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Illegal silver amount in early U.S. dollars

When coin collecting first became a national interest, in the mid 1850s, there were two series of coins that held the most fascination for those entering the hobby. The first of these was the old copper cents while the other was the silver dollars of 1794-1804. For the silver dollar the story begins with the end of the Revolutionary War in early 1783 . . .

The Minister of Finance in the Confederation Government, Robert Morris, was very interested in creating a national monetary system for the United States. One of his subordinates in the Ministry was Gouveneur Morris (no relation) and the problem was turned over to the latter for investigation. In due course a system of coins and coinage was developed, even to the point of striking the famous pattern Nova Constellatio coins of 1783.

The 1783 plan was flawed in that it tried to create an entirely new standard for the United States. The largest silver coin, of 1000 units, was to contain 250 grains of pure silver. This meant that he was proposing a flagship silver coin worth 67.34 cents in terms of the United States silver dollar of 1794-1935. The fineness was set at 25/27 – approximately 926/1000, an attempt to match the fineness of English sterling, 925/1000.

The Morris proposal soon came crashing down because it did not take into account the widespread use of Spanish silver in this country. In late 1783 Virginia Congressman Thomas Jefferson analyzed the Morris plan and found it lacking because of the failure to correlate the system with Spanish coinage. Jefferson felt that the new American standard silver coin, which he called a dollar, had to correspond with the Spanish version. He noted that . . .

The quantity of pure silver being fixed that is to be in the Unit or Dollar and the relation between Silver and Gold being fixed, all the other weights must follow. When it is considered that the Spaniards have been reducing the weight of their Dollars and that instead of 385, the grains of pure silver in the old Mexico dollar, the new dollars have not more than 365 grains it will hardly be thought that 362 grains of pure silver is too little for the federal coin which is to be current in all payments for one dollar.

Fellow congressmen thought the Jefferson proposals to be well founded but this did not stop debate about the proper weight for the proposed dollar. In the summer of 1785 Congress decided that Jefferson’s 362 grains of pure silver was correct but within the year this had been increased to 375.64 grains; on Aug. 8, 1786, this revisd figure was put into law, the gross weight of the new coin being 409.789 grains and the fineness 11/12 (.916 2/3).

The 1786 law respecting a mint and coinage was well prepared, except for the unnecessary fractions of a grain, but the legislation was a dead letter before the ink dried. The Confederation Government was so short of ready money that it had trouble even meeting the salaries and expenses of the congressmen. All of this would change when the new federal government began operations in April 1789.

It required several months for Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton to put the new government on a firm financial footing but in due course thoughts turned to a national monetary system, on hold since August 1786. In March 1790 the House of Representatives asked Hamilton to prepare a comprehensive report on a mint and coinage for the United States.

In preparing the report Hamilton paid careful attention to what had been done under the Confederation but his investigations showed that the dollar should contain a little less silver than adopted in the 1786 law. He suggested 371.25 grains of pure metal, which was accepted in due course, and a gross weight of 405 grains, which was not. (Hamilton wanted a fineness of 11/12 – .916 2/3 – for both silver and gold.)

The 15,000-word report was completed in January 1791 and submitted to Congress. At first the House of Representatives did little but in March 1791 passed a resolution asking President Washington to carry out the provisions of the Hamilton plan.

With his hands tied by lack of a legal framework, Washington did his best but little was accomplished. On Oct. 25, 1791, in his annual address to the legislators, the President noted that a law was needed to create a mint and coinage, not just good wishes. He indicated that, “The disorders in the existing currency, and especially the scarcity of small change, a scarcity so peculiarly distressing to the poorer classes, strongly recommend carrying into immediate effect the resolution already [March 1791] entered into concerning the establishment of a Mint.” The Senate took the hint and a special committee was appointed on Oct. 31 to draft the necessary legislation.

