Coin Specifications

Category: Patterns & Trial Coins (1792-1863)
Mint: Philadelphia
Composition: Copper
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1792 BIRCH J-4 1C MS obverse 1792 BIRCH J-4 1C MS reverse
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Description & Analysis

The 1792 Birch cents are among the most enigmatic of the 1792 pattern issues. Conflicting and ambiguous data surround the identity of the engraver (discussed in the next lot), the chronology of the striking, and their place within the legislative history of the Mint. The story begins with the unique Judd-6, the Birch cent that features the reverse inscription G?W.PT., an abbreviated form of "George Washington President." The thought of depicting Washington on the coinage of the infant republic was raised as early as 1789, in a letter from the English coiner Matthew Boulton to John H. Mitchell. Boulton was interested in executing the United States coinage on a contract basis, with Mitchell acting as a liaison to the federal government. Boulton wrote on November 25, 1789:

"It will be also necessary that you (in conjunction with General Washington or such persons as may be appointed) fix on a proper device and proper inscription. I saw a design for an American half penny with a sun dial on one side, with a motto, 'mind your business," and on the other a chain with 13 links [no doubt referring to the Fugio cent]. This device is easily copied by a moderate artist; but if there was on one side the head of General Washington, or a beautiful female figure representing in proper attributes the 13 United States, it would not only be a handsomer piece of money but it would be more difficult to copy, particularly if an inscription was struck upon the edge."

In conveying Boulton's message to South Carolina congressman Thomas Tudor Tucker, Mitchell added that each of the 13 reverse chain links should encircle the Coat of Arms for its respective state. Mitchell may have been politically connected but clearly did not understand the intricacies of die engraving. In any event, Boulton did not receive the much-coveted federal coinage contract, as Thomas Jefferson considered construction of the Mint an important symbol of sovereignty. But the idea of honoring the President on the nation's coinage persisted. The Hancock and Getz pieces of 1791 and 1792, presumably issued as samples in pursuit of a federal contract (similar to Boulton's overtures), all featured an obverse bust of George Washington with some variation of the inscription WASHINGTON PRESIDENT.

The idea of using Washington's portrait on the coinage was not without controversy. As the Mint Act worked its way through the second Congress (1791-1793), the House erupted over the issue on March 24, 1792. Sadly, the full debate was not transcribed for posterity, but an extract from the Federal Gazette of March 27 captured some of the tension:

"Mr. Livermore did not know what gentlemen would be at, by making such a rout about this Liberty; was it the liberty of a bear broke loose from the chain meant to express - a savage freedom, wild as that of the Indians? He was for peace and good government, and he knew of no emblem so proper to express this, as the head of the President. Mr. Niles suggested the idea of adopting emblems properly expressive of the two great interests of the United States, agriculture and commerce - a plough and a ship. Mr. Gerry was witty upon Mr. Niles, and asked whether a figure half man half fish, was his object? Mr. Mercer took notice of the irregularity used in this debate, in naming the President so often - in the British Parliament it was a rule, not to bring the King's name into any debate - he was severe on Mr. Livermore for attempting to throw any reflections on Mr. Page, who had been the first to move for the amendment in the bill, and Mr. Seney particularly noticed the impropriety of introducing gospel wit, instead of argument; he thought it very disrespectful conduct towards the whole house...he further remarked that it had been called a trivial matter, yet those who call it so, have protracted the debate for two days..."

Within a few days, the House and Senate settled on an obverse of Liberty instead of using the President's portrait. The question of whether a sitting President should sign an Act authorizing the use of his own image appears to have been an influential idea in the debate. The intense emotion surrounding this issue suggests that the Judd-6 G?W.PT. Birch cent was struck before the April 2nd passage of the Mint Act. Jefferson's letter to George Washington on October 15, 1792 may further date the striking of the Birch cents. Jefferson, in preparing a draft for a Presidential address, wrote: "There has been also a small beginning in the coinage of half dismes and cents [italics added]; the want of small coins in circulation calling our first attentions to them." Although Washington excised the words "and cents" in his address to Congress on November 6, Jefferson's language indicates an intention to first work on the smaller denominations.

An alternate view is that the Birch cents were produced as part of the cent experiments of December 1792, outlined in Jefferson's letter to Washington on December 18. Jefferson mentioned the Silver Center cents (Judd-1), the Fusible Alloy pieces (Judd-2), and finally "the real cent, as ordered by Congress, four times as big." Were the Birch cents the "real cents?" And if so, then what were the cents referred to by Jefferson in October? An interesting possibility is that the Birch cents may be the answer to both questions. The weights of the two known Judd-5 (one star edge) Birch cents are 262.2 and 240.6 grains. The lighter (Lauder) coin exhibits considerable wear and was no doubt heavier at the time of striking. These two coins appear to have been struck to the 264 grain standard legislated by the Mint Act of April 2, 1792. The reported weights of the Judd-4 (two star edge) coins are 220.8 (the present coin), 209.25, 206.3, 193, 218.3, 216.8, and 200 grains, with an overall average of 209.2 grains. These are more consistent with the 208-grain standard set by the Act of January 14, 1793 (this bill had been introduced into Congress on December 31, 1792). In this scenario, the Judd-6 G?W.PT. Birch cent would have been struck sometime prior to March, and then later paired with a new reverse die for the remaining Birch cents. Finally, the emerging 208-grain standard would have been anticipated by Rittenhouse and substituted for the then-current value of 264 grains, with a second star distinguishing the lighter planchets.

Description and Analysis courtesy of Heritage Auctions and may not be republished without written permission.


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Total Graded: 1
Low Grade: VG
Average Grade: VG
High Grade: VG

The chart showing VG series, F series, VF series, 40 series, 45 series, 50 series, 53 series, 55 series, 58 series, 60 series, 61 series, 62 series, 63 series, 64 series, 65 series.
NGC CENSUS DETAIL Last Updated: 7/7/2020 1792 BIRCH 1C J-4 MS BN
1792 BIRCH 1C J-4 MS RB

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