Draped Bust, Small Eagle (1795-1797)
With John Cabot’s voyage of exploration in 1497, England laid claim to parts of North America, planting the seed that in three hundred years grew into the new nation of the United States. Although settlements weren’t established for more than a century, other European countries lost no time in establishing colonies of their own. The English contented themselves with the eastern seaboard, leaving the Gulf of Mexico and Louisiana to the French. Along with vast territories in Central and South America, the Spanish claimed the West Coast of the North American continent, encompassing an area that was to become California, Arizona and New Mexico.
Naturally, coins familiar to these emigres served as currency for commerce in their new adopted land. The Spanish eight reales (Spanish dollar) and its subdivisions of four, two, one, and one-half reales were familiar and accepted everywhere, along with assorted English crowns, shillings, and pence. Many unofficial and official Colonial coppers mimicked the British penny and half penny, further filling the need for small change. For large transactions, Spanish, British or French gold pieces saw duty as settlement for quantities of goods, international payments or storage of wealth. The Spanish coins were predominant, as Latin American mines yielded huge amounts of gold and silver, allowing coins from the southern continent to blanket its neighbor to the north.
Accustomed as Americans were to the Spanish pieces, when discussions of a new monetary system for the United States began after the Revolutionary War, its architects were eager to preserve continuity between the old and the new in formulating their plans. Although Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton championed decimal coinage as a clean break with Europe’s convoluted monetary systems, one concession to the Old World was made: The basic unit around which the new system revolved was the silver dollar, copying the Spanish coin’s weight and fineness, along with its commonly accepted name. At the top of the new coinage scheme was the country’s premier gold coin, the ten-dollar piece, intended by Congress’ Mint Act of 1792 as America’s face to the world, and symbolically designated the “eagle,” after the national bird.
Eagles first appeared in the Fall of 1795, less than two months after the half eagles debuted. Both were designed by Chief Engraver Robert Scot, and feature Liberty wearing a cloth cap, facing right, with the legend LIBERTY above and the date below. Flanking the bust on these first year coins were ten stars to the left and five stars to the right. Inspired by a Roman onyx cameo carved in the first century B. C., the reverse depicted an eagle with widespread wings, perched on a palm branch with a wreath in its beak. Encircling the border is the inscription UNITED STATES OF AMERICA.
The Philadelphia Mint struck just 13,344 eagles with this Capped Bust/Small Eagle design from 1795 to 1797. Although there are only three dates in the short-lived series, it encompasses seven varieties, five in 1795 alone, including the famous and rare nine-leaf palm branch variety. In 1796, sixteen stars flank Liberty, eight on each side, signifying the admission of Tennessee to the Union. The 1797 issue also has sixteen stars, arranged twelve to the left and four to the right. Both the 1796 and 1797 varieties share a common reverse: the palm branch under the eagle has eleven leaves, as opposed to the thirteen or nine leaves of the 1795 coins.
Unfortunately, the eagle never served its intended purpose as the nation’s gold coin for international trade. Bankers much preferred the half eagle, as it was closer in size to the widely recognized British guineas and sovereigns, the Brazilian 4000 Reis, and the French 24 Livres then in use throughout the world. But even the half eagles saw limited service in commerce, for Europeans hesitated to accept the unusual coins, favoring the more familiar issues of the day. To make matters even worse, as the price of gold rose with the turmoil surrounding the Napoleonic Wars, the undervalued (in relation to silver) U.S. gold coins rapidly disappeared into melting pots, many returning to the channels of commerce as new gold coins in an Old World guise.
Because early U.S. gold saw little circulation, most surviving Capped Bust/Small Eagle tens are found in relatively high grades, generally from Very Fine to Almost Uncirculated. Mint state specimens are occasionally available, usually the 1795 issues, which appear much more frequently than the later dates of this design. The 1795 coins are often encountered with prooflike surfaces, including some amazingly well-preserved “gems”—apparently many were saved as first-year-of-issue souvenirs. Perhaps some of these exceptional specimens are from the group of 100 eagles presented by Mint Director Henry DeSaussere to President George Washington in October of 1795.
The 1796 issue is considerably scarcer than the first year coins, particularly in mint state, but like its predecessor, several well struck prooflike specimens have appeared on the market over the years. Eclipsing both dates is the very rare 1797 issue, quite elusive in all grades, with only a few mint state survivors known, including at least one prooflike example which appeared in Stack’s sale of the famed Amon Carter collection in 1984. Although few present day collectors assemble sets of the seven varieties, it is by no means an impossible quest except in high grade, as the rare 1797 and 1795 nine-leaf reverse issues become prohibitively expensive. Most collectors pursue only a single example of this design type. Curiously, a collection of just the three dates could be construed as a minor “type set” within the series, as they each have a different arrangement of stars on the obverse.
When grading this design, obverse wear first shows on Liberty’s hair, cheek, shoulder and cap. On the reverse, check the eagle’s wings, breast and left leg. A caveat, however: These coins were produced with manual presses and suffer from the unpredictable striking quality common to many early coins. What looks like wear on one coin may be only a loss of detail, while another coin with sharper details may in fact have more wear, and thus be in a lower grade. Additionally, adjustment marks from the filing of overweight planchets routinely plague all early U.S. gold. While these marks are mint-made defects, they don’t necessarily affect the grade, but can often affect the value of a coin, depending on whether the marks are unsightly or barely noticeable.
Scot replaced the small eagle reverse in mid-1797 with the new Heraldic Eagle design, modeled after the bird on the Great Seal of the United States. The Capped Bust motif remained on the obverse until 1804, when President Jefferson halted production of both gold eagles and silver dollars. The eagle would not return until 1838, when it featured an entirely new design, Christian Gobrecht’s Coronet Head Liberty.
