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

Chapter 3: Early Dollars, Historical Background
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There is a tradition that the president personally lobbied House members in order to kill the provision about the presidential profile appearing on the coinage. While this may well be true, it also seems likely that the Chief Executive would at least have been consulted by Senator Morris before the draft bill had been submitted and thus given his approval of the idea. Perhaps Washington, after the House debate, had a change of heart and persuaded key Senators to vote for the House version.

With the adoption of the April 2 law the nation was now on the road toward a mint and coinage. It would be many years before the system worked for the benefit of all citizens, but the seed had been planted and would grow into an impressive tree as the years passed.

Flowing Hair Dollars 1794-1795

David Rittenhouse

Well before the adoption of the new Mint law on April 2, 1792, President Washington had chosen David Rittenhouse, an eminent scientist of international renown, as the first director of the new institution. Because of poor health, Rittenhouse had been loath to accept the post and even then had agreed only to a temporary directorship.

Once the Mint law had been signed by the President, Rittenhouse was free to proceed, although he had already taken some tentative steps toward putting the new institution on a sound footing. In particular he had engaged, probably in March, an artist named Birch to engrave cent dies; this same artist would also do the half disme and disme dies in the weeks following the adoption of the law. (One of the minor mysteries of the early Mint is the correct name of this artist. In the nineteenth century it was thought to be "Bob" Birch, but this was based on the appearance of that name in the 1793 fiscal records, where he is recorded as selling medicine to the Mint. As this was almost certainly for the horses, it is more likely that Carl W.A. Carlson's preference for English artist William Russell Birch is the better choice. Another contender is Robert Birch, apparently a different person from "Bob" Birch.)

One of Rittenhouse's early choices for his staff was Henry Voight (or Voigt), a watchmaker of Philadelphia, to be the first chief coiner. Born in Pennsylvania, Voight had nevertheless gone to Germany before the Revolution to serve an apprenticeship in a small German mint. According to his own statement, he had learned all the skills necessary for a mint except that of engraving. It is thus ironic that Voight also served as unofficial engraver at the Mint between December 1792 and June 1793.

Although 1,500 half dismes were struck in July 1792, from silver believed to have been supplied by the president, nothing was said of striking dollars or even half dollars. Until September 1792 the institution was housed in the cellar of a private Philadelphia building-at Sixth and Cherry streets-owned by John Harper. The latter not only sold items of value to the Mint, but had been one of the coiners of the New Jersey copper cents in the 1780s

On July 31 the foundation stone (not cornerstone as is sometimes stated) was laid by David Rittenhouse, and construction of the coinage building, or "shop" as it was to be called by Chief Coiner Voight, got underway. There was also a double building at the front of the Mint lot (facing Seventh Street) whose construction was started shortly there-after. In early September 1792 progress was so far advanced that Rittenhouse was able to move staff and machinery into the new location.

The Beginning of Regular Coinage

Cent coinage began in late February 1793. The symbolic ceremony was probably held on February 22 (even in those days Washington's birthday was widely honored), and full-scale striking was underway within a few days. The first official delivery of coined money was made on March 1, 1793. (The 1792 half disme coinage is a special case.)

Albion Cox joined the staff of officers in May 1793 as assayer and was to serve until his death in late November 1795. Cox was born in England, but had been in this country during the 1780s as the foreman for John Harper in the New Jersey coppers; he had been forced to flee to Britain at the end of the decade to avoid imprisonment for debt. Cox actually paid his New Jersey debt, on an installment plan up to his death.

Congress had stipulated in April 1792 that the bonds of the chief coiner and assayer be for $10,000 each, an enormous sum for the period. Because of these high amounts, neither Voight nor Cox was able to find sureties to meet the requirement, and thus only copper was coined in the first year of regular operations, 1793. Rittenhouse turned to Thomas Jefferson to solve the impasse. Toward the end of 1793 the secretary of state appealed to Congress to lower the amount of the bonds.

Although Treasury Secretary Hamilton should have been placed over the Mint, Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson was instead chosen by the president. He had, after all, been involved in a significant way with the coinage schemes of the 1780s, but the president also felt that Hamilton was far too busy with other matters to be involved with the Mint. This turned out to be a mistake as the Treasury refused to cooperate when the Mint needed bullion in periods. of low coinage, during the 1790s.

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

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