The 180th meeting of the United States Assay Commission was held on Feb. 9, 1977. It was something of a watershed as the then president, Jimmy Carter, had refused to appoint members of the public, a tradition that had existed since the presidency of Andrew Jackson in 1837. The meetings held from 1977 to 1980 consisted only of government officials and the 1980 meeting was the last one held, the commission itself being abolished in that year.
The Assay Commission had tested the quality of our coinage for nearly two hundred years when it was abolished to save a paltry $2,500. It was the oldest operating federal commission and had first met only a few days after George Washington ended his presidency.
The origin of the Assay Commission may be traced to 13th century England. During the reign of King Henry III (1216-1272) it became obvious that some method was needed to control the quality of the coinage issued by a multitude of mints in that country. By 1250 a trial of the pyx was in operation by which samples of coins produced by the widely scattered minters were tested by men specially appointed by the king. (The pyx was simply the box in which the reserved pieces were stored prior to testing.) By the end of Henry’s reign, the trial was formalized as a regular feature of the coinage.
In these early days the trial of the pyx was not held yearly, as might be expected, but rather at irregular intervals, sometimes several years apart. At a later date the trials were entrusted to the Goldsmith’s Company, which was responsible for conducting the actual tests, as well as keeping the standard plates by which such tests were made. It was not until 1870 that the tests became annual.
The Trial of the Pyx, as it is known today, is still carried out in Great Britain with style and dignity. Unfortunately in the United States a short-sighted effort to save a few dollars resulted in the end of an honorable institution.
Although there must have been some kind of official check upon the quality of the silver coins struck in Massachusetts from 1652 to 1684, there was no formal public trial of the pieces. Primary dependence was on the integrity of the mintmaster, John Hull.
Between 1684 and 1792 there was little need for such a commission in this country, since there was no official gold or silver coinage. All of this was to change when, in March 1790, Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton was asked by Congress to prepare a report on a mint and national coinage. This report was presented to that body in late January 1791 and was to prove a classic in its field.
One of Hamilton’s last suggestions in his report was for the establishment of a commission similar to that of the trial of the pyx in England. In his own words we read:
“A certain number of pieces are taken promiscuously out of every fifteen pounds of gold coined at the mint, which are deposited, for safe keeping, in a strong box, called the pix. This box, from time to time, is opened in the presence of the lord chancellor, the officers of the treasury, and others, and portions are selected from the pieces of each coinage, which are melted together, and the mass assayed by a jury of the company of goldsmiths. If the imperfection and deficiency, both in the fineness and weight, fall short of a sixth of a carat, or 40 grains of pure gold, upon a pound of standard, the master of the mint is held excusable, because it is supposed that no workman can reasonably be answerable for greater exactness. The expediency of some similar regulation seems to be manifest.”
Once the report had been presented, Congress considered the matter for some months before a special committee was appointed, in the fall of 1791, to prepare a bill for the establishment of a mint. It became law on April 2, 1792, and provided for an assay commission to meet on the last Monday of July in each year. It was stipulated that the commission consist of the Chief Justice, Comptroller of the Treasury, Secretary of the Treasury and the Attorney General. By any standard, it was a “blue ribbon” panel.
In February 1793 the annual meeting date was changed to the second Monday of February. There was no alteration in the makeup of the commission.
It has sometimes been written that the first meeting of the U.S. Assay Commission was held in 1792, but this view seems to be based on nothing more than the date of the first mint law. There was a small coinage of half dimes in that year, about 1,800 pieces being struck in mid-July, but these were not struck in the mint since there was as of yet no building. In fact, construction had not begun and the mint staff used a private residence on a temporary basis.
Since the 1792 half dime coinage never officially entered the books of the Mint, there could have been no legal assay commission in 1792 or in February 1793. To have held such a meeting would have required the chief coiner to officially deliver the reserved pieces to the treasurer of the Mint.
The operative officers were unable to post bonds to handle the precious metals until early in 1794 and an assay commission is for the specific purpose of testing the honesty and ability of Mint officers. As the latter could not legally strike gold or silver coins until the bonds were met, there could have been no assay commission meeting.
There was no meeting in February 1794 because there had been no coinage of the precious metals in the past year. Silver coinage did commence in October 1794 and it is to 1795 that we must look for the first possible meeting of the assay commission.
In the winter of 1794-1795 there was an investigation by a Congressional committee formed to examine mint affairs. Their report, dated Feb. 9, 1795, contains a statement that the coiner was then saving a certain number of pieces from each delivery. It is the sole record of such activity in this period.
The law specifically required that the reserved pieces be kept in the possession of the Mint treasurer in a special place for the use of the commission. There is no such entry in the bullion accounts of early 1795. If there was an assay commission meeting in February 1795, it must have been unofficial. It is the writer’s opinion that there was no meeting in 1795.
Possibly it was realized, as the February date for the meeting drew near, that the necessary legal steps had not been taken and it was simply agreed among the principals that there would not be an assay commission meeting in that year.
