U.S. Coins: Coins in use before 1793

By , Coin World Almanac: Eighth Edition
Published : 06/10/15
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Meanwhile, a federal coinage system had been under study since the early 1780s. Two plans merit attention here. Superintendent of Finance Robert Morris submitted the first to Congress Jan. 15, 1782. Assistant Financier of the Confederation Gouverneur Morris (no relation to Robert Morris) probably wrote the proposal. The Morris proposal was a complicated one, substituting the British system of pounds, shillings and pence for a decimal system based on the Spanish milled dollar. The basic unit would be worth 1/1,440 of the Spanish dollar, a sum arrived at by determining the largest common divisor by which state currencies could be divided without a fraction. The denominations in the Nova Constellatio series, as the coins are called, would have been copper 5-unit and 8-unit pieces, plus a silver cent worth 100 units, a silver quint worth 500 units and a mark worth 1,000 units. The cumbersome nature of the Morris system, however, gained little support.

Alexander Hamilton, secretary of the Treasury, submitted the second plan to Congress, on Jan. 21, 1791. In his proposal, Hamilton recommended the basic unit be a dollar. The denominations would have been a gold $10 coin, a gold dollar, a silver dollar, a silver tenth-dollar, a copper coin valued at 100 to the dollar, and a second copper coin, valued at 200 to the dollar.

The Hamilton proposal was very similar to what Congress would approve in April 1792. Following Hamilton’s proposal, Congress passed a resolution March 3, 1791, that a federal Mint be built, and President Washington in his third State of the Union speech agreed.

Then, on April 2, 1792, Congress passed a law authorizing both a federal Mint and coinage. Ten denominations of coins, more than recommended by Hamilton, were approved: in gold were a $10 eagle, a $5 half eagle and a $2.50 quarter eagle; in silver were a dollar, half dollar, quarter dollar, disme (the “s” was dropped from Mint documents in the 1830s, with the 10-cent coin finally called a dime) and half disme (equal to 5 cents); and in copper, a cent and half cent, neither of which had legal tender status.

The April 1792 act even outlined what design elements should appear on the coins (discussed later).

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