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1792 Half Dime

1792 half dime

1792 half dime, flattened. PCGS Genuine. (Images courtesy Heritage Auctions.)

We can get into all sorts of friendly fights about this coin, pattern, etc. Actually, Q. David Bowers has a good answer to the question of what precisely the 1792 half dime is. His response is that it is a Federal coin. 

Of course, with that 1792 date, the stakes are not exactly small when it comes to the 1792 half dime.  If it is a coin of the United States, it would be the first and that is naturally very special and historic. So, the 1792 cannot be taken lightly. The full story, while perhaps not setting the matter of just what the 1792 half dime really is, probably tells us as much as we will ever learn about the situation at the time. 

The Mint Act of April 2, 1792, had authorized the denominations of coins for the new United States. The half dime was on that list. The lawmakers at the time were somewhat new to the whole idea of mints and coins. That was realized when, about a month later, they had to quickly authorize the purchase of copper from which to make the large cents and half cents they had authorized.

There was another problem at the time, which was that there was no mint where the coins authorized could be made. Also, there was no mint where the copper (if purchased) could be stored. 

As Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson was busily supervising the whole mint project. At the time, however, there was a national coin shortage that was not getting any better while Jefferson was trying to put together a mint. 

It appears that someone decided to take some action on their own with regard to the coin matter. On the corner of 6th and Cherry Street at that time in Philadelphia, there was the business of a fellow by the name of John Harper. In his day job, Harper was, to the best of our knowledge, a saw maker. At night with no option for watching sports or American Idol, it appears that Harper kept himself busy by being a mint. 

Even back in 1792, people did not regularly grow up wanting to become a mint, but Harper seems to have overcome the obstacles. It is in his workshop where we believe the 1792 half dimes were made. In fact, even back in 1792, people did not just simply decide to produce half dimes. First, it involved $75 worth of silver to produce the estimated 1,500 1792 half dimes, which was a lot of money. Even with a raise from General Washington, the average soldier got just $10 a month, so people did not just decide to have a mint and make half dimes on a lark. 

Obviously Harper had to have some backing. Proof of who that was is a little sparse. At least one official at the time who was in a position to know what was going on has suggested the silver was from none other than George Washington. It makes for a great story and, actually, the silver and the authorization had to come from someone pretty high up. But we cannot prove it was George Washington. 

We also cannot prove that the obverse is Martha Washington, although that has been the claim of some. In fact, it does not look like other contemporary depictions of Martha Washington. Also, George Washington opposed using his likeness on coins, so it seems unlikely that he would have said, “Use Martha instead.”

A great deal may not be known about the 1792 half dime but it does appear that it was embraced in the right circles as a legitimate coin of the United States. In his account book in July of 1792, Jefferson recorded the receipt of 1,500 half dimes from the mint (otherwise known as John Harper.) Clearly, Jefferson had no doubts as he was Secretary of State and responsible for the mint. George Washington also appears to have had no doubts as he mentioned the mintage of half dimes in a November address to Congress. Moreover, no one in the Congress objected, even though it might not meet our technical definition today. 

Many of the 200 to 300 examples that exist are well circulated. Of course, that fact must be taken with a grain of salt as coins from all over the world were circulating at the time, and the key element to being accepted was probably the silver and not the country of origin. That said, the numbers surviving today suggest an unusually heavy amount of saving by collectors of the day.

Clearly, the 1792 half dime is a very special coin even if we have to suggest that it is a Federal coin. In fact, it probably makes the 1792 all the more fascinating as it reflects the times as a struggling United States was trying its best to solve a coin shortage and take its place in the world.

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