Seated Liberty/No Motto Silver Dollars 1840-1873 Coin Guide
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The year was 1840. Martin Van Buren was completing a Presidential term
blighted by terrible economic depression. This era, called the Hard Times,
resulted from years of reckless Western land speculation and the growth of
unregulated banks issuing a flood of unsecured paper money. The prolonged
depression ravaged America's agriculture and industry and saw hundreds of
thousands starving and unemployed.
Inherited from President Andrew Jackson was the Van Buren
Administration's faith in "hard money"- silver and gold-as the
only reliable store of value in contrast to shaky credit and worthless
paper money. Expressing this hard money outlook, the Mint strove from 1836
to 1840 to create a new circulating silver dollar. No dollar coin had
appeared for circulation since 1804, when the last of the 1803-dated
Draped Bust dollars were released.
Mint Director Robert Maskell Patterson viewed the new dollar as the
pinnacle of America's silver coinage. After all, it was a fortunate
workman who made even four dollars for a work week of 76 to 80 hours of
unremitting toil in this harsh era. A silver dollar was indeed a store of
wealth to millions of impoverished working-class Americans.
An admirer of the seated Britannia on British copper coinage, Patterson
believed that a seated female figure would be just as "emblematic of
liberty" as the heads and busts adorning the nation's coinage. He
engaged the great portrait painter Thomas Sully to make sketches for his
seated Liberty. Sully perched her on a rock in Grecian robes, left arm
supporting a Union shield with a scroll inscribed LIBERTY. Her right arm
was raised and held a pole topped with a small Liberty Cap. The Mint's
assistant engraver, Christian Gobrecht, adapted the Sully sketches to
bas-relief art suitable for coinage. The result was the Seated Liberty
design used at one time or another on half dimes, dimes, 20-cent pieces,
quarters, half dollars and dollars from 1836 through 1891.
As reworked by Gobrecht and Robert Ball Hughes, Liberty emerged with a
rounded head and her dangling right arm appearing immensely long, her left
markedly shorter. Pattern obverses of 1836 and 1839 showed no obverse
stars but placed the artist's signature in the field or on the base.
Gobrecht's original reverses of 1836-1839 presented a magnificent flying
eagle in a starry or plain sky. Unfortunately, the "No Motto"
silver dollar of 1840-1865 deleted the innovative flying eagle,
substituting the unimaginative but familiar "sandwich board"
bird with dropped wings and a shield on its breast. Liberty had no
artist's signature and sat demurely in a circle of 13 stars with the date
placed below. The coins of 1840-65 do not have the motto IN GOD WE TRUST
on the reverse.
Mintages were generally small by modern standards, totaling only
2,895,673 coins for the series. The Philadelphia Mint (no mintmark) struck
all dates from 1840 to 1865 inclusive; New Orleans (O), struck dollars
dated 1846, 1850, 1859 and 1860; the San Francisco Mint (S), struck this
type dollar only in 1859. Mintmarks are located under the olive branch,
between the eagle's feet on the reverse.
Tiny numbers of proofs were struck of most early Philadelphia dates,
but they are of great rarity. Numbers struck are not known with certainty
and are omitted from popular guide books. Proofs were first made for
public sale in 1858 when perhaps 80 pieces were struck; later proof
mintages never exceeded 1,000 except for 1860, when 1,330 pieces were
coined. Proof restrikes were made of the 1851 and 1852 coins. The last No
Motto date was 1865, with 46,500 business strikes and 500 proofs made. Two
1866-dated No Motto coins are known, but these "fantasy pieces"
were made somewhat later for sale to wealthy collectors. In recent years,
the existence of a single proof 1851-O specimen has come to light, though
researchers postulate that this was accidentally made by the Philadelphia
"Midnight Minters," (probably engraver George Eckfeldt and his
son, Mint night watchman Theodore). In their haste to clandestinely supply
the coveted 1851 issue, they overstruck an existing New Orleans Mint
dollar, the flattened 'O' mintmark still being faintly visible.
Seated dollars never circulated to any great extent in the East, though
numbers were in daily use west of the Mississippi. The Civil War further
restricted their circulation as the numbers of business strikes and proofs
struck contracted sharply. Bullion buyers snapped up most new silver coins
for export as fast as they were made. These coins were shipped overseas
for melting, and the only U.S. Mint product most citizens saw were the new
bronze cents. Coin collectors derided the Mint as "Uncle Sam's
These large silver coins had some odd striking characteristics. The
actual position of Liberty's head may cause poor detail even on pristine
specimens. The feathers on the eagle's leg and the claws may also show
evidence of weak strike. Wear first appears on Liberty's thigh, right
breast and the top of her head. The tops of the eagle's wings follow.
Because of their size and weight, uncirculated coins stored in Mint bags
will show scattered contact marks. Proofs often are hairlined from the
careless handling of early non-numismatic owners or will show evidence of
cleaning by old-time collectors.
Seated Liberty dollars have gained popularity with the entire collector
community since the 1970's, when the great U.S. Treasury hoard of silver
dollars was liquidated, though few of this early type were found. To
collectors more familiar with Morgan and Peace dollars issued in the tens
of millions, these earlier coins may seem scarce and elusive, and indeed
they are. Only a small minority of all Seated Liberty dollars struck
remain in existence today. Researcher Weimar W. White estimated that just
a fraction survive-even in low grades.
Assembling a complete date and mint set in lower circulated grades is
within reason, given patience and perseverance. An entire set in mint
state will be costly, especially for examples of the 1850-O, 1851, 1852
and 1859-S. A complete run of proofs is a theoretically possible goal but
one which will be unrealistic for any but the best-financed collector.
The Seated Liberty series continued from 1866 to 1873 with the reverse
motto IN GOD WE TRUST. The coinage act of Feb. 12, 1873 discontinued the
silver dollar and abolished the legal tender status of all silver dollars
struck from 1794 to 1873. This is the law later savagely denounced by the
vocal partisans of free and unlimited coinage of silver as the "Crime
of '73." Legal tender status was restored to the standard silver
dollar under the Bland-Allison Act of 1878, which prompted the coining of
millions of Morgan Dollars.
Diameter: 38.1 millimeters Weight: 26.73 grams Composition: .900
silver, .100 copper Edge: Reeded Net Weight: .77344 oz pure silver
BIBLIOGRAPHY Alexander, David T., DeLorey, Thomas K. and
Reed, P. Bradley, Coin World Comprehensive Catalog & Encyclopedia of
United States Coins, New York, World Almanac-Pharos Books, 1990. Bowers,
Q. David, Silver Dollars and Trade Dollars of the United States, Bowers
& Merena Galleries, Wolfeboro, NH, 1993. Breen, Walter, Walter Breen's
Complete Encyclopedia of U.S. and Colonial Coins, F.C.I. Press/Doubleday,
New York, 1988. Vermeule, Cornelius, Numismatic Art in America, The
Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 1971. White,
Weimar W., The Liberty Seated Dollar 1840-1873, New York, Sanford J.
Coin Information Provided Courtesy NGC.