Matters of finance and monetary policy had always been central to the Continental Congress. A committee on monetary policy was formed as early as April 19, 1776 with the charge to examine and ascertain the value of gold and silver coins circulating in the colonies. The first effort of the committee was submitted on May 22 but was put aside. On July 24, just two weeks after composing the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson was appointed to the committee. On September 2, 1776 Jefferson submitted the committee's final report which included a chart listing the primary silver and gold coins in circulation with their equivalent value in relation to the Spanish American silver dollar. Interestingly, rather than use fractions, Jefferson was the first to use decimal notation to express these equivalent monetary values. About six months later, on February 20, 1777, another congressional committee concerned with matters pertaining to the treasury recommended a mint be established for coining money, but no further steps were taken on the recommendation. As the war continued all metal was recycled to produce canon, rifles, bullets and other equipment needed for military operations and coinage was replaced by small denomination paper currency.
When the Articles of Confederation became effective on March 1, 1781 article nine gave the Congress the "sole and exclusive right and power of regulating the alloy and value of coin struck by their own authority, or by that of the respective states." In practice Congress was never able to regulate state coinage but Robert Morris, who had been appointed as Superintendent of Finance for the Confederation on February 20, 1781, was determined to exercise the government's right to produce coins.
On July 9, 1781 the Congress forwarded a letter to Superintendent Morris from the Continental agent in Boston, John Bradford, alerting the finance office to an experienced metallurgist named Benjamin Dudley who had recently emigrated from England to Boston. Bradford said Dudley could assay metal and roll it out into sheets of any thickness. Concerning the coining of coppers he could, "make the Apparatus and go through the whole process"; furthermore Dudley was, "a warm friend to our cause ... [and] possessed a most uncommon extensive Genius." (Morris Papers, vol. 3, p. 204). On July 16, 1781 Morris wrote in his diary that he had invited Dudley to Philadelphia. Benjamin Dudley arrived by October 23, 1781 and began to oversee preparations for establishing a national mint in Philadelphia.
From Morris's diary entries for November 12 and 16, 1781 we know Dudley was assaying various silver crowns and dollars "for our information respecting the Mint." (Morris, Papers, vol. 3, pp. 172 and 188). Meanwhile, Robert Morris, in close association with his assistant, Gouverneur Morris (no relation), proposed a plan for a totally new coinage system. On January 15, 1782 the coinage plan was submitted to Congress. This plan was based on a monetary unit called a mill, defined as 1/4 of a grain of silver. The proposal called for the minting of five denominations of coins, with values based on the decimal system. There would be two small copper coins: a five unit piece called a five and an eight unit piece called an eight. There would also be three silver coins: a 100 unit piece called a cent (sometimes referred to as a bit), a 500 unit piece called a quint and a 1,000 unit piece called a mark. There would not be a one unit piece.
To appreciate the Morris plan one must understand the complexity of the colonial monetary system. In many ways each state acted as an independent nation with its own laws, it own borders and customs inspectors and its own currency rate. As each colony set their own value for their currency, the exchange rate between the various currencies was not always equal; a price in New York shillings was not the same as a price in Georgia shillings. These local currencies were both monies of account and paper currencies printed by the individual states (but not coins). A similar situation today would be the difference between a price in U.S. dollars and a price in Canadian dollars; both units are dollars but they have different exchange rates. To complicate the colonial situation further, most interstate and many internal transactions took place using Spanish American silver dollar coins as the medium of exchange rather than paper currency shillings and pounds. Thus prices and account books were kept in shillings and pounds but payments were calculated and made with Spanish American dollars! For daily commerce one needed to know the shilling exchange rate of a Spanish dollar for each of the states! An equivalent today, of what it would be like for a colonial settler to make an out of state transaction, would be the following scenario: a Swiss traveler (accustom to prices in Swiss Francs) purchasing an item in Belgium (with the price listed in Belgian Francs) but making that purchase with U.S. dollars!
Morris's system could be used to convert foreign coins, including the Spanish American silver dollar, into units that would be comparable in the different states. According to Morris's system the Spanish American dollar was valued at 1440 federal units (or mills). This would be the value of the coin throughout the nation. At that time Morris explained a full weight Spanish American silver dollar was valued at the following rates:
5s in GA
6s in NH, MA, RI, CT and VA
7s6d in PA, NJ, DE and MD
8s in NY and NC
32s6d in SC.
Rather than calculating all the various rates one could simply use the 1440 unit value as the national standard.
Also, by using his new system all states except South Carolina would be able to calculate the value of local pence and shillings of account into federal coinage without resorting to fractions. Based on his system an English penny of account (which was quite different from his 100 unit cent) would have the following federal coin equivalents in the various states:
2 five unit coins = 1 penny in PA, NJ, DE, MD
3 five unit coins = 1 penny in GA
3 eight unit coins = 1 penny in NY and NC
4 eight unit coins = 1 penny in NH, MA, RI, CT and VA
In South Carolina slightly over 3.6923 units would equal 1 penny, which Morris expressed as 6 eight unit coins = 13 pence.
Taking Morris's proposal a step further, local money would have the following federal equivalents:
in PA, NJ, DE, MD 1s = 120 units; £ 1 = 2,400 units
in GA 1s = 180 units; £ 1 = 3,600 units
in NY and NC 1s = 288 units; £ 1 = 5,760 units
in NH, MA, RI, CT and VA 1s = 384 units; £ 1 = 7,680 units
One could then convert the various state currencies into federal units and then, by dividing by 1440, find the value in Spanish American silver dollars. Clearly this was an improvment over the system then in place.