The chairman of the committee was a familiar face in the world of coinage. He was none other than Robert Morris, the Finance Minister in 1783. The other senators were Rufus King, Ralph Izard, George Cabot and John Henry.

The Morris committee worked quickly and had the draft legislation ready by early in 1792 but they had tinkered considerably with the Hamilton proposals. They accepted the fine weight of 371.25 grains of silver for the dollar but felt that a gross weight of 416 grains would be more impressive. This produced the odd fineness of .8924+, a point which would cause problems in 1794 when dollar coinage began.

Once the trial bill had been adopted by the Senate, it was sent to the House of Representatives for consideration. House members did not like several of its provisions, especially the one which mandated that the portrait of the current president appear on the obverse of the coins. The Senate insisted and for several weeks there was an impasse until the Senate finally accepted the House version. The President signed the bill into law on April 2, 1792.

Washington soon appointed David Rittenhouse, the foremost scientist in America, as the first Mint director. Rittenhouse in turn asked Henry Voigt to become the first chief coiner. These two men became the driving force that created the Mint establishment, including the erection of the necessary buildings. The only coinage of note in 1792 was of half dismes but the 1,500 pieces were of little importance in the overall problem of a circulating American coinage.

The 1792 law mandated that the assayer and chief coiner were to post bonds of $10,000 each to protect the public. The sums were beyond reach and the result was that no precious metal coinage was executed in 1793, only copper cents and half cents. At the end of 1793 the Administration asked Congress to reduce the bonds to more reasonable levels and this was done in March 1794; that for the chief coiner was now $5,000 and the assayer (Albion Coxe) $1,000. The necessary sureties were soon found and Director Rittenhouse was able to begin planning the start of silver coinage.

For reasons that are not entirely clear, Rittenhouse had decided to begin the silver coinage with the half dime. Engraver Robert Scot prepared a pair of dies and a few pieces in copper were struck for inspection. This pattern is rather special in that the denomination is spelled out (half disme), perhaps indicating that Rittenhouse planned to have the denominations appear on all of the gold and silver coins.

Within a short time of the patterns being struck, however, Rittenhouse had decided that the silver dollar would come first and that the denomination would not appear on the face of the coin, only in the edge lettering. Scot prepared a pattern set of dollar dies from which some copper pieces were made for examination by the President and others. The go-ahead was soon given.

In the meantime Rittenhouse had passed the word to banks and importers that dollar coinage was now but a matter of time. The first to respond was the Bank of Maryland which sent in more than $80,000 worth of silver, mostly in old French coin, on July 18. On Aug.  22 Mint Director David Rittenhouse and Charles Gilchrist deposited additional silver bullion, with a total value of $3,000. This silver was, however, in ingot form and easier to process. Another $22,000 worth was brought in by the Bank of North America on Aug. 23.

The French silver coin, which was partly in billon (less than half silver) proved difficult to refine to standard and Chief Coiner Voigt decided to begin with the Rittenhouse deposit for the first coinage. Then came one of the oddest decisions ever made in a United States Mint. Assayer Albion Coxe approached Rittenhouse and suggested that the law, which mandated a fineness of .8924+, be ignored and .900 used instead. Coxe noted that this would simplify calculations and make it easier for the Mint to issue coins more quickly.

The principal argument, however, was a claim by Coxe that the silver coinage would turn black in circulation unless the .900 fineness were adopted. The assayer further suggested that the matter be kept secret by the simple expedient of not changing the gross weight of the dollar, 416 grains. This not only increased the amount of pure silver in the dollar, to 374.4 grains, but also changed the legal ratio between the two metals from 15 to 1 to 15.127 to 1.

Rittenhouse accepted Coxe’s suggestion without telling his superiors, including the President, what was going on. On this odd, and illegal, decision dollar coinage commenced in October 1794.
Chief Coiner Voigt placed the dollar dies in the largest press available and coinage began on Oct. 15, 1794. The coiner delivered 1,758 pieces to the Mint treasurer but more than that had actually been made. Some of the pieces were so lightly struck that it was decided not to issue them and in fact use them as planchets in the next coinage.

