Thomas Jefferson Papers

V. Robert Morris to Jefferson, 1 May 1784

V. Robert Morris to Jefferson

Office of Finance 1 May 1784.


I have received your favor of the twenty sixth Instant for which I pray you to accept my Thanks. Enclosed you have the Copy of my Letter of the fifteenth of January 1782. to Congress and also Mr. Governeur Morris’s Letter to Mr. Helmly of the thirtieth of April 1783. I will add to these such Observations as have occurred on your Notes which agreably to your Desire are herewith returned.

I agree with you as to your Idea of a Money Unit in the first and second Points but to the third must submit an Alteration. Premising however that in this Letter I shall adopt the Term Unit in the Sense in which you have used it viz: as the largest Silver Coin instead of that Sense in which it is applied in my Letter viz. as the lowest fractional Money of Account not represented precisely by any Coin, similar in this Respect to the Portugueze Rea. I think then the third Proposition would stand best in this Way That its Parts be so correspondent to the present Money of Account as to be of easy Adoption to the People.

I take it to be a self Evident Proposition that any Coin may be Circulated at a Rate nearly proportioned to it’s intrinsic Worth and in that Point of View it is unimportant what the Size or Standard shall be. But the present Object is to go farther and adopt such a Coin as shall become exclusively the circulating Medium and a new Money of Account. It is true that Dollars form our general Circulation but they are not any where the Money of Account. No Merchants Books are kept in Dollars few if any Purchases are made at a Rate specified in Dollars and Parts of Dollars. Let it be supposed then that a Dollar be taken as the Unit and divided into an hundred Parts and that a Merchant desirous of adopting the New Coin should balance his Books to open them in it. Let it be a Merchant of Boston and let the first Sum he wants to reduce be £365. this would be expressed thus in the new Coin 1216.66 ⅔. His first Essay therefore would oblige him to combine both Vulgar and decimal fractions. If the same Essay be made on the Books of any other Merchant it would be attended with the same Effect. It is therefore of little Avail that the unit be nearly or even exactly of the Value of known Coins unless it’s Parts correspond with the present Money of Account.

In this Letter you will find enclosed my original Letter to Congress of the twenty third of April 1783. together with the Specimens of a Coin there mentioned. These you will be so kind as to deliver to the Secretary of Congress after you have done with them and as the Reasoning on such Subjects is facilitated by a Reference to visible Objects let us take the largest of those Silver Coins as the Money Unit divisible into a thousand Parts each containing ¼ of a Grain of pure Silver. Here then we have a Piece of Money of convenient Size containing 250 grains of pure Silver, and worth about two thirds of a Dollar viz: 4/2 Virginia Money. The smallest Copper Piece is worth one Farthing Virginia Money and £ 365. is expressed thus 1752. Suppose we add 6.d. ¼ it will then stand 1752.125. Trials upon other Currencies will shew that all Sums can be brought to agree not only nearly but exactly to this unless in a very few Cases indeed where 1/15 of the small Copper Piece must be rejected. The Objection you State against this Coin is that the Unit is divided into 1000 Parts whereas you would divide a Unit one third larger into no more than 100 Parts but we must consider that the 1/100 of a Dollar is not sufficiently small to be rejected in any Matter of Accot. and that when the Poor are Purchasers or Venders it does not admit of the Divisibility necessary for their Affairs. The Rea of Portugal is 1/800 of a Dollar and is not found to make any Difficulty in Calculations or Entries but on the contrary to occasion much Convenience. Names are of little Consequence but they are not quite indifferent. Suppose that we call the largest Piece a Dollar the smallest a Shilling and that the Shilling be divisible into an hundred Pence. If a Gold Coin be struck it may be made equal to five Dollars and it’s value about that of a Pistole. This might be called a Pound and would be exactly 20/10 of the Currency of New Hampshire Massachusetts Rhodes Island Connecticut and Virginia. In point of Size I believe that these Pieces of Money would be convenient and I do not think it of small Consequence that the lowest fractional Part be a Quantity of pure Silver equal to an established Weight because in considering foreign Exchanges we can by that Means always bring the Money of Account of foreign Nations to an exact analogy with our own.

