AMERICAN CENTS - The Story of Mr Boulton & Mr Jefferson
by Chris Leather
The early years of the United States saw a confused state of affairs with regard
to currency. Some States issued their own, the Federal Government defined what the
US coinage should be, but didn’t strike any, and there were large quantities of foreign
coins in every day use. An opportunity for Matthew Boulton? Yes, but he was beaten
at the political game by an old acquaintance - Thomas Jefferson!
United States Secretary of State
Charles Borel, John H Mitchell, and the South Carolina Coppers
John H Mitchell is an unlikely numismatic hero. Indeed, he seems to have entered
our history books only through having been the neighbour, in Charleston, South Carolina,
of one Charles Borel who in the winter of 1786 assiduously promoted the idea of a
state coinage for South Carolina.
Mr Borel’s determination, or persistence, was such that the legislature authorised
him to arrange a coinage for the State. The authorisation, granted on 22nd March
1786, was for £10,000 in copper halfpennies and pennies, and £20,000 in silver sixpences
and shillings, and was to last for fifteen months, within which period Borel was
required to produce his coins for testing and assaying.
At some point, not now known, Borel thought to approach Matthew Boulton, and the
first of the two extant letters relating to the supply of coins was sent to Boulton
on 19th August 1786, requesting terms for the supply of five tons of copper coins
– not mentioning the possibility of striking silver! Presumably Borel must have been
in England at the time as, although no record now remains of Boulton’s reply, Borel
agreed to the terms on 14th September. The only problem now was that he expected
delivery within three weeks, in good time for the coins to accompany him back to
Nothing more is heard of this proposal. The timescale was next-to-impossible, and
the only machinery we know of which Boulton could have used to strike such a coinage
would have been the manual presses being prepared to strike the 1786 kepings for
the East India Company at Bencoolen. Whatever the reason, that was the end for Mr
John H Mitchell, and the Boulton Proposal
The next attempt to procure a state coinage for South Carolina seems to have come
from Charles Borel’s neighbour. John H Mitchell, it seemed, thought in broader and
grander terms. Born in Ireland around 1740, he moved to Dominica, in the West Indies,
during the 1760s, and spent several years there as a merchant, before moving to Philadelphia
at some point after 1766. During the American rebellion, he served as Deputy Quartermaster
General in the revolutionary army, with the rank of Colonel. As part of his duties,
he was responsible for finding accommodation for senior officers and their families,
and by 1778 was well enough known to be corresponding with General Washington about
hosting a visit by Mrs Washington. In 1784, or thereabouts, Mitchell moved from Philadelphia
To further his plans, Mitchell contacted Boulton, and invited him to participate
in the supply of a state coinage, before even contacting the state Government. But
whatever the state Government might have thought of having a distinctive Carolinian
coinage, the federal Constitution of the United States, dated 17th September 1787,
specifically prohibited the states from issuing their own money (article I section
10) and put an end to the scheme. Mr Mitchell was not dissuaded, however, and raised
his sights towards a national coinage, to be struck at Soho, and comprising £200,000
worth of gold, silver and copper coins. Mitchell anticipated that this would be merely
the first of many orders, and intimated this in a letter to Boulton in autumn of
1789, requesting a quotation and encouraging a quick response, as the resulting proposal
would be put before the second session of the first United States Congress, due to
sit in the early part of 1790.
Matthew Boulton responded, with an offer to produce copper coinage for £46.13s.4d.
per ton, if the Americans supplied their own copper, with an estimate of an additional
£84 per ton if the copper was to be supplied by Boulton. Payment would be accepted
in a variety of trade goods, to be sold in London, and the proceeds credited to the
American account. This proposal reached the United States in March 1790, and Mitchell
submitted it straight away. The House of Representatives took note of the proposal,
and sent it to Thomas Jefferson, appointed on 22nd March 1790 as the first Secretary
Had Boulton had known about this at the time, he might have hoped for a favourable
outcome, as Jefferson and he had become acquainted in December 1786. At that time,
Boulton and James Watt were visiting Paris in an attempt to persuade Jean Pierre
Droz to work for, and at, Soho. Jefferson was then American Minister in Paris, and
he was present at the meetings with Droz. Unfortunately for Boulton, Jefferson, while
recognising the superior nature of Soho’s products, took a much more pragmatic, and
political view of matters, and recommended that the coinage proposal be declined.