Morris concluded his proposal with a plea for authorization to establish a mint, he stated:
If Congress are of Opinion with me, that it will be proper to Coin Money, I will immediately Obey their Orders and establish a Mint; and I think I can say with Saftey, that no better Moment could be chosen for the Purpose than the Present. (Morris Papers, vol. 4, p. 37. For an extensive excerpt of the Morris Proposal click here.)
Morris kept a close watch on his proposal and actually attended the Continental Congress committee meeting when the vote on his proposal was taken. Morris's diary for February 16, 1782 stated:
This day at One Oclock (sic) I went to the Committee Room of Congress and had a long Conference with a Committee of Congress respecting the Establishment of a Mint and finally they came to [the] Vote of the Committee which was Unanimous that they would report that a Mint shall be established and I requested that in future Mr Governeur Morris may meet the Committee on this Subject with which he is well acquainted (Morris Papers, vol. 4, p. 239)
A few days later the committee brought their recommendation to Congress. On Thursday, February 21, 1782, the Continental Congress approved the following resolution:
Resolved, That Congress approve of the establishment of a mint; and, that the Superintendent of finance be, and hereby is directed to prepare and report to Congress a plan for establishing and conducting the same. (Journals of the Continental Congress, vol. 22, pp. 86-87).
It has been recognized the Continental Congress resolution called for a report but did not actually authorize appropriations for the establishment of a mint. Apparently this technicality did not concern Morris who instructed Dudley to continue to supervise the production of the coins discussed in his proposal. Five days after the resolution, on February 26, Dudley presented Morris with basic plans for the construction of a mint. In his diary Morris wrote:
Mr Benjm. Dudley brought me the rough Drafts or Plans for the Looms of a Mint &c. I desired him to go to Mr Whitehead Humphrys to Consult him about Screws, Smiths Works &c. that will be wanted for the Mint and to bring me a List thereof with an Estimate of the Cost. (Morris Papers, vol. 4, p. 306)
Two days later on February 28, 1782 Morris added:
Mr Dudley informs me that a Mr Wheeler a Smith in the Country can make the Screws, Rollers &c for the Mint. Mr Dudley proposes the Dutch Church that which is now unoccupied as a place Suitable for the Mint. I sent him to View it and he returns Satisfied that it will Answer, wherefor I must enquire about it. (Morris Papers, vol. 4, p. 321)
The blacksmith Samuel Wheeler was soon hired and began working with Dudley on the machines. In March a problem arose, apparently Wheeler had some doubts about one of the plans Dudley had given him. In his diary for March 22, 1782 Morris mentioned Wheeler should perform the work subject to Mr. Dudley's directions. He also asked they consult David Rittenhouse and Francis Hopkinson about the " Wheel or Machine in dispute." Rittenhouse was a well known machinist and engraver (he had engraved plates for New Jersey currency and later became first director of the U.S. mint), while Hopkinson was a designer, responsible for many of the designs on the 1778 and 1779 Continental Currency issues. On March 23, 1783 Morris reported that Dudley had informed him both Rittenhouse and Hopkinson had agreed with his plan.
Over the next months work on the machinery proceeded. Throughout this period Morris made references in his diary to payments to Dudley to keep the construction moving. Apparently they did not selected the Dutch Church as the location for the mint and Dudley continued looking for a suitable site. In May they were considering the Mason's Lodge as a mint location. The lodge was located west of Second Street and north of Walnut Street, in an area of Philadelphia known as Lodge Alley. The building, which had been erected by 1754, was no longer used as the freemasons meeting house. In his diary for May 20, 1782 Morris wrote:
Mr. Dudley wrote me a Letter this day and wanted Money. I directed Mr. Swanwick [Morris's personal secretary] to supply him and then desired him to View the Masons (sic) Lodge to see if it would answer for a Mint, which he thinks it will. I desired him to go up to Mr. Wheelers to see how he goes on with the Rollers &c. (Morris Papers, vol. 5, p. 225)
Work continued through through July. On July 16, 1782 Morris wrote:
Mr. B. Dudley to whom I gave an order on Mr. Swanwick [Morris's personal secretary] for fifty Dolls. And I desired him to seek after Mr. Wheeler to know whether the Rollers &c. are ready for him to go to work on rolling the Copper for the Mint. (Morris Papers, vol. 5, p. 589)
It seems the rollers were completed by mid August. On August 16th Dudley requested money from Morris for expenses and on August 21st Morris added in his diary:
Mr Saml Wheeler who made the Rollers for the Mint applies for money. I had a good deal of Conversation with this ingenious Gentleman. (Morris Papers, vol. 6, p. 234)
Apparently progress slowed down after this point. On August 26th Morris wrote that, "Mr Dudley called and pressed very much to be set to Work." (Morris Papers, vol. 6, p. 252). Over the next month we find Dudley received some payments, presumably for work completed, but there was no mention of further progress. On August 27th a warrant was issued to pay Dudley £7 15s and on September 26, 1782 Dudley received £51 18s3d (Morris Papers, vol. 6, pp. 262 and 438). Thereafter there are very few records on the mint from the second half of the year. Morris's Diary entries for November 29 and December 24 and 26, 1782 mention that Dudley was being paid but state that he was not working on the project full time (Morris Papers, vol. 4, p. 27 and p. 39 note 18). Morris's letter to Congress of April 23, 1783, discussed below, seems to confirm this as it mentions the project was "delayed by various Circumstances."
