Mint, United States
MINT, UNITED STATES
During the colonial and Revolutionary periods, foreign coins of many denominations circulated in America. In 1782 superintendent of finance, Robert Morris, initiated the first concrete efforts to found a U.S mint. On 15 January 1782, he sent Congress a plan drafted by his assistant, Gouverneur Morris, for the establishment of an American coinage and a mint to produce it. After Congress approved the proposal in principle, Morris hired metallurgist Benjamin Dudley to create the needed machinery and produce sample coins, which he submitted to Congress in April 1783, along with a request that Congress take action on his coinage proposals. Morris's proposed coinage was the world's first official decimal-based coinage plan, although Thomas Jefferson had earlier suggested the idea. Morris's plan was based on multiples of a small abstract monetary unit called the mill, equivalent to 25 percent of a grain of silver or .069 percent of a dollar. The unit was designed to facilitate mathematical conversions without leftover fractions between the new monetary system and the old state currencies. When Congress failed to act on the plan, lack of funding forced Morris to suspend his mint operations.
In 1785 Congress approved a decimal-based system but rejected the small monetary unit in favor of the dollar as recommended by Thomas Jefferson, chairman of the committee to which Morris's coinage plan was referred. Congress also authorized the creation of a mint, but except for a private production of copper coins under contract with the Board of Treasury, no action was taken until after the new federal government was established in 1789. On 15 April 1790, the new U.S. Congress directed secretary of the treasury, Alexander Hamilton, to submit a new plan for a mint. In April 1792 Congress, overcoming objections to the expense of a mint and its potential for partisan patronage, approved a bill based on Hamilton's 28 January 1791 report. The bill reaffirmed the dollar as the monetary unit, authorized the creation of a mint in Philadelphia, and required that the design of the new coins bear an image of liberty. Debates in Congress during 1791–1792, when Robert Morris chaired the Senate committee responsible for mint legislation and helped produce sample coins bearing the bust of Washington, led the House of Representatives to reject as too "monarchical" the idea of placing a portrait of any incumbent president on U.S. coins. Pattern silver half dimes were produced in October 1792, reportedly using silver obtained from Washington's household.
The Pennsylvania scientist David Rittenhouse, who had advised Dudley on the design of mint machinery in 1782, became the first director of the U.S. Mint in 1792 and served to 1795. The Mint was initially under the jurisdiction of Thomas Jefferson's State Department. Housed on Seventh Street near Arch in the first building erected for the federal government, the Mint opened in 1793 and delivered its first circulating coins, copper cents and half cents, in that year. Silver coins were first produced in 1794 and gold coins in 1795, using bullion privately deposited at the Mint. With silver overvalued in the coins, most large coins were exported. In 1806 President Jefferson banned production of any coins larger than a half dollar, and no silver dollars were produced for thirty years. The Mint's primary early contribution was therefore relieving the problem of a shortage of money in low denominations for use in the small transactions in which most Americans were involved. Despite its efforts, a continuing coin shortage meant bank notes, scrip, and lightweight foreign coins continued to circulate to meet the need for small change.
In 1794 a congressional investigative committee led by Elias Boudinot challenged the high cost and low production of copper coins at the Mint, noting that such coins had been produced at far lower cost in New Jersey, Boudinot's home state. Next, Jeffersonian polemicist James Callender attacked the mint as a symbol of Federalist excesses and patronage and claimed that a thousand tons of cents could be struck at Birmingham, England, for the same cost. On his last day in office in January 1795, Hamilton also commented on the Mint's inadequacies, blaming poor management and recommending its transfer to the Treasury Department. When Boudinot's committee reported in February 1795, it recommended various procedural adjustments in the weight of coins, in receiving deposits, and in vending coins. Although the report exonerated the ailing David Rittenhouse from blame, he soon resigned as director. His successor, Henry William De Saussure, quickly resigned. Even after Boudinot took over as director, opposition to the Mint continued, with further complaints of Federalist patronage abuse and proposals for less expensive contract coinage. In 1800 a Senate committee recommended abolishing the Mint; the Senate proposed contracting with the Bank of the United States for coins, but Secretary of the Treasury Albert Gallatin, who took office in 1801, opposed placing coinage in the hands of a private corporation. A copper shortage and decline in bullion deposits resulted in periods of idleness at the Mint, leading to another round of debates in 1802, during which the Mint was again depicted as a "Federalist creation," monarchical, unproductive, expensive, and an embodiment of centralized power. Nevertheless, plans for contracts with the Bank of the United States or with Matthew Boulton's firm in Birmingham failed, and the Mint continued in operation.
Henry Voight was named first chief coiner, Albion Cox was recruited in England to serve as chief assayer, and Robert Scot was hired as engraver. John Jacob Eckfeldt, case-hardener of dies for Morris's sample coins of 1783, established a family dynasty at the Mint. His son, Adam Eckfeldt, began constructing tools and machinery for the mint in the 1790s and rose to chief coiner in 1814; other family members worked there continuously until 1929. Benjamin Rush served as treasurer of the mint from 1797 to 1813, and was succeeded by his son James, who served until 1830. Another long-term employee was assayer Joseph Richardson of Philadelphia, who succeeded Cox in 1795, served for thirty-six years, and was succeeded briefly by his son John, who had been in the department for over ten years. On the other hand, in the 1790s Philadelphia's yellow fever epidemics periodically shut down the mint and quickly claimed the lives of several of its employees, including engraver Joseph Wright, assayer Joseph Whitehead, and mint treasurer Nicholas Way.
In 1799 the mint was made an independent agency in Philadelphia, reporting directly to the president; not until 1873 was the headquarters moved to Washington and placed under the Treasury Department. Until 1816, when steam-operated machinery was introduced, horses or oxen powered the metal sheet–rolling machinery. Planchets were hand fed into the screw coining presses to produce the coins, a hazardous process, but in 1793 Adam Eckfeldt invented a device for automatically feeding and ejecting them. In 1838, branches of the U.S. Mint were opened in Louisiana, Georgia, and North Carolina, and as gold and silver were discovered in the West, various branches and assay offices were established there.
Stewart, Frank H. History of the First United States Mint. Camden, N.J.: private printing, 1924. Reprint, Lawrence, Mass.: Quartermain, 1974.
Elizabeth M. Nuxoll