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Did Alexander Hamilton Hold This Coin?

August 6, 2017

I do love stories about my favorite Founding Father.

Old inns along the Revolutionary War trails boast of George Washington sleeping there. But coin experts say they have found the first silver piece minted by the United States — one likely held by the most en vogue of Founding Fathers, Alexander Hamilton.

David McCarthy figured the silver coin had to be one-of-a-kind after spotting it in the auction catalog.

Its front features the all-seeing eye of God, surrounded by rays of light. The rays shoot out toward 13 stars — one for each of the colonies that had rebelled against Great Britain. A similar coin bore two words in Latin above the starburst: “Nova Constellatio,” or “new constellation” to describe the infant United States. But this silver piece bore no inscription at all. It was the first clue that the coin was something singular, said McCarthy, a senior researcher for the coin and collectibles firm Kagin’s. 

He had a hunch it was the first coin ever minted by the U.S. government in 1783 — the prototype for a plan discussed by both Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson that arguably shaped the course of the nation. McCarthy staked his company’s money to buy the coin for $1.18 million at the 2013 auction. After nearly four years of late nights sifting through the papers of the Founding Fathers and studying the beading on the coin’s edges, he is now making an exhaustive case that this silver piece is indeed the first American coin, the precursor of what ultimately would circulate a decade later as the U.S dollar.

McCarthy published the details of his findings in the August issue of a coin dealer magazine, The Numismatist, as well as in a post on Medium . He vetted and refined his findings over the years with other top experts such as John Dannreuther, a rare coin dealer who found identifying marks on another coin that indicates that it had to have been struck days or even weeks later from the same steel dies. 

“I’m 99.9999 percent certain this is the first U.S. coin,” Dannreuther said.

It was well-known among collectors that a first coin existed. Robert Morris, the Philadelphia merchant who financed the American Revolution, recorded its existence in his diary on April 2, 1783.

As first Superintendent of Finance of the United States, Morris wrote he received a delivery of “a Piece of Silver Coin being the first that has been struck as an American Coin.” Hamilton visited Morris a week later and the two corresponded on the “subject of the Coin.” The continental Congress was then presented with a fuller set of coins on April 22, which was then forwarded to Jefferson for his thoughts. 

Both Hamilton and Jefferson — now popularly known as rivals from the musical “Hamilton” — embraced the idea that the U.S. currency should be in units of 10.

The coin purchased by McCarthy had a back with a wreath identifying it as a “500” quint, essentially the forerunner of the half-dollar. It had initially been found in 1860, about 15 years after the similar coin with the “new constellation” inscription. Because the new constellation coin was found earlier, experts labeled McCarthy’s coin as “Type 2.” Over the years, that label was mistakenly believed to refer to the coin being struck after the one with the inscription.

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