Dollars of 1794 are normally weakly struck at the lower left of the obverse and the corresponding area of the reverse. This was because the dies got out of register and the coiner could not repair the problem. The problem was not really the dies but rather that the press was meant for coins no larger than a half dollar and there was not enough power to completely bring up the dollar design.

Although by law the bullion had to be struck in the order received, the dollars of 1794 were struck from the bullion deposited by Director Rittenhouse. The Bank of Maryland had given permission for this to be done and all of the coins were delivered to Rittenhouse on the day of coinage. He saw to it that they were sent throughout the Union, to show that silver coinage had actually commenced.
It has been estimated that 125 to 150 of the 1794 dollars still exist and the appearance of a specimen at auction generates strong interest from numismatists. The ownership of one of these coins is usually considered the mark of an advanced collector.

The coinage of 1794 silver dollars stopped almost as soon as it started. Rittenhouse realized that it would be pointless to coin additional dollars in a press meant for half dollars so he ordered the cessation of striking until a more powerful press could be acquired. This new press was first used in early May 1795. In the meantime half dollars were struck in large quantities.

Even though the Mint had begun to coin silver, there were still public complaints that the new coins were not being made in sufficient quantities. In December 1794 a special committee of the House of Representatives, chaired by Elias Boudinot, was named to investigate the Mint.

Boudinot presented the report in early February 1795 and it was generally favorable to the Mint and its officers. One of the suggestions, for changing the fineness to 900/1000, was ignored by Congress. The committee was not told, however, that the Mint was already using the illegal standard.

On May 6 the coinage of dollars resumed and was heavy for the next several months. Much of the bullion for these dollars had been deposited by John Vaughan, a wealthy Philadelphia merchant/importer. The illegal standard actually defrauded him of about 1 percent of his bullion and when this was discovered at the end of 1795 Vaughan complained strongly about the matter; it was not until 1800 that he was paid for his losses, however.

There are also areas of interest for specialists in these early dollars. The 1795 Flowing Hair reverse has two significant varieties, depending upon whether there are two or three leaves under the eagle’s right wing (to the viewer’s left). The version with two leaves is slightly scarcer, though not by much.

The other interesting feature is the use of silver plugs. There are no official documents dealing with this oddity but it is believed that underweight planchets, rather than being melted, were enhanced by boring a hole and dropping in a slightly heavier piece of silver. These special pieces were discovered only a few years ago and specimens bring significantly higher prices than coins without plugs.
David Rittenhouse resigned as director in June 1795 due to ill health, dying in 1796. He was succeeded by Henry William DeSaussure, who took up his post on July 9. When he learned of the illegal silver standard DeSaussure was less than pleased but decided to maintain it because of the “weighty” precedent set by his predecessor.

In due course DeSaussure also resigned, in part because his family did not like the unhealthy Philadelphia climate when compared to the sunnier climes of South Carolina. He notified the President in September that he would leave as soon as a replacement was found.

In the meantime DeSaussure oversaw a change of design on the silver coinage, beginning with the dollar. According to tradition, artist Gilbert Stuart commented that Liberty had a disheveled look and ought to look more refined and less windswept. DeSaussure is sometimes given credit for spearheading the change but as Stuart was a close friend of the President’s, it is far more likely that the Mint director simply followed orders. The new Draped Bust obverse was put into use while DeSaussure was still in office, probably in late September 1795.

DeSaussure’s successor at the end of October was none other than Elias Boudinot, the Congressman who had led the investigation into mint affairs several months earlier. Boudinot was appalled when he learned of the illegal standard and ordered an immediate return to the fineness demanded by the 1792 law.

About 134,000 Flowing Hair dollars were struck in 1795 and today the collector will have little trouble in obtaining a specimen of this date. The only question is one of cost, the better pieces bringing top dollar.

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