The remarkable year of 1815: War of 1812's end and the U.S. Mint
- Published: Jan 16, 2015, 6 AM
Editor's note: The following is a portion of Bill Eckberg's Coin World cover feature on U.S. coins in the War of 1812 era. Links to the rest of the series can be found at the end of this post.
The year 1815 was a significant one for the United States of America, but one that saw little activity at the U.S. Mint. Yet what the Mint did in 1815 has an outsize interest for coin collectors and students of numismatics.
The United States had declared war on Great Britain in the summer of 1812. To the British, it was a side conflict of the Napoleonic wars in Europe, but to the U.S., it was eventually thought of as a second war for independence. Wartime often affects coin production. Think of the various overdates from World War I and World War II, and the steel cents and silver-alloy 5-cent coins from World War II. The War of 1812, too, profoundly affected U.S. coinage.
Though most of the fighting was in Canada and at sea, the British blockaded New York City and Philadelphia. After taking over the Chesapeake Bay, they attacked Washington, D.C., and burned the president’s residence, the Capitol and other government buildings in August of 1814. However their attempts to take Baltimore the next month were unsuccessful. Viewing the aftermath of the battle for Baltimore’s Fort McHenry on the morning of Sept. 14, 1814, caused Francis Scott Key to write the poem that became The Star-Spangled Banner, our national anthem.
Negotiators, including future President John Quincy Adams, met in Ghent, Belgium, in August 1814. While the British were probably thinking that by burning Washington they had already won the war, the Americans didn’t see it that way. On Sept. 11, three days before their success at Fort McHenry, American forces repelled a major British offensive at Plattsburgh in northern New York. With these and other victories, the Americans were unwilling to concede anything in negotiations, the British were tired of fighting, and by Dec. 24, both sides had agreed on a peace treaty. Hostilities were to be called off, and both sides were to retreat to their pre-war boundaries.
However, by the time the armies received word of the treaty, the British had invaded New Orleans in late December and early January and been defeated by troops under Andrew Jackson, raising Jackson’s status to that of a major political figure.
The Senate unanimously ratified the Treaty of Ghent on Feb. 16, 1815, and President Madison exchanged papers with the British the next day, ending the war.
Americans finally felt free of Great Britain. The euphoria over the end of the war, and especially the series of American victories in late 1814 and early in 1815, brought an end to the Federalist Party, which had opposed the war. Thus began the “Era of Good Feelings,” in which the entire country seemed suffused with a common sense of national purpose that lasted for a decade. It was a time very different from today!
The transition from wartime to peacetime had a significant effect on the activities of the Mint. The wartime embargo had prevented the Mint from getting any new copper planchets after 1812, as cents and half cents were struck on planchets imported from Great Britain.
Wartime was also a time of hoarding precious metals. The government struck gold and silver coins only for depositors and in the denominations the depositors requested. For example, if someone deposited $50 worth of silver, he could expect to receive exactly $50 in any silver denomination he chose. Gold deposits were paid out in gold coin.
This system of “free coinage” of gold and silver was a major money-loser for the government. The Mint had to assay the deposits, alloy them with copper, melt the alloy into ingots, roll the ingots to the proper thickness, punch out planchets, and coin them. Scrap had to be remelted, rolled, punched and coined, and so on. Not only was this labor-intensive, but any precious metal lost in the process, and some was lost at each step, had to be replaced. All of this was at government expense.
Few depositors came forward to ask for coinage during the war, so no half dimes, dimes, quarter dollars, dollars, quarter eagles or eagles were struck. Half dollars, which were used by banks for large transactions in those days, were struck in normal quantities.
What did the average person use for money? Mostly, it was foreign coins, especially Spanish silver and Portuguese gold, all of which was legal tender in the United States until 1857. Recall that a Spanish dollar could be cut into eight “bits,” each worth 12½ cents, so even today a quarter is worth “two bits.”
At the end of the war the Mint had no bullion from which to strike silver or gold coins and no copper planchets from which to strike cents. Mint activities slowly ramped up late in 1815, but only four denominations were coined: cents, quarter dollars, half dollars and half eagles. The gold and silver coins were struck in small numbers and are scarce to extremely rare. However, as we shall see, a lot of cents were struck in 1815, though none carry that date.
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