Through the Numismatic Glass: Two Cents Worth
by Dr. Thomas F. Fitzgerald – The California Numismatist
Almost 60 years had passed since the two-cent piece was first proposed by a Senator in 1806. In 1864 this denomination finally became a reality during the coinage problems as a result of the Civil War. The two-cent coins then had a very short lifetime of only a decade, from 1864 through 1873. These coins were greatly influenced by history and economics but mostly, by politics.
The Story Begins
In the spring of 1806, just 13 years after the Philadelphia Mint opened and began striking large cents in 1793, Senator Uriah Tracy introduced legislation seeking to strike a billon two-cent coin as well as a 20-cent silver denomination. However, his idea never was adopted because the U.S. Mint Director, Robert Patterson, used his influence to keep the proposal from ever becoming a law.
Twenty Years Later
In 1836 the idea of minting a two-cent coin was again proposed by President Andrew Jackson’s Treasury Secretary Levi Woodbury. In fact Christian Gobrecht and mint assayer Franklin Peale produced pattern coins for these pieces. This time Mint Director Robert M. Patterson, the son of Robert Patterson, like his father was able to keep this idea from becoming a reality as he opposed the proposal.
Thirteen Years Later
In the years prior to the Civil War, 1849-1853, the idea of a two-cent coin was again a topic of consideration. However, in 1851, the Congress chose not a two-cent coin but instead a debased silver three-cent piece. This proved to be a poor decision. By 1853 the weight of the three-cent silver coin was so reduced that it led to its demise in 1873.
A Civil War Coin
The start of the Civil War in 1860 immediately resulted in the hoarding of all gold and silver coins. As a result,the Treasury Department issued a series of paper “fractional currency” beginning with the fi rst issue of Postage Currency in 1862. Eventually there were five issues in denominations of 3, 5, 10, 15, 25 and 50 cents that replaced the nation’s silver coinage.
The mint was unable to keep up with the demand for one-cent pieces resulting in the use of a very large number of “Civil War Tokens.” These tokens were lighter than the mint’s cents and, because the public didn’t seem to object, eventually would influence the weights of both the one-cent and two-cent pieces that were minted in 1864.
In 1863 the mint’s chief engraver, James B. Longacre, was already preparing the dies for the two-cent pieces. Mint Director James Pollock had been convinced of the need of a two-cent piece to circulate along with the fractional currency. By the end of 1863 Pollock requested Congressional authorization for the two-cent coin. Note, it appears at this time in our history, the decision to strike a coin was made before it was authorized by Congress.
Two-cent pattern dies were completed by early December 1863 and on December 8th, Mint Director Pollock wrote to Lincoln’s Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase requesting that the two-cent pieces be authorized by Congress.
Two Different Designs for the New Coin
Two basic obverse designs were sent to Secretary Chase. The first bore the image of George Washington and the second design had an ornamental shield representing the “Arms of the United States.” Above the shield was the motto “GOD OUR TRUST.” Mint Director Pollock also recommended the shield design. Treasury Secretary Chase reported that President Abraham Lincoln, who took a great interest in this matter, also preferred the shield but changed the motto to “IN GOD WE TRUST.” Both the new two-cent piece and the existing one-cent coin were to be struck from bronze planchets with the cent weighing 48 gr. and the two-cent coin, 96 gr.
Minting of the Two-Cent Coins
The coining of the two-cent pieces began at the end of May, 1864 when 25,000 coins were produced. However, production was greatly hindered because of a shortage of planchets. A solution was forthcoming when Mint Director Pollock signed a contract with Holmes, Booth and Hayden of Waterbury, Conn. to supply planchets. The first two-cent pieces were struck with pattern dies that had the motto “IN GOD WE TRUST” in small letters thus creating the first of two varieties with the date 1864. The first “small motto” variety had a much smaller mintage than the “large motto” coins of 1864 due to the problems of securing planchets. After the first two years of 1864-65, the mintage figures dropped significantly from 32 million to only 3 million in 1866 and 1,100 by 1873.
The Demise of the two-cent Denomination
However, it should be noted, this did not reflect the attitude of the public regarding this denomination, rather it was the political influence of nickel magnate and mine owner, Joseph Wharton. Because of his extraordinary influence with Congress, a copper-nickel three-cent coin (1865) and a nickel five-cent denomination (1866) were added to our coinage.
Thus because of Wharton’s extraordinary influence, this two-cent denomination, that was first suggested in 1806, and first minted 58 years later in 1864 because of the coinage shortages as a result of our Civil War, came to its end in 1873.
President Abraham Lincoln played a role in the design of this coin as his wording, “IN GOD WE TRUST” was adopted for the motto. This motto also appeared on the Liberty Seated silver dollars starting in 1866. The Civil War created a religious fervor in the United States. However, the use of the motto was not considered again until the Presidency of Theodore Roosevelt, who opposed the motto on our coinage but was overruled by Congress. As a result the motto “In God We Trust” may be found on the gold coins designed by Augustus Saint-Gaudens and by Bela Lyon Pratt. It did not appear on the minor coinage until Victor D. Brenner’s Lincoln Cent was minted beginning in 1909.
The two-cent coin was discontinued, not because it wasn’t needed, but because of the extraordinary influence of a wealthy nickel mine owner, Joseph Wharton and his questionable influence with Congress. This seems to support the belief that “the more things change, the more they remain the same.” At least as far as politics are concerned.