Ron Guth: The 1783 Nova Constellatio pattern coins represent a brilliant solution to the foremost economic problem facing the American States during the Revolutionary period – how to create a national currency that incorporated the hodge-podge of monetary systems in use at the time.
The genius behind the 1783 Nova Constellatio pattern coins was Robert Morris, the financial wizard whose signature appears on the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution, and who served as the Superintendent of Finance of the United States from 1781 to 1784. Morris’ writings during this period come to us in a collection titled “The Papers of Robert Morris.” There, the reader can see prolific correspondence between Morris and other American leaders, including George Washington, military generals, leaders of the Continental Congress, and others. His diary entries offer meticulous records of his daily activities, including expenditures made on behalf of a new Mint and an innovative coinage scheme.
In 1783, the United States consisted of a loose partnership of thirteen states governed by the Articles of Confederation. The Articles attempted to unify the states into a national government, but like many first attempts, it contained fatal flaws that doomed the experiment and its coinage to failure. Each state guarded its independence jealously. Their experiences as colonies under British rule soured their taste for a dominant, central government. Thus, the Articles gave too much power to the states and retained too little for itself, especially the ability to tax. Without the power to raise money, or control the national monetary scheme, the Continental Congress lacked the enforcement powers necessary to form a perfect union. Nonetheless, politicians played at their game and continued on as if nothing were amiss.
One of the rights of a sovereign nation is the ability to coin its own money. This requires decisions on how to structure the monetary system and what designs to place upon the money. The monetary system, to be successful, must be convenient, easily understood, practical in use and a bridge from the old system to the new – otherwise, it will be ignored. During the Colonial era, money consisted of a variety of locally produced coinage (official and unofficial), coins of other countries, or colony-specific coinage imported from outside sources. Worse, the monetary systems in the colonies differed from each other. Thus, not only would the same goods be valued differently in Virginia and New York, but the money used to pay for them differed, as well. Each transaction between colonies required a calculation to reconcile those differences, which usually included a discount or transaction fee on one side or the other. In recognition of this unusual restriction on commerce, the Continental Congress decided to investigate opening a mint and producing its own coinage.
As Superintendent of Finance and the person responsible for funding the Revolutionary War, Morris dealt daily with each of the States and their mosaic of monetary systems. Morris began his concept of a national coinage scheme by investigating the various coins used in each of the states and their relative value from state to state. To accomplish this goal, Morris set Benjamin Dudley to work obtaining and assaying a variety of coins then in use. Dudley, an English emigrant, was a metallurgist and diesinker who had the skills necessary to plan, construct, and run a United States mint. Morris utilized Dudley frequently on a variety of projects, as evidenced by numerous notations in his papers.
Using Dudley’s data, Morris attempted to reconcile the monetary systems used by the thirteen states. He discovered that a system based on 1,000 Units would allow all but one of the thirteen states to normalize their currency against a national scheme. South Carolina was the only exception. Accordingly, Morris proposed a silver Mark of 1,000 Units, a silver Quint of 500 Units, a silver Cent of 100 Units, a copper Eight of 8 Units, and a copper Five of 5 Units. Less known is that Morris also proposed a gold Crown of 10,000 Units. Morris’ penchant for a decimal system is apparent in the 1,000, 500, and 100 Units coins; the 8 and 5 Units coins were necessary to achieve complete reconciliation.
Upon the direction of Morris, Dudley prepared dies and struck off examples of most of the denominations, which he delivered to Morris on April 22, 1783. The exact number of dies, which denominations were struck, and how many of each Dudley produced is unknown. Some sources claim four pairs of dies, another cites seven, and another cites eight. Today, five different 1783 Nova Constellatio pattern coins have been identified, thus at least five die pairs were used. Today, the 1,000 Units is unique, the 500 Units is known by two examples (of two different varieties), the 100 Units is known by two (possibly three) examples, the 5 Units is unique, and no 8 Units has ever been seen.
Morris’ selection of designs for his coinage scheme revealed his nationalistic bent. The all-seeing eye of God surrounded by rays of glory indicated the nation’s reliance on providential guidance. The sprinkling of thirteen stars among the rays of glory represented the individual states of a new constellation (NOVA CONSTELLATIO) among the nations in the heavens. The abbreviation “U.S.” and the uninterrupted wreath of laurel stood for the unity and unbreakable solidarity of the states. The Latin words LIBERTAS and JUSTITIA signified the Liberty and Justice which would govern the new nation and be enjoyed by its citizens.
Sadly, the impotence of the Articles of Confederation and the Continental Congress spelled the doom of Morris’ coinage plan. The scheme never made it out of the Congressional committee assigned to consider it, where it died a silent death. Dudley went on to other numismatic adventures, Morris ended up in debtor’s prison years later, the coins went in various directions, and the first, official U.S. Mint waited until 1792 to open.