George Washington Papers

To George Washington from John Bailey, 17 April 1790

From John Bailey

New York—Little dock Street No. 22

Sir,April 17th 1790

I have witnessed an application made to Congress by a person residing in Great Britain who wishes to undertake the supply of a copper coinage—I shall not call in question the superiority of his apparatus and process for coining—tho’ I must insist that a coinage can be executed as well in America and cheaper to the United states than if executed abroad—Had the applicant given the result of one hours work by the steam engine I should have been enabled to have drawn a comparison between his process and my own—I have actually struck at the rate of 56 coins in a minute—coins in every respect equal to the Specimens which that artist hath transmitted to Congress.1

I am acquainted with the whole mystery of Coining in gold in silver in Copper or in Billon2—I can make my tools as well as prepare the metals, and can undertake to furnish coin in a state of as high perfection as has yet been issued by any nation. I can not only do this but am disposed to undertake it whenever the general government shall establish a mint, if I am called upon by you for that purpose—and I have at this moment in my possession as complete an apparatus for coining as was as yet ever used in any part of Europe that I am acquainted with.

Sir, you may perhaps do me the honor of recollecting me, during the late war I resided at Fredricksburg and at Fish-kill as a Cutler and was often favored with your commands.3

Trusting you will bear this application in mind and if on a full enquiry into my abilities you should be pleased to consider it as advancing the interest of the United States to employ me in furnishing this country with coin, I shall, never, I trust give you a moments cause of inquietude or dissatisfaction. In the mean time I remain with respectful esteem Sir Your very humble and Most Obedient Servant

John Bailey

ALS, DLC:GW.

John Bailey, a New York metalworker, was born in England and trained in Sheffield. In the 1760s he was engaged in the cutlery trade in New York City. He left the city during the British occupation and conducted a substantial metalworking business in Fredericksburg (now Patterson) and Fishkill, N.Y., during the war. He later returned to New York City, where he operated an extensive metalworking business throughout the 1790s. He received no appointment from GW.

1The Articles of Confederation granted Congress the authority to coin money, but Congress did not approve plans for a mint until 16 Oct. 1786. Until a mint could be established, Congress determined to contract privately for the production of copper coins. After considering various proposals Congress entered into an agreement with James Jarvis of New York, but Jarvis seems to have experienced difficulties in obtaining the necessary dies in Europe and proved unable to fulfill the terms of the contract (see James Jarvis to Congress, 1 Nov. 1786, DNA:PCC, item 139, and to the Board of Treasury, 23 Aug. 1788, DNA:PCC, item 140). The idea of contracting for copper coins was revived on 7 April 1790 when Thomas Tudor Tucker, a representative from South Carolina, “presented to the House a letter addressed to him from John H. Mitchell. . . reciting certain proposals of Matthew Boulton, of the Kingdom of Great Britain, for supplying the United States with copper coinage to any amount that government shall think fit to contract with him for, upon the terms therein mentioned” (DHFC, description begins Linda Grant De Pauw et al., eds. Documentary History of the First Federal Congress of the United States of America, March 4, 1789-March 3, 1791. 20 vols. to date. Baltimore, 1972—. description ends 3:360). For the text of Mitchell’s letter, see Mitchell to Tucker, 22 Mar. 1790, in Boyd, Jefferson Papers, description begins Julian P. Boyd et al., eds. The Papers of Thomas Jefferson. 40 vols. to date. Princeton, N.J., 1950—. description ends 16:342–45. Boulton (1728–1809) was one of the most important entrepreneurs of the English Industrial Revolution. In partnership with James Watt, he was responsible for the perfection and widespread introduction of the steam engine to industrial production. In 1787 Boulton entered into an agreement with Jean Pierre Droz (d. 1823), a Swiss engraver living in Paris who had invented a device for minting copper coins that struck the planchet on both sides and the edge simultaneously, producing a coin that was difficult to counterfeit. The next year Boulton established several steam-driven coining presses employing Droz’s methods at his Soho works near Birmingham and thereafter made large quantities of copper coins for the East India Company. John Hinckley Mitchell (b. 1765), whose letter presented Boulton’s proposal to Congress, was a young Charlestonian who had met Boulton in England in the mid–1780s. Hoping to make a profit on the contract, Mitchell had discussed with Boulton the possibility of supplying copper coins to South Carolina. In 1789 Mitchell raised his sights to the new federal government. According to his correspondence with Boulton, Mitchell met with GW in September 1789 “respecting a general Coinage for the Union.” GW’s diary for this period is missing, and no letters between Mitchell and GW have been found. Mitchell may have claimed to have met with GW to bolster his general claim to possessing the confidence of the new government. A comparison between the letter presented to Congress by Thomas Tudor Tucker of South Carolina and Boulton’s letter to Mitchell of 25 Nov. 1789 reveals that Mitchell deliberately altered or omitted passages from Boulton’s letter that were based on Boulton’s inference that Mitchell would again consult with GW about the coinage. Mitchell altered Boulton’s assertion that “It will be necessary that you (in Conjunction with General Washington or such Persons as may be appointed) fix upon a proper Device & proper inscription” to read “It will be necessary to fix upon a proper device and inscription.” He completely omitted Boulton’s instruction that he be “perfectly explicit with General Washington” and the complimentary close in which Boulton asked him to present sample coins, along with “my most respectful Complts. to the truly great & Honble. General Washington” (Mitchell, Mitchell-Boulton Correspondence, description begins Clarence Blair Mitchell, ed. Mitchell-Boulton Correspondence, 1787–1792: Relative to Coinages for South Carolina and the United States. Princeton, N.J., 1931. description ends 13, 18–20). GW referred to the proposal of Mitchell and Boulton briefly in his diary on 12 April 1790 without mentioning either man by name, noting that he read with approval Jefferson’s report to Congress advising against the production of coins by any foreign manufacturer, “which report appeared to me to be sensible & proper” (Diaries description begins Donald Jackson and Dorothy Twohig, eds. The Diaries of George Washington. 6 vols. Charlottesville, Va., 1976–79. description ends , 6:61). No other reference to Mitchell by GW has been found, nor any evidence that he was on familiar terms with GW or had been encouraged by the president or any member of his administration. After receiving the proposals contained in Mitchell’s letter to Tucker, the House referred the matter to Jefferson, who produced a “Report on Copper Coinage” within four days. Jefferson had seen Droz’s invention in Paris in company with Boulton in December 1786 and recognized its merits, but he argued strongly against contracting with any foreign firm or individual for American coins (Report on Copper Coinage, 14 April 1790, in Boyd, Jefferson Papers, description begins Julian P. Boyd et al., eds. The Papers of Thomas Jefferson. 40 vols. to date. Princeton, N.J., 1950—. description ends 16:345–49). See also Jefferson to Charles Thomson, 17 Dec. 1786, to John Jay, 9 Jan. 1787, ibid., 10:608–10, 11:29–33.

