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Roger Burdette: Why the First Mint Stayed in Philadelphia 

Roger Burdette: Why the First Mint Stayed in Philadelphia 
1st Philadelphia Mint. Image: CoinWeek.

By Roger W. Burdette, special to CoinWeek …..
 

In 1792, when the first U.S. Mint was getting started, the nation’s capital was in Philadelphia. Congress met in Congress Hall, and government offices were scattered nearby in rented space. Our new national mint could not operate in rented buildings–the equipment was too heavy and bulky, plus there were horses to accommodate, and the security of precious metals and struck coins was important. The solution was to purchase a site somewhat outside the city center.

The history of the first United States Mint has been the subject of several numismatic books and articles, the definitive one being a 2011 book: The Secret History of the First U.S. Mint: How Frank H. Stewart Destroyed – And Then Saved – A National Treasure, by Joel Orosz and Leonard Augsburger. All of these explain the Philadelphia Mint and its problems dealing with poor equipment, insufficient and irregular bullion, and the overall decrepit conditions for man and beast.

Roger Burdette: Why the First Mint Stayed in Philadelphia With a clumsy hodgepodge of buildings and a site intruded upon by alleys, it is somewhat confusing to try and understand why this was permitted to occur. Certainly, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, and others were aware of how mints in London and Paris were designed. It is difficult to believe that they seriously considered the Philadelphia Mint as a lasting facility for manufacturing the nation’s coinage. Taken as a whole, the Mint resembled a country farm or a village blacksmith’s shop rather than an important government office. A deeper look suggests that permeance was not part of the Philadelphia Mint’s original plan.

A letter written in December 1828 from Director Samuel Moore to Representative John Sargent of Pennsylvania (PA-2), Chairman of the House Committee on the Mint, details the original mint site:

On the first establishment of the Mint, there were purchased under the Act of March 2, 1793, a house and lot on Seventh Street [and Arch St.], and one other lot fronting on a fourteen foot alley… Under a subsequent Act of July 2, 1795, a third lot … was purchased, fronting on the aforesaid Alley and extending Northwest to a private court and separated from the lots before mentioned by a four foot Alley common to all the property bordering thereon.

This location was, at the time, somewhat away from the population center along the Delaware River and was considered semi-rural. The decision to use horse power rather than water power avoided buying expensive property along the Delaware or locating the Mint on distant pasture land along the Schuylkill River. After all, this was a temporary arrangement.

Congress had previously passed the Residence Act of 1790[1], which would move the national capital to a location along the Potomac River – a place to be determined by President George Washington. The law stipulated that in 1800, all government offices would relocate to this new capital city. By late 1800, all branches of government were in the new “City of Washington” except one lone bureau: the U.S. Mint Bureau.

Plans for the new capital included a large lot for the Mint along Pennsylvania Avenue near the Capitol building. The lot had access to a good stream, called Tiber Creek, which would allow the use of water to run equipment instead of horses. It was not far from the Treasury Department building and was close enough to Congress’ meetings that sample coins could be taken there for members to examine within a few minutes of being struck.

Roger Burdette: Why the First Mint Stayed in Philadelphia 
Figure 1. Map of central Washington City. The Capitol building is at lower right and the wide diagonal street is Pennsylvania Avenue, the city’s original ceremonial path between the Capitol and the Executive Mansion. Tiber Creek is the blue water channel from upper right to lower center. A red arrow points to the land originally reserved for the U.S. Mint in anticipation of its moving to the capital city. (1815 map by Benjamin Latrobe. Library of Congress.)

As the deadline for moving to Washington City approached, various obstacles arose regarding the relocation of the Mint. The most important of these are mentioned in Director Boudinot’s January 1 report to President John Adams. The director made a thinly veiled pitch to the president for keeping the Mint in Philadelphia, despite the need for major repairs and the small scale of the entire operation:

It becomes necessary for the Director to draw the attention of the President to the act of Congress for the establishment of the temporary and permanent seat of the Government of the United States. By the original institution of the mint, it was established at the seat of Government. By the sixth section of the act of Congress, above referred to, it is enacted “that all offices, attached to the seat of Government, shall be removed to the permanent seat of the Government of the United States, by their respective holders, on the 1st day of December next.” A question has arisen under this act, whether the department of the mint is included therein or not. If it is, without further provision by law, the mint must be removed, with the other departments, agreeably to the directions of that act; and if it is not, many necessary provisions must be made by law, applicable to the mint being carried on at a distance from the seat of Government.