It seems the pace quickened in early 1783, probably due to the knowledge competing proposals were being considered. On February 8, 1783 the Philadelphia blacksmith, Jacob Eckfelt, was paid $5 and 18/90th for forging three pair of dies for the "Mint of North America." (Morris Papers, vol. 7, p. 740, note 2, and text in vol. 9, p. 811, which does not include the number of dies produced, also see Bowers, Hoards, p. 26)
In March, one of Morris's competitors, an American born merchant living in London named Edward Bridgen, presented a proposal to Congress for contracting the manufacture of coinage to a private firm. This appears to have redoubled Morris's efforts. In April Eckfelt was paid for two additional sets of steel dies, and the engraver David Tew was paid for sinking two pairs of steel dies. Most probably the dies had been finished in March, before payment was issued, since on April 2, 1783 Dudley delivered the first coin to Morris. In his diary Morris wrote, "I sent for Mr. Dudley who delivered me a Piece of Silver Coin being the first that has been struck as an American Coin" (Morris Papers, vol. 7, p. 644). It is generally assumed the item was a 1,000 unit mark coin, but the denomination was not mentioned.
On April 15, 1783 Alexander Hamilton wrote to Morris inquiring about the status of the coin project (the letter is lost). On April 16 Morris replied to Hamilton, "On the Subject of the Coin I hope soon to make a Communication to Congress which if approved of by them will compleat that Business." (Hamilton Papers, vol. 3, p. 329). On the same day, April 16, Morris wrote in his diary that he, "Sent for Mr. Dudley and urged him to produce the Coins to lay before Congress to establish a Mint." (Morris, papers, vol. 7, p. 707). Dudley complied and on April 22 Morris wrote in his diary, "Mr. Dudley sent several Pieces of Money as Patterns of the intended American Coins." (Morris Papers, vol. 7, p. 732).
The next day, April 23, 1783 Morris sent a brief letter to Elias Boudinot, President of the Congress as follows:
On the twenty first of February 1782 Congress were (sic) pleased to approve of the Establishment of a Mint and to direct the Superintendent of Finance to prepare and report a Plan for conducting it. This Matter has been delayed by various Circumstances until the present Moment. I now enclose Specimens of a Coin with a View that if Congress should think proper to appoint a Committee on the Subject I may have the Honor of conferring with them, and explaining my Ideas on the Plan for establishing and conducting a Mint.... (Morris Papers, vol. 7, p. 740)
It has generally been assumed Morris sent a full set of coins to the Congress, this may indeed be the case, but it was not specifically stated. Morris said he enclosed "Specimens of a Coin." This could mean he sent several examples of a single coin. However, if coin is taken generically to refer to his decimal coinage, it could refer to more than one variety of coin. Indeed the latter appears to be the case when the phrase is viewed in conjunction with Morris's diary entry from the previous day which uses the pleural and his generic use of Coin in the letter of April 16 to Hamilton. Interestingly however, the copy of Morris's April 23rd letter as recorded in the Papers of the Continental Congress states the singular, rendering the passage as, "Specimen of a Coin."
On April 25th, two days after the coins were sent to Congress, the congressional committee overseeing the project invited Morris to discussed the establishment of a mint. Apparently this was a long meeting as Morris noted in his journal, "The Conference lasted until after eleven OClock." (Morris Papers, vol. 7, p. 750). Five days later, on April 30, Gouverneur Morris wrote a long letter to William Hemsley, a member of the Continental Congress committee, giving a detailed discussion of the coinage proposal with conversion factors from the various monies of account used by the states. He also mentioned coins would be made of, "Silver, Copper and if necessary Gold." This was the first indication a larger unit gold coin was contemplated (Morris Papers, vol. 7, pp. 761-765 on p. 764).
Soon thereafter on May 5th, Abraham Dubois was paid $72 for sinking and case hardening four pair of dies. It should be noted these dies could have been produced by April as payment was typically made after completion of the task. In all, we have payment records for the forging of five pairs of dies and the engraving of six pairs of dies. Interestingly, the payment entry just before the Dubois entry stated John Swanwick was paid $22 and 42/90ths for an unspecified number of dies on April 17th. Bowers (Hoards, p. 26) repeated this information without explanation. Swanwick was Morris's secretary who issued payment to others and not a diemaker receiving payment. Generally Morris issued a warrant to Swanwick to pay someone for their services. In this case it seems part of the payment that was propably given to Dubois was inadvertently recorded under the secretary or possibly the secretary had advanced a payment to the diemaker and was being repaid! (Morris papers, vol. 7, p. 740, note 2 and for the text see vol. 9, p. 829)
In June Dudley continued to move forward on the mint project. Apparently he located a coin press that was available and on July 5, 1783 discussed the opportunity with Superintendent Morris. In his diary for that day Morris wrote that Dudley, "informs me of a Minting Press being in New York for Sale and Urges me to purchase it for the use of the American Mint." (Morris Papers, vol. 8, p, 246). This is an interesting bit of information but it is unknown who may have had such a press or what it may have been used to make. Presumably, Dudley had only heard of the press and not actually seen it so the existence of the item is not even confirmed. Also, New York probably refers to New York City rather than the State but even this is unknown. Two days later, on July 7, Dudley came to see Morris about the acquisition of the press but Morris wrote in his diary he was too busy to meet with Dudley. This is a telling piece of information. Morris was a very busy individual, in charge of all financial matters for the nation. However, Morris recorded many meetings with Dudley but this is the first time he ever mentions sending Dudley away. And what is more significant is that Dudley was on the verge of acquiring the machine most central to the operation of a mint. It seems Morris was beginning to reconsider the financial prudence of establishing a mint.