On the whole there are but two Points in which we differ the first is as to the Value of the lowest fractional Part of the Money Unit for we agree that it should proceed from thence upwards in a decimal Ratio. The second is as to the Proportion which Gold should bear to Silver. I wish this to be rather too small than too large because I think the Bank Paper may supply the Place of Gold and not of Silver. If therefore we give more for Silver and less for Gold the Gold will be exported and the Silver will stay. To this I add that our direct Means of importing Bullion is Gold from Lisbon and not Silver from the Spanish Territories because the latter will probably continue to be shut against us and we know by Experience that Silver was exported to England in Preference to Gold while our legal Proportion was the same as theirs because theirs being too high Silver always was worth more at Market than the Mint Price. To shew that this continues to be the Case I will observe that the lowest Price Current of Dollars yet received from England is for old Dollars 63/9 and for new Dollars 62/6. per Pound, altho neither of them are so fine as the Sterling Standard which according to Law is worth but 62/. Hence you will see that the actual is below the legal Proportion and the fixing of the legal Proportion so high is the Cause why all but light Silver is banished from Circulation. If the Piece of five Dollars were made to contain 84 Grains of pure Gold and seven of Alloy this would establish a Proportion of 1. to 14. 87/42 and would be attended with this Advantage that the Piece would weigh exactly three Pennyweight nineteen Grains, without any fractions of a Grain either in the pure [gold or in the]1 Alloy. The Quantity of Alloy in the Silver is not material to the Value but if it be sufficiently hard all Alloy beyond that Point renders it more liable to Imitation by a baser Composition. Let the Plan be what it may I think it would be advantageous to make the different Pieces of Money consist of Weights represented by a Number of Pennyweights or Grains without Fractions and also to have in each Piece an integral Number of Grains of pure Metal.

I do not think it will be necessary to cause Assays of the different Coins to be made because I have already a Work more perfect in its Kind than any Assays we can have made. It is the Production of a Person employed by the french Court for the Purpose and the only Difficulty in the Application of it consists in the Difference between their Weights and ours. This however is easily surmounted by Approximation. I should suppose that Congress might adopt (before their Adjournment) a Plan for the Coinage and certainly it is an Object which merits immediate Attention. So far from being attached to the Plan which I have held out I am ready to confess that the Subject is not so familiar as I could wish and that I am not for that Reason competent to a decisive Judgment. All which I can pretend to is a general Sketch to be matured by the Wisdom of Congress but I wish that it may meet their speedy Determination.

There is one Point on which you have not said any Thing but which appears to be of Importance viz: how the Expence is to be defrayed. Supposing you to be with me in Opinion that it ought to be by what is called Coinage I would hint that the Price to be given for fine Silver or Mint Price should be established and if you make a Golden Coin that of Gold also. If the Mint Price of an Ounce of fine Gold be fixed at 28. Dollars this at the Rate of 84. Grains for 5 Dollars would when coined amount to 28.571. being a little more than two per Cent Difference.

I must intreat your Excuse for the Crudeness of this hasty Production which is not so attentively digested as it might have been because I am unwilling to delay it.

