This article was originally printed in Numismatic News.
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During the American Revolutionary War, which lasted from 1775 to 1782, the French government provided critical help, not only with money, but also army and navy detachments backed up by a powerful fleet. The victory over the British army at Yorktown in 1781, which effectively ended the struggle, would not have been possible without this French aid.
Every student is taught the above facts in American history classes but what is not taught, or only lightly, is that France and America engaged in a naval war less than 20 years after the United States had gained its independence. Because of the ancient enmity between Britain and France, the French had willingly undertaken to aid the Americans in their quest for independence but this aid came at a staggering cost.
By the late 1780s the royal government of King Louis XVI was all but bankrupt and there was no ready source of money to solve the problem; the French were already heavily taxed and to raise taxes was inviting disaster. Finance ministers juggled the budget as best they could but the public grew increasingly restive and in 1789 turned to open rebellion. The Bastille, or royal prison, held only a few prisoners of little consequence but a mob attacked the lightly guarded jail and freed them. The Revolution had begun.
As with most revolutions that begin with violence, the leadership of the new France turned on itself and thus began the infamous Terror, in which thousands of innocent people were sent to the guillotine for frivolous reasons, or none at all. By 1793 even King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette suffered the supreme penalty merely for attempting to flee the country.
The American political scene in the early 1790s was also affected by the events in France. President Washington’s Federalist party was horrified by the Terror while Thomas Jefferson, as leader of the anti-Federalists, was more forgiving of events in Paris. French ambassadors, such as “Citizen” Genet, infuriated the President with tactless remarks about the real democracy in France compared to the lagging United States. Genet got his walking papers in due course but problems between the two countries soon escalated into serious trouble.
In an effort to defuse the growing differences, President John Adams sent special envoys to Paris in 1798 to see if the two nations could iron out their difficulties. The so-called Directory, the group of fanatic revolutionaries that now ruled France, demanded large personal bribes even before discussions could be held. To add further insult, the Directory followed up this demand with another, this time requiring a massive loan in gold and silver. The whole matter became known as the “XYZ Affair,” to represent unnamed members of the Directory.
The Directory was a thoroughly incompetent group to run a country and within a short time matters had gone from bad to worse in France. Orders from Paris to the far-flung French colonies, especially in the Caribbean, soon fell on deaf ears. Piracy reared its ugly head, with both British and American ships a prime target. The United States was militarily weak and at first could do little.
In 1794, due to the rising sea threat from France as well as Muslim piracy in the Mediterranean, President Washington asked Congress for funds to build a Navy and work soon began on the first ships. By 1797 warships had been constructed and were in the Atlantic protecting American shipping. During the early part of 1798 there were open clashes between French and American warships though most of the fighting broke off before any real damage was done; by year’s end the clashes were becoming more intense and sailors on both sides began to die in disturbing numbers.
As the desultory firefights turned more deadly, this would set the stage for the first gold medal awarded by Congress since the Revolutionary War. Not only was American shipping under direct attack from French privateers, the French navy was increasingly involved in protecting the privateers from American retaliation.
Thomas Truxtun, one of the most skilled of the American naval commanders, was the man who earned the gold medal awarded by Congress on March 29, 1800. He was born on Long Island in February 1755 and at the age of 12, not all that rare in those days, he signed on to a merchant vessel trading with Europe and the West Indies. With the outbreak of the Revolution in 1775 he obtained a privateer’s commission and attacked British shipping very successfully, obtaining much-needed supplies for the Continental Army.
His skill at sea also earned him the privilege of transporting American diplomats to France although in one case there was a close call as a more powerful British ship attacked near the French coast. Truxtun outran the enemy, however, and safely delivered his human cargo. Truxtun served the nation well during the Revolution but when that conflict ended he returned to commercial shipping, even to the point of engaging in the China and East Indies trade.
Tiring of the long voyages to the Far East, Truxtun volunteered for the new United States Navy when it was formed in 1794. His skill was recognized even then and he gained command of the 38-gun frigate Constellation, then being constructed at the Baltimore ship yards. He went to Baltimore and personally supervised many of the finer details that made a ship of this kind a more powerful fighting vessel.
Truxtun was also highly literate and one of his projects was to write a manual for seamen and officers; it was later used by the Navy. He was also interested in ship-to-ship communications and was able to improve the system then in use.
At first the Constellation was mostly involved in protecting merchant vessels but by the summer of 1798 was taking a more active role by attacking French ships more aggressively, in retaliation for their interference with American merchantmen. In February 1799 he met up with L’Insurgente, a French ship mounting 40 heavy guns and more than 400 men; Truxtun had slightly fewer guns and only 300 men but the battle was soon joined and this time was not broken off.
The resulting firefight resulted in more than 70 men aboard the French ship being killed or wounded while Truxtun had only 3 wounded and none killed. It was an extraordinary victory against difficult odds and the capture of the French ship led to public acclaim across America for the intrepid captain. The American Navy had shown that it was a capable fighting machine that had to be reckoned with on the world stage. (In a surprise gesture, the English insurance firm of Lloyd’s was so pleased by the victory that it presented Truxtun with a silver service set worth several thousand dollars.)
Truxtun did not win his gold medal until 1800 but in the meantime there was one of those odd events that has numismatic relevance even today. The United States government had contracted with Matthew Boulton, the famed English private coiner, to execute a series of three Indian Peace medals. Called the Seasons Medals by modern numismatists, these are in strong demand from collectors, not only for their fine execution, but also that they were issued in the name of President Washington.