On August 5, 1783 a resolution was put forward in Congress requesting the Superintendent to submit an estimate of the expenses needed to equip and staff a mint; however the resolution was never brought forward and died without a vote. Apparently the transition to a peacetime government, a lack of silver bullion and the need to limit expenses were all factors in delaying action on the establishment of a national mint. On August 19 Morris broke the news to Dudley that the funding for the mint was in doubt. In his diary Morris wrote:
I sent for Mr. Benjamin Dudley and informed him of my doubts about the establishment of a mint and desired him to think of some employment in private service in which I am willing to assist him in all my Power. I told him to make out an Account for the Services he had performed for the Public and submit at the Treasury Office for Inspection and Settlement. (Morris Papers, vol. 8, p. 439)
On August 30, 1783 Dudley turned the dies over to Morris. Again on September 3rd Morris urged Dudley to go into private business. On December 17, 1783 Dudley presented his final bills for work on the mint to Morris. On January 5, 1784 Dudley applied for a certificate for the time spent in government service and on January 7, 1784 Morris signed a warrant to pay Dudley the balance due to him for the period of October 8, 1781 through November 11, 1783, his rate was $2 per day for a total of $1,528 (Morris Papers, vol. 9, pp. 9 and 13). The coinage project came to a halt and the mint was never constructed.
In addition to the financial constraints necessitating the postponement of the mint project, there were also practical objections to the Morris coinage system. The most active opponent was Thomas Jefferson who composed extensive notes on the coinage proposal during the months of March through May of 1784. Jefferson's principal objection was that the Morris plan was based on the retention of the various complex accounting systems used by merchants rather than on the practical necessities of daily commerce. The small size of the Morris unit was due to, "a mathematical attention to our old currencies all of which this Unit will measure without leaving a fraction." (Jefferson Papers, vol. 7, p. 179) However, in daily applications this small unit would result in prices that were very large and thus inconvenient for calculation as well as more laborious for accounting; Jefferson gave the examples that a $10,000 transaction would be 14,400,000 units while a horse of $80 would be 115,200 units. Further, the complexity of dividing a dollar into 1440 units was certainly not intuitive. Moreover, the unit coins Morris proposed were not equal, not near to, any known coins; thus people would not find them easy to adapt to for daily exchanges. Jefferson stated the object of creating a new monetary system was to do away with the old cumbersome currencies therefore, the accounting advantages derived from Morris's system would only be temporary (until the new national money replaced the old) but the inconveniences of that system would remain forever.
Jefferson proposed a system based on the practical necessities of daily transactions rather than the complex accounting systems of the merchants. He adopted the dollar (equal to the Spanish American dollar) as his standard unit in a decimal system that was easy to use. The dollar would be divided into a tenth and a hundredth, both of which were close to currently circulating coins. The tenth was equal to the Spanish bit or half pistareen, while the hundredth was very close to the circulating coppers; thus the denominations were quite close to coins which were already in daily use. He also proposed a $10 gold piece, similar to the half Joe or double guinea. Jefferson also suggested, if needed, coins of 50, 25, 20, 5 and a 1/2 cents might be helpful. Jefferson felt these to be easy ratios for multiplication and division and certainly more intuitive than the English system or Morris's proposal. He felt the long term benefits of this simple and practical system outweighed the benefits of Morris's system, which, in order to adapt itself to the accounting systems of the merchants, made daily transactions cumbersome and difficult as they were based on 1/1440th of a dollar. Jefferson felt the merchants should convert their accounts to his more simple system. In his notes for a reply to a letter of May 1, 1784 from Robert Morris, Jefferson wrote:
The conversion of the merchants accounts is but a single operation. Once done it is done for ever. He is skillful and equal to the task. Tho the adoption of the Financier's Unit may relieve this one operation of the merchant yet it throws the difficulty on the farmer who knows what a dollar is but not what the Financier's Unit is. The farmer is ignorant. (Jefferson Papers, vol. 7, pp.193-194)
Elizabeth Nuxoll has succinctly stated the Jeffersonian position,"It would be better to have merchants and states change their account books all at once, and have a simple mathematical system thereafter, than to accommodate merchants and states in the short run, but to leave Americans using multiples of 1/1440 of a dollar forever." (Nuxoll, p. 61)
Jefferson's notes were not a formal proposal, rather they were working papers that circulated among members of Congress, especially among those as Samuel Osgood and David Howell, who opposed Morris's plan. Indeed, Howell sent a copy of the papers to Jabez Bowen, Governor of Rhode Island. It is thought Bowen was the unnamed individual who sent a copy of the notes to the publisher John Carter. On July 24, 1784 Jefferson's notes became universally known as the were printed on the front page of Carter's newspaper The Providence Gazette and Country Journal; but by that date Jefferson had already left for an extended trip to Paris. In fact, on July 24 he was sailing on the ship Ceres off the coast of the Isles of Wight. A year later, on July 6, 1785, while Jefferson was in Paris, Congress adopted his decimal monetary system with the dollar as the standard unit. Along with the silver dollar the Congress recommended a gold coin of five dollars; silver coins in the denominations of 50, 25, 10 and 5 cents and copper coins of 1 and 1/2 cent; (Journals of the Contiental Congress, vol. 28, Friday May 13, 1785 on pp. 351-358 and vol. 29, Wednesday July 6, 1785 on pp. 499-500). However, it was not until 1792 that the first national decimal coins were minted. For details of the 1792 coinage see the section on the Half Disme of 1792.
