Taking a fresh look at our first coins under the guidance of Robert Morris

Researcher examines the Nova Constellatio patterns and what is in a name
By , Special to Coin World
Published : 07/04/15
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I sent for Mr. Dudley who delivered me a Piece of Silver Coin being the first that has been struck as an American Coin.  

Robert Morris, U.S. Superintendent of Finance

April 2nd, 1783

This “Piece of Silver Coin” was the culmination of two years of work on the part of Morris, who Congress in February of 1782 had formally tasked with exploring the establishment of a Mint. Morris’ plan was ambitious and innovative: He hoped to unite the fledgling nation with a monetary unit that would allow for easy conversion from British, Spanish, Portuguese, or state currencies to U.S. funds. In addition to this, Morris’ plan was the first system of coinage ever proposed to use decimal accounting.  

Despite its ingenuity, Congress did not put Morris’ plan into effect; however, the utility of decimal accounting was not lost on Thomas Jefferson, who began championing the idea immediately after examining the Nova Constellatio set. In fact, Jefferson’s “Notes on the Establishment of a Money Unit and of Coinage for the United States” was written in response to the Morris plan; in it, Jefferson writes:

“The Financier, therefore, in his report, well proposes that our Coins should be in decimal proportions to one another. If we adopt the Dollar for our Unit, we should strike four coins, one of gold, two of silver, and one of copper, viz.: 

1. A golden piece, equal in value to ten dollars: 

2. The Unit or Dollar itself, of silver: 

3. The tenth of a Dollar, of silver also: 

4. The hundredth of a Dollar, of copper.”

This is the first written description of the monetary system ultimately adopted by the United States, underscoring the influence of Morris’ Nova Constellatios.  

Much has been written about these important and intriguing coins; however, two years of intensive study has led me to believe that we have much more to learn about them. The publication of The Papers of Robert Morris and the availability of portions of the papers of Congress from the Confederation era have given us access to a tremendous number of facts about the Nova Constellatio coins. In fact, probably more primary source information is available about these coins than any other early Federal issue.  

A Brief History of the Nova Constellatio Patterns

The story of the Nova Constellatio coins does not begin with Robert Morris, but with a Bostonian agent to the Continental Congress, John Bradford. In 1781, Bradford discovered a large quantity of what appeared at first to be low quality copper in the naval stores at Boston. That June, Bradford came into contact with a British mechanic, Benjamin Dudley. In a letter to the President of Continental Congress, Samuel Huntington, Bradford writes:

“… two days ago I had an Essay made by a Mr. Dudley, and we find it to be the purest Copper, he melted down about two pounds into three ingots and we find no dross among it. Mr. Dudley assures me that he can roll it into sheets of any thickness and can either harden or soften it.  

“We find it to be very malleable, he tells me that if Congress should see fit to strike of a parcel of coppers for a currency he can make the apparatus and go through the whole process.  

“Mr. Dudley has already given such proofs of his ingenuity that I can view him as an important acquisition to this infant nation, and hope he will meet with encouragement.”

The letter closes with the suggestion that Huntington refer the matter to Robert Morris, who had just assumed office.  

John Bradford’s letter to President Huntington was read to Congress on July 9, 1781.  

The information was also forwarded to Morris, who soon set about bringing the mechanic to Philadelphia.

In September, the French frigate La Resolute arrived in Boston. It held two treasures: Thomas Paine and a gift of 2½ million livres of French silver. Morris sent Tench Francis, cashier of the Bank of North America, to retrieve the silver and the mechanic and transport them to Philadelphia. Morris instructed him:

“Should Mr. Dudley think proper to come with you, you will provide him with a Horse Saddle &c. and defray his Expenses on the Road. He will probably be useful to you in putting up the Money as he is an excellent Mechanick and may therefore strike out Hints on the Subject which would escape others. I hope you find him a useful, agreeable and entertaining Companion on the Road.”

Francis returned to Philadelphia in November with Dudley. Although Dudley did not know it, his employment by the United States Office of Finance had begun — in fact, when his account was paid by the Treasury in 1783, he would be given a salary of $2 per day retroactive to the Oct. 8, 1781. In the New Year, Morris would describe the mechanic as “absolutely necessary” to the project.

