1792 “Half-Disme” NGC MS63
Regardless of which interpretation one accepts concerning the controversial Half Disme of 1792, the fact remains that it is certainly one of the most important coins produced by the United States and if not the VERY first coin minted by the government, it is arguably the most important.
The first controversy extends to the present in that the major certification services classify it as a pattern. This is due mainly to the fact that the 1792 Half Disme is listed as Judd-7 in the “Pattern Coins” reference. However, the assumptions underlying this attribution would seem to be incorrect. In fact, the 1792 Half Disme was a legal issue, authorized by the Mint Act of April 2, 1792, struck by government officials using machinery purchased specifically for the new Mint, they were struck in a quantity wholly inappropriate for a Pattern, and they were intended for circulation, not as a test for an intended coinage. The high ratio of circulated to Uncirculated examples confirms all of the above. This is but the first of several controversies and interesting anecdotes revolving around some of the most important figures in early American history.
President George Washington referred to the 1792 Half Dismes in his fourth annual address to Congress on November 6, 1792: “There has been a small beginning in the coinage of Half Dismes; the want of small coins in circulation calling the first attention to them.” The coins Washington referred to had been struck early in the year — on July 13, 1792, Thomas Jefferson recorded in his personal household diary: “rec’d from the mint 1500 half dimes of the new coinage.” According to Walter Breen, “…the mint struck 1,500 half dismes from Birch’s dies.” Breen goes on to say “….Eckfeldt turned over the half dismes to Thomas Jefferson, Secretary of State, for use in presentation to domestic and foreign VIPs.”
While these two accounts coincide the exact amount of silver appropriated for the original coining is in dispute. Breen mentions that “choice of this denomination represented both commitment to the decimal system and the most economical use possible of $75 worth of silver bullion, some of which reportedly came from melting down Washington’s old tableware (surviving presidential tableware at Mount Vernon is Sheffield plate).” Many feel that the Birch cent is America’s first coin, but on the world stage, the minting of silver coinage was, at the time, the purvey of only kings and sovereign states. Thus the production of the half dime was equally a statement that the United States of America had arrived as a full-fledged country unto its own. Another account disputes the $75 figure and the amount of actual mintage.
In 1844, Dr. Jonas McClintock related some hearsay evidence from Adam Eckfeldt, long-time employee of the Mint from its inception: “In conversation with Mr. Adam Eckfeldt today at the Mint, he informed me that the Half Dismes above described were struck at the request of Gen. Washington to the extent of One Hundred Dollars which sum he deposited in Bullion or specie for the purpose — Mr. E. thinks that Gen. W. distributed them as presents — some were sent to Europe but the greater number of them, he believes, were given to acquaintances in Virginia — No more of them were coined except those for Gen. W.- –they were never designed as Currency — the Mint was not at the time fully ready for going into operation —the coining Machinery was in the cellar of Mr. Harper’s, saw-maker at the Corner of Cherry and 6th Street, at which place these pieces were struck —.”
Regarding the mintage: if Eckfeldt’s remembrance was correct, the total mintage of the 1792 Half Dismes is 2,000 (George Washington’s $100 deposit divided by the $.05 face value of the Half Dismes). Certainly, Jefferson’s diary entry sets a minimum mintage of 1,500 coins, but what happened to the additional 500 coins? It could be that no more than 1,500 were struck, or that 1,500 were given to Jefferson and the remaining pieces were given to Washington to give out as presents (as mentioned above). If Jefferson received the 1,500 coins, was Washington reimbursed for his deposit of silver ($100 was a large sum of money at a time when laborers received only $1 a day)?
Beyond the controversy, the Half Disme being offered here is clearly among the top echelon of all survivors, as certified by both major grading services. Whether or not it contains Martha Washington’s silverware or Thomas Jefferson once held it in his hands or George Washington gave it to one of his friends only adds to the allure and importance of owning a museum-quality rare coin that perhaps does belong in a museum as a national treasure.
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