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Thomas Jefferson Signed Act of Congress Authorizing Copper Coinage (the First Legal Tender Produced by U.S. Government)
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That the director of the mint…purchase a quantity of copper...and…cause the be coined at the mint into cents and half cents...thence to issue into circulation….

That after the expiration of six calendar months from the time when there shall have been paid into the treasury by the said director, in cents and half cents, a sum not less than fifty thousand dollars … no copper coins or pieces whatsoever, except the said cents and half cents, shall pass current as money, or shall be paid, or offered to be paid or received in payment for any debt … and all copper coins or pieces, except the said cents and half cents, which shall be paid or offered to be paid or received in payment contrary to the prohibition aforesaid, shall be forfeited, and every person by whom any of them shall have been so paid … shall also forfeit the sum of ten dollars…”

THOMAS JEFFERSON. Printed Document Signed, as Secretary of State, “An Act to provide for a copper coinage,” May 8, 1792, Philadelphia. 1 p., 9⅝ x 15 in.

Inventory #27505       Price: $235,000

After September 15, 1789, Congress required the Secretary of State to sign two copies of each Act for distribution to each state. (Smaller format unsigned copies were sent to U.S. Senators and Representatives.) Vermont was admitted as the 14th state on March 1, 1791, so Jefferson signed only 28 copies of this Act.

We are aware of only one other Jefferson-signed copy of this Act that had been in private hands. It was in a major collection pertaining to America’s coinage, which sold privately in 1992, and has since been donated to the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, GLC 01999.

Historical Background
The Continental Congress issued more than $200 million in paper currency to fund the American Revolution. Not backed by gold or silver, they depreciated quickly, giving rise to the phrase, “not worth a Continental.” From this experience, the Founders understood the importance of a strongly-backed and hard to counterfeit national currency. Thus, the United States Constitution authorized Congress “To coin Money, regulate the Value thereof... and fix the Standard of Weights and Measures,” and prohibited the states from issuing paper currency.[1]

In April 1790, the first Federal Congress directed the Secretary of the Treasury to devise a plan for establishing a national mint. Hamilton did so, submitting the report in January, 1791.[2]

That led to interesting debate. For instance, a clause in the proposed Coinage Act calling for gold and silver coins to include a “representation of the head of the President of the United States.” It was rejected by a vote of 26 to 22. According to reporting in the National Gazette, “The chief objection … was, that it favors too much of monarchy, and would ill become the majesty of an independent people enjoying a free republican government, thus to idolize the features of an individual; and would besides be holding out an additional temptation to ambitious men, whose pride might be flattered by the prospect of having their faces consigned to immortality, in gold and silver.” Supporters “thought it by no means derogatory to a republic, to have their money stamped with the likeness of their chief magistrate … they would give our President, as well as our coin, a greater degree of respectability in foreign countries, and would pay him a compliment which could not give umbrage to any citizen….”[3]

On April 2, 1792, Congress passed An Act for Establishing a Mint and Regulating the Coins. It situated the Mint in Philadelphia, “at the seat of the Government of the United States for the time being,” as that was the temporary capital. President George Washington quickly appointed scientist David Rittenhouse as the first director of the Mint.

Congress passed the present Copper Coinage act a little over a month later. It specified the amount of copper that the director of the mint could purchase and coin into cents and half-cents. It also stipulated that anyone using any other copper coins after the mint had produced $50,000 worth of cents and half-cents would forfeit them and incur a fine of $10.

Unlike gold and silver, copper was expected to be easy to acquire domestically. But Rittenhouse soon alerted the President that “the late rise in the price of Copper, and the difficulty of obtaining it, render it improbable that the quantity authorised to be procured can be had, unless some part of it be imported…” (Washington to Hamilton, November 19, 1792, Fitzpatrick). Eventually, the copper was obtained, and on March 3, 1793, the first U.S. coins, copper cents and half cents were minted for general circulation.

The initial design was unpopular, and first changed later in 1793. The large cent was minted every year from 1793 to 1857, except 1815 when planchettes couldn’t be procured from England.

Condition: Fine overall. Scattered foxing and soiling; three small areas of mounting adhesive to verso with slight bleed through to recto; left margin rough and partially threaded for binding.

Reference: Evans 24904

[1] “Treasury Notes” were sporadically issued during financial stress, especially during the War of 1812 and the Mexican War, as well as the Panic of 1857. But it wasn’t until 1861 that the first official United States paper currency was issued. In the meantime, approximately 1,600 private banks chartered by the states issued 7,000 varieties of paper currency.

[2]Alexander Hamilton, Report on the Establishment of a Mint, January 28, 1791, Original Reports of the Secretary of the Treasury, 1790-1791, National Archives, Washington, DC.

[3]National Gazette (Philadelphia, PA), March 24 and March 29, 1792, 2:1-2.

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