The Fugio Cent of 1787: Introduction


The influx of counterfeit and lightweight coppers in circulation was a serious problem that hurt both laborers and small business and kept the economy from growing. Every time a worker or merchant accepted a lightweight copper at face value, they lost money because others would only accept these underweight coins at a discount, usually substantially below face value. Just as some states had taken action by minting their own coppers, the Continental Congress of the Confederation passed a resolution on April 21, 1787, for the contract coining of a national copper cent. About two and a half months later they agreed on a design. A resolution of July 6th stated the penny obverse would have the sun and a sundial with the legend "FUGIO" (I fly), the date, and the legend "MIND YOUR BUSINESS." The reverse would contain thirteen linked circles with the legends "WE ARE ONE" and "UNITED STATES." This copied the February 17, 1776, fractional currency and the 1776 Continental Currency "Dollar". Eric Newman has shown these designs and mottos were the work of Benjamin Franklin. Because of these features the coin has sometimes been called the Franklin or ring cent. The Fugio cent was to weigh 157.5 grains, equal to the English halfpence and the Massachusetts coppers (which had been approved by the Massachusetts legislature nine days earlier on June 27th). Also, like the Massachusetts coppers, they were denominated as cents, that is a decimal coin based on one hundred to the Spanish milled dollar.

Rival petitions to produce the coppers were received from Matthias Ogden of New Jersey and James Jarvis, who had purchased controlling interest in the Connecticut enterprise, The Company for Coining Coppers. The contract was awarded to Jarvis who had given a $10,000 bribe to William Durer, the head of the Treasury Board. Jarvis was required to produce some three hundred tons of Fugio cents. He was able to obtain about thirty tons of copper from the government to begin coining with the proviso he would pay the government for the copper through his coining operation. Jarvis had Abel Buell make the Fugio dies. He then put his father-in-law, Samuel Broome, in charge of the minting operations and went to Europe in search of copper and assistance. Jarvis sought the assistance of Matthew Boulton, owner of the Soho Mint in Birmingham, and others, but without cash up front, Jarvis was unsuccessful. Meanwhile, Broome used much of the federal copper to mint about three and a half million 1787 Connecticut coppers, which were lighter in weight and thus more profitable than the Fugio's. In the end Broome made only about 400,000 Fugio cents (about four tons out of the 300 tons of coppers they had been contracted to produce) which were sent to the U.S. Treasury on May 21, 1788. That so few coins had been minted and that those coins were slightly underweight concerned the Congress, but that no payment had been made on the thirty tons of copper the federal government had delivered to Jarvis led the Congress to void his contract on September 16, 1788. This was followed by a congressional report on September 30, 1788 stating Jarvis had received a large quantity of federal copper but had only paid for a small portion and that "the Board of Treasury will take effectual measures to recover [the remainder] as soon as possible."

Thomas Machin then bought Jarvis's equipment, and Broome joined Jarvis in Europe. The diemaker Abel Buell gave his equipment to his son Benjamin and also fled the country. The "Congress Coppers" as the Fugio's were called did not see much use. Some may have circulated in Massachusetts as numismatists in the 1840's and 1850's considered them to be from Massachusetts. On July 9, 1789, a New York merchant named Royal Flint purchased all of the Fugios remaining in the Treasury on credit at about one-third face value. However thirteen days later on July 20 a copper panic occurred devaluing most coppers by about seventy-five per cent of their value; this loss landed Flint in debtor's prison. Apparently, a full keg of uncirculated Fugios were acquired by the Bank of New York in 1788; these coins were stored in their basement and not rediscovered until they changed their location in 1856. The coins were then put in cotton bags and again forgotten until another rediscovery in 1926. From that time, they were slowly distributed to officials and favored customers. In 1948, the American Numismatic Society examined the remaining 1,641 Fugio's. Several examples were donated to the American Numismatic Society and others were sold to collectors. Currently the bank has 819 pieces.

According to Kessler there are at least fifty-five varieties from twenty-four obverse dies and thirty-three reverse dies. These varieties are categorized into three different groups based on the style of the rays emanating from the sun. One group has the standard fine or pointed ray, these are considered to be the best executed coins of the series and are attributed to dies of Abel Buell of Jarvis and Company. James Spilman has suggested the other varieties, with club shaped rays were inferior in quality and produced later. The Club ray is found in two types, there is one group with a round or convex end on the ray and a rarer group with an indented concave shape to the end of the ray. Some have suggested these club varieties were produced at Machin's Mills, but Spilman has shown they weighed much more that Machin's Mills products. The convex club ray varieties average 150.3 grains while the concave varieties average 162 grains. Spilman theorized the club rays were produced by Abel's son Benjamin Buell. Spilman suspected Benjamin had damaged his father's obverse hub or punch used to impress the design into the dies and then reworked the punch and used it to produce the dies for the club Fugios. The weight difference between the two club styles has not been explained.

