“The Cato Institute is the foremost upholder of the idea of liberty in the nation that is the foremost upholder of the idea of liberty.”
—George F. Will
In 1776 the Continental Congress—eager to exert its sovereign status in the newborn America—set out to produce a coin to replace the commonly used Spanish and British currency. Originally minted in tin, pewter, silver, and brass, it is believed to have been based on a design by Benjamin Franklin. The front of these coins bears a striking motto that captures the independent spirits of the founding patriots: “Mind Your Business.”
The Cato Institute has taken inspiration from this coin and we hope its history will inspire you to support Cato’s mission of defending the ideals of the men who commissioned its creation: individual liberty, limited government, free markets, and peace. Today, these are the cornerstone values of the Cato Institute, just as they were the cornerstone values of the American Revolution.
We’d like to send you a replica of one of these coins, along with the other exclusive benefits reserved for Cato 1776 Sponsors. Once you receive your coin, we encourage you to keep it—maybe in your pocket, maybe on your desk at work. Use it as a conversation piece to tell people, first of all, about the philosophy of liberty and limited government advocated by America’s Founders
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As you’ll see on the site, Franklin’s coin – most commonly referred to as the “Continental Dollar” – features a picture of the sun, its rays beating down onto a sun dial, next to the word “Fugio”—Latin for “I flee.” Together with the caption, this implies, “Time flies, so mind your business.” At the time, “business” was understood literally as business, or commerce, particularly in the context of currency. But with his well-known love for witty maxims, Franklin likely intended a double meaning. The second sense of “mind your business” would have been closer to how we understand it today: be responsible for yourself, and don’t needlessly meddle in others’ affairs.
At Cato, we believe that most Americans today are just as committed to personal liberty and responsibility as the Founders were, and that many would favor a more libertarian society with true free-market capitalism (as opposed to crony capitalism), broad individual liberty, social tolerance, and peaceful international relations. Polls show that Americans increasingly take the side of liberty on issues like deregulation, limiting federal power and spending, free speech, gun rights, foreign intervention, criminal justice, immigration, and tax reform.
Today, federal officials, far from “minding their business,” want to regulate everything from how you run your business to what kind of milk you buy. They want to tell you what health insurance you need and browse through your phone records. Compare this to Thomas Jefferson’s modest description of the duties of government: “A wise and frugal Government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned. This is the sum of good government.”
As the Continental Congress churned out paper currency to pay its bills, that currency was quickly devalued until it was worthless. Soon, “not worth a continental” became a popular expression. But in 1787, Congress decided to resurrect Franklin’s design for the first official United States penny—a copper coin now known as the “Fugio Cent.”
Two men competed for the contract to produce those coins. One of them, James Jarvis, nabbed the contract by sending a $10,000 bribe to William Durer, the head of the Treasury Board—and an old family friend.
The government lent Jarvis 30 tons of copper to begin coining, presuming that he would eventually pay them back. Instead, Jarvis and his father-in-law proceeded to make only a fraction of the currency they had been contracted to provide and used the remaining copper to produce a lighter type of coin—thus upping their profits. When Congress realized they had been swindled, Jarvis and his accomplices fled for Europe. The Fugio Cent saw very little circulation, as copper was devalued shortly thereafter and the pennies, along with the Continental Dollar, became very scarce.
Alas, merely espousing the principles of liberty is not enough: they have to be vigilantly guarded from corrupt politicians and cronies ever on the lookout for ways to abuse government power for their own gains. The Founding Fathers knew this well, as we do today, based on the swelling government that is manipulated to their own ends by lobbyists, politicians, and special interests.
If you share our values and want to learn more about the Cato Institute, the exclusive benefits reserved for Cato 1776 Sponsors, and receive your replica Continental Dollar, visit www.cato1776.com.