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  • William Pitt Tokens

    The William Pitt Tokens of 1766: Introduction


    In March of 1765, in order to pay for the French and Indiana Wars, the British Parliament imposed its system of stamp tariffs on the American colonies. Following several protests in the colonies, William Pitt, with the backing of several British manufacturing and merchant interests, took up the colonists' cause, demanding a repeal of the act. The work of Pitt along with Benjamin Franklin's detailed examination before Parliament and the testimony of several British merchants, led to the repeal of the Stamp Act in the House of Commons on March 11, 1766. George III's support to repeal the act in the House of Lords, culminated in the suppression of the Stamp Act in May of 1766. Following the repeal Pitt was hailed as the defender of the colonies. On June 30, 1766 the New York Assembly voted to erect statues of Pitt and George III in celebration of the repeal. It has been suggested the minting of a commemorative token may have also been among the honors and events held in support of Pitt. We do know two versions of a token of Pitt were made at the request of an organization called "The Friends of Liberty and Trade" and were probably produced in 1766.

    In 1859 Montroville Dickeson in his The American Numismatic Manual stated the dies for the Pitt tokens were made by James Smither, an attribution that has continued in the numismatic literature. Smither was an English born gunsmith and engraver who worked in Philadelphia during the 1760's-1770's. He is know for engraving the border cuts for the April 3, 1772 emission of Pennsylvania currency. It seems Smither was a Tory sympathizer for on June 25, 1778 the Supreme Executive Council of Pennsylvania accused Smither of high treason. Following this pronouncement Smither left Philadelphia with the British troops and took up residence in the British stronghold of New York City, not returning to Philadelphia until 1786.

    Supposedly the portrait of Pitt on the tokens was based on sketches by Paul Revere (again from Dickeson). The obverse of the tokens display a bust left of Pitt with the legends, THE RESTORER OF COMMERCE 1766 and NO STAMPS. The reverse shows a ship a sea with full sails and flags waving with the word AMERICA written diagonally in front of the ship's bow. Around the rim is the legend, THANKS TO THE FRIENDS OF LIBERTY AND TRADE.

    Hodder mentions it is uncertain if the Pitt tokens were manufactured in England or America but does not elaborate on this statement. An English origin for the token is possible as English merchants, and specifically London merchants, protested loudly as to how the stamp tax would adversely affect trade. They praised Pitt and encouraged the king to support him in repealing the Stamp Act. Indeed, we know several medals commemorating Pitt's role in the repeal of the Stamp Act were struck in England. Thomas Pingo, an engraver at the Royal Mint, created two different medals (Brown, 100-101), while three other English Pitt medals cannot be attributed to a specific engraver (Brown 102 and 104-105). In addition to the fact that all other known Pitt medals are from England, the legends and images on the RESTORER OF COMMERCE token seem to reflect an English point of view. The obverse hails Pitt as the restorer of commerce while the reverse shows a ship headed toward America (based on the way the flags are flying in the wind, the ship appears to be heading toward the word America). This emphasis on commerce and trade to America precisely reflects the attitude of the English merchants, rather than the attitude of the New York based Sons of Liberty, which protested the stamp act in America primarily as a repression of freedom rather than as a hindrance to British-American trade. Interestingly, Laurence Brown in his A Catalogue of British Historical Medals 1760-1960 includes THE RESTORER OF COMMERCE medal (Brown 103) as one of several Pitt medals produced in England commemorating the repeal of the Stamp Act.

    The Pitt tokens were minted in two sizes, a few were produced on a smaller planchet often referred to as a "farthing" while most examples were on a larger planchet often called a "halfpenny." The smaller size variety (25mm) were made from yellow bronze cast planchets with the finest examples weighing about 64 grains (although at least one, Norweb 1241 is from a copper planchet). The more common larger size variety (28mm) is made from copper that was rolled into strips and then cut into planchets (rather than cast), with the finest examples (as Norweb item 1243 or Garrett item 1320, the Garrett token later sold as Roper item 167) weighing about 85 grains (our example is 87 grains). Breen has observed the weight of the smaller token was about three quarters (Breen incorrectly stated two thirds) of the weight of the larger token, far more than the 2:1 relationship of the farthing to the halfpenny. Additionally, Hodder has mentioned these weights are considerably below the average for regal George II and George III coppers, with the regal farthing at an average of 76.1 to 76.6 grains and the halfpenny at an average of about 153.3 grains. Based on weight it appears it would be more correct to refer to the Pitt tokens as smaller and the larger sized tokens rather than by denominations that do not fit the circumstances. Hodder has stated the same punches were used to cut the letters on the reverse legend for both size coins, therefore we can assume the dies were produced in the same workshop. It has been suggested that because of the tight letter spacing on the rare small size token, these items may have been test prototypes.

    The larger size copper token was often plated with silver, tin, or other white metal coating. As these coins are often found in circulated condition (see the tin washed example below), it appears they circulated as money. Breen suggested both size coins circulated at a similar rate, probably on a par with the lightweight Birmingham coppers at fourteen to the shilling. (further information can be found in the British counterfeit coppers section)

    Note: The William Pitt depicted on this token is William Pitt the Elder, First Earl of Chatham (1708-1778). His son William Pitt the Younger, (1759-1806) also became a well known political figure. William Pitt the Younger became Prime Minister and had some medals honoring him during his lifetime. Several additional medals were issued in 1806 at his death. There were also several local clubs named after him issuing medals with his likeness primarily during the period 1810-1814.

    References

    Breen, pp. 41-42; references to Hodder are from The Norweb Collection: Part 1, Early American and U.S. Coins, a public auction sale of October 12 and 13, 1987 in New York City by Bowers and Merena Inc., Wolfboro, N.H.: Bowers and Merena, 1987, pp. 365-366 with an introduction and lots 1241-1243 (on p. 10 of the catalog L. Arlin, R. Bagg, M. Hodder, D. Bowers, R. Merena and T. Becker are listed as the catalogers, I assume the colonial introductions and descriptions are by Hodder); Russell Rulau, Early American Tokens 3rd ed., Iola, WI: Krause, 1991, p. 42; Russell Rulau, Standard Catalog of United States Tokens 1700 1900  second edition, Iola,WI: Krause, 1997, p. 36; Laurence Brown, A Catalogue of British Historical Medals 1760-1960, vol. 1, The Accession of George III to the Death of William IV, London: Seaby, 1980, pp. 24-25 on the medals commemorating the repeal of the Stamp Act with several additonal medals to Pitt the Elder and Pitt the Younger listed in the index. On the stamp act repeal movement see: Joseph Albert Ernst, Money and Politics in America 1755-1775: A Sudy in the Currency Reform Act of 1764 and the Political Economy of Revolution, Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press for the Institute of Early American History and Culture, 1973, pp. 100-102. On the Sons of Libery see: Herbert M. Morais, "The Sons of Liberty in New York," in The Era of the American Revolution: Studies Inscribed to Evarts Boutell Greene, edited by Richard Morris, New York: Columbia University Press, 1939, pp. 269-289.

    Latest revision: Dec. 21, 1998


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