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The Glittering Gold Dollar
By R.W. Julian

Collectors tend to think that the first coinage of a new denomination came soon after someone thought of the idea and persuaded Congress to create the necessary legislation. Sometimes this is true but the gold dollar is the exception. The first suggestion of a gold dollar seems to have been made by Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton in his report on a mint and coinage, presented to Congress in early 1791.

When Congress finally got around to preparing draft legislation for a coinage bill in late 1791, the gold dollar was quietly dropped from the list of suggested coins, probably on the grounds that two different dollar coins, one of silver and one of gold, were one too many. The silver dollar was thus chosen as our standard coin.

For several decades little was heard of a dollar gold coin but about 1832 North Carolina private coiner Christopher Bechtler began striking such coins for miners who brought gold to his mint. Coins of any kind were in short supply in the Old South and Bechtler was clearly filling a need.

The Bechtler coinage actually began in June 1831, during the presidency of Andrew Jackson, a hard-money man. In particular the president did not like the pervasive paper money, issued by private banks, that was seen almost everywhere.

In late June 1834 the weights of American gold coins were lowered by Congress in order to bring American gold in line with values on the international market. As the bill was being debated in the House of Representatives, Campbell White of New York amended the draft legislation on June 21 to include a gold dollar and his idea was quickly accepted.

When the bill got to the Senate, however, the gold dollar found itself being dropped from the legislation. The revised bill was sent to the House, which grudgingly approved the Senate version on June 28 and it was promptly signed into law by President Jackson.

There is little doubt that the president had asked White to introduce the gold dollar idea and was disappointed that it had failed. Jackson was not through promoting the idea, however, and Treasury Secretary Levi Woodbury, in his annual report of December 1834, made a strong presentation for the idea, noting that "A particular suggestion seemed proper is, that the one dollar gold coin, originally embraced in the late act, should be authorized."

Woodbury noted that other countries had small gold coins of roughly this size and thought it would be useful in the American marketplace. He thought that such a coin would help drive out of circulation the private bank notes of less than $5 in value. These were a thorn in the side of the Jackson Administration, which wanted gold and silver coins to have a much wider use in this country.

The idea of a gold dollar met with a chilly reception at the U.S. Mint in Philadelphia when Woodbury asked Director Samuel Moore in August 1834 to support the suggestion. For a time nothing was done but in July 1835 Moore was replaced as director by Dr. Robert M. Patterson, one of the most able men ever to hold that post. At first Patterson virtually ignored Woodbury's attempts to promote the dollar, replying that only insignificant and backward countries had gold coins that small.

In early 1836, however, Woodbury pulled rank and ordered gold dollar pattern dies executed by engraver Christian Gobrecht. In a relatively short time the dies were finished and pattern pieces struck for examination by Woodbury and the president. In the meantime, on Feb. 2, 1836, Rep. James Graham introduced the idea again. Graham, however, was soon embroiled in a dispute over a tainted election and was forced to sit out the ensuing discussions.

The 1836 gold dollar pattern has an interesting obverse design, which is a Liberty Cap with rays extending outward. The average collector cannot afford one of these rare patterns but, oddly enough, the design is available on a medal struck by the Mint.

At about the same time as the dollar dies were prepared, Gobrecht also executed medal dies to commemorate the first steam coinage at the Mint in March 1836. These are no longer for sale by the Mint but are sometimes available on the secondary market at reasonable cost.

Graham's place was taken by fellow solon Ransom H. Gillet, who came up with the odd idea of three more gold coins: $2, $3, and $4, making four new denominations in all. The hand of the president is clearly seen in this fresh attempt and by now the pattern gold dollars were being shown to interested congressmen. On March 3 the original Graham legislation was merged with that of Gillet. The last we hear of this new version is on March 26, 1836, when it was tentatively re-scheduled for open debate on April 4.

One suspects that the abrupt end of the legislative attempt after March 26 was due to Mint Director Patterson quietly passing the word that the Mint did not like the idea and would it please go away. It did and the next we hear of a gold dollar is in 1844 when yet another attempt was made. This time, however, congressman James McKay of North Carolina had quite another reason in mind.

McKay represented the interests of the Charlotte Mint in Congress, primarily in seeing to it that the institution was not abolished. The congressman thought that by coining gold dollars the Charlotte Mint would be able to stretch out its declining quantities of gold bullion and thus serve a useful need in the local marketplace. Patterson was as unimpressed as he had been in 1836 though he struck a few more pattern pieces (using the 1836 dies) for congressional inspection.

However, Patterson made certain that the proposal would fail by having chief coiner Franklin strike a few pieces in silver and then gild them. The light weight made it virtually impossible to detect the difference between those of gold and silver, thus promoting Patterson's belief that counterfeiting would be a problem. The idea was soon forgotten by all but McKay, who bided his time waiting for a better opportunity.

The discovery of gold in California was to change everything. By late in 1848 thousands of miners were on their way to El Dorado. Gold-mining regions of the South were hard hit by the exodus of skilled miners and complaints poured in to congressmen. Deposits at the Dahlonega and Charlotte gold mints were starting to fall off; it was a matter of regional pride that these mints stay in operation.

Rep. McKay felt that now was the time to renew the concept of a gold dollar and in January 1849 introduced a bill to authorize such coinage. Even with less bullion coming in, the Charlotte Mint could still strike a considerable number of coins. Director Patterson lobbied strongly against the bill as he realized that McKay had a real chance of succeeding this time.

At first Patterson appeared to have the upper hand but McKay was not one to be counted out quite so quickly. He got in touch with a group of New York bankers who needed a large gold coin to use up their accumulating supplies of gold ingots. McKay suggested a gold $20 coin, an idea which was just the ticket, as far as the bankers were concerned. The joint pressure, from the South and the banking community, proved overwhelming and Congress passed the necessary legislation in early March 1849.

