The 1776 Continental dollar is an enigmatic, complex issue that has fascinated numismatists for more than 200 years. Numismatic scholars from Sylvester Sage Crosby to Eric P. Newman and Michael Hodder studied the issue in detail, mapping out a convincing theory of the origin and purpose of the coins and classifying the numerous varieties that surfaced over the years.
Recently, exciting discoveries by authors like Eric Goldstein and David McCarthy have raised questions about the fundamental nature of these coins and their place of origin. The new evidence is certainly thought provoking, but we suspect the last word on the Continental dollar has yet to be heard.
Heritage Auctions is pleased to present this coin, graded MS67 by NGC, the single-finest certified 1776 Continental dollar of any variety, in this important offering as a part of our June 14-17 Long Beach Signature Auction.
This delightful Superb Gem offers impeccably preserved silver-gray surfaces, with prooflike reflectivity in the fields. The design elements are razor-sharp in most areas, with complete detail on the sun’s face and all the lettering bold, except for a touch of softness on WE ARE ONE in the center of the reverse, opposite the high points on the obverse. A representative of the popular Newman 3-D variety, the important EG FECIT stands out boldly. The obverse is struck slightly off center, to the upper left, while the reverse is perfectly centered. A diagnostic semicircular die crack extends through the centers of the rings on the reverse from GEORGIA through DELAWARE. This coin was once a highlight of several important numismatic collections, including those of Virgil Brand and John J. Ford. We expect intense competition from numismatists of all collecting disciplines when this iconic issue crosses the block.
No official documentation on the striking of these coins has ever come to light. The traditional thought on the origin of the Continental dollar is that it was a type of fiat money, created as a substitute for the paper money issued by the Continental Congress to pay government obligations during the Revolutionary War. In February and May of 1776, the Continental Congress passed resolutions issuing various denominations of paper money, including the dollar bill. However, similar resolutions passed in July and November of that year authorized the printing of many other denominations, but omitted the dollar note. Eric Newman believed the Continental dollar coins were struck to take the place of paper dollars in the last half of 1776.
Seven die varieties are known, employing five different obverse dies and four different reverses (actually, only two reverse dies were used, Newman’s reverses A, B, and C were the same die, but relapped and reworked). Most of the obverses differ in the spelling (or misspelling) of the word currency in the legend, but the Newman 3 obverse is differentiated by the addition of the inscription EG FECIT, which is translated as “E.G. made it”, referring to the engraver. The identity of the engraver was debated for many years, but Newman identified Elisha Gallaudet, of Freehold, New Jersey, as the most likely candidate. Gallaudet engraved the plates for printing some of the Continental Currency notes, lending credence to this theory. The great majority of the coins were struck in pewter, but a few rare specimens are known in brass and silver.
In the catalog of the John J. Ford Collection, Part I (Stack’s, 10/2003), Michael Hodder postulated the first issue of Continental dollars was struck in New York City, before the British occupied the city in September of 1776. Hodder suggested the minters must have traveled with the Congress after that, striking coins in various locales like Philadelphia and Lancaster in later months. Q. David Bowers notes pewter specimens appear on the market with some regularity, so the original mintage must have been extensive. Most of the coins seen today show signs of circulation, but a surprising number are known in Mint State. Because the intrinsic value of the coins was virtually nil, they were only accepted reluctantly and usually at a sharp discount.
Authors Eric Goldstein and David McCarthy published their “Myth of the Continental Dollar” in the January 2018 issue of The Numismatist, detailing several new discoveries in the literature and advancing a new theory on the origin of the Continental dollar. They first note the coin was absent from the collection of Pierre Eugene du Simitierre, the preeminent 18th-century coin collector in America. Apparently, du Simitierre became aware of the Continental dollar at some point, but believed it was a fantasy piece. His note on a proposed illustration in his unpublished Common Place Book, 1775-1784 reads:
“A coin the size of a Crown, with devices and Mottos taken from the continental money, Struck’t in London on Type-Metal, and dated 1776.”
Goldstein and McCarthy also note an entry in the pre-1790 ledger of Sarah Sophia Banks collection in the British Museum (written by Jonas Dryander) relating to her Continental dollar:
“Congress Dollar. 1776, never current, struck on speculation in Europe, for sale in America …”
A later version of this ledger, in Banks handwriting, repeats this information and is accompanied by a printed tipped-in flyer advertising the sale of “These American MEDALS at/Six-Pence Each/N.B. Representing the Paper Currency of a/Dollar, which goes for/Four Shillings and Six-pence in that country.” The flyer then gives a detailed description of a Newman 3-D EG FECIT Continental dollar under the heading EXPLANATION. This flyer closely resembles du Simitierre’s note in his unpublished manuscript, suggesting he may have seen one of the flyers at some point.
Goldstein and McCarthy go on to cite a letter from renowned silversmith and patriot Paul Revere to Bishop Watkins, dated February 21, 1790, in which he states the Continental dollars were not made in America:
“As for pewter money struck in America, I never saw any. I have made careful inquiry, and have all the reason in the world to believe that you were imposed upon by those who informed you.”
From these, and a few other citations, Goldstein and McCarthy conclude the 1776 Continental dollars were privately struck in Europe, as souvenir commemoratives, shortly after the war.
The debate rests here at the present time, with both sides pointing out weaknesses in the opposing positions. Certainly, the lack of any authorizing documentation for the Continental dollars is a glaring weakness in the traditional view. Extensive records on almost every subject were kept by the Continental Congress, so it is strange that an issue of such economic importance left no paper trail.
On the other hand, the flyer that is the most convincing evidence for the European theory says nothing about where the coins were struck. It is possible that some enterprising merchant gathered up a supply of high-grade Continental dollars in this country, where they were theoretically available and cheap, and offered them for sale to his European clientele.
Contemporary opinion on the origin of these pieces is divided, with Watkins and Sprengel believing they were American issues and Revere, du Simitierre, and Banks favoring a European source. Banks and du Simitierre may have based their opinion on the flyer, which is convincing, but not conclusive.
Goldstein and McCarthy promise a follow-up article on this subject, which may provide further insights.