A Very Good Year for the Nation and Its Coins

The most widely known 1776 coin is the Continental Currency “dollar,” struck in brass, pewter and silver apparently as a pattern for an anticipated silver coinage. This pewter example graded Extremely Fine 45 realized nearly $45,000 at a 2013 auction. (Photo: HeritageAuctions.com)

By Gerald Tebben

The year 1776 was a good one for the nation and numismatics. Every coin from the famous year carries with it the tremendous power of the date and a good tale.

Only a handful of 1776 U.S. coins are known: the mysterious New Hampshire coin, a trio of unique pattern Massachusetts coppers, counterfeit 1776 British halfpennies and the Continental Currency dollars.

On March 13, 1776, a New Hampshire House coinage committee recommended that William Moulton be empowered to make coins for the colony. On June 28, the New Hampshire legislature authorized a state copper coinage with a pine tree and the words “American liberty” on the obverse and a harp and the date “1776” on the reverse.

Lacking strong steel for dies, Moulton cast his coins. While coinage weighing 100 pounds (about 4,600 pieces) was authorized, only eight or nine examples are known to collectors.

The tree was likely a Liberty Tree, a meeting spot for patriots in countless American settlements after 1765 when Boston’s Sons of Liberty met under an elm to protest the Stamp Act.

The harp was a more obscure symbol, but one uniquely fitting for a small mountain state. A harp of 13 strings appears on the $8 bill of May 10, 1775, the first emission of Continental Currency. It was surrounded by the Latin legend”majora minoribus consonant”—“The greater and smaller ones [strings] sound together.”

Patriot silversmith Paul Revere is generally credited with creating three unique 1776 copper Massachusetts patterns.

A pine tree appears on one piece, surrounded by the legend “Massachusetts state” and the notation “1d LM” (one penny, lawful money). The reverse shows Liberty holding a freedom cap and the legend “Liberty and virtue,” with 1776 in exergue.

A small piece known as the Janus copper after the two-faced Roman god shows a three-faced head and the legend “State of Massa 1/2d” (one half penny). The reverse shows Liberty and the words “Goddess Liberty” and the date.

A crudely struck third piece was struck over a 1747 British halfpenny. A standing Indian is on the obverse, surrounded by the legend “Province of Massa,” indicating it was struck before the Colonies declared their independence.

The most commonly available 1776-dated coin appears at first glance to be a British halfpenny, but is in fact a counterfeit coin struck at private mints in New York City and at Capt. Thomas Machin’s mill in Newburgh, New York, about a decade later. ? Lightweight, but of good copper, the pieces were readily accepted in change-starved America. However, Sylvester S. Crosby wrote in his “The Early Coins of America” that locals viewed the mill with suspicion. Machin’s son later recalled, “They [coiners] also sometimes worked in masks to create a terror in the neighborhood.”

Machin’s Mill issues dated 1776 command a premium over other dates (1747 to 1788) but sell for about $150 or so in good condition.

The most widely known 1776 coin is the Continental Currency “dollar.” Struck in brass, pewter and silver, these silver-dollar size pieces were apparently struck as a pattern for an anticipated silver coinage. Breen theorized the coinage was predicated upon a French loan of silver that never happened.

No records remain of how the pieces came to be struck, but they were designed to be a bold statement of national sovereignty. The reverse shows 13 interlocking rings—each labeled with the name of a state—surrounding a ring with the words “American Congress” around the edge and “We are one” in the center.

The obverse, with a sundial and the admonition “Mind your business,” resembles the 1787 Fugio cent. The sometimes-misspelled words and date “Continental currency, 1776” surround the timepiece.

United States coinage still speaks to our ideals and aspirations. This year’s coinage includes the Westward Journey 5-cent coin celebrating the conclusion of Lewis and Clark’s epic journey to the western end of the young nation formed by the events of 1776.

Gerald Tebben, a longtime numismatist, is editor of the Central States Numismatic Society’s Centinel and a contributing writer to Coin World.

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