In January, 1782, Morris was called before Congress to deliver a report on specie and currency in North America. He advocated a silver standard and set forth a plan that would use as its base unit 1/4-grain of silver — the highest common divisor of the various monetary systems then in use in North America. Using five denominations, a 5-unit copper piece, an 8-unit copper piece, a 100-unit silver piece, a 500-unit silver piece, and a 1,000-unit silver piece, any coin commonly encountered in North America could be exchanged evenly into U.S. funds. This new system would be the world’s first decimal coinage, an advancement that would simplify accounting; it seems that Morris reasoned that the American people would quickly adopt a currency that would simplify their lives.  

He closed his report by saying:

“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 Safety that no better moment could be chosen for the Purpose than the present.”

Later that month, Morris noted in his diary that he informed Dudley that his plan for a mint was “before Congress, and when passed, that he [Dudley] shall be directly employed.”

Congress approved Morris’ plan on Feb. 21, and by Feb. 26, Dudley had supplied Morris with plans for machinery. 

Morris directed Dudley to find a smith to estimate the cost of manufacturing the machinery, and within a few days, Dudley returned with Samuel Wheeler, who would manufacture the various screws and rollers needed for the fledgling Mint.  

The next few months were spent looking for an appropriate site for the mint and waiting for Wheeler to finish the machinery. The wait was difficult for Dudley, who was in constant need of money.

Wheeler finished his work in August of 1782, but was not paid immediately. Visits from Dudley and Wheeler to Morris through November of that year suggest that congressional funds may not have been forthcoming, and even Morris began to doubt the project, noting that he was, “very uneasy that the Mint is not going on.”

It appears that money was again available by early 1783, and on Feb. 8, John Jacob Eckfeldt was paid $5.18 to forge three pairs of dies for the mint.  

On April 2, Dudley delivered a single silver coin to Morris — famously described by the superintendent of Finance as “the first that has been struck as an American Coin.”

On April 16, Morris summoned Dudley to his office, and, later that day, he recorded in his diary: 

“Sent for Mr. Dudley and urged him to produce the Coins to lay before Congress to establish a Mint.” 

The following day, Morris saw Dudley again, recording:

“Sent for Mr. Dudley to Urge the preparing of coins &c. for Establishing a Mint. “

That same day, a warrant was issued to Morris’ cashier, John Swanwick, for $22.42. This money was used to pay David Tew for engraving four die faces (the first payment to be made for any die engraving, suggesting that Tew was the engraver of the dies used to strike the coin presented to Morris on April 2), and John Eckfeldt for forging an additional two pairs of dies.  

On April 22, Dudley delivered “several Pieces of Money as Patterns of the Intended American Coins.” 

These were transmitted on the following day to Elias Boudinot, president of Congress. Three days later, Morris noted a long meeting with the Congressional Committee to discuss the Mint.

On May 5, a payment of $72 was made to Abraham Dubois “for sinking, casehardening, &c. four Pair of Dies for a Public Mint.”

It is worth noting that the records of April and May of 1783 appear to show a numerical error.  

Eckfeldt was paid to forge a total of five pairs of blank dies, while David Tew and Abraham Dubois were paid to engrave a total of six pairs of dies. This apparent inconsistency has been cause for speculation in some circles and may shed light on the actual events surrounding the creation of these dies.  

Discussions of a Mint continued into the summer of 1783. Then, on Aug. 19, Morris noted:

“I sent for 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 all in 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.” 

On Aug. 30, Dudley met with Morris and gave him the dies that had been used to strike the Nova Constellatios.  

In May of 1784, Morris sent the silver patterns to Thomas Jefferson. Later that month, Jefferson would return the coins — a mark (1,000-unit silver piece), a quint (500-unit silver piece), and three bits (100-unit silver pieces) — to Charles Thomson, secretary of the Continental Congress, who would save the two larger coins in his writing desk until his death, the bits being dispersed some time earlier.  

A Census and Collecting History of the Nova Constellatios

The first printed report of the Nova Constellatios was in Montroville W. Dickeson’s American Numismatical Manual, published in 1859. In it, he illustrates the mark and quint (with Motto on Obverse) that Joseph Mickley had examined in the 1850s. Mickley had been shown the coins by their owner, a descendent of Charles Thomson. Thomson’s relative explained that the Founding Father’s nephew had discovered the coins in a secret drawer in the writing desk shortly after the elder man’s death in 1842. The then-custodian of the coins allowed Mickley to make cast reproductions of the patterns, which were sold at auction by Elliott Woodward in 1867.  