Draped Bust, Heraldic Eagle (1797-1804)
Old habits die hard. After renouncing almost a thousand years of kings and queens, banners and lineage, the founders of the United States of America went searching for a symbol of national heritage. Ironically, the one they adopted had its roots deep in the class structure of the Old World—a heraldic symbol, or coat of arms, dating from the knights and nobility of 12th-century Europe.
With their faces covered by helmets, medieval knights wore identifying emblems or symbols on the tunics covering their armor, giving rise to the expression ‘coat of arms.’ After the Crusades, the concept of heraldry spread throughout Europe, adopted by both noble and patrician classes, and later by lawyers, companies, colleges and towns. European countries adopted the practice of placing heraldic shields on the reverse of their coinage. ‘Scudo,’ the word for shield, even became a denomination of gold currency, as in ‘scudo de oro.’ Heraldic symbols on coinage were soon used all over the world.
The first precious metal coinage from the U.S. Mint, however, presented no such symbol, only depictions of the national bird, a naturally posed American bald eagle. These coins received widespread criticism, however, with the bird gracing their reverses derided as either a “scrawny eagle” or a “turkey cock.” As officials pondered the poor reception afforded the designs, the preference shown by both Americans and Europeans for the more familiar coins of Old World origin was also on their minds. Adopting a heraldic motif would at once make U. S. coins more acceptable from both an artistic and practical standpoint. The closest thing the republic had to a coat of arms was the eagle on the Great Seal of the United States. Designed by William Barton, a Philadelphia lawyer and numismatist, the Great Seal was adopted by both the Continental Congress of 1782 and the U. S. Congress of 1789. Primarily used on treaties and other diplomatic documents, its heraldic design would make its first appearance on the quarter eagle of 1796, and next on the eagle, in 1797.
As Chief Engraver of the United States Mint since late 1793, Robert Scot was charged with adapting the Great Seal to coinage use. His Capped Bust obverse design used on the eagle since 1795, with its bust of Liberty in a cloth cap, facing right, continued unchanged. The inscription LIBERTY appeared above the bust with the date below. Scot’s new reverse featured a cruder and less regal bird than that on the Great Seal, and to many, was artistically inferior to the small eagle on the earlier coins. Scot’s bird, with the Union Shield on its breast, holds thirteen arrows and an olive branch in its claws, with a scroll inscribed E PLURIBUS UNUM in its beak. Above the eagle are thirteen stars enclosed by an arc of clouds, with UNITED STATES OF AMERICA surrounding the border. While Scot’s design has both admirers and detractors, he did make one obvious technical error: He placed the arrows—symbolizing armed might—in the eagle’s right (dexter or honorable) claw, and the olive branch of peace in the left (sinister) claw, reversing the placement seen on the Great Seal and heraldically conveying a warlike message rather than one of peace. Whether this was an honest mistake or a reflection of his hawkish sentiments, no one will ever know, but no change was made to this arrangement throughout the series’ life.
Although Scot is credited with the Heraldic reverse, numismatic researchers believe that he was aided in the preparation of the first dies by assistant John Smith Gardner, who started work at the Mint in 1794, but quit less than two years later, supposedly unsatisfied with his compensation. No doubt he was also weary of Scot’s constant harassment, which the marginally competent Chief Engraver heaped on anyone he thought might threaten his position.
The first eagles with the Heraldic reverse appeared in the summer of 1797, with the obverses showing Liberty’s bust flanked by ten stars to the left and six to the right. The following year only thirteen stars appeared, but in two arrangements: nine left, four right; and seven left, six right. Both are overdates and quite rare—with less than 40 pieces known of the two varieties. Beginning in 1799, all obverses had 13 stars, arranged eight left, five right. The 1799 coins are the most frequently seen of the series, along with those of 1801: these two dates are often available in mint state, and occasionally superb quality pieces appear, generally in the sales of major collections. The 1800 issue is quite elusive, appearing in mint state about as often as the 1797, but far less frequently in circulated grades. With no eagles made dated 1802, the next date in the series is the 1803, an issue considerably rarer than the two most common dates, but paling in comparison to the 1804, a date exceeded in rarity only by the 1798/7 coin. 30 years later, eagles dated 1804 were made for inclusion in diplomatic presentation sets: Four of these remarkable proofs are known, one in the famous King of Siam set.
As on most early coins, varieties abound in this series, including differences in placement of the reverse stars and multiple combinations of obverse and reverse dies. Rarely assembled by variety, and only slightly more often by date, this series experiences strong demand from type collectors. Although Mint State examples exist of all dates, Heraldic Reverse eagles are usually found in the higher circulated grades.
Wear first appears on this design on Liberty’s hair, cap, drapery and cheek. On the reverse, check the clouds and the eagle’s wings and breast feathers. Often these coins were not fully struck, resulting in loss of detail that is often mistaken for wear, particularly on the shield. Adjustment marks, which resulted from filing excess gold from overweight planchets, are quite common to these early coins. While technically a mint-made defect, marks that greatly impair the aesthetic appeal of a coin may affect its grade, and certainly its price.
The Philadelphia Mint made 119,248 eagles of this design between 1799 and 1804, but many were destroyed in the huge melts that took place throughout the early part of the 19th century. As the world price of gold rose in response to France’s “Reign of Terror” and the Napoleonic Wars, large quantities of U.S. gold coins disappeared across the Atlantic as just so much bullion. With the Mint bound to the fifteen-to-one silver/gold ratio established by the Coinage Act of 1792, gold’s rising price limited both the amount of metal available for coinage, and the coins’ ability to circulate.
By 1804, melting of U.S. gold coins was out of control. Most of the Mint’s production went directly into the hands of speculators and bullion dealers, bypassing the channels of commