A History of US Currency – Part II

Before the civil war, the American states minted many copper coins and the nascent federal government minted few coins. One of these coins was the Continental Dollar first minted in pewter, then copper. Continental Dollars are slightly larger than Eisenhower dollars with a diameter of 41mm. The reverse features a chain of states, each one linked to the next, with the words WE ARE ONE stamped in the center. The obverse features a sun shining on a plowed field, with a sundial in the foreground. The outer rim contains the words: CONTINENTAL CONGRESS and the date. An inner ring is stamped with the word FUGIO, Latin for escape or I flee. The inner circle also has a saying, MIND YOUR BUSINESS, all of which is courtesy of the coin designer, Benjamin Franklin.

During the Revolutionary period and thereafter Spanish Pieces of Eight were also in circulation in the young states. Their silver content provided intrinsic value which made them more popular than the pewter and even copper, USA coins. The first USA gold coins were made shortly after the US Revolutionary War. There were only ten gold Brasher Doubloons minted and only seven exist today. They range in value from 2.2 million to 5 million dollars.

Just after the Revolutionary war the US mint prohibited anyone to mint silver and gold coinage, then made copper pennies, silver half-dime (also called the half-disme), and dimes. These different mintages made up the family of US coins which endured until the civil war. During the civil war, people on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line hoarded coins which created a coin shortage, especially of copper coins used to purchase everyday goods. To ease the shortage, shopkeepers minted copper tokens. These tokens were not legal tender, but they were used as such to maintain the market in the absence of currency.

Cash-poor and wishing to secede, the Southern states went to the printing presses. Most southern merchants accepted the Confederate paper money alongside Official Union Currency. Although state currency seems complicated today, at the time of the civil war it had been less than 100 years since the newly codified colonies printed state-specific notes. Those post-colonial and pre-federal notes were usurped by Continental Currency, but inflation and collapse soon followed, rendering Continental Currency as useless as the paper it was printed on. Confederate notes met the same fate during Reconstruction. These copies of Confederate currency show what some of the state-printed paper currency looked like.

At the close of the Civil War, Reconstruction began. The Union was not solidified yet, but a single currency helps to nourish a sense of belonging, and a sense of wholeness to a nation recovering from division. The Liberty set was first minted in 1838 and production increased during Reconstruction. The uptick in national productivity created the wealth that allowed for greater coin production. The Liberty set includes three gold coins with face values of $2.50, $5 and $10. Today you can purchase a set from high yield years for $2,300 give or take.

The Reconstruction era was plagued with corruption as the country struggled to put itself back together. When striking silver quarters, some mint officials intentionally made error coins to sell to their collector friends. These intentional mistakes increased the value of the Standard Silver Quarter Dollar coins, both then and today.

To find out more about Civil War and Reconstruction era coins, as well as many other coins, check out “Heritage U.S. Coin Long Beach, California Auction” books on Google Books or at your local library.

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