In October 1870, New York City coin dealer William P. Brown published a description of a quint that lacked the motto NOVA CONSTELLATIO on its obverse in a publication called The Curiosity Cabinet. Brown claimed that the coin came from a young man in New York City who had inherited it from his grandfather. Brown realized that the quint in question featured a different design than the other known piece, but does not seem to have had any pertinent information about the coin’s history.  

Sylvester Crosby purchased the piece and described it, along with the other quint and mark in his landmark book, Early Coins of America. His nomenclature for the quints (Obverse No. 1, and Obverse No. 2) set precedent for later writers, who have generally referred to the pieces as the Type 1 quint (the With Motto variety found in Thomson’s desk) and the Type 2 quint (the No Motto variety sold by William Brown). For clarity, I refer to them as With Motto and No Motto.  

In 1872, Capt. John W. Haseltine located Rathmel Wilson, the descendent of Charles Thomson who owned the mark and With Motto quint. He purchased both pieces from Wilson, and offered them for sale in his Dec. 18, 1872, coin auction. He described them as follows:

“The two preceding pieces are, without doubt, the most interesting of the Confederation series, being the first known designs for a dollar and half dollar. They were found about thirty years ago, in a desk formerly the property of the Hon. Charles Thomson, Secretary of the first United States Congress. They are in remarkably fine condition, having a beautiful proof surface, and are as sharp as when they were struck. They will be sold together, and are limited to five hundred dollars for the pair.”

The pair was sold for $540 to Henry Adams of Massachusetts, who soon sold them to Sylvester Crosby, already the owner of the No Motto quint. The trio was later sold to Bostonian collector Lorin G. Parmelee.

In 1884, in Edinburgh, Scotland, the firm of T. Chapman & Son offered the collection of William Taap at auction. The sale included a 100-unit piece with a plain edge which they described as:

“Nova Constellatio, Pattern Dime or Piece of 100 Mills, obv. A wreath surrounding the inscription ‘U.S. 100’; legend ‘Libertas Institia [sic], 1783’; Rev. an eye, surrounded by rays, forming a sun, between the rays thirteen stars, NOVA CONSTELLATIO.

“This is the earliest pattern of an American dime, and is probably unique.  

“In the Mickley sale, 1867, a dollar and a half dollar were sold, exactly of the same type, but struck in white metal, this piece being of silver.’

“In brilliant condition, and of the highest rarity, - 1.”

Scottish collector John G. Murdoch paid £15, 15 shillings for the lot. While it did not bring a startling sum, the auction did not escape the notice of a British collector by the name of Edward Shorthouse, who had purchased, out of a London pawnshop window sometime in the early 1880s, a 100-unit Nova Constellatio with an olive leaf design impressed into its edge.  

Shorthouse consigned his coin to American dealer Elliot Woodward, who offered it in his Clark Sale (1885), where it failed to sell. A year later, the coin was sold for $272 to Lorin Parmelee — thus reuniting the bit with both quints and a mark.

Parmelee then sold his Nova Constellatio collection to H.P. Smith, who further sold the group to the Chapman brothers in 1902. They placed the mark with George Earle, the quints and bit with Col. James Ellsworth, who then bought the mark some time before 1914, again bringing the collection together as it was with Parmelee at the turn of the century. Ellsworth’s collection was bought intact by the fine art firm M. Knoedler & Company, who offered Ellsworth’s complete coin collection, including this set, as one lot, for a staggering $100,000.  

In the meantime, John Murdoch, owner of the Plain Edge bit, died in 1902. His collection was offered through Sotheby’s, where S.H. Chapman purchased the piece for a little over $125 in 1903. Chapman sold the bit to Robert Garrett, who then traded his entire interest in the family’s coin collection to his older brother, John Work Garrett, in 1919.  

Garrett and legendary dealer Wayte Raymond pooled their resources in 1923 to purchase the Ellsworth Collection. Garrett was able to keep the pioneer gold and colonial material, which included the set of Nova Constellatios. 

Not wanting to have two bits, Garrett sold Raymond the Taap/Murdoch coin, which passed through the hands of the Guttag Brothers and thence to Waldo Newcomer. From Newcomer, the Plain Edge bit was sold to Col. E.H.R. Green, then to B.G. Johnson and on to Eric P. Newman, who owned the piece until it was sold in 2014 for $705,000.  

