|Connecticut coppers, like the
1787 specimen shown above, were produced from 1785 to 1788. The state
government contracted private minters to strike the coins. The obverse
legend reads ACTORI: CONNEC [by the authority of the state of
Connecticut]. The reverse legend INDE: ET. LIB: means Independence and
Liberty. Image courtesy of EarlyAmerican.com.
The Articles of Confederation maintained that
Congress had the power to
regulate the alloy and value of coins struck by their own authority, or
by that of the respective states.
Thus, each individual state had the right to its own coinage, but only
Connecticut, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Vermont (not to become a state
until 1791), and New Hampshire, exercised that right. And so, during
the 1780's, there was a confusing variety of these state issues
circulating sparsely throughout the country, minted mostly in copper.
These post-Revolution, pre-Constitution coins represent a truly unique
era of American history, and are admired by all true numismatists
today. Once again, the standard reference we recommend to best delve
into this subject is Walter Breen's Complete
Encyclopedia of U.S. and Colonial Coins. Monstrously comprehensive
and richly illustrated, Breen presents great information on coinage
during the Articles of Confederation years, complete with "behind the
scenes" tales and estimates on relative scarcity of many of the coins.
By the mid 1780's, a few prominent thinkers began to conceive of the
advantages of forming a stronger central government and national
identity, including the establishment of a national mint and a
standardized coinage system. The money situation at the time was
woefully inadequate and bewildering. Imagine for a minute that you're a
Boston shopkeeper in the year 1785. A customer approaches the counter
to buy some coffee. If she was lucky enough to have even a few coins,
they could be of French or Spanish origin, or perhaps English, Dutch,
or German. She might also have in her pocketbook coppers coined in
Vermont, Connecticut, or New Jersey, or state paper currency, for that
matter. She easily might have some Continental Currency, but as a
shopkeeper, you would be very hesitant to accept it (unless you needed
some wallpaper, and didn't care about interior decorating).
Unfortunately, the Articles did nothing to bring order to such chaos.
|Twenty shilling note, issued
by Rhode Island, 1786. The state's paper money became so shunned that a
law was written to punish anyone refusing to accept it. Image
courtesy of EarlyAmerican.com.
To bring about some semblance of order, Thomas
the use of a simpler decimal system, a radical departure from Europe's
stodgy coinage structure (pence, shillings, and reales, for example).
But as a sign of respect and tradition to the Old World, Jefferson
further suggested the proposed decimal system be based on the dollar.
Unlike the Spanish dollar, divided into eight reales (a.k.a. "bits"),
the new dollar would be divided into hundredths and tenths, a system
much easier to deal with mathematically.
Jefferson's ideas were welcomed by many, at least superficially. On
July 6, 1785, the United States Congress voted in favor of Jefferson's
plan, but took no action beyond that. There simply was still not enough
interest in redefining the role and responsibilities of the national
government, in the realm of coinage or anything else.
While undesirable, the coinage fiasco was allowed to fester for a while
longer. Very soon, as we shall see beginning in the paragraph below,
the political leaders were forced to deal with dangerous events,
wrought in part by coinage deprivation. The fortunes of the young
nation would be radically shifted in a new direction.
The scarcity of coins during the Articles of Confederation years was
nothing new: Americans had been plagued by this since the earliest
colonial settlements. But this time, the coin dearth threatened the
very existence of the newly united states. Following the Revolution,
the country suffered a severe economic slump. Especially hard hit were
farmers living in Massachusetts. Boston city dwellers, who
disproportionately controlled the Massachusetts state legislature,
passed new laws to shift a higher tax burden onto the already indebted
farmers, in the hope of balancing the state's budget. The legislature
could not have inflamed tempers more, even had they purposely set out
to do so. In the absence of sufficient coin circulation, paper money
was the only feasible option to pay taxes with, but neither side could
agree on the amount of new paper money to be printed. The farmers and
other debtors wanted lots of paper money printed to pay off their debts
with inflated currency. Naturally, creditors wanted to hold the line on
the paper money supply to keep its real value stable. By September,
1786, the conflict between creditors and debtors turned deadly.
|Shays' failed attempt to
capture an arsenal ends in bloodshed. Although it was put down, Shays'
Rebellion convinced many throughout the states that the new nation,
under the weak Articles of Confederation, may not be capable of calm
self-governance. Image courtesy of Library of Congress.
Under the leadership of Daniel Shays, a veteran
of the Revolutionary
War, hundreds of frustrated Massachusetts farmers decided to take
matters into their own hands.
After forcibly closing courts in a few places to stall farm
foreclosures, Shays and his band of insurrectionists tried to seize a
government arsenal in Springfield on January 25, 1787. The state
militia dispersed the group with gunfire, killing three. Shays
was captured and sentenced to death for treason, but was pardoned.
Even though the Shays' Rebellion was crushed, widespread civil unrest
continued, much to the alarm of many Americans. The near anarchy
revealed the weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation in governing
the United States. What authority could intercede when a state uses
heavy-handed tactics against its own citizens? Who is best capable of
containing a breakdown of law and order? What can be done to bring
order to the messy financial situation? These and other questions in
the aftermath of the Shays' Rebellion provided new impetus toward
strengthening the central government.
|Delegates from 12 states met
at Independence Hall throughout the sweltering summer of 1787 to devise
a document upon which all the states could become better united. Public
In May, 1787, 55 of the most distinguished men
in America, representing
twelve states, assembled at Independence Hall in Philadelphia to begin
the difficult job of transforming a "friendship league" into a unified
nation. Only Rhode Island chose not to send a state contingent.
By mid-June the delegation concluded that, rather than amend the
existing Articles, a new governing document was the best course of
action. There simply was not enough in the Articles of Confederation
worth saving. Thus, the first attempt at self-governance had failed,
but the young United States would be given another chance, perhaps its
last, to form a more perfect union.