As these coins were never put into production only a limited number of test or pattern pieces were struck. Currently there seven known examples. Of these seven extant coins two can be traced back to Morris.
On May 1, 1784 Robert Morris sent a letter with specimens of his coinage to Thomas Jefferson. Ten days later on May 11, just before leaving Annapolis to travel to Boston where he would board a ship for a four and a half year trip to England and France, Jefferson recorded in his account book, "left with C. Thomson as specimen of coins 1.8 D." This is usually taken to mean Jefferson deposited 1.8 dollars (or 1,800 units) in Nova Constellatio patters with Charles Thomson, Secretary of the Continental Congress. The denominations of the coins are thought to have been one 1,000 unit mark, one 500 unit quint and three 100 unit cents. At least two of the currently extant coins (the 1,000 and a 500 unit coin) can be traced back to this group.
According to the information found in Montroville Dickeson's American Numismatical Manual of 1859 the two coins were discovered about 1844. Dickeson, who did not have the details completely accurate, stated after the death of Thomson's son, "some 15 years ago," the coins were found in a secret drawer of an old desk formerly belonging to the father. The Philadelphia numismatist Dickeson then added, "They are now in the possession of a gentleman of this city." That gentleman was Rathmell Wilson, who later sold the coins in 1872 to the dealer John Haseltine. On May 28, 1872 Wilson wrote the following to Haseltine about the two coins:
They were the property of Hon. Charles Thomson, secretary of the first Congress. At his death the property was left by will to his nephew, John Thomson, of Newark, state of Delaware. These two coins were found in the desk of the said deceased Charles Thomson, and preserved by his nephew during his life; at his death they came into the possession of his son Samuel E. Thomson of Newark, Delaware, from whom I received them. (quoted in Bowers, Hoards, p. 26)
All surviving examples show a similar design. The obverse contains the legend NOVA CONSTELLATIO (A New Constellation), in the center is the Eye of Providence with several short and thirteen long emanating rays; a star is positioned between each of the long rays to produce a circle of thirteen stars. The only exception is the second variety of the 500 unit quint which has a slightly different style of rays and no legend. The reverse of these coins has the legend LIBERTAS · JUSTITIA (Liberty Justice) with the date 1783 below; in the center is an olive wreath with the abbreviation U. S (no stop after the S) and the denomination below. On the edge of the coins is a twin olive leaf design, except on the copper five unit and one example of the silver 100 unit cent, which have plain edges.
The unique example of the 1,000 unit silver mark coin weighs 268.5 grains according to the Garrett catalog and 269.8 grains according to Breen with a diameter of 33 mm. The coin was passed from John Haseltine to Henry S. Adams, Lorin Parmelee, H.B. Smith, the Chapman Brothers, George Earle, James Ellsworth, John Garrett, John J. Ford, Jr. and recently acquired from the Ford estate by anonymous buyers. On the obverse there is a six petal rosette located in the space midway between the start of NOVA and the end of CONSTELLATIO. On the reverse the denomination is designated as 1.000; there is also a stop before and after the date. Excellent photographs are available in the first (November 1979) Garrett Auction catalog, where it is item 622.
There are two 500 unit silver quint coins, but each is a different variety. They share the same reverse die but have different obverse dies. The variety commonly known as type 1 weighs 134.6 grains according to the Garrett catalog and 133.98 according to Breen with a diameter of 27 mm and has the standard design. It has the same provenance as the mark and is also in the Garrett Auction Catalog as item 620. This variety has a thee petal rosette located in the space midway between the start of NOVA and the end of CONSTELLATIO. Also there is a stop between the A in NOVA and the C in CONSTELLATIO. On the reverse there is a stop on either side of the date. The other variety, known as type 2 is lighter at 109.6 grains according to the Garrett catalog and 109.72 grains according to Breen and has a somewhat smaller diameter of 24 mm. The obverse die has a different rendering of the central design and has no legend. Also, it has a solid ring border with an outer beaded border, while all other varieties have only a beaded border. On the reverse this variety seems to use the same die as type 1, but at the stop before the date there is what appears to be a die break, giving the appearance of a colon rather than a stop with another small break at the tip of the nearest leaf. This example was owned by Parmelee, Ellsworth, Garrett and is now in the collection of Walter Perschke. Earlier provenance information is unknown, although it is thought Sylvester Crosby may have owned the coin at one time; it is illustrated as item 621 in the Garrett sale.
There are three surviving examples of the 100 unit silver cent. Two examples have the twin olive leaf edge design while the third example has a plain edge. One of the leaf edge examples was acquired by John Ford from the Garrett sale. The Ford example weighs 27.7 grains according to the Garrett catalog and 27.75 according to Breen with a diameter of 18 mm; it is illustrated in the Garrett sale catalog as item 619. According to Breen this coin can be traced from the London pawnbroker T.F. Cloud to L.E. Shorthouse, Lorin Parmelee, Henry Chapman, James W. Ellsworth, Knoedler Galleries, Wayte Raymond and then to John W. Garrett. The other specimen is first recorded in an Edinburgh coin auction from October 21-22, 1884 conducted by T. Chapman of the collection of William Taap and several other cabinets, as is related by Richard Margolis in the Colonial Newsletter. Apparently the item was uncovered in a London pawn shop in the 1980's and most recently was sold at auction by Stack's (May 1, 1991, Richard Picker sale, lot 112).