The legislation presented problems for Patterson. Chief engraver James B. Longacre and the director were not exactly on the best of terms, so Patterson attempted to circumvent the engraver's office by having chief coiner Franklin Peale execute pattern dies, based on hubs kept in his department. Longacre, however, had the better political connections and his trial drawings for the new coin were soon approved by Treasury Secretary William Meredith. (At one point the idea of a square hole in the center of the coin was considered, in order to make the diameter larger, but this was shelved for technical reasons.)

Not long after his drawings had been approved, Longacre began work and within a few weeks had completed a master obverse die. However, this broke in hardening and all had to be done over again. Finally, in early May 1849 he was able to report that a pair of dies had been completed. Trial strikes were soon made and found acceptable for coining.

The diameter of the finished piece is only about 13 mm and there is suspicion among numismatists that the Mint director set the size so small that it would be easily lost. The idea was to create a backlash that would force Congress to abolish the denomination. The idea actually worked but the result was not quite what Patterson had in mind. In 1854 the Treasury asked the Mint to enlarge the diameter by making the coin thinner.

Regular coinage began on May 8, 1849, with the first obverse dies missing the letter "L" for Longacre. This was soon corrected and Longacre added his initial to the obverse, the first U.S. coins to be signed by an engraver since the Gobrecht dollars of 1836.

The reverse wreath on the first gold dollars is called an "open wreath" but this is somewhat of a misnomer as it implies a closed wreath, which does not exist on this coinage. Rather, Longacre executed a new reverse hub during the summer of 1849 in which the wreath ends are much closer together and it is this variety which has the name of "closed wreath," which it is not.

Once the initial coinage at Philadelphia had worked out, dies were sent to the branch mints at New Orleans, Charlotte, and Dahlonega. By an odd quirk Charlotte struck only a handful of the "open wreath" pieces and the survivors, thought to be less than a half dozen pieces, are extremely rare. Later on in 1849 Charlotte struck a fair number of "closed wreath" pieces. The other two branch mints struck only the earlier variety in 1849, so far as is known.

The small size of the gold dollar produced complaints from the public, who - in response to its small size - began wrapping the gold dollars in pieces of paper to prevent loss. As long as Patterson was director (until September 1851) he used the complaints to lobby for abolition of the coin, but without success. As early as 1852 there were suggestions in Congress for a wider - and thinner - gold dollar but the Mint authorities still did little except prepare some patterns with a round hole, the so-called Ring dollars.

Finally, in 1854, there was an end to the deadlock. Treasury Secretary James Guthrie pushed for a ring dollar (i.e., with a hole in the center) but the new director, James Ross Snowden, was adamant that the coin ought to be made larger and thinner. At length Snowden was successful and Longacre ordered to prepare dies with increased diameter.

The engraver chose to take his basic design for the Liberty head from the gold $3 coin, usually referred to as the Indian Princess. Coinage began in Philadelphia in late August 1854 and at branch mints the following year.

The new design of August 1854 is called Type 2 by collectors. These are frequently poorly struck because there was not enough metal to flow into the dies properly. In addition, the feeding mechanism on the coining presses often malfunctioned for this denomination, resulting in clashed dies. In high quality, Type 2 gold dollars bring strong prices due to the problems seen on many pieces. The branch mint coins from Charlotte and Dahlonega are often difficult to locate in higher grades.

The problems with the Type 2 design led to Type 3 being created in the latter part of 1855 and put into use at the beginning of 1856 except at San Francisco. For some uncertain reason the California mint used the old design in 1856 but after that Type 3 was standard there also.

Type 3 coins, struck from 1856 through the end of the series in 1889, struck up much better than Type 2 and collectors have little trouble finding high-quality examples at more reasonable prices. Branch mint coinages, however, are usually not as well struck as their Philadelphia counterparts.

The year 1860 is the last for which a collector can reasonably expect to obtain a pre-Civil War gold dollar from one of the Southern branch mints. In 1861 only Dahlonega coined this denomination. The number coined is unknown but probably was in the range of 800 to 1,000 pieces. All of these were struck under Southern control, the mint having been seized in early 1861.

The first two years of the Civil War, 1861 and 1862, saw very heavy coinages of gold dollars at the Philadelphia Mint. The nearly 2 million coins so struck were used primarily for military operations. Until December 1861 gold was still in active circulation and paper money was not readily available for those requiring instant cash for army necessities.

When paper money went into general use, the need for small gold coins was lessened and part of the 1862 mintage was melted and turned into gold $20s. (Several million Type 1 dollars were melted at the same time.) These larger coins were needed for foreign payments where gold dollars would have been a nuisance. For practical purposes, the gold dollar coinage of 1862 was the last large mintage for public use.

After 1862 the gold dollar really never circulated again in the marketplace. Until 1879 no gold coins circulated east of the Pacific coast but in that year paper money was once more at par with the coinage and gold came out of hiding. About the only people really interested in gold dollars after 1862 were collectors who obtained either uncirculated or proof pieces as they wished. For this reason both kinds of coins for the 1870s and 1880s are relatively common and easily obtained.

There was one odd coinage at San Francisco in 1870, apparently in connection with the cornerstone laying for the new mint building. Three thousand pieces were struck but there is some question if the letter "S" was on all of the coins, one of the dies having been sent out without the mintmark.

Mint officials often lobbied after 1870 to abolish the gold dollar as an unneeded denomination. Official inertia was usually in the way but in 1890 Congress finally acted by getting rid of several denominations, including the gold dollar. After that, only the numismatist was left to appreciate what once was.

 



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