A History of the First Coins Issued by the United States
The history of coins in the United States begins long before the Coinage Act of 1792 and the establishment of the first national mint in Philadelphia. A combination of foreign and “domestic” coins circulated during the Colonial Period and the years following the Revolutionary War. This confusing and unsustainable system of mixed currency would soon be replaced with the young nation’s first coins.
Because coinage was scarce during the Colonial Period, many European colonists had to use a variety of substitutes for money, including musket balls, animal pelts, agricultural products, and Native American wampum. The few coins that merchants and other vendors accepted were foreign coins, such as the British pound, the German thaler, the Spanish milled dollar, and some coins produced by other colonies. Spanish milled dollars became the most popular foreign coin due to their availability and high silver content.
State-Issued Coins and Fugio Cents
After the Revolutionary War, the Articles of Confederation granted the states the right to produce their own coins and set unique values for them. Having foreign coins and multiple new domestic coins in circulation at the same time quickly became a confusing situation, with coins varying in value from state to state. In an attempt to fix this problem and establish national coinage, Congress authorized the production of copper Fugio cents in 1787, but the ratification of the Constitution the following year established a new government and started a new debate about the national currency.
The Coinage Act of 1792
The Coinage Act of 1792 established the first national mint in Philadelphia and designated the silver dollar as the basic unit of money in the United States. Copper cents, the nation’s first circulating coins, appeared in March of the following year. Production of silver coins (half dimes, dimes, quarters, half dollars, and dollars) and gold coins (quarter eagles, half eagles, and eagles) began in 1794 and 1795.
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