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History Matters: A new constellation for a new year

Being called “two-faced” by someone today would most likely “breed a quarrel,” as the old saying goes. However, if one were to go back just two centuries to classical Rome, that same depiction might elicit a very different response.

Images of the Roman god Janus (from which the word “January” is derived) show a male deity with two faces, one facing forward and the other facing backward. What better image could have been chosen to represent the current month?

Looking both forward to the new year with its many resolutions and expectations, yet thoughtfully glancing backward at the year so recently passed, maybe best allows mere mortals the opportunity to gain insight and clarity.

Is it any wonder then that Janus was designated to be the god of human doorways, gates, passageways, transitions and beginnings? And with all that on the resume, maybe it should come as no surprise when this two-faced deity eventually became the Roman god of time itself.

Yes, there is no doubt January is a special month, a time for change, and maybe that’s just what Revolutionary War financier Robert Morris had in mind when, on Jan. 15, 1782, he submitted to the United States Congress a totally new plan for redesigning the American coinage system.

Something totally new in ‘82, was this man’s New Year resolution. If successful, such a thing would be a huge step forward for a struggling new nation.

I must admit I was unaware of any future hopes and dreams of Mr. Robert Morris until one of those coins came my way this past year. Old coins were not infrequently found during our local archaeological investigations and have drawn varying degrees of interest, but none had ever come from so early in United States history as this one.

Years ago, an old friend of mine had quite by accident discovered a spectacular ‘Nova Constellatio” coin with the date “1783” stamped on it.

Armand Mazzulli is the current owner of the old Littlefield homestead on West Main Street in Niantic, a well-traveled thoroughfare in the 1700s between Lyme and New London. Armand told me he found this historic coin in 1973 when he and his wife, Linnea, were putting in their inground swimming pool.

“It was stuck in the sod. My first thought was that it was a metal blank from an electrical box. It was dirty, but I put it in my pocket just in case it turned out to be something else. I was surprised to find out after a superficial cleaning what it actually was,” he reported.

Just for the record, a Nova Constellatio is a very special coin and, as such, is quite valuable. They were the first coins ever struck by the United States government. But that is not their only claim to fame. Their arrival signaled the beginning of the decimal (ten) system that now dominates most global currencies.

The key date “1783” could easily be seen stamped on the reverse of Mr. Mazzulli’s rare coin.

Commanding the coin’s obverse is the “Eye of Providence,” with “Rays of Glory” reaching out to the words “Novo Constellatio” inscribed along its outer edge, heralding a new constellation.

Archaeologists are well aware that the study of coins can be a valuable tool as they can provide insight into a society’s belief system at the time of their use. Specifically with this one, the eye and the rays suggest the belief in a supreme being and an appeal for divine support.

Thirteen stars on the coin show this new nation’s current number of member states. The initials “US” would declare our country’s initialed designation for the first time. The words LIBERTAS & JUSTITIA proclaimed the principles for which this new nation would stand ... liberty and justice for all its citizens.

The coin left little doubt that there was a new nation in town as its virtues were announced loud and clear. Unfortunately, things do not always go as planned.

The original cast of characters in this intriguing story are generally well known. Certainly, everyone is familiar with Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson. Maybe less known was Robert Morris, the main financier of the American Revolution, and Benjamin Dudley, a talented mechanic and coin striker. Those four would play key roles in the development of this first American coin.

Robert Morris would get the ball rolling. Congress had approved the establishment of a national mint on Feb. 21, 1782, empowering its finance superintendent (Robert Morris) with the development of currency prototypes to submit for congressional approval.

Morris conducted an exhausting survey of all the foreign money being used at the time and looked for a unifying solution. He proposed a decimal system to replace the awkward fractional system then in use. He proposed a new set of coins ... a silver 1,000 unit called a “mark.” A silver 500 unit called a “quint.” A silver 100 unit called a “bit.” And an eight- and a five-unit piece, both to be called “coppers.”

Hamilton and Jefferson (generally recognized as the principal architects of the modern U.S monetary system) applauded Morris’ efforts, particularly the decimal system he had conceived. With those two influential men firmly behind the project, Robert Morris was emboldened to contact a talented British machinist by the name of Benjamin Dudley and convince him to come to America where he would become an important player in this new undertaking.

It was not long before Dudley presented Morris with a prototype of the Nova Constellatio coin. In April 1783, Morris wrote the following in his personal diary: “Mr. Dudley has delivered to me a piece of silver coin being the first that has been struck as an American coin.”

Later that month, that same coin, along with several other prototypes, were sent to Congress for approval. Congress, however, failed to act due to the nation’s financial difficulties at the time.

The U.S. mint in Philadelphia did not officially open for business until 1792, so issuance of any federal currency would have to be delayed until that time.

In 1786, however, Jefferson would scrap the “Morris Plan” (keeping the decimal system but scrapping those marks, quints, bits and coppers), suggesting instead the idea for the current dollar and its subdivisions. States were to produce their own individual currencies in the meantime.

It appears that this Nova Constellatio coin, after a very short lifespan as a pattern coin, had been unceremoniously relegated to the dustbin of history.

As these coins were never put into production, it is hard to know how many prototypes were actually struck. Five different types of pattern coins have been identified. Where did our coin fit into this scenario? We turned once more to a local coin aficionado, Avik Sarkar, for answers.

Sarkar had been instrumental recently in helping us interpret another high-profile coin found in the area. I had written a “History Matters” article about a few strange silver coins that have been surfacing in New England that were thought to possibly be part of an unrecovered pirate heist in the late 1600s. Avik was actually able to read the Arabic writing on the one we had, determining its age and place of origin. That coin, it was found, could not have been tied to the pirate treasure of Captain Henry Avery.

Mr. Sarkar agreed to examine this coin and suggested we first pay a visit to Mr. Mazzulli and take some good photos, preferably in daylight, he added. Also, the coin needed to be carefully weighed and measured.

Town historian Liz Kuchta, East Lyme Historical Society vice president Rod McCauley and I soon met with the Mazzulli family and did as instructed. Any coin as potentially valuable as this one should never just be casually put in the mail and sent out for evaluation. Pictures and vital statistics would have to initially serve that purpose.

The coin was weighed on a digital scale and found to weigh 6 grams. Calipers were then used to determine its size. We discovered it to be slightly off-round ... 1.062” top to bottom and 1.067” from side to side.

The photos Mrs. Kuchta took were excellent and when added to the other vital statistics that were required, the interpretation process was now underway.

Looking at the photos and talking to his numismatic colleagues, Mr. Sarkar felt the coin to be a genuine Nova Constellatio but warned of cast fakes due to their potentially high value.

“Those coins, in top shape, can command thousands of dollars,” he said. “This is certainly an exciting find and a very desirable coin type.” (Mr. Sarkar directed interested people to visit www.worldofcoins.eu which is a free online forum for coin collectors and numismatic historians.)

The next step in the process would be for Mr. Mazzulli to physically accompany his coin to a numismatist for a closer, in-depth inspection. If it turns out to be worth thousands of dollars (or perhaps tens of thousands of dollars) that would not be a bad way to start off the new year, would it?

I’m sure our Roman friend, Janus, would be nodding his approval of such an exciting undertaking, from both sides of his head, no less.

Jim Littlefield is a retired history teacher in East Lyme who has written two local history books and two historical novels. His columns can also be found in the Post Road Review.

 

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