According to Breen the unique plain edge 100 unit cent weighs 26 grains with a diameter of 18 mm. The early provenance of this item is unknown, during the late Nineteenth century it was owned by J.G. Murdoch, whose collection was sold by Sotheby's in 1903. It then passed to Robert Garrett as part of the family's collection. In the 1920's John Works Garrett sold it as a duplicate to Wayte Raymond. After passing through some dealers the coin is now in the collection of Eric P. Newman.
As mentioned above there is no known example of the eight unit copper, nor do we know if one was ever produced.
It has long been known a five unit copper was taken to England and presented to the noted numismatist Samuel Curwen in May of 1784. Curwen (1715-1802) was a native son of Salem, Massachusetts who departed for England in 1775 because of this loyalist sympathies. He left Salem on April 23rd, just four days after the skirmishes at Lexington and Corcord, and did not return until September 1784, when he came back for a ten month visit. Curwen's diary entry for May 15, 1784 includes the following:
Mr. B. at tea presented me with a medal struck in Philadelphia; in a round Compartment stands, U.S. 5 1783, round Libertas and Justitia; on the other side in the Center an Eye surrounded by a glory, the whole encompassed by 13 starrs, the Legend Nova Constellatio. (Oliver, p. 992)
In several places the Mr. B. is identified as a Mr. Bartlett, who Curwen describes as a young man lately from Salem, Massachusetts. Mr. Bartlett had long been identified as Josiah Bartlett of New Hampshire, a signer of the Declaration of Independence. However Elizabeth Nuxoll recently explained Josiah Bartlett was neither young at the time nor was he from Salem, furthermore in May of 1784 he was active as a judge in New Hampshire and was not in London. She discovered Mr. Bartlett, was most probably Joseph Bartlett of Plymouth, Massachusetts. Joseph Bartlett was a rather eccentric Harvard graduate who had taught in Salem before leaving the country to spent several years in London. How Bartlett acquired the coin is unknown. It is thought he either obtained the coin in Massachusetts through one of Morris's Massachusetts business associates or someone else brought it to England and gave it to Bartlett to present to Curwen. Interestingly, Curwen first met Bartlett on August 17, 1783. If he had brought the coin from America with the intention of giving it to Curwen it seems he would have presented it to him at that time. However Bartlett waited nine months, and did not present Curwen with the coin until shortly before Curwen returned to America in the summer of 1784. Either Bartlett did not have the coin when he arrived and obtained it from someone else to give to Curwen or Bartlett simply gave him the copper as a parting gift. On at least one occasion Bartlett acted as an intermediary, on May 10, 1784 he passed on to Curwen two letters from Curwen's good friend William Pynchon, a lawyer in Salem, Massachusetts. Bartlett had several meetings with Curwen, according to Curwen's diary they met on August 17 and 30, 1783; September 10, 27 and 29; November 3 and 4; Curwen mentions Bartlett was leaving London for a time and he is not mentioned again until May 10, 14, 15 (coin presented), 18 and 22, 1784; the last entry mentioning Bartlett is for June 10, 1784.
The location of this five unit copper piece remained a mystery until 1977 when the American dealer Fred S. Werner discovered and purchased the coin from an English dealer living in Paris. In that same year the coin was sold to its current owner John J. Ford, Jr. According to Breen the copper coin weighs 75.15 grains with a diameter of 24.35 mm. Interestingly, like the type 1 quint, this coin has a stop following the A in NOVA and C in CONSTELLATIO and the three petal rosette between the start of NOVA and the end of CONSTELLATIO (although on the copper it is closer to the N in NOVA). On the reverse there are three stops before the unit, ...5 and there is a stop on either side of the date. These characteristics are particularly interesting in relation to the related 1783 and 1785 Constellatio Nova (or Nova Constellatio) private coppers produced in Birmingham, England (probably not before 1785 even though some carry the 1783 date). The 1783 varieties exactly imitate this five unit copper with the stop between the words on the obverse legend and the single stop between the U · S on the reverse.
Note: Several electrotype sets of the 100, 500 and 1000 unit coins exist. While the rare original coins are quite valuable these electrotypes are fairly common.
All surviving examples of the Nova Constellatio patterns show a similar design. On the obverse is the Eye of Providence with several short and thirteen long emanating rays; a star is positioned between each of the long rays to produce a circle of thirteen stars. Around the design is the legend NOVA CONSTELLATIO (A New Constellation) with a beaded outer border. The only exception is the second variety of the 500 unit quint which has a slightly different style of rays and no legend.
The Eye of Providence with emanating rays, referred to during the period as an Eye of Providence in Glory, was first proposed by the French medal designer Pierre Eugène Du Simitière as an element of the great seal of the new nation. It had not been used by Britain or any of the individual colonies, rather it was a symbol representing divine favor for the new nation. A Congressional Committee charged with preparing a design for the national seal brought their proposed design to Congress for discussion on Tuesday August 20, 1776. The full shield was quite elaborate, and even included a depiction of Moses. One element of the shield, the crest, was described as:
Crest. The Eye of Providence in a radiant Triangle whose Glory extends over the Shield and beyond the Figures. (Journals, 1774-1789, vol. 5, pp. 689-691 with quote on 690)
There must have been some disagreement over the complex imagery proposed for the shield as the resolution was ordered to "Lie on the Table." The only image from that original shield proposal that became a popular symbol during the Revolution was the Eye of Providence. It was the central element on the standard used in 1778 by the legion under the command of Brigadier General Casimir Pulaski. It was also a central element in the seal on the $40 Continental Currency note of the emission of January 14, 1779. When a design for the great seal was finally adopted in 1782 it is interesting to note only two major elements of the initial proposal were included, namely the Eye of Providence (which can be seen atop the pyramid on the seal, displayed on the back of a one dollar bill) and the motto E PLURIBUS UNUM. Most likely the image of The Eye of Providence was adapted from the 1782 great seal of the United States for use on the 1783 Morris pattern coins as it was a distinctly American symbol, officially representing the new nation.