According to Stack’s, at around the same time that Garrett was buying the Ellsworth Collection, a third bit surfaced in Philadelphia, and was purchased by an unidentified Italian gentleman on a visit to the United States. This bit was held in his family until 1991, when Stack’s sold it into a prominent East Coast collection. 

It seems likely that this story was partly fanciful — the sale in which it appeared contained coins from colonial numismatist Richard Picker, who is said to have purchased a bit that was discovered in London sometime in the 1980s.  

The final Nova Constellatio to be discovered appeared in 1977 — the coin was a copper 5-unit piece in Gem Proof condition. It had last been seen in London in 1784, where it was presented to British loyalist Samuel Curwen by a merchant named Josiah Bartlett. From there, the coin disappeared until being rediscovered in France by an unnamed British dealer in 1977. In December of that year, Fred Werner bought the coin and brought it back to the United States, where he sold it to the controversial coin dealer John J. Ford Jr. on Valentine’s Day, 1978.  

The following year, the first installment of Garrett’s incredible collection would be sold at auction by Bowers & Ruddy Galleries. The quartet of Nova Constellatios first assembled by Lorin Parmelee was among the highlights of the sale. Ford bought the bit, the With Motto quint, and the mark. It has been rumored that he also intended to purchase the No Motto quint, but a miscommunication resulted in the coin being sold to Chicago collector/dealer Walter Perschke for $75,000. Interestingly, several people have recalled being told by Ford that the No Motto quint was a counterfeit of some sort. Perhaps this was sour grapes on Ford’s part, or perhaps he never intended to purchase the quint — the truth will remain unknown on this point.  

Ford died in 2005 and the vast majority of his collection was sold by Stack’s; however, his most significant numismatic holding — the four piece Nova Constellatio set — was sold privately to a seasoned collector in 2007 and is again available for sale.  

Since then, two of the other three Nova Constellatios have come to market. Besides Newman's sale, Heritage offered the enigmatic No Motto quint in its 2013 Central States Numismatic Society convention auction, where it brought $1,175,000.   

A Reconsideration of the No Motto quint

Since its discovery nearly 150 years ago, the No Motto quint has eluded numismatic understanding — comprehension of its place in the story of the first U.S. coins has been nebulous at best. A careful reading of the various articles and auction lot descriptions of the Nova Constellatios fails to explain the coin’s existence — in fact, most writers seem to ignore the question of what the coin might be.

The commonly known facts about its fabric and design do raise questions, when compared to its sister coins.

Most obviously, the obverse design of the No Motto quint differs from the other Nova Constellatios — most notably lacking the motto for which the series is named.  

Unlike all the other silver coins, the No Motto quint does not correspond to the weight or fineness prescribed by Morris’ plan. In addition to being underweight, the No Motto quint is struck on what appears to be an unburnished, cracked planchet. 

A comparison with the With Motto example is instructive. The No Motto piece exhibits planchet flaws and fissures, while the With Motto quint is nearly mirrored in appearance. In addition to this, there is a question of apparent graffiti (3 DEC or 5 DEC, according to most people) on the No Motto quint’s reverse, above the denomination — who would scratch that onto such an important coin?

A close comparison of the reverses of both coins reveals that they were struck from the same dies, but the No Motto coin lacks the crisp, prooflike surface of the With Motto variety. In fact, an examination of the defects in the die that are apparent on both coins shows imperfections in exactly the same places, but on the With Motto quint, the imperfections are incredibly well defined, standing out against the polished surface of the die, while the same flaws blend into the surface of the die on the No Motto quint. Copious die polish lines are visible on the With Motto quint, while none are apparent on the No Motto example. Ordinarily, one would assume that the No Motto quint is of a later die state; however, the records kept make it rather clear that very few coins could have been struck while Benjamin Dudley was in possession of the dies. Without being used to strike hundreds of coins, prooflike dies stay prooflike once they’ve been polished — to use the old adage, you can’t unring a bell.  

This observation and the fact that I could not recall many situations where a motto was removed from the design of a coin, led me to ask a question that apparently has not been asked since the No Motto quint’s discovery following the Civil War: is it possible that the No Motto quint was struck prior to the example that was sent to Congress?

A review of the coins and the facts surrounding their manufacture suggests that this is, in fact, the case.