It is worth noting that when Abel Buell created the original obverse sundial punch or hub, an extra fifth stroke was mistakenly added to the roman numeral IIII on the dial. This error could not be corrected. Therefore, each time the hub was used to impress a die, an ornament was punched over the extraneous stroke on the die. Also, in the word FUGIO the letter G was punched into the various obverse dies using a C punch which was then corrected with a straight line crossbar to create the letter G. In most examples one can see a slight misalignment of the bar, this is easily seen in the clickable large images below.

For the discussions of the reverses one should keep in mind, the thirteen interlocked rings are numbered clockwise with the ring at 12:00 o'clock as ring one. If there is a joined link at 12:00 o'clock (as in Newman 1-B) then the left ring in that link is considered to be ring one.

Some Fugio dies were produced in the 1850's probably at the Scovill mint in Waterbury, Connecticut and probably at the request of the numismatist and lawyer, Charles I. Bushnell. The Scovill Manufacturing Company had been a major supplier of Hard Times Tokens as well as a producer of various buttons and small metal objects. Their is no evidence as to the origin of the Fugio dies but it is known that Bushnell had the Scovill Company produce several fantasy colonial items for him in the 1850's. According to a notice in the American Journal of Numismatics  from January of 1873 (on p. 72) three sets of Fugio dies were acquired by Horatio N. Rust in 1858, one die was acquired in Bridgeport and five others were from New Haven. These were, of course, the dies created at the Waterbury mint. It is not known if Rust was part of the deception or if he genuinely thought the dies were original Fugio dies. According to the journal notice Rust used these dies to strike off three to four hundred copies of the Fugio cent in copper as well as some in silver and gold at the Scovill mint in Waterbury. In the past these copies were incorrectly associated with some fantasy tokens created by the teenage C. Wyllys Betts in New Haven. It was thought Betts had located some original dies and used them to made some restrikes. From this mistaken attribution the Fugio copies have become known as the "New Haven Restrikes." However, they were minted in Waterbury, from new dies created in Waterbury. Thus they are not restrikes from the original dies, nor are they from New Haven! Related to this is an item thought to have been a pattern used in the creation of the Fugio hub. This is now considered to be a fantasy piece created by Bushnell in the 1850s.

References

On the Fugio cent see Breen, pp. 146-151; Mossman, pp. 196-198 and the series of articles by James Spilman in The Colonial Newsletter 4 (1961) 24-32; on the Z reverse 7 (1962) 52-55; on club ray fugios 18 (1967) 179-183; on the "New Haven restrikes" 24 (1968) 237-242 (also see Breen on this topic); rarity and multiple strikes 31 (1971) 320-327; die combinations 36 (1973) 379-382; [cover 22 (July 1983) pictures original obverse hub design]; rarity table 69 (1984) 887-895; 71 (1985) 922-925; and 87 (1991) 1236-1240; Anthony Terranova, "What's New with the Bank of New York Fugio Hoard?" The Colonial Newsletter   vol. 37, no. 3 (December 1997, serial no. 106) 1767; On the restrikes and the Bank of New York Hoard see, Q. David Bowers, American Coin Treasures and Hoards and Caches of Other American Numismatic Items   Wolfboro, N.H.: Bowers and Merena, 1997, pp. 27-29; On James Jarvis see: Damon G. Douglas, "James Jarvis: Merchant, privateer, Coinage Contractor; Extracts from the Manuscript, "James Jarvis and the Fugio Coppers" by Damon G. Douglas," edited by James Spilman, The Colonial Newsletter  vol. 8, no. 2 (July 1969, serial no. 26) 261-265;  vol. 8, no. 3 (September 1969, serial no. 27) 273-278;  vol. 8, no. 4 (December 1969, serial no. 28) 285-292. For a Fugio identification guide see: Alan Kessler, The Fugio Coppers  Newtonville, MA; Colony Coin Company, 1976.


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Section Contents Fugio Coins


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