Fugio Cents: The First Regular-Issue United States Coin

By John Dannreuther, Gordon Wrubel, Craig Sholley, Brian Greer, Chuck Link, Tony Terranova, Chris Victor-McCawley, David McCarthy, and Erik Goldstein for PCGS ……
 

Over the last few years, a group of Fugio enthusiasts has held discussions about Fugio Cents and whether the pieces should be considered the first regular-issue United States coins. As will be discussed, past confusion over whether contract coinage should be considered a national issue and whether the Fugio Cents were legally authorized has confounded proper categorization of these coins. Called a pattern for many years, PCGS has included it as a regular issue for over 10 years.

Despite the fact that they were a contract coinage, the historical documentation conclusively shows that Fugio Cents were the first regular-issue United States coin, duly authorized by Congress acting under the Articles of Confederation. This article will present an in-depth discussion of the historical evidence that has resulted in PCGS changing their status and placing them with the regular-issue copper coinage and identifying the denomination as one cent on holders. In a nod to tradition, Fugio Cents will continue to be included in the PCGS Colonial Set Registry.

In his 1860 work, A Description of Ancient and Modern Coins, in the Cabinet Collection at the Mint of the United States, James Ross Snowden noted that the Fugio Cents were federal coins. On pages 92 to 95, under the subheading of Federal Coinage, he presented a full discussion, including the authorizing legislation and the fact that they were struck on contract by James Jarvis. No less an authority than the premier 19th-century numismatic researcher and writer Sylvester Sage Crosby wrote in his seminal 1875 work, The Early Coins of America, that Fugio Cents were “…The earliest coins issued by the authority of the United States.” In his 1984 Complete Encyclopedia of U.S. and Colonial Coins, Walter Breen categorized them as “James Jarvis’s ‘Fugio’ Federal Contract Cents.”

Unfortunately, Eric P. Newman, author of the premier die variety guide for Fugio Cents, stripped them of their true denomination (cents), referring to them as “coppers” in his updated work titled United States Fugio Copper Coinage of 1787. He did, however, get the attribution correct and noted that they were “United States Coinage.” In his first edition, Newman called them cents, as did Walter Breen, Don Taxay, Damon Douglas, James Spilman, and other numismatists of the era. In fact, during the 19th century, they were called either Fugio, “Franklin”, “Mind Your Business”, or “Ring” Cents in auction catalogs and periodicals.

In the present authors’ opinion, as well as that of PCGS and many other numismatists with whom this subject has been broached, it is time the first coins authorized by the United States government became part of the regular-issue coinage. They should be collected with other regular-issue copper coinage and placed in their proper categorization in all references. While the 2020 and later issues of the standard reference for U.S. coins, A Guidebook of United States Coins (“The Red Book”), comes closest to a proper categorization by listing them under the category of “Federal Issues – Contract Coinage and Patterns”, this still does not place them where they should be – with the “regular-issue” coins.

This article will provide solid evidence to change the numismatic classification of what the authors conclude is the first regular-issue United States coin.

Were the Fugio Cents Legally Authorized and Struck as Cents?

An uncirculated Fugio Cent.. Image: PCGS.

The first issue that arises when considering the status of the Fugio Cents is that some authors question whether they were legally authorized. Why this should be the case is unknown, as the Articles of Confederation and the authorizing legislation for the Fugio cents are crystal clear.

Article V of the Articles of Confederation states that:

For the most convenient management of the general interests of the United States, delegates shall be annually appointed in such manner as the legislatures of each State shall direct, to meet in Congress…

And, Article IX states:

The United States in Congress assembled shall never engage in a war, nor grant letters of marque or reprisal in time of peace, nor enter into any treaties or alliances, nor coin money, nor regulate the value thereof… unless nine States assent to the same…

So, the Articles of Confederation established a representative government in which the individual state legislatures appointed delegates authorized to act in the Congress upon their behalf and that representatives from at least nine states assent to any coinage proposal.

The Congressional authorization for the Board of Treasury to proceed with the Jarvis contract was passed on April 20, 1787, with the record of proceedings for that day starting with the preamble, “Congress assembled and present as before.”