Similarly, the Latin motto NOVA CONSTELLATIO was distinctly American. This phrase first appeared in a resolution of the Continental Congress of Saturday, June 14, 1777 describing the flag of the new nation:
Resolved, That the flag of the thirteen United States be thirteen stripes, alternate red and white: that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new constellation. (Journals, 1774-1789, vol. 8, p. 464)
This resolution was printed in numerous newspapers, Madeus has listed: The Pennsylvania Evening Packet of August 30; Dunlap's Pennsylvania Packet, or the General Advertiser of September 2; The Pennsylvania Gazette of September 3; The Boston Gazette of September 15; and The Massachusetts Spy of September 18, all in 1777. Thus the phrase, "a new constellation" became a familiar metaphor for the new nation. The representation of this new constellation was less uniform, as all that was stated in the resolution was that it would be represented by thirteen white stars on a blue field. On early flags several different patterns were used including stars arraigned in rows (from top to bottom) of 4-5-4 and 3-2-3-2-3. The circular pattern of thirteen stars was used as Washington's military standard and is illustrated in paintings as early as 1779. This circle of stars is also found on the same $40 Continental Currency note of January 14, 1779 mentioned above (designed by Francis Hopkinson in 1778). The circular pattern was also popular from the circle of thirteen linked chains, designed by Benjamin Franklin and first used on fractional Continental Currency of February 17, 1776. The use of the circle of stars with the NOVA CONSTELLATIO legend on the coins is another example of Morris adopting uniquely American symbols that represented the new nation.
Morris clearly wanted people to associate his coins with the new nation. In fact, on April 23, 1783, the day the coins were sent to the Continental Congress, Charles Thomson, secretary of Congress, published an explanation of the flag design. Nuxoll has commented, "that Thomson's action was partly intended to facilitate understanding and acceptance of the coin design by Congress and the public." (Nuxoll, p. 64)
The reverse of the Nova Constellatio patterns display an olive wreath containing the abbreviation U · S (with no stop after the S) and the denomination below. Around the design is the legend LIBERTAS · JUSTITIA (Liberty · Justice) with the date 1783 below. On the edge of the coins is a twin olive leaf design, except on the copper five unit and one example of the silver 100 unit cent, which have plain edges.
The use of the abbreviation US is somewhat unusual although USA (with the letters overlapping) is found on buttons worn by Continental soldiers. Interestingly, the U.S. abbreviation, consisting of overlapping floriate vine stem letters, is found on the other side of Brigadier General Casimir Pulaski's standard. Although his standard combined the Eye of Providence and the U.S. abbreviation it is unlikely Morris (or his engravers) would have actually seen the general's standard. More likely they both simply appropriated commonly known symbols.
Nuxoll comments on the legend Liberty · Justice. She states there are few examples linking the two concepts together in colonial times, although they do appear separately. For example, Justice is on the $65 Continental Currency of January 14, 1779 and on the private IMMUNE COLUMBIA patters of ca. 1785, while Liberty frequently appears on coins and currency. Nuxoll does not seem to have considered the Arms of the State of New York which has personifications of Justice and Liberty flanking the central image as is found on several EXCELSIOR patterns dated 1787 (some of which are attributed to Machin's Mills while others are by Brasher and Bailey). It may not have been until the late Nineteenth century that the phrase was added to the Pledge of Allegiance, but it does seem the concepts had been linked in Revolutionary and Confederation era America (at least in New York) and would not seem out of place on Morris's coinage.
Until 1974 most numismatists used the word order NOVA CONSTELLATIO as the name for the Morris pattern coins. In that year Walter Breen wrote an article in The Colonial Newsletter suggesting the reverse word order as it was closer to Classical Latin. In Latin either word order is appropriate, the adjective can come before or after the noun. The question becomes did the engraver intend to use a Neo Latin word order (a straight Latin translation of the English new constellation) or a more Classical Latin restructuring of the phrase. Neo Latin refers to Latin from the modern era. Frequently, Latinized American place names are English phrases translated into Latin (that is, Neo Latin) and therefore follow the English word order as Nova Eborac (New York), while older terms as Ursa Minor (the constellation known as the Little Bear) use the more Classical word order.
The only contemporary use of the legend "New Constellation" in relation to the pattern coins is from the journal of Samuel Curwen. Curwen was a good Latinist and only saw a five unit copper but referred to the legend as NOVA CONSTELLATIO. Eric Newman has come back to this point recently to argue the NOVA CONSTELLATIO word order is the only possible order based on the spacing of the legend on the coins.