The report, dated 14th April 1790, is worth reading in full.
A Keping for Bencoolen - Boulton’s very first coin struck on a manual press in London,
Hover your cursor to see the images in more detail
Thomas Jefferson’s Report
The Secretary of State, to whom was referred, by the House of Representatives, the
letter of John H. Mitchell, reciting certain proposals for supplying the United States
with copper coinage, has had the same under consideration, according to instructions,
and begs leave to report thereon as follows:
The person who wishes to undertake the supply of a copper coinage, sets forth, that
the superiority of his apparatus and process for coining enables him to furnish a
coinage better and cheaper than can be done by any country or person whatever; that
his dies are engraved by the first artist in that line in Europe; that his apparatus
for striking the edge at the same blow with the faces, is new, and singularly ingenious;
that he coins by a press on a new principle, and worked by a fire engine, more regularly
than can be done by hand; that he will deliver any quantity of coin, of any size
and device, of pure, unalloyed copper, wrapped in paper and packed in casks, ready
for shipping, for fourteen pence sterling the pound.
The Secretary of State has before been apprised, from other sources of information,
of the great improvements made by this undertaker, in sundry arts; he is acquainted
with the artist who invented the method of striking the edge and both faces of the
coin at one blow; he has seen his process and coins, and sent to the former Congress
some specimens of them, with certain offers from him, before he entered into the
service of the present undertaker, (which specimens he takes the liberty of now submitting
to the inspection of the House, as proofs of the superiority of this method of coinage,
in gold and silver as well as copper.)
He is, therefore, of opinion, that the undertaker, aided by that artist, and by his
own excellent machines, is truly in a condition to furnish coin in a state of higher
perfection than has ever yet been issued by any nation; that perfection in the engraving
is among the greatest safeguards against counterfeits; because engravers of the first
class are few, and elevated by their rank in their art, far above the base and dangerous
business of counterfeiting. That the perfection of coins will indeed disappear, after
they are for some time worn among other pieces, and, especially where the figures
are rather faintly relieved, as on those of this artist; yet, their high finishing,
while new, is not the less a guard against counterfeits, because these, if carried
to any extent, may be ushered into circulation new, also, and consequently, may be
compared with genuine coins in the same state; that, therefore, whenever the United
States shall be disposed to have a coin of their own, it will be desirable to aim
at this kind of perfection. That this cannot be better effected, than by availing
themselves, if possible, of the services of the undertaker, and of this artist, whose
excellent methods and machines are said to have abridged, as well as perfected, the
operations of coinage. These operations, however, and their expense, being new, and
unknown here, he is unable to say whether the price proposed be reasonable or not.
He is also uncertain, whether, instead of the larger copper coin, the Legislature
might not prefer a lighter one of billon, or mixed metal, as is practised, with convenience,
by several other nations — a specimen of which kind of coinage is submitted to their
But, the propositions under consideration suppose that the work is to be carried
on in a foreign country, and that the implements are to remain the property of the
undertaker; which conditions, in his opinion, render them inadmissible, for these
Coinage is peculiarly an attribute of sovereignty. To transfer its exercise into
another country, is to submit it to another sovereign.
Its transportation across the ocean, besides the ordinary dangers of the sea, would
expose it to acts of piracy, by the crews to whom it would be confided, as well as
by others apprised of its passage.
In time of war, it would offer to the enterprises of an enemy, what have been emphatically
called the sinews of war. If the war were with the nation within whose territory
the coinage is, the first act of war, or reprisal, might be to arrest this operation,
with the implements, and materials coined and uncoined, to be used at their discretion.
The reputation and principles of the present undertaker are safeguards against the
abuses of a coinage, carried on in a foreign country, where no checks could be provided
by the proper sovereign, no regulations established, no police, no guard exercised;
in short, none of the numerous cautions hitherto thought essential at every mint;
but in hands less entitled to confidence, these will become dangers.
We may be secured, indeed, by proper experiments as to the purity of the coin delivered
us according to contract, but we cannot be secured against that which, though less
pure, shall be struck in the genuine die, and protected against the vigilance of
Government, till it shall have entered into circulation.
