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
“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
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
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
“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
“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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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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