The legends appear on the coins in a circular fashion near the rim but can be transcribed in a linear form as follows:
The legends are as follows:
1000 unit: NOVA CONSTELLATIO [six petal rosette]
500 unit: NOVA · CONSTELLATIO [trefoil design]
100 unit: NOVA CONSTELLATIO ·
5 unit: NOVA · CONSTELLATIO [trefoil design]
Newman's suggestion of NOVA CONSTELLATIO is certainly evident for the 1000, 500 and 100 unit silver coins. On the 500 and 100 unit coins there is little space between the end of NOVA and the start of CONSTELLATIO, while there is much more space and a design after CONSTELLATIO. It would be impossible to read the legend in any other order on these two denominations. On the 1000 unit coin the two words are further apart but the placement of the rosette confirms the NOVA CONSTELLATIO word order. On the five unit copper the situation is slightly more problematic. There is some space between the two words (although not as much as on the 1000 unit mark); but there is also a stop after NOVA as well as a design after CONSTELLATIO. As this stop also appears on the 500 unit coin, where it is clear it cannot represent the termination of the legend, it must be taken as a decoration only. Further, the spacing between the NOVA and CONSTELLATIO is shorter that the space following CONSTELLATIO. Clearly this coin was meant to conform to the others in the series and presents no real problem when viewed with the other denominations. Indeed, this was the only denomination seen by Curwen, who without difficulty described the legend as NOVA CONSTELLATIO. From all indiciations it appears the proper designation for these coins is NOVA CONSTELLATIO.
A series of coppers produced in Birmingham a few years later with designs based on these patterns are more problematic. At least two independent contemporary records refer to the legend on the coppers as CONSTELLATIO NOVA. Both the word order of the legend and the orientation of the obverse design of the Eye of Providence presented problems to contemporaries. In fact, the only recorded contemporary reference to the copper as a NOVA CONSTELLATIO illustrates the coin upside down! As to the coin itself, the position of the phrase on the coppers is not conclusive. The intent of the engraver (if he indeed had a specific word order in mind) is not fully clear. For more see the section on the CONSTELLATIO NOVA Coppers. However, whatever the word order for the coppers, it is certain the Morris patters were intended to have the NOVA CONSTELLATIO word order.
For an excerpt from the January 15, 1782 proposal for a new coinage by Robert Morris - click here.
The Papers of Robert Morris 1781-1784, in 9 vols., General Editors, James Ferguson, John Catanzariti, Elizabeth M. Nuxoll and Mary Gallagher, Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1973-1999 (especially vol. 4, pp. 25-40 and vol. 7, pp.737-743 and 761-765); Elizabeth M. Nuxoll, "A Generation of Numismatic Co-operation: Findings on the Notes and Coins of the Confederation through the Papers of Robert Morris," American Journal of Numismatics second series, 9 (1997) 55-87 with 5 plates; Howard Michael Madaus, "Nova Constellatio: The Story of a Shared Heritage," The Numismatist, 96 (February 1983) 238-246; Breen, pp. 113-116; Alexander, pp.68-69; J.C. Spilman, "The NOVA CONSTELLATIO Pattern "Five" Appears," The Colonial Newsletter vol. 19, no. 1 (March, 1980) serial no. 57, p. 702 for an excellent photograph from John Ford and p. 703 for Spilman's comments; JRichard Margolis, "A Scottish Pedigree Revisited" The Colonial Newsletter vol. 32, no. 2 (July, 1992) serial no. 91, pp. 1297-1299, with a reproduction of the 1884 catalog entry; Raymond H. Williamson, "Samuel Curwen -- Numismatist," The Colonial Newsletter vol. 19, no. 2 (July, 1980) serial no. 58, pp. 719-720; James A. Bear.Jr. and Lucia C. Stanton, Jefferson's Memorandum Books: Accounts, with Legal Records and Miscellany, 1767 1826, in The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, second series, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997, vol. 1, p. 548; Q. David Bowers, American Coin Treasures and Hoards, Wolfeboro, NH: Bowers and Merena Galleries, 1997, pp. 25-27; Andrew Oliver, The Journal of Samuel Curwen, Loyalist, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press for the Essex Institute, Salem MA, 1972, vol. 2, p. 992; on the discovery of the copper five unit see, "Long Lost American Half Cent Back Home," Coin World, vol. 21, no. 1030, (Jan. 9, 1980), pp. 1 and 10; also "Ford Reassembles Set of First U.S. Coins," Coin World, vol. 21, no. 1030, (Jan. 9, 1980), pp. 1, 3, 16, 44, 48 and 73. Journals of the Continental Congress 1774-1789, vol. 5, June 5 - October 8, 1776, and vol. 8, May 22 - October 2, 1777, edited by Worthington Chauncey Ford, Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1906 and 1907 respectively also, vol. 22 (Jan. 1- Aug, 9, 1782), ed. by Gaillard Hunt, Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1914, pp. 86-87 and vol. 28 (Jan. 11-June 30, 1785) and vol. 29 (July 1-Dec. 30, 1785) both ed. by John Fitzpatrick, Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office 1933; The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, edited by Julian Bond, vol. 7, 2 March 1784 to 25 February 1785, Princeton: University Press, 1953, pp. 150-203 with an excellent introduction on pp. 150-160; Eric P. Newman, "New Thoughts on the Nova Constellatio Private Copper Coinage" in Coinage of the Confederation Period, ed. by Philip L. Mossman, Coinage of the Americas Conference, Proceedings No. 11, held at the American Numismatic Society, October 28, 1995, New York: American Numismatic Society, 1996, pp. 79-105; Bowers and Ruddy Galleries, The Garrett Collection, Part 1 public auction held November 28-29, 1979 in New York City, Bowers and Ruddy Galleries, Los Angeles, CA, pp.148-153 and inside back cover, lots 619-622; Walter Breen, "CONSTELLATIO NOVA" The Colonial Newsletter vol. 13, no. 3 (September, 1974) serial no. 41, pp. 453-455.
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