State-Issued Coins: New Jersey Coppers
Representatives of the thirteen British colonies in North America gathered in Philadelphia in 1774 at the urging of Benjamin Franklin to address matters of local governance and grievances with British rule. Known as the Continental Congress, it met in three sessions, the second resulting in the Declaration of Independence from England on July 4, 1776, and in 1781 the third session produced the Articles of Confederation, the law of the new land until the US Constitution was ratified in 1789.
The original Articles gave most power to the states, including the right to tax. This meant they needed a way to collect them as well as conduct business among their citizens, a task made difficult by the lack of a widespread, stable national currency. Continental dollars were issued as paper currency by the national treasury, but high inflation rates and lack of confidence in the money led the people to favor a confusing mix of mostly British, Spanish, and French coins of silver or gold, or bartering to transact their business. But supplies of those foreign coins could be erratic, so several states set about making their own money, mostly smaller denominations in copper or pewter.
The New Jersey Coppers: 1786-1790
In June 1786, the New Jersey legislature authorized the minting of three million copper coins valued at 1/15th of a shilling over a two-year period. The obverse (face) of the coin showed a horse’s head above a plow with the inscription “Nova Cæsarea” (Latin for New Jersey) over the horse head and the date at the bottom. The reverse depicted an American shield with “E Pluribus Unum’ inscribed around the coin’s perimeter. It was the first coin to bear the national motto.
A Shaky Start
By the fall of 1786, partners Walter Mould, Thomas Goadsby, and Albion Cox had secured two buildings in present-day Rahway for production of the coins. The buildings were leased from a New Jersey legislator named Daniel Marsh, one of the sponsors of the state’s coinage bill. While the partnership would receive substantial profits from the coin production, they were required to post a surety bond of £10,000 and needed loans to buy copper and machinery.
When Mould balked at putting up his share of the bond, Goadsby and Cox petitioned the state to separate the contract and let them make the coins without Mould. The petition was granted and the two partners began minting two million coins late that November.
Lenders and Lawyers
Cox, already in debt, got behind on a loan from Goadsby. Goadsby and his co-signee Samuel Atlee filed suit and obtained a judgment allowing him to seize the copper and equipment, and Cox ended up in jail. But Goadsby was afraid the court would seize the assets to pay Cox’s debts, so he packed them up and headed to Morristown, where Mould, having settled his surety bond with the state, had set up operations under a separate contract to make 1 million coins.
The following January, Cox was released from jail and he obtained a stay of execution of Goadsby’s writ of seizure. But the assets had already been moved to Morristown, so Cox enlisted the local sheriff to recover the items and return them to Rahway, which he did.
Six months of legal battles ensured, and on June 7, the court awarded custody of all the minting equipment to Matthias Ogden, who held the surety bonds that were now in default. Ogden took the equipment to Elizabethtown and set up his own mint to fill the balance of the 2-million-coin contract.
Mix and Match Mintage
The lawsuits by Cox and Goadsby dragged on for three years, well past the coin contract’s expiration date, but Ogden was allowed to continue production until two million coins had been made. Production continued through 1790, but Ogden kept using the original dies dated 1786 and 1787. As a result, it’s hard today to tell which coins are originals made at Rahway and which were made at Elizabethtown. Ogden also used Connecticut copper coins instead of blank planchets, overstriking them with the New Jersey dies. This gave him a tidy profit since the Connecticut coins cost 1/3 the face value of the New Jersey coppers.
At the same time, Mould continued working on his 1-million-coin contract in Morristown. Mould’s planchets were slightly larger than Ogden’s Rahway blanks, but confusion is still possible because it seems that Mould may have gotten some of the smaller Rahway blanks, too, and even subcontracted some of his work to a New Yorker named John Bailey who added the image of a small animal to the reverse.
Varieties and Values
Because of the mixed planchets, dies, and overstrikes, New Jersey coppers were made in a baffling 237 varieties including at least four known counterfeits. Quite a few coins have survived including several that are fairly common and easy to acquire for a few hundred dollars, even in good condition. On the other hand, there are also many New Jersey coppers that are extremely rare and command prices in the $100,000 range.
Collecting New Jersey Coppers
Colonial and early American coin collecting is a hobby of its own, and New Jersey coppers are some of the most popular and affordable. There are plenty available to buy at any given time, but with the wide variety of types made, you would do well to familiarize yourself with the market before making a purchase.
PCGS Coin Facts has a comprehensive listing of the various types, rarity, and estimated value of the coins in different grades. For a detailed look at the history and types of New Jersey coppers, see this series of articles on the University of Notre Dame Libraries website, which informed much of this article.
Early American coins have intriguing stories to tell. While many are rare and quite expensive to own, several others are affordably priced and excellent starts to a fascinating hobby. We’ll look at more of these special coins in future blogs.