The term “Congress assembled” means that a quorum was present and Congress had thus been officially convened. The phrase “present as before” refers to the same states being present as on April 18, 19, and 20–those being Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Virginia, North Carolina, and Georgia.

That representatives of these 10 states were present and voted on the authorization to award a coining contract to James Jarvis is confirmed both by the roll-call vote on an amendment to that legislation showing the votes of those 10 states and by the legal term “Resolved” (to declare or decide by formal resolution and vote). The paragraph that begins with “Resolved” is the authorization for the Board of Treasury to proceed with the Jarvis contract.

An extract from the Journals of the Continental Congress for April 21, 1787.

There is thus no question of whether striking of the Fugio Cents was legally authorized exactly as stipulated in the Articles of Confederation – representatives of more than the required nine states were present and they approved the resolution to proceed with the coining contract.

While some have claimed that the lack of a denomination on the Fugio Cents and that they may not have circulated at that value means they were not cents. Two simple facts effectively refute these claims. First, with the exception of the 1792 Half Disme, our earliest half dimes, dimes, quarters, quarter eagles, half eagles, and eagles had no denomination stated on the coins. Furthermore, legislation creating the denominations had no provision that the coins be stamped with any indication of the denomination. So, if Fugio Cents are not cents because they lack that denomination, then the half dimes, dimes, quarters, quarter eagles, half eagles, and eagles likewise lacking an imprinted value are not those denominations, thus reducing the argument to absurdity.

PCGS reclassified the 1792 Half Disme as a regular-issue coin many years ago when overwhelming evidence demanded this piece, long deemed a pattern, be categorized as a regular-issue coin. Courtesy of PCGS TrueView.

The real issue is not whether they circulated as cents but rather were they authorized and struck as cents.

On August 8, 1786, Congress passed a law establishing the denominations of and weight standards of United States (federal) coinage. For the cent, the act specifically states:

“That the two copper coins shall be as follows: one equal to the one hundredth part of a federal dollar, to be called A Cent; And one equal to the two hundredth part of a federal dollar, to be called A Half Cent. That two pound and a quarter avoirdupois weight of copper, shall constitute 100 cents.”

The copper coin section of the Act of August 8, 1786. Public domain image

As previously noted, nowhere in this act does it state that the copper coins must contain the words “Cent” or “One Cent” (the same is true for the gold and silver denominations established). So, any copper coin struck under federal authority at the specified standard is thus defined as a cent.

Furthermore, Jarvis’ proposal to the Board of Treasury specifically notes that the coins are to be struck “at the rate of 2 ¼ lbs. avoirdupois for each federal dollar.” So, not only did all of the authorizing legislation specifically state the coins were to be struck to the federal standard, but Jarvis also reiterated that understanding in his proposal to the board.

There are, however, some questions as to whether the Fugio Cents were actually struck to the federal standard as weights of extant coins show significant numbers of lightweight pieces. In his manuscript, Douglas presented two sets of weight data. He found an average of 149.73 grains for the uncirculated coins remaining in the Bank of New York hoard, and the average of his weights for a variety of coins in private collections and dealer stock was 151.2 grains. The privately held coins had to have included many circulated pieces. The F.C.C. Boyd collection, which was part of the data, contained quite a few circulated pieces. Additionally, auction house databases show that about half of the extant coins are XF40 and below.

With Douglas’ data set of private coins containing over 1,800 pieces, it is highly unlikely that it deviated far from the extant population. Thus, despite the seeming closeness of the two averages, a data set containing about 50% circulated coins averaging more than uncirculated coins is an obvious inconsistency.

This issue is further illustrated by the coins in the American Numismatic Society (ANS) collection. The uncirculated coins in that collection average 153 grains, while the circulated coins in G4 to XF40 averaged 155.05 grains (corroded coins and underweight coins grading Good or less were excepted from the analysis for obvious reasons). We thus have four data sets that do not agree with each other, showing that the true average weight of as-struck Fugio Cents is impossible to determine from extant coins (note that Douglas dropped the decimals from the variety averages he presented and the weights for the ANS coins are given in grams; both data sets have lost a good deal of accuracy due to methodology).

