Despite a documented history dating back more than 235 years, the 1776 Continental dollar remains an enigmatic issue to numismatists today. The coins have been studied by some of the greatest numismatic researchers of all time, but opinions about the origin and intended purpose of the coins remain divided. Regardless of their controversial nature, the coins remain elusive, valuable, and historic relics of our numismatic past.
Heritage Auctions is pleased to present a spectacular NGC-graded Gem representative as a part of our October 17-19 Signature Auction in Dallas. This is a delightful Gem, with bright silver-gray fields and darker medium gray devices. The design elements are sharply detailed throughout, with the usual long reverse die crack that starts in the GEORGIA ring and travels clockwise through the other rings to DELAWARE. The well-preserved surfaces are mostly smooth, with some slight granularity around the sundial and some light freckling in the ring, between FUGIO and EG FECIT. The overall presentation is most attractive.
The 1776 Continental dollar was first illustrated in a German book by Matthias Christian Sprengel called Historical and Genealogical Almanac, or Yearbook of the Most Remarkable New World Events for 1784, published in 1783. The coin’s legends were translated into German in the illustration, for the benefit of its intended readership and its publisher actually wrote to Benjamin Franklin asking for illustrations to use in the book, but there is no record of Franklin’s reply. The Continental dollar was also mentioned in Bishop Richard Watkins’ Chemical Essays (Volume IV), first published in 1786.
After discussing the “gun money” issues of King James III, Watkins notes:
“The Congress in America had recourse to the same expedient; they coined several pieces of about an inch and a half in diameter, and of 240 grains in weight; on one side of which was inscribed in a circular ring near the edge – Continental Currency, 1776 – and within the ring a rising sun, with – fugio – at the side of it, shining upon a dial, under which was – Mind your business. – On the reverse were thirteen small circles joined together like the rings of a chain, on each of which was inscribed the name of some one of the thirteen states; on another circular ring, within these, was inscribed – American Congress – and in the central space – We are One.”
Despite these early mentions in popular publications, and the obvious belief on the part of the authors that the 1776 Continental dollars were American coins, no documentary evidence authorizing the issue of these pieces has ever been found in Congressional records.
The traditional theory of the origin of the Continental dollar was developed by Eric P. Newman in the 1940s. Most of the Continental dollars were struck in pewter, but a few examples are known in brass and silver. Seven different die varieties have been identified. Newman believed the Continental dollars were intended as 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. Newman believed the Continental dollar coins were struck to take the place of less durable paper dollars in the last half of 1776. Newman’s theory was convincing and widely accepted, but the lack of official documentation always bothered rigorous numismatic researchers. Recent discoveries suggest the origin of the Continental dollar may have been quite different.
In their groundbreaking article in the January 2018 issue of The Numismatist entitled “The Myth of the Continental Dollar”, Eric Goldstein and David McCarthy presented evidence suggesting the Continental dollars were struck privately in London in 1783, for sale as medals, rather than circulating coins. They quoted prominent 18th-century Philadelphia coin collector Pierre Eugene Du Simitierre’s notes on the Continental dollar, “… 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.” Du Simitierre was a student of Congress, as well as numismatics, and was particularly well-placed to understand the history of the Continental dollar. Other contemporary Americans, including Paul Revere and Josiah Meigs, disputed that the Continental dollar was ever a circulating American coin in their correspondence, but perhaps the most convincing evidence of the foreign origin of the Continental dollar comes from abroad.
Lady Sarah Sophia Banks preserved a remarkable specimen of the Continental dollar in her coin collection, which was bequeathed to the British Museum. She kept a detailed inventory of her collection, which has also been preserved. Her notes on the Continental dollar read, “Continental Dollar. 1776. never current, struck on speculation in Europe, for sale in America.”
She also kept a simple handbill that accompanied the Continental dollar 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. Similar explanatory handbills were issued with contemporary medals that depict American themes, like the Libertas Americana medal and the Treaty of Paris medal, Betts-610.
From these documentary sources, Goldstein and McCarthy concluded that the Continental dollars were struck in London circa 1783 as a commemorative medal rather than a coin.
Regardless of which theory you subscribe to, and we expect the last word has yet to be heard, the 1776 Continental dollar remains an important numismatic link with the early history of this country. Whether it was produced to serve as a medium of exchange during the hard times of the Revolution, or struck to commemorate those struggles a few years later, like the Libertas Americana medal, it occupies a unique and storied position in our American numismatic heritage.