When the medals had been struck and shipped to America there was the question of what to do with the dies. The American Minister to London, Rufus King, asked that they be sent to him for transmission to the United States. King had also purchased 2,000 muskets in Britain for the American Army, as well as some other needed items, and all of this was loaded – at the London docks – onto the American ship Woodrup Sims in August 1799.
Sailing into the English channel the ship was captured by a French privateer and taken to Bordeaux, where the contents were sold at public auction. The French government and the privateer crew shared in the proceeds and it is assumed that the Peace Medal dies, being of no value to anyone at Bordeaux, were simply treated a scrap iron. This of course meant that no restrikes from these dies would ever be made for collectors.
The seizure of the Woodrup Sims, and other American vessels, would later come back to haunt the French government. President Andrew Jackson made an issue of these semi-piratical seizures in the 1830s and that too would have a direct numismatic connection.
During January 1800 Truxtun was patrolling the sea lanes off Guadeloupe in the West Indies when he discovered that the French frigate La Vengeance was in the area. The latter carried 54 guns and 400 men, a formidable foe under the circumstances, as Truxtun was again outgunned and outmanned. In the early afternoon of Feb. 1 the Constellation found La Vengeance and the battle was soon joined.
The fighting raged for several hours but the deadly accuracy of the American gunners took its toll and the French captain had no choice but to surrender his vessel and men. Just as the surrender was made, however, a damaged mainmast on the Constellation suddenly gave way and allowed the French ship to slip away to safety. French losses were 162 killed or wounded compared to only 39 on the Constellation.
Although bad luck prevented the actual capture of the La Vengeance, Truxtun was acclaimed again for his superb naval victory. In 1800, as noted above, Truxtun was awarded a gold medal for this latest victory though it can be assumed that his earlier capture of the L’Insurgente played a role in the decision made by Congress and signed into law by President Thomas Jefferson.
By another quirk of fate, the Unofficial War With France, as it was called, was over not long after the Truxtun victory. Napoleon Bonaparte had seized power in France and decided that the problem needed to go away and the unofficial war simply ended on that note. To show his good will, Napoleon even sold the Louisiana Territory, which was not really his to sell – it more properly belonged to Spain, to the United States in 1803.
At first, as is usual, deciding that a medal is to be struck and actually striking it are two different matters. By the fall of 1800, however, President John Adams had directed the Navy Department to get the dies under way as soon as possible. New York artist Archibald Robertson was engaged to prepare the design and did a good job. In March 1801 Mint Director Elias Boudinot was given instructions by the Jefferson Administration – which had just taken office – to do whatever was necessary to expedite the striking of the medal.
Newspapers of the time credited Chief Engraver Robert Scot with executing the dies but this is in doubt. It is more likely that Scot subcontracted the work to John Reich, a recently arrived German engraver freed from servitude by Chief Coiner Henry Voigt. Reich later (1807) was appointed an assistant engraver at the Mint.
Reich completed the dies in early 1802 and they were hardened by assistant coiner Adam Eckfeldt. The hardening did not go according to plan, however, and the dies were somewhat damaged in the process.
These particular dies had wide borders and were used to strike a limited number of medals, including of course the gold one for Truxtun. It is known that Truxtun’s medal, struck in February or March 1802, was engraved by hand on the plain border with the inscriptions PATRIAE PATRES FILIO DIGNO (“the Fathers of the Country to their Worthy Son”) and Truxtun’s name, while the reverse states the action for which the medal was awarded.
In mid March 1802 Vice President Aaron Burr – in a letter to a friend – noted that the Truxtun dies had “broken” after 52 medals had been struck. These were made for members of the crew as well as special presentations by Truxtun himself.
The damage to the dies prevented further specimens being made until the 1840s when the original dies were successfully used to create new hubs and dies. Beginning in 1861 the Truxtun medal was first sold nationally to numismatists and continued to be made for more than a century. At present, so far as is known, the Mint no longer offers these for sale and interested collectors need to find them on the secondary market.
Not long after the medal presentation, Truxtun was asked to take the Constellation to the Mediterranean to protect American shipping from the Muslim pirates. A dispute arose over rank and precedence, Truxtun being somewhat touchy on such matters, and he was abruptly dismissed on this pretext by President Thomas Jefferson. Truxtun died in May 1822 in Philadelphia, where he had held important municipal posts after leaving the Navy.
Although the Napoleonic Wars, and even the Unofficial War with France, had been more or less forgotten among the public by the early 1830s, not so with President Andrew Jackson, who had assumed office in March 1829. The seizures of American shipping during the Unofficial War as well as after 1805 – by Napoleon and his allies – had led to great losses for American ship owners and Jackson demanded reparations from a number of countries, but especially France.
In due course, after diplomatic pressure from Washington, several European governments agreed to pay millions of dollars towards these ancient claims. The bulk of the reparations came from France, in ingots and coins of gold, and all of it was sent directly to the Philadelphia Mint to be recoined. (The French alone sent more than $5 million in gold.)
It was the Indemnity gold, as it was called at the time, that fueled the heavy gold coinages at the Philadelphia Mint from 1834 through 1838. Not only were a great many half eagles struck, but Jackson personally ordered that the Mint also concentrate on quarter eagles from 1834 to 1836; those persons whose claims had been accepted were in many cases given quarter eagles in payment. The President intensely disliked paper money and wanted both gold and silver coins to circulate freely throughout the United States.