Thomas Jefferson Papers

Memorandum to James Monroe, [after 21 December 1791]

Memorandum to James Monroe

[after 21 Dec. 1791]

I find the calculation of the As of Holland (which is the common measure applied by the Encyclopedie to all coins) will be so difficult to trace through the coins and weights of Holland and Spain, that no public assembly will ever understand them. Consequently it is better to rest the question altogether on the report of the Board of Treasury of Apr. 8. 1786. and the Consequent Final decision of Congress of

The first page of their Report contains the principles of their decision, which may be developed by the following observations.

A Troy pound of standard silver is cut, at the mint into 62. shillings.

  • Standard silver contains 11 oz.—2 dwt. pure metal to the pound
    • that is to say 5,328. grains pure silver
    • 5328 grs. divided into 62/ gives 85.935 grs. to each shilling

  • The market price of the dollar varies from 4/4 to 4/6 sterl. This fact is familiar to all merchants and indeed to all persons, and will therefore furnish the standard of comparison the most likely to be understood and approved.
  • The board of treasury, and Congress, in adopting 375.64 grs. pure silver to the dollar, took almost the lowest market price, to wit 4/4½ sterl. to the dollar.
  • The Secretary of the Treasury in proposing 371.25 grs. makes it but 4/3/7/8 sterl. That is, he withdraws 12/3 penny sterl. or 5 cents out of every dollar.

It is to be observed further that

grs. Troy
till 1728. the Dollar of Spain contained 394.744 pure
from 1728 to 1772 it contained 376.72824
in 1772 it was depreciated to 370.95548

It is evident that when the American debt was contracted the idea of a dollar in America must have been that of the second epoch, as that of 1772. could not have been yet so much circulated here as to have reduced the public opinion to it as a standard.  This fact is from the Encyclopedie.

MS (NN: Monroe Papers); written entirely in TJ’s hand on a narrow sheet; undated, but see below; verso bears calculations by Monroe related to this notation by him: “Secy. of Treasury makes 416. […] wt. of 371. fine & 45. of base being ⅛ alloy. He adopts the […] of Spain. But that coin of Spn. contained of fine 389.18 grs. more than his.”

This and the following memorandum to Senator James Monroe concern the Question of the proportion of silver in the dollar being considered by Congress as part of a plan for an American coinage. In his 28 Jan. 1791 Report on the Mint, Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton had recommended that Congress adopt a dollar standard of one part alloy to eleven parts pure silver (Syrett, Hamilton description begins Harold C. Syrett and others, eds., The Papers of Alexander Hamilton, New York, 1961–87, 27 vols. description ends , vii, 599–600). Although the two Secretaries were in substantial agreement on the new coinage, TJ opposed the standard Hamilton had suggested not only because it reduced the silver content to less than that proposed by the Board of Treasury on 8 Apr. 1786, adopted by the Confederation Congress on 8 Aug. 1786, and confirmed in its ordinance to establish a mint on 16 Oct. 1786, but also because it ran counter to his vision of a uniform system of weights, measures, and coinage (see Vols. 18: 454–8, 20: 738; JCC description begins Worthington C. Ford and others, eds., Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774–1789, Washington, D.C., 1904–37, 34 vols. description ends , xxx, 162–3, 166; xxxi, 503–4, 876–8; Memorandum to James Madison, printed below under 12 Jan. 1792, and note).

TJ could have sent this memorandum at any time after the Senate appointed Monroe on 7 Feb. 1791 to a committee assigned to consider Hamilton’s report. However, Monroe’s notation on verso suggests that TJ prepared these notes after 21 Dec. 1791, when a second committee chaired by Robert Morris, to which Monroe did not belong, reported a bill to establish a mint and regulate coinage, and before 12 Jan. 1792, when the Senate approved the final bill, which devalued the dollar even beyond the standard of one in twelve that Hamilton had proposed (JS description begins Journal of the Senate of the United States, Washington, D.C., Gales, 1820–21, 5 vols. description ends , 1, 239, 332, 359, 373–4).

In this and the following memorandum to Monroe, TJ derived the figures on the metallic content of the Dollar of Spain from tables on weights and coins in the Encyclopédie Méthodique. Commerce, 3 vols. (Paris, 1783–84), iii, 276, 417 (see Sowerby, description begins E. Millicent Sowerby, comp., Catalogue of the Library of Thomas Jefferson, Washington, D.C., 1952–59, 5 vols. description ends No. 3579).

Index Entries