In July, 1776 the American Revolution had entered its second, decisive year. The shooting at Lexington and Concord and George Washington’s appointment as commander in chief of the Continental Army were a year past. The British had unexpectedly evacuated occupied Boston, and both commander and army were enjoying an all-too-brief season of success.
Sitting since May 1775, the Second Continental Congress had moved from attempted conciliation with the British Crown to a forthright vote for Independence on July 2, 1776. On July 4 the first hardy delegates signed the momentous document which declared that the 13 former colonies “were and by right ought to be free and independent states.”
Loosely united even in the midst of war, the new states had no unity whatever in coinage and currency. Each began printing its own paper currency valued both in British-style pounds, shillings and pence and in the universally familiar Spanish Milled dollar. The states valued the Spanish dollar at wildly different rates ranging from eight shillings in New York to 32 shillings sixpence in South Carolina. In the first flush of independence, Congress apparently decided to express America’s sovereignty by launching a distinctive new coinage, known to numismatists as the Continental Dollar. Sometime in July 1776, most probably in New York City, these coins were struck in silver, brass and pewter. More than 60 survive today, of which the larger number are pewter.
The coins’ distinctively American designs are attributed to philosopher, almanac writer and statesman Benjamin Franklin. The obverse bears a sundial with the Franklin-esque Latin motto FUGIO, “I (Time) Fly,” coupled with an English admonition MIND YOUR BUSINESS below. The legend CONTINENTAL CURRENCY and bold date 1776 appear within the outer beaded border. The reverse presents 13 continuous links, each bearing a state name or abbreviation from N’HAMP’S to VIRGINIA. At the center, AMERICAN CONGRESS surrounds the hopeful motto WE ARE ONE.
Noted numismatic scholar Eric P. Newman published a definitive study of the Continental coins in 1952, noting the major obverse types with their charming variety of spellings, CURENCY, CURRENCY and CURRENCEY. All show FUGIO between two solid concentric lines, but the most fascinating coins have an added engraver’s “signature,” EG FECIT.
Numismatists generally agree that “EG” was Elisha Gallaudet, an experienced bank note engraver of Freehold, New Jersey. Gallaudet was very familiar with the Continental Dollar design, since he had engraved the same symbols on the One Sixth Dollar Continental Currency notes of Feb. 17, 1776, including sun dial, FUGIO and links. FECIT, Latin for MADE IT, was a widely used identification familiar to collectors of contemporary European coins and medals. Researchers believe that Gallaudet simply adapted his paper money design to the proposed new coins at the invitation of Congress, probably during the heady days of July 1776 when massive French loans were expected to provide the necessary silver for a new national coinage.
The July 1776 through September 1778 series of Continental Currency printed by Franklin’s old firm of Hall & Sellers omitted the one-dollar bill, and New York State’s August 1776 currency series also skips over this then-handy denomination. This empty niche was almost certainly to have been filled by the proposed new silver coin. Study of 1776 New York and Philadelphia newspaper reports leads researchers to believe that the brass coins were intended to circulate not as dollars but as pence, to augment and replace the wide variety of assorted coppers then in use.
The silver and brass pieces may have been planned as dollars and pennies, but the purpose of the pewter coins is less clear. They may have been struck as an emergency measure after the lack of bullion prevented a silver coinage. With the need for brass in cannon-making eliminating that alloy, pewter would have been the next logical coinage material. Pewter was used everywhere for household utensils including tableware. Less critical for weapon-making, tin-based pewter would have made an acceptable emergency money. Virtually any metal would have made a desirable alternative for unsecured Continental paper, which rapidly lost its value with the onset of the chain of military disasters that nearly swamped Washing-ton’s forces later in 1776.
American defeat in the battle of Long Island was followed by British occupation of New York City. Continued American retreats led ultimately to the loss of New Jersey, the fall of Philadelphia and the dreadful winter at Valley Forge. By late 1777, the prestige of Congress and the value of its paper currency were nearly gone, and the concept of a metallic Continental coinage receded like a mirage.
A favorite with collectors of Early American coinage, Continental dollars are sometimes included in advanced type collections as an example of the first U.S. dollar coin. Obviously seeing some use in commerce, surviving pewter and brass specimens range in grade from Very Fine to Uncirculated, while the silver pieces also show varying degrees of circulation. High points on both sides of the coin are the rings, which show the first traces of wear.
An assortment of restrikes exist, the first being made for the 1876 Centennial celebration, with additional strikings taking place over the years. Porous cast counterfeits abound, making expert authentication a necessity, particularly for lower grade pieces. All the issues do not conform to any true standard, varying both in weight and diameter.
Ultimately the new United States won the protracted war, but the first federally authorized coinage was not to appear until 1787. This took the form of copper cents bearing (of all things!) a radiant sun over a sun dial with the mottos FUGIO and MIND YOUR BUSINESS, and with 13 links and WE ARE ONE on the reverse. After 11 years, Gallaudet’s designs at last came into their own.
Diameter: 37.7-40.7 millimeters (varies)
Weight: 15.03-18.51 grams (varies)
Composition: Pewter (.950+ tin and lead, .050 trace elements)
Edge: Twin leaf ornamentation.
Alexander, David T., and DeLorey, Thomas K., Coin World Comprehensive Catalog & Encyclopedia of United States Coins, World Almanac-Pharos Books, New York, 1990.
Breen, Walter, Walter Breen’s Complete Encyclopedia of U.S. and Colonial Coins, Doubleday/FCI, New York, 1988.
Hodder, Michael J., “The Continental Currency Coinage of 1776, a Trial Die and Metallic Emission Sequence”, The American Numismatic Association Centennial Anthology, Colorado Springs, CO., 1991.
Mossman, Philip L., Money of the American Colonies and Confederation, a Numismatic, Economic & Historical Correlation, American Numismatic Society, New York, 1993.
Newman, Eric P., The 1776 Continental Currency Coinage-Varieties of the Fugio Cent, Wayte Raymond Inc., New York, 1952.