The doubtful consequences of a removal must strike every person acquainted with the business of the mint; as it is in a great measure supported by the bullion passing through the different banks of this city, and for want of which, it would frequently be without the means of coinage, while the expense would be nearly the same to the Government. The Director, therefore, thinks it his duty respectfully to submit to the President the propriety of bringing this subject before Congress, in the early part of the session; this step is rendered more obviously necessary, from the present state of the machinery of the mint. The works ought to be kept in perfect repair, unless they are so soon to be removed; in which case some parts, not worth the transportation to so great a distance, might be suffered to remain as they are, or barely kept m such repair as to answer for immediate use[2].

Boudinot’s Mint Report went from the president to Congress, where it raised some questions. These were promptly sent back to the director, who soon replied:

The Director of the Mint in compliance with the wishes of the Committee to whom was referred the Message of the President relative to the Mint of the United State signified by their Chairman respectfully answers thus:

Question 1st. What provision will be required to be made by Law in case of the Mint being removed to the City of Washington?

That in his opinion as the law now stands the Mint must be removed on the first Monday in December next to the stated city, in which case an appropriation of money to defray the necessary expenses ought to be made.

The President must be authorized to fix upon a proper site for building the Mint, an [sic] to cause the works to be erected thereon for which an appropriation of at least 20,000 dollars ought to be made, in which is included the expense of a steam engine to move the machinery instead of horses. It will be obvious at the first blush that there will be a propriety in beginning these works as soon as possible that no time may be lost after the Mint is removed. In this case there will be no necessity for any alteration in the present laws relating to the Mint further than there will be if the Seat of Government continues in Philadelphia, but provision should be made by law for disposing of the present site and building of the Mint when the works are removed.

The estimate of the expense of the year reported at the treasury and by the Secretary to Congress contains this expense and amounts to about 15,000 dollars.

Question 2nd. What sums will be necessary to make the repairs alluded to in the Report in case the Mint is not removed?

Question 3rd. What further arrangement will be required to be made law for the prosecution of the business of coinage at Philadelphia?

In case the Mint is continued in this city and the seat of Government is removed, it will be necessary, 1st to repeal so much of the lay July 16, 1790 for the removal of the Seat of Government as includes the Mint and directing the same to be continued in the city of Philadelphia; 2nd to change the commissioners for the annual inspection and assay of the reserved piece of coin; 3rd to vest the appointment of the clerks and other inferior officers absolutely to the Director; 4th to vest the temporary appointment of the officers of the different Departments of the Mint, in case of death, resignation or other disability in the Director ‘till an appointment takes place by the President in the usual manner appointed by law; 5th an alteration in the payment of the cents and half cents when coined to the Treasurer of the U. S. which might be to the Bank of the U.S. to be carried to the Treasurer’s account.

Question 4th. What quantity of cents and half cents were coined at the Mint previous to the time when the standard weight was reduced pursuant to the Act of March 1793?

The approbation of the President to reducing the cents to 7 dwts was on the 27th of December 1795, previous to which there were coined at the Mint 1,066,033 cents and 142,534 half cents, making 11,373 dollars.

Question 5th. What measures have been taken relative to the distribution of the copper coin into different parts of the U.S.?

This being a duty assigned by law to the Treasurer of U. S. the Director cannot answer it[3].

Beyond ordinary inconvenience, why would the Mint be the only exception to moving to Washington City?

The moving of Mint personnel and records would not have been too different than the move experienced by other departments. Strong wagons and burly teamsters would have been required to handle the iron presses, ingot rolls, and other equipment. Furnaces were built of fire brick and could not be moved, but it was not difficult to build new ones in Washington. It appears there were no significant material impediments except for the construction of the new mint. The director’s reports and correspondences emphasize cost – something certain to catch Congress’ attention.

But only casually mentioned was the almost complete absence of gold and silver depositors in Washington City. Most of the bullion came from the Bank of the United States and private banks in Philadelphia and New York. It was a four-day freight wagon’s journey over rough roads from Philadelphia to Washington and almost six days from New York. The return trip was nearly as long and each included the possibility of breakdown or robbery. Banks already had to tolerate delays in getting coins from their deposits and moving 200 miles southwest only extended the amount of time that the Mint was paying interest on uncoined specie.

Roger Burdette: Why the First Mint Stayed in Philadelphia 
Figure 2. President Adams’ May 15, 1800 order to prepare for removal to the new capital city.