With very sincere Esteem I am Sir Your most obedient and huml. Servant,


FC (DLC: Morris Papers). RC has not been found, but probably was dated 30 Apr., for in SJL TJ recorded the receipt on 7 May 1784 of a letter from Morris so dated. Enclosures: (1) Copy of Robert Morris to Congress, 15 Jan. 1782. (2) Gouverneur Morris to William , 30 Apr. 1783. (3) MS of TJ’s “Notes on Coinage” as printed in this series, Document iv. (4) Robert Morris to Congress, 23 Apr. 1783 (printed in 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 , xxiv, 273). (5) An undesignated number of coins, consisting of some examples of the pattern coins of 1783 struck by Benjamin Dudley under Robert Morris’ direction, the first of which was delivered to Morris on 2 Apr. 1783 (see editorial note above). In the present letter and in his letter to Congress of 23 Apr. 1783 Morris failed to specify the number of coins enclosed, and in both he employed the same phrase to describe the enclosure—“Specimens of a Coin.” An entry in TJ’s Account Book for 11 May 1784 appears to furnish the only documentary evidence for the number of coins enclosed by Morris, and this entry involves a puzzling discrepancy. Acting in accordance with the request made by Morris, TJ recorded on his last busy day in Annapolis that he had “left with C. Thomson as specimen of coins 1.8 D.” Assuming that this referred only to silver coins, that TJ had accepted Morris’ designation of the largest coin of 1,000 units as the dollar, and that one each of the three coins was enclosed—a mark (as designated in the plan of 15 Jan. 1782) of 1,000 units, a quint of 500 units, and a cent of 100 units—then TJ’s Account Book entry should have read: “left with C. Thomson … 1.6 D.” This leaves a discrepancy of 200 units to be accounted for. Four more or less plausible explanations may be suggested: (1) Morris enclosed a mark, a quint, and three cents of silver, making a total of 1,800 units, or, as interpreted by TJ, “1.8 D.” (2) A silver coin of the value of 200 units, as contemplated by Gouverneur Morris in the plan reported to Congress on 13 May 1785 (see Document vii), was enclosed by Morris along with one mark, one quint, and one cent. (3) Both silver and copper coins were enclosed in one of several possible combinations, such as (a) the three silver coins plus forty 5-unit copper pieces; (b) the three silver coins plus the 5-unit and 8-unit copper pieces arranged in one of three possible combinations involving 28, 34, and 37 copper coins; and (c) the two largest silver coins, plus two silver cent pieces, plus one or more combinations of copper pieces. Finally, (4) TJ made a mistake in his Account Book entry.

The last of these seems the least probable, for it is clear that TJ made the record in order to be accountable for the number (or at least the amount) of coins turned over to Thomson, and he must therefore have made the notation with some care. The third possibility cannot be dismissed, for two reasons: (1) Morris’ present letter seems to be discussing one of the enclosed coins when he refers to it as “the smallest Copper piece … worth one Farthing Virginia Money.” This valuation, equated with the valuation in the same currency for the largest coin, proves that he was referring to the 5-unit piece. (2) It is also known that such a coin was struck, for one was presented to Samuel Curwen in London only four days after TJ made his Account Book entry (S. S. Crosby, Early Coins of America, Boston, 1878, p. 321; G. A. Ward, ed., Journal of Samuel Curwen, New York, 1842, p. 404—Curwen called it a “medal struck in Philadelphia”). But Morris wrote in haste, he enclosed four fairly lengthy documents, and to have made up “1.8 D.” by the use of copper coins would have increased the size of the packet to such an extent that he could scarcely have used the phrase “In this Letter you will find enclosed,” &c. The second possibility seems unlikely, since no copy of a 200-unit silver coin is known to be extant and there does not seem to be any evidence indicating that such a coin was struck in 1783 and 1784. On the whole, the editors are inclined to accept the first explanation, though they cannot dismiss the third.

Only one set of originals of these historic coins—the three silver coins called by Morris in 1782 the mark, the quint, and the cent—is known to be extant, though duplicates of two of them are in existence. Crosby, a careful numismatist, supposed it probable that very few of these coins were struck off, and conjectured that it was “not unlikely but a single specimen of each” was submitted to Congress (same, p. 312). The coins sent with the present letter were very probably a different set from that sent with Morris’ letter to Congress of 23 Apr. 1783, for it can hardly be supposed that in referring to “my original Letter to Congress… together with the Specimens of a Coin there mentioned” he meant to say that the enclosures were identically the ones then transmitted. No copies of these pattern coins have been found among the papers or effects of the Continental Congress. At least two of the coins reproduced in this volume from the originals bequeathed by the late John W. Garrett to The Johns Hopkins University (the mark and the quint) have a pedigree that traces them back to “the desk of … Charles Thomson,” (Crosby, same, p. 311). It cannot be determined whether these two coins were enclosed with Morris’ letter of 23 Apr. 1783 or with the present communication to TJ. But since there appear to be no documentary references to the coins transmitted in 1783 and since we know that on 11 May 1784 TJ did turn over a set of the coins to Thomson, the editors think it highly probable that the mark and one quint shown in the illustration to this volume were the identical coins enclosed in the present letter.

1Brackets and words enclosed are supplied. The clerk evidently made an omission in transcribing.

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