public to begin coinage and the only available press was designed to strike nothing larger than a half dollar. It had probably also been used for the cent coinages of 1793 and 1794.

The weakness of strike is most noticeable at the lower left of the obverse and corresponding part of the reverse. Not all of the problem was insufficient press power, however, as the dies were slightly out of parallel during much of the first dollar coinage.

Under the April 1792 law all coins of the precious metals had to be paid to the depositors in the strict order that the bullion was brought to the Mint. The Bank of Maryland, however, graciously allowed David Rittenhouse’s bullion to be used first and he was given all of the 1794 dollars in exchange for his deposit.

The director saw to it that the new dollars circulated as widely as possible. He sold specimens to his friends with the request that they spend them as soon as possible. One found its way to Boston, where a local editor complimented the Mint on the design but noted that the pieces were softly struck.

It has been estimated that about 125 of these first dollars are still in existence. Even in well-worn condition, such coins bring strong prices at auction and those who wish to own one of these historic pieces are warned that bidding is not for the faint of heart.

Realizing that dollar coinage could not continue on the screw press that had just been used, Rittenhouse contracted with Samuel Howell and Company to build a more powerful press, one that could strike dollar-sized coins or even occasional medals. The new press, however, was not finished until early May 1795 and in the meantime the Mint was obligated to strike other silver coins to pay off the depositors; the coin of choice was now the half dollar.

By the middle of November 1794 at least two pairs of half dollar dies had been prepared and the coiner was close to beginning production. On Dec. 1 the first coinage of half dollars was duly delivered by the coiner, some 5,300 pieces, and everyone looked forward to a rapid increase in the number of coins struck.

Just as hopes were raised, however, part of the rolling machinery, which flattened the silver ingots down to the thickness of the half dollar (so that planchets could be punched out), broke down and it required several weeks to complete the repairs.

The coinage of half dollars with dies of 1794 extended well into January 1795, with another 18,000 being made. When the last 1794 obverse die had broken or shattered, only then was a 1795 obverse put into the coining press. Dies were too difficult and expensive to prepare just to throw them away because of an old date.

Once the rolling mill problem was solved, Mint workmen were able to increase their output dramatically. Through May 1795 nearly 300,000 half dollars were struck and delivered to waiting depositors. A few pieces were struck in June 1795 but the half dollars were effectively last made in May.

Although half dimes exist dated 1794, none was struck for circulation during that year because of the difficulties with the half dollar and dollar coinage. In February 1795 nearly 3,000 half dimes were minted and a few thousand more struck the following month. With the resumption of the silver dollar coinage, however, half dimes were again moved aside, with minting not resuming for several weeks.

Dollar coinage with the new press resumed in early May 1795 and was fairly heavy over the next several months. The design of May 1795 was the same as 1794, the famed Flowing Hair head of Liberty being on the obverse. Apparently there was some criticism of this design in 1795 but modern collectors tend to think of it as a good work of art and not all that bad considering the difficulties under which the engraver worked in those days.

Much of the bullion for the half dollar and dollar coinages of the first few months of 1795 had been deposited by a local merchant-entrepreneur, John Vaughan. When he later discovered the facts of the illegal standard of fineness he asked for the $2,000 that he had not received according to law. It was to take an Act of Congress in 1800 before he recovered his money.

At the end of June 1795 David Rittenhouse resigned his Mint post and was succeeded in early July by Henry William DeSaussure of South Carolina. DeSaussure is known to have been a friend of the President and reluctantly agreed to the post. He continued the illegal standard (under the “weighty” precedent set by Rittenhouse) but also commenced the gold coinage during the same month that he assumed office.

DeSaussure was pressured by his family in South Carolina to resign the Mint post because of the unhealthy climate and return to his native state. In October he did just that but in the meantime oversaw a change of design on the silver coinage.

According to tradition, famed artist Gilbert Stuart commented – almost certainly to the President – that Liberty had a disheveled look and she ought to look more refined and less windswept. On the general grounds that those who criticize ought to have a better answer, Stuart was asked to produce his idea of what the design should look like.

The design was shown to key officials, and in particular the President, and was accepted. The drawings (including a revised reverse) were turned over to John Eckstein, a Philadelphia artist who specialized in fine plaster medallions and artwork. He prepared plaster models to guide Chief Engraver Scot in preparing the dies and by the end of September all was in readiness to begin the coinage of the Draped Bust silver dollar. About 134,000 Flowing Hair silver dollars were struck in 1795, to be followed by an additional 69,000 Draped Bust silver dollars.

Once DeSaussure had informed the President that he wished to resign there had to be a decision on the next director. In due course former Congressman Elias Boudinot was asked and accepted the semi-thankless job. In his closing letter to the President, DeSaussure let the cat out of the bag and informed him of the illegal standard; this also put pressure on Boudinot, known for his strict integrity in public matters, to end the problem forthwith.

(Not only was Boudinot the new director of the Mint, but he had also been president of the Confederation Government in 1782–1783 when the peace treaty ending the Revolutionary War had been signed. It seems unfair that a man of his accomplishments and caliber is not to appear on the Presidential dollar coins now being struck by the Mint.)

The new Director promptly ordered that the illegal standard be dropped at once and the proper fineness of .8924+ be substituted. Boudinot then notified the President of what had happened.

Boudinot made it clear to the Mint officers that no deviation would be permitted in future from the legal standard and by mid-November 1795 all was in readiness for a heavy coinage of dollars and half dimes. Quite a few half dimes were in fact struck within a few days but in late November 1795 Assayer Coxe died very suddenly from a massive stroke, thus ending coinage until a successor could be found.

In due course Joseph Richardson, a noted Philadelphia silversmith, came on board as the assayer, but silver coinage did not resume until early January 1796. The first two years of silver coinage had been trying ones for all concerned at the Mint but as the years passed by the workmen and officers would learn their trade well and both the quality and extent of the silver coinage would grow to serve the nation.

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