That leaves the federal government records of the Jarvis contract as the only reliable data. The July 8, 1789, Treasury record of coins sold to Royal Flint shows 8,968 pounds with a value of $3,985, and the auditor’s report of October 21, 1791, states, in part:

CR. By Michael Hillegas Esq. late Treasurer of the United States for amount of 8968 lbs of Copper Coin delivered him by direction of the late Board of Treasury as pr Rect of Henry Kuhl on behalf of said Hillegas herewith at 2 ¼ lbs pr Dollar being the price fixed on in said contract $3,985.77

As it is very difficult to believe that exactly 8,968 pounds of coins were delivered, it is fairly certain that the weight is a rounded figure.

Additionally, the dollar figure $3,985.77 is obviously a calculation based on the weight standard of 100 cents per 2 ¼ lbs. of copper. However, that does not mean it is not valid and a better representation of the average weight of as-struck Fugio Cents than current weight data.

It would be quite odd for the Board of Treasury to merely assume the coin met weight when it would take little effort to sample weigh them. If the coins were below weight, then they would violate the contract and could be seized as spurious coin with no value or valued simply as copper at the then-current price of around 20 cents per pound. The fact that the Board accepted the coins and made no mention of them not meeting standard in two subsequent reports to Congress on the status of the contract strongly supports the contention that at least a sample weighing was done and the average was close to 157.5 grains.

Absent solid data to the contrary, we must accept the official figures showing that the Fugio had a weight-count mintage of 398,577. That the mintage figure is a weight-count is completely irrelevant as many current mintage figures are likewise weight-counts and they are accepted as official. Of course, the actual number of coins is unlikely to be this exact figure, but it is the official figure used.

The final issue regarding the weight of the Fugio Cents is the odd assertion that Jarvis deliberately struck the coins light in order to increase his profits.

How this claim came about is puzzling, as even a cursory reading of Jarvis’ contract clearly shows he was to be paid based on the actual weight of the shipments not on the number of coins. Deliberately making lightweight coins would thus decrease Jarvis’ profits, not increase them, as he would have had to strike more coins per ton, increasing both his labor costs and wear and tear on equipment. In fact, only the government would have profited from lightweight coins since they would have had more coins to place in circulation. If the Fugio Cents actually ran light on average (and there is no solid evidence of that), it is because the Board of Treasury may have asked Jarvis to make them lightweight.

It is also of little consequence that the Fugio Cents did not circulate as cents, at least initially, due to the “Copper Panic”. In fact, all copper coins were affected, including Massachusetts cents and half cents, Machin’s Mills halfpence, and regal (British) halfpence. Yet, we still refer to those coins by their denomination. We have no idea what the circulation value of the Fugio Cents was after the “panic” and particularly after the federal large cent was reduced in weight in 1795. They certainly circulated quite extensively as the great majority of Fugio Cents are in VF condition and below.

We thus have the case where the Fugio Cents are being singled-out for “special mistreatment” when other coins were also devalued. In fact, if a revaluation means that the denomination is to be stripped, then all coins worldwide that were revalued at any point in time should be treated likewise. Obviously, that is an absurd proposition, but it does make the point: a coin’s denomination is set by the authorizing legislation, not what the later commercial valuation may or may not be. The “did not circulate at” argument thus has no more merit than the rest of the attempts to strip the Fugio Cents of their proper status.

Are Legally Authorized Contract Coinages National Issues?

One of the strangest criticisms leveled against the Fugio Cents is they cannot be considered national issues because they were a contract coinage. This argument completely ignores the millions of foreign coins struck on contract by the United States, Royal Canadian, British, Australian, and other national mints. All these coins are considered regular issues in their respective countries and are considered no different than the coins struck by each country’s national mint(s)

Even more to the point are the millions of copper coins struck on contract for the British government by Matthew Boulton’s private Soho Mint. From 1797 to 1807, Boulton struck 257 million British copper coins including 722,000 two pence, 74.6 million one pence, 171.8 million halfpence, and 10.1 million farthings, all of which are collected as national issues along with those struck at the British royal mints. We are thus left with the odd situation that only in the United States are legally authorized contract coinages considered something other than regular national issues.