For a detailed treatment of Jefferson’s involvement, see ibid., 16:335–42. Jefferson’s report was read in the House on 15 April and tabled, apparently without debate, the House instructing the secretary of the treasury “to prepare and report to this House a proper plan or plans for the establishment of a national mint” (DHFC, description begins Linda Grant De Pauw et al., eds. Documentary History of the First Federal Congress of the United States of America, March 4, 1789-March 3, 1791. 20 vols. to date. Baltimore, 1972—. description ends 3:368–69). Hamilton presented his “Report on the Establishment of a Mint” to the House on 28 Jan. 1791 (ibid., 689–90; the text of the report is in Syrett, Hamilton Papers, description begins Harold C. Syrett et al., eds. The Papers of Alexander Hamilton. 27 vols. New York, 1961–87. description ends 7:462–607). Bailey wrote to GW again on 5 Feb. 1791, reminding him: “Sir On the 17th of April last I had the honor to address your Excellency on the Subject of my being employed in a Mint for the United States—In My Letter I set forth that I Was well acquanted With that Business, & was possessed of a very Compleate Apparatus for the purpose—Least the Multeplicety of Business Your Excellency, is engaged in Should be the means of Your forgetting My former application, I now take the Liberty to repeat it again, as I find by a Report of the Secretary of the Treasury a Mint is likely to be established—Should Your Excellency be Pleased to employ me as Master of the Mint, I make not the Least doubt but I Will give that satisfaction required in executing the Business With the utmost Fidelity and despatch” (DLC:GW). He received no appointment from GW. For Mitchell’s later plan for a mint, see Lear to Hamilton, 29 May 1791.

2Billon is copper alloyed with a small amount of silver. Jefferson’s report advocated its use in lieu of copper. In his “Report on the Mint” Hamilton argued against the use of billon on the grounds that it would lead to extensive counterfeiting (Syrett, Hamilton Papers, description begins Harold C. Syrett et al., eds. The Papers of Alexander Hamilton. 27 vols. New York, 1961–87. description ends 7:603).

3GW’s headquarters was located in the vicinity of Fredericksburg and Fishkill, N.Y., between 19 Sept. and 29 Nov. 1778. No record of any communication between Bailey and GW during this period has been found, although while in camp at Fishkill GW sought to obtain a sword with chains and swivels and other equipment that Bailey would have been capable of producing (see GW to John Cox or John Mitchell, 4 Oct. 1778). Bailey moved from Fredericksburg to Fishkill in early 1778.

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