Another factor was likely labor. It was expected that skilled workers would follow the Mint to Washington – but what happened to the ordinary semi-skilled and common laborers who did all the literal heavy lifting? These men could not fund relocation for themselves and their families, let alone buy new homes; many lived barely above the level of Mint horses. In Washington, there were few free laborers. Much of the basic work on buildings and canals was done by contract slave labor, and these men, including those with considerable building trade skills, were not going to be employed at the new national mint.

Both money, in the form of bullion, and labor were critical to a working mint, and they were sorely lacking in the new city. Of course, that would change over time, but the country needed coins right away and could not accept months of lost production due to drawing building plans, repairing equipment, and all of the other small things that hold up the completion of a project. Congress likely understood that nothing could be accomplished before the December 1 deadline, so it passed a delaying statute on May 14.

…That until the fourth day of March one thousand eight hundred and one, the mint shall remain in the city of Philadelphia, and be carried on as heretofore under the laws now in force; any law to the contrary notwithstanding[4].

On May 15 President Adams ordered all federal departments to begin preparations to move to Washington City. Meanwhile, the Mint continued to operate in Philadelphia, at least temporarily.

Roger Burdette: Why the First Mint Stayed in Philadelphia 
Etching of James Hillhouse. Image: Yale Digital Archives.

However, concerns about economic viability and an inability to supply cents and silver coins increased. Senator James Hillhouse (CT) reported from committee:

That the existing law requires the removal of the mint to the permanent seat of Government; that such removal would, in many respects, be inconvenient; but the policy of keeping up that establishment, in a situation where its operations will not be under the immediate superintendency and direction of the principal officers of Government, is questionable.

…The furnishing a supply of cents and half cents, sufficient for circulation, would, in the opinion of the committee, be a desirable object, but they are well satisfied that the mint, upon its present establishment, will not furnish such supply. The efforts of almost seven years have done very little towards it. Perhaps a more economical, and the most effectual mode, would be by contract[5].

The continued support of Adams, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, and officers of the Bank of the United States–plus Director Boudinot’s status as a former member of Congress and a general sense of “nationhood requires coins”–helped keep the Mint in business as much as did Matthew Boulton’s regular supply of cent planchets.

Numismatic writers traditionally emphasize the precarious existence of the early U.S. Mint, yet on the contrary, we find that, by 1802, a national mint was going to continue. The only meaningful debate was over its location. Congress was in a political and economic quandary. The representatives of the young country’s financial centers wanted a mint close to the nation’s businesses and banks and favored staying in Philadelphia or moving to New York City. Federal planners and future expense reductions suggested that long-term efficiency and proximity to Congressional oversight was best served by a Washington City location.

The compromise – or inertia-ridden – solution begun in 1803 was to give the Mint the temporary authority to stay right where it was for periods of five years. These acts of Congress have, in the past, been interpreted as affecting the Mint’s existence, but they actually refer only to the Mint remaining in Philadelphia in lieu of moving operations to the capital city.

2nd Philadelphia Mint. Image: CoinWeek.

In 1822, the Washington City government sold the parcel of land reserved for the Mint for private development. In 1828, Congress finally accepted that our national mint was going to be a permanent fixture of Philadelphia. Planning for a new building proceeded eventually, resulting in a new, much larger, and better-organized Philadelphia Mint that opened in 1833.

* * *

Notes

[1] https://guides.loc.gov/residence-act

[2] RG104 E-162 Letter Book. Report to the President dated January 1, 1800. 12. This is the original text, which corrects minor errors in the printed version.

[3] RG104 E-162 Letter Book. Letter dated January 15, 1800, to Sen. Samuel Livermore, Chairman Committee on the Mint from Boudinot. 14-15.

[4] Public Statutes at Large. Volume 22, 1845. Sixth Congress, Session 1, Chapter 70. 86.

[5] Journal of the Senate. Sixth Congress, Session 1, Report No. 148 dated March 14, 1800. 632-633.[Excerpt].
 

Roger W. Burdette
Roger W. Burdette
Responsible for much original numismatic research in recent years, Roger Burdette was named the ANA Numismatist of the Year in 2023. Besides CoinWeek, he has written for Coin World and The Numismatist, among others. He is the author of Renaissance of American Coinage 1916-1921 (2005); Renaissance of American Coinage 1905-1908 (2006); Renaissance of American Coinage 1909-1915 (2007); A Guide Book of Peace Dollars (Whitman, 2009); and Fads, Fakes & Foibles (2021). He also co-wrote the NLG award-winning Truth Seeker: The Life of Eric P. Newman (2015) with Len Augsburger and Joel Orosz. Burdette served as a member of the Citizen’s Coinage Advisory Committee (CCAC) from 2008 to 2012.

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