For the first time in history, all but one of the Nova Constellatio patterns have been displayed publicly and photographed using high resolution cameras. Currently, Professional Coin Grading Service Coinfacts has photographs of every known Nova Constellatio pattern but one — the Very Fine 100-unit piece found in Europe in the 1980s or 1990s. A comparison of both sides of the No Motto and With Motto quints is fascinating:

Careful scrutiny reveals that the With Motto quint’s obverse has a border comprised of squared-looking beads that are approximately two times the size of the beads on its reverse, while the obverse and reverse beads on the No Motto quint appear to have been made using the same punch. Ordinarily, a diesinker would use the same tool for both the obverse and reverse die borders; however, if a pair of dies were made at two different times by two different individuals, matching the borders would be difficult, if not impossible.

Similar comparisons of all of the Nova Constellatio patterns reveals that the obverse and reverse borders match on the 5-unit copper and the mark. The silver bit obverse border is composed of larger beads than its reverse, much like the With Motto quint, suggesting that its dies were engraved at two different times. Interestingly, a side by side comparison of the With Motto quint’s obverse and the copper 5-unit piece shows a match between the punches used to create their borders.  

Is there a way to square these forensic observations with the known primary source material in The Papers of Robert Morris and other contemporary accounts of the striking of the Nova Constellatio patterns?

What follows is a theory for the emission sequence that accounts for all of the known payments for dies forged (or manufactured) and engraved, as well as the forensic evidence shown above:

1. John Jacob Eckfeldt is paid to forge three pairs of dies in early February 1783.  

2. Two pairs of dies are engraved by David Tew prior to April 17 — based upon my observations, I conclude these were probably both No Motto dies. Given that the two With Motto dies with mismatched obverse beads are the bit and quint, it would appear that the No Motto versions of these two dies were engraved first.  

3. Eckfeldt is paid to forge an additional two pairs of dies.  

4. Abraham Dubois is paid on May 5 for engraving a total of four pairs of dies — this suggests that he did the engraving sometime after Tew, but before the delivery of the set of coins to Robert Morris on April 22. If this is the case, and Tew engraved the bit and quint, each with a No Motto obverse, then Dubois would have probably engraved the 5-unit dies, the 8-unit dies, a With Motto obverse for the bit, the With Motto obverse for the quint, and both dies for the mark. (It has been suggested that the 8-unit dies were never engraved, as we have yet to find a piece, but the relatively recent discovery of a 5-unit piece suggests that all five proposed denominations would have been made.)

This appears to be the simplest possible explanation for both the appearance of the coins and the scheduled payments, and it also satisfies the apparent inconsistency between the payments for the number of dies forged and the payments for the number of dies engraved.  

To recap, Eckfeldt was paid to forge five pairs of dies — a pair for each proposed denomination; however, Tew was paid to engrave two pairs of dies and Dubois received payment for four pairs. If Dubois re-engraved the obverses for the bit and quint, grinding off the No Motto design and replacing it with a With Motto obverse, this would account for the extra pair of dies.

If this is true, the No Motto quint is the sole example of the first emission of Nova Constellatio patterns. Could this explain other various observations differentiating it from the rest of the Nova Constellatios?

The difference in design — The addition of the motto “Nova Constellatio” may have been decided upon after the first pair of dies were engraved by Tew — this would explain the 20-day delay between the first coin being delivered to Robert Morris and the final set’s appearance.  

The No Motto quint’s low weight — The first silver coin delivered to Robert Morris was made ostensibly to demonstrate Dudley’s ability to actually strike a coin — the weight would not have been as significant an issue as it would be for the congressional set.  

The graffiti — If we take the graffiti to read 5 DEC, it may have been a suggested alternate to the UNIT 500.  

The No Motto quint’s somewhat archaic planchet and unpolished dies — Again, if Dudley were merely demonstrating the ability to strike coins, these issues would have been of little importance to him. 

The Nova Constellatio patterns have been acknowledged as national treasures from the time that they were first discovered by the numismatic community; however, the facts surrounding these coins bear re-examination. This is partly due to their rarity — on average, one of these pieces may trade publicly every couple of decades. It is also in some part due to the nomenclature that was adopted for these coins in the 19th century. The Type 1/Type 2 distinction for the quints made a suggestion as to the emission sequence for these coins — a subtle, yet powerful implication that has resulted in numismatists accepting a hypothesis about the entire group of Nova Constellatio patterns that not only has never been tested, but has never been stated clearly. 

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