Monday, April 7, 2014

Congress Establishes The Dollar And It'll Cost You $50,000 - $75,000

by Stephen J. Gertz

The dollar becomes the official coin of the nation in the first printing of An Act Establishing a Mint, and Regulating the Coins of the United States, offered by Swann Auction Galleries in its Printed and Manuscript Americana sale, tomorrow April 8, 2014.

Published April 2, 1792 and certified by the autograph signature of Thomas Jefferson as Secretary of State, and with the typed signatures of Speaker of the House Jonathan Trumbull, Vice-President John Adams, and President George Washington, it may be the only complete signed copy extant.

With no signed complete copies seen at auction since at least 1917, and with only two copies - unsigned - recorded in ESTC and OCLC, this one is estimated to sell for $50,000 - $75,000.

Printed on paper made by Henry Schutz in Pennsylvania with his "HS Sandy Run" watermark (the same paper preferred by George Washington for his private correspondence - see Gravell, American Watermarks 164) and published in Philadelphia by Francis Childs and John Swain on five pages on three (here disbound) folio sheets, 15 x 9 3/4 inches, the coinage act created the first United States mint (in Philadelphia), established and defined the currency system of the United States, and set the dollar as legal tender.

The act authorizes the hiring of a mint director, assayer, chief coiner, engraver, and treasurer, and sets the salaries for each.

The ninth clause lists the denominations of coins which can be produced by the new mint. The most important was "Dollars or Units - each to be the value of a Spanish milled dollar as the same is now current, and to contain three hundred and seventy one grains and four sixteenths of a grain of pure, or four hundred and sixteen grains of standard silver."

The other denominations, ranging from ten-dollar gold "Eagles" down through quarter dollars, "dismes," cents, and half cents, are all defined in relation to the dollar.

The tenth clause dictates that each coin bear the word "Liberty," and that the gold and silver denominations read "United States of America" and bear an eagle on the reverse.

The Act, in Section 19, promises a bleak future for those who mess with the mint and its product. "And be it further enacted that if any of the gold or silver coins which shall be struck or coined at the said mint shall be debased or made worse as to the proportion of the fine gold or fine silver therein contained, or shall be of less weight or value than the same out to be pursuant to the directions of this act, through the default or with the connivance of any of the officers or persons who shall be employed at the said mint, for the purpose of profit or gain, or otherwise with a fraudulent intent, and if any of the said officers or persons shall embezzle any of the metals which shall at any time be committed to their charge for the purpose of being coined, or any of the coins which shall be struck or coined at the said mint, every such officer or person who shall commit any or either of the said offenses, shall be deemed guilty of felony, and shall suffer death."

The final clause dictates that "the money of account of the United States shall be expressed in dollars or units, dismes or tenths, cents or hundredths, and milles or thousandths." The U.S. has operated on a decimal system ever since, although the "mille" soon fell into disuse.

Other provisions have been superseded by later acts. Private citizens, for example, with gold or silver bullion lying around the house collecting dust can no longer take it to the bank and have it minted into official coins at no expense.

In passing, it should be noted that the Coinage Act of 1792 was ultimately passed by Congress for the sole purpose of allowing the present writer, 222 years afterward, to capture the grinding consequence in the 21st century of Alexis de Tocqueville's 19th century observation that money-making is the dominant ethic in the U.S.:

Another day, another dolor, the waking-call of the hard-working financially challenged and  depressed citizen with barely two dismes to rub together.

Images courtesy of Swann Auction Galleries, with our thanks.

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