Q. David Bowers
In 1796, as part of a general redesign of American coinage, the government ordered that the new quarter eagles, first issued in the latter part of the year, have the heraldic eagle reverse rather than the small eagle prepared a year earlier. (John Smith Gardner returned for a few weeks in the fall of 1796 while Scot was engaged on the new dies for the quarter eagle.) Over a period of time all of the gold and silver coin denominations had their reverses changed to include the heraldic eagle.
The change to the heraldic eagle may seem arbitrary, but almost certainly was done to be in line with standard European practice. Nearly all of those countries used their coat of arms on the reverse of their coins. The U.S. gold and silver coins followed Scot's design for the Great Seal of the U.S., in which the national arms were affixed to the displayed eagle's breast.
This decision was misunderstood within a few years. In 1807 when the silver was redesigned by John Reich (as dictated by Mint Director Robert Patterson), a new type of eagle was put on the reverse but the motto "E Pluribus Unum" was kept in the mistaken belief that the new eagle was merely a variation of the official one on the national seal. In the 1830s the 1807 error was rectified by removing the motto but it was gradually returned to the coinage beginning with the 1873 trade dollar.
The turn of the silver dollar to get the heraldic eagle reverse came in the early weeks of 1798, probably late January or early February. Once more Scot cut a new hub for the eagle (the eagle was separate from the clouds and the stars were punched in by hand) and prepared the necessary working dies.
The heavy coinage of silver dollars in 1798 and 1799 had an unexpected side effect. It had been normal practice for importers of foreign goods to send Spanish dollars in exchange, but the availability of the American version made it easier to use the domestic product. Many American dollars were now sent to the treaty port of Canton in China to pay for Oriental luxury goods. These dollars rarely returned and were thus lost to the nation as coins.
American dollars also went to the West Indies where they were exchanged for Spanish dollars. It has long been an article of faith among numismatists that the trade was done for a profit, but this seems unlikely, especially in view of the fact that freshly-issued United States dollars were roughly equal in pure silver to the average circulating Spanish coin of eight reales (dollar). It is more likely that American silver went to the West Indies simply because that is where the Spanish dollars were to be obtained.
Some of the silver dollars that went to the West Indies would return, though of course more worn than they had left. This left the Orient as the real area that drained American coined silver from our shores, never to return. In 1804 the continuing loss would force the government to stop coining dollars.
In 1798 and again in 1799 the dreaded yellow fever epidemic struck the Philadelphia area in all its fury. People fled for their lives but, even though the Mint was closed for several months in each of these years, coinage resumed soon after reopening with a minimum of trouble. Sometimes dies were used almost at random, thus confusing the order of striking for some issues, but in general the reopenings were more orderly than in 1793 and 1797. After 1799 the Mint was to close but once more (1803) for the terrifying disease.
There are several varieties of the Draped Bust dollar (heraldic eagle reverse) for 1798 and 1799. For 1798 the differences are rather minor for the obverses, primarily consisting of wide or close dates and knobbed or pointed 9s. For the reverse we find the so-called arc and diamond-shaped star patterns, but these probably do not reflect policy but rather differing individuals in the engraving department helping Scot prepare the dies. One reverse die even has 10 arrows instead of the standard 13. Many of the minor details in the die-such as berries, stars, and arrows-were added by hand after the main design hubs were punched into a blank die. It appears that there was one or more people seconded to the engraving department from other areas of the institution as the need arose.
For 1799 we find the first overdate (1799/8) in the dollar series as well as similar varieties to those of 1798. One that does stand out, however, is a blunder consisting of 15 stars (instead of the regular 13) above the eagle on the reverse; the extra two stars were partially hidden by extra clouds, but not all that successfully.
For 1800 the silver deposits were at first heavy but as the year progressed the quantity of bullion brought to the Mint underwent a serious decline and the amount of coinage, mostly in dollars, went down accordingly. Despite the fall in bullion deposits, the number of dollars struck in 1800 was still substantial: 220,920. The early American economy, increasingly subject to the whims of European politics and wars, often showed sharp swings up and down in the early decades of our independence. During 1800 we were on a downward trend.
Perhaps the most interesting varieties for 1800 are the coins bearing what may be a stray punch mark at the end of "AMERICA." The remaining effect looks like the letter "I," and the word seems to be spelled "AMERICAI."
Dollars of 1801-1803
Despite the virtual dollars-only policy for silver from 1798 to 1800, there was not all that much public outcry over the failure of the Mint to supply sufficient small silver coins to the economy. With the downturn of the economic activity in the latter part of 1800 and perhaps some loss of small Spanish silver to the export trade, however, public criticism once more was on the rise. In fact, through 1803 the Mint was under severe attack in Congress over a number of matters, most of which the Mint could not control, such as the amount of bullion deposited for gold or silver coinage.
Even though most of the depositors wanted silver dollars in exchange for bullion brought to the Mint, Director Boudinot was able to persuade some of them into taking an increasing amount of smaller silver coins. Mintage of the dollar dropped to under 55,000 pieces in 1801. A few thousand dollars' worth of dimes and half dimes were struck in this year but the principal non-dollar coinage in silver was the 30,000+ half dollars struck mostly in December. This was the first coinage of that denomination since May 1797.