Are the Fugio Cents Federal Issues?

An equally strange criticism is that the Fugio Cents cannot be considered federal issues because the government at that time was a confederation, and the term “federal government” is typically used to refer to the government in place after ratification of the Constitution in 1789.

As one of the present authors (Craig Sholley) pointed out in a recent Coin World article, not only did the central government refer to itself as “federal” in published law, but newspapers and the populace of the time used the term “federal” to refer to the central government. Reaffirming this usage, our current government referred to the government under the Article of Confederation in a June 23, 1988, report to the Senate banking committee on proposed coinage redesigns, noting in a background section that “[t]he Federal Government still organized under the Articles of Confederation recognized the need for a standard coinage.” The current general meaning of the term “federal” is thus totally irrelevant.

The “Missing” Fugio Cents

It should be noted that there is a discrepancy between the Jarvis & Co, account books and the government accounting.

Jarvis & Co. show they shipped 11,910 pounds of Fugio Cents, while the government account shows receipt of just 8,968 pounds. Some researchers contend we should accept the Jarvis & Co. account books, suggesting that the “missing” 2,942 pounds were in some way lost or stolen. In an attempt to support this view, it has been claimed that there are no government records showing the number of coins or weight until the July 1789 sale of the Fugio Cents to Royal Flint.

First, accepting the Jarvis & Co. accounting would mean accepting the unaudited accounts of a private company, whose majority owner had both engaged in bribery and defrauded the government out of $10,000 of copper, rather than an official audit of a government contract. That is not a very reasonable proposition.

This famous portrait by Edwin Lamasure depicts the first United States Mint in Philadelphia as the coin-minting factory may have appeared soon after opening in 1792, just a few years after the Fugio Cent was produced. This is a public domain image accessible via the United States Mint.

Furthermore, the contention suggesting the government failed to record the weight at time of receipt is simply false. A letter from Nicholas Eveleigh, then Comptroller of the Treasury, to William Duer, former secretary of the Board of Treasury, asking for additional details on the Jarvis contract reveals that there was a government contract book in which the relevant figures were recorded. So, the government did have records of what it had received. That the figure did not appear in the public record until July 1789 is irrelevant. The contention that the government figures are wrong, and that we should believe the Jarvis account book, is thus without any merit on both points.

Jarvis certainly knew what the government said they had received as he would have been shown his contract book when he met with the Board of Treasury on Aug. 21, 1788. Yet, there is no record that he protested the figure. Nor did he complain three days later when he sent his August 23 written explanation to the board as to why he was late on deliveries. He likewise did not complain when Congress canceled his contract on September 16, 1788. When the government sued him in 1790, not only did he not complain, he did not show up for the court date! Jarvis had at least four opportunities to protest that the government figures were wrong, yet he did not. He knew the government figures were correct.

Conclusion

As can be seen from the foregoing discussion, the following points can be made:

  • The denomination of a cent and the weight standard for that denomination were legally established by an act of Congress.
  • The striking of the Fugio Cent was legally authorized by Congress “at the federal standard.”
  • Jarvis’ contract proposal stated he would coin at the federal standard.
  • Records show the Fugio Cents were, in fact, struck at that standard and delivered and accepted by the Board of Treasury.
  • In 1791, Jarvis was credited with the delivery of 398,577 cents by the United States government. That this is an approximate figure based on a sample weighing is irrelevant. Many modern mintages are “weight-counts”, and we accept those as official mintages. The same should be true in this case.
  • The Fugio Cents are thus federal coins and, in fact, are the first regular-issue United States coin. It is long past due that they be recognized as such. References should be updated to reflect the official mintage of 398,577.

As can be seen from the foregoing discussion, Fugio Cents were legally authorized coins under the Articles of the Confederation. They were struck at a weight standard proposed for the cent denomination and they were intended as a circulating issue. That they may not have circulated at the value of one cent is totally irrelevant as the Congressional authorizations are quite clear and a matter of established and published law.

They are the first legally authorized federal coin; they were legally authorized as a cent, and legally struck and delivered as cents. The Fugio Cents are thus federal cents and should properly be categorized as the first regular-issue United States coin.

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