We first meet with a Mint document mentioning assay pieces reserved under date of Jan. 25, 1796. This document merely records the amount of silver coinage reserved for this purpose in the chief coiner’s vault since May 16, 1795. A considerable number of gold and silver coins had been reserved by February 1796, yet there was no meeting in that year either. This is indirect proof that there was no meeting in 1795.
Documents of various dates in 1796 preserved at the National Archives show that the coiner continued to reserve gold and silver coins throughout 1796. During the latter part of that year a special bullion account was finally established by the Mint treasurer, Dr. Nicholas Way, and the reserved pieces delivered by the coiner.
The first documented meeting of the United States Assay Commission was held March 20, 1797, which happened to be the third Monday of that month. There is no explanation for the delay, however. The commissioners tested 145 silver and 75 gold coins which had been reserved since May 16, 1795. All were passed.
If the commissioners appointed by law were all in attendance, which is likely the case, the 1797 meeting saw the following on hand: Chief Justice Oliver Ellsworth, Treasury Secretary Oliver Wolcott Jr., Comptroller John Steele, and Secretary of State Timothy Pickering. The commission makeup remained unchanged through 1800.
There is some doubt as to the accuracy of the 1797 report. In 1794, and most of 1795, there had been an illegal silver standard in effect which had produced coins of .900 fineness instead of the legal .8924. Perhaps the meeting had been delayed in order to get around this inconvenient problem.
From 1798 to 1800 the commissioners met as directed, but in the latter year the national capital was removed from Philadelphia to Washington, D.C. This effectively kept the legal commissioners from the vicinity of Philadelphia and posed a distinct problem for even holding the meeting. If the commissioners had traveled from Washington they would of necessity have been away from their official duties for some time.
Mint Director Elias Boudinot petitioned Congress to remedy the situation and this was done on March 3, 1801. By this act the commission was now composed of the Judge for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, the federal District Attorney for the same region, and the Commissioner of Loans for Pennsylvania.
After 1801 the commission again met as directed, although on some occasions the meeting date varied from that established by law. This may have been due to illness or absence on the part of certain commissioners.
In February 1816, the meeting was brought to order with one of the smallest collections of assay pieces to have been tested for any year of coinage. There was $15 worth of gold and $2 in silver, less than 10 coins in all. It cannot have been a very lively affair. There was no meeting in 1817 because of a lack of precious metal coinage since the preceding meeting. The Mint had partially burned in early 1816, thus halting silver and gold coinage until the spring of 1817, when repairs were completed.
The Collector for the Port of Philadelphia replaced the Commissioner of Loans in 1818; there was no further change until 1873 in the official membership on the panel. From 1818 to 1836 the commission met regularly and passed the coinage struck since the preceding meeting. In fact, all of the meetings from 1798 through 1836 always dealt with the coinage struck since the preceding February and not the past calendar year.
The law of January 1837 provided for the appointment of private citizens as assay commissioners in addition to the government officials required to attend. Director Robert Maskell Patterson suggested a number of eminent local citizens for this task and some of these were duly appointed by President Andrew Jackson.
This first meeting under the January 1837 law included three official members: Judge Joseph Hopkinson, District Attorney Henry Gilpin, and Philadelphia Port Collector James Barker. There were three public members: Samuel Moore (Mint director from 1824 to 1835), William D. Lewis, and Dr. J.K. Mitchell.
In his covering letter to the commissioners for the February 20, 1837, meeting Mint Director Robert M. Patterson noted that “as you may be detained for some hours, it may be proper to mention that dinner will be provided at the Mint.” (The meeting began at 9:30 in the morning and did not end until late in the afternoon.)
Beginning in 1838 the Assay Commission tested only those coins from the preceding calendar year. Mint Director Patterson ordered this since the addition of the three southern mints to our system meant that stricter controls were now required. Assay pieces were usually forwarded from the branch mints on a quarterly basis and it was no longer convenient to operate the commission coinage examinations from meeting to meeting instead of the calendar year.
For the 1860 meeting Mint Director James Ross Snowden introduced an innovation that remained in place until 1976. He caused to be struck a special medal honoring members of the Assay Commission. At first these were not struck every year but by the late 1860s they were a regular feature of the meetings with each commissioner receiving one of the coveted medals.
The law of February 1873 altered the meeting date to the second Wednesday of February, as well as changing the official representatives required to attend. The judge was retained, but he was now joined by the assayer of the New York Assay Office and the Comptroller of the Currency. The director continued as before to nominate citizens for the post, although the actual nominations were usually made to the director by the superintendent of the Philadelphia Mint.
Before the Commission was abolished by President Carter in 1980, there was competition among numismatists for a place on the commission. There was even an organization of former assay commissioners which met each year at the annual American Numismatic Association convention.
One would think that the current Mint officials would be happy to see a resurrection of the Assay Commission. It would being a measure of public awareness of the current coinage.
Those readers interested in further details of the United States Assay Commission should consult the 2010 electronic publication by Roger Burdette, Annual Assay Commission, United States Mint 1800–1943. It has a wealth of data on the annual meetings and the coins examined.
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