We lose the opportunity of calling in and re-coining the clipped money in circulation,
or we double our risk by a double transportation.
We lose, in like manner, the resource of coining up our household plate in the instant
of great distress.
We lose the means of forming artists to continue the works, when the common accidents
of mortality shall have deprived us of those who began them.
In fine, the carrying on a coinage in a foreign country, as far as the Secretary
knows, is without example; and general example is weighty authority.
He is, therefore, of opinion, on the whole, that a mint, whenever established, should
be established at home; that the superiority, the merit, and means of the undertaker,
will suggest him as the proper person to be engaged in the establishment and conduct
of a mint, on a scale which, relinquishing nothing in the perfection of the coin,
shall be duly proportioned to our purposes.
And, in the mean while, he is of opinion the present proposals should be declined.
April 14th, 1790.
Thomas Jefferson’s Report as printed in the US State Papers, 1832
On the face of things, Boulton should have been both disappointed and gratified when
he heard the news from Mitchell in a letter written in mid May 1790. Disappointment
that there was to be no coinage contract, but gratified that the Secretary’s Report
openly suggested that Boulton would be the favourite for any mint contract. But whether
because, at this stage in Soho’s development, it was a step too far, or because Boulton
was beginning to feel that Mitchell might not be the best partner, matters went no
further. Boulton and Mitchell remained in contact, but with no suggestion of any
renewal of dealings over coinage. Boulton’s nephew, Zacchaeus Walker, visited Charleston
in early 1793, and called on Mitchell whom he found invariably charming, but not
of the quality to be a partner in a Soho concern.
And so matters might have remained, were it not for a further flurry of activity
a couple of years down the road. On 2nd April 1792, the United States Congress passed
“An Act establishing a mint, and regulating the Coins of the United States” setting
out the denominations, designs, and specifications of the coins, and requiring that
a Mint should be constructed at “the seat of government” of the United States which
was, at that time, at Philadelphia.
The passage of the Act and the requirement to build a Mint offered Boulton a possible
second bite at the cherry, and he used the offices of an English businessman, Ralph
Mather, whose father-in-law was also in business, in Philadelphia. Mather was interested
in the possibilities of trade in various manufactures, including coinage, and he
was shown around Soho in late June or early July 1790, being equipped with a number
of samples to take with him to America.
Boulton had put together a two stage proposal which Mather delivered to Thomas Jefferson,
suggesting a temporary supply of struck coinage from Soho until such time as a mint
could be established in Philadelphia. The second part of the proposal concerned the
supply of the Mint itself, similar to that operating at Soho, and consisting of a
rolling mill and coining equipment.
It seems that there was a general approval of the plan; the samples (including some
of Droz’s pattern halfpence) impressed everyone from President Washington downwards,
and matters reached the stage, by early 1793, that a Congressional decision waited
only upon a visit and report by the Secretary of State, still Thomas Jefferson.
But then other forces began to have their effect. Great Britain declared war on revolutionary
France, following the execution of King Louis XVI in January 1793, and the general
level of support for the French Republic by the American Republic meant a distinct
chill descended on relations between the United States and Great Britain. The construction
of a basic, horse-powered, Mint in Philadelphia in early 1793 meant that there was
no longer such a pressing need to adopt a Boultonian solution, and the project lapsed.
Fortunately for Soho, this was not the end of the connection with the United States.
For the next forty years, a continuing stream of copper blanks flowed in fits and
starts from Soho to Philadelphia. Until the final shipments took place in 1837, more
than two-thirds of the cents and all the half-cents struck since 1797 were on Soho
planchets. The reality of the political and transportation problems highlighted the
prescience of Thomas Jefferson’s original report. Disruption of supply due to the
War of 1812 led to, firstly, a reduction in the striking of copper and, secondly,
the complete suspension of production of cents in 1815, the only year with no mintage
from then until now.
Half Cent piece, 1806, Philadelphia Mint
● Dr Richard Doty’s work ‘The Soho Mint & The Industrialisation of Money’ has a fascinating
chapter entitled ‘A Case Apart: The United States of America’ which looks in considerable
detail at all of the connections between Soho and the United States.