Silver Dollars & Trade Dollars of the United States - A Complete Encyclopedia

Chapter 3: Early Dollars, Historical Background
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20

Boudinot Named Director

During October, Washington and Jefferson managed to persuade Elias Boudinot to become the third director. Not only had this former congressman been in charge of the Mint investigation during the winter of 1794-1795, but he was also a distinguished statesman who had served as president of the Confederation government in 1782-1783 when the Treaty of Peace with Great Britain had been signed. His list of accomplishments was long, and the president could not have made a better choice.

On October 28 Boudinot arrived at the Mint and was immediately informed of the illegal standard for the silver coinage. The new director, known for his strict integrity, ordered that the 900/1000 fineness for the silver coinage be stopped at once and preparations made to resume the coinage on the legal standard, 892.4+/1000. (QDB and Mark Borckardt note: Analysis of individual 1795 die varieties to determine their specific silver fineness may be a way to determine which were coined before Boudinot's arrival. Similarly, the presence or absence of trace elements could link certain varieties (of any year) with each other via a common silver deposit source. It would not be surprising if such technology became available on a widespread basis in numismatics within the next decade or two. In other series (such as colonial copper coins and territorial gold), such analysis could indicate specific mine sources) Boudinot also directed that all accounts be brought up to date so that his tenure of office would start on a clean slate and not be tainted by actions of the first two years of operation.

On October 28 Boudinot arrived at the Mint and was immediately informed of the illegal standard for the silver coinage. The new director, known for his strict integrity, ordered that the 900/1000 fineness for the silver coinage be stopped at once and preparations made to resume the coinage on the legal standard, 892.4+/1000.2 Boudinot also directed that all accounts be brought up to date so that his tenure of office would start on a clean slate and not be tainted by actions of the first two years of operation.

All seemed to be going well, but on the day following the delivery of half dimes, Assayer Albion Cox died suddenly of apoplexy (stroke) in the midst of a dinner party at his home. As this officer was vital to the operation of the institution, Boudinot had no choice except to shut down the operations once more and order that Cox's accounts be brought up to date while a successor was being sought. All of this took time and it was not until December 12 that Joseph Richardson, Jr. took his oath of office as assayer; he was to serve the Mint faithfully for more than 30 years (Joseph Richardson is perhaps better known to numismatists as one of the men who hand-engraved the large oval Indian Peace medals during the Washington administration. Some of these are hallmarked, proving his work. )

At the same time as Cox's death, Boudinot faced another problem: bullion deposits, especially of silver, were beginning to decline. With this falling off, creating smaller amounts of coinage, public criticism once more began to rise. The average person simply did not understand that the amount of silver or gold coinage depended solely on the amount of bullion brought to the Mint. There was no government bullion fund, due in part to the dispute over whether the Treasury should be over the Mint.

Coinage of 1796

The low deposits of bullion, coupled with Boudinot's desire to strike minor silver coins in 1796, led to a greatly decreased coinage of silver dollars in that calendar year (1795: 200,000+ vs. 1796: 72,920). Half dimes, dimes, and quarter dollars were also struck in 1796. The famous half dollars of 1796, however, were actually struck in 1797. It is generally believed that dollar dies of 1795 were used in 1796, though for how long is uncertain. Just under 5,000 dollars were struck in January and February 1796, and this just might cover the final coinage with the old dies.

While the varieties for the 1795 Draped Bust dollar are best described as minor (placement of the head on the obverse), the dollars of 1796 are somewhat more interesting in this regard. There are both large and small dates while the reverse lettering also has large and small varieties. There does not seem to be any chronological significance to these varieties.

There is speculation that John Smith Gardner, the assistant engraver, may have been responsible for some of the reverse dies, and the change of lettering may signal this fact. Gardner left Mint employ in the spring of 1796 but returned in the late summer for a few weeks while Scot was working on the quarter eagle dies.

Coinage of 1797

The minting of all silver coins fell to a very low level in 1797, well under that of the low production of 1796. Only 7,776 silver dollars were delivered by Chief Coiner Voight during the entire year, with nearly all of these coming during the months from May through August. All of the other silver denominations were coined, but mostly in small quantities as well. (The 252 quarter dollars struck in 1797 used dies of 1796 while half dollars dated 1796 and 1797 were struck in 1797.)

So little silver bullion was being deposited in 1797 that Mint officers, especially Assayer Joseph Richardson, went to great lengths to encourage depositors as well as bringing in silver themselves. In June 1797 even Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson brought 300 Spanish dollars to the Mint for recoinage. (Philadelphia was capital of the United States at that time (until Washington, D.C. became the capital in 1800), and federal officials, who were nearby, paid more attention to the Mint than anytime since. ) Criticism was again building up over the low coinages. (The silver famine at the Mint began to end toward the end of 1797 and by early in 1798 there was a sufficient supply.)

There are some interesting varieties of the 1797 dollar, mostly concerned with the number of stars on the obverse (either 9+7 or 10+6). All dies have 16 stars, proving that the dies (unlike the 1798 obverse with 15 stars) were made after June 1, 1796 when Tennessee became the sixteenth state to be admitted to the Union. It may be that as few as 2,493 dollars of 1797 actually bore that date; this is the coinage executed in August, when the last silver coins for the year were delivered.

Chapter 3: Early Dollars, Historical Background
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20

Back to All Books