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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!

Mr Boulton & Mr Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson

United States Secretary of State

1790-1793

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 South Carolina.

 

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 Borel’s coppers.

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 Charleston.

 

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 of State.

 

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, August 1786

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 inspection.

 

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 reasons:

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.

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.

 

THOMAS JEFFERSON.

April 14th, 1790.

Thomas Jefferson’s Report as printed in the US State Papers, 1832

And Then?

 

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

Suggested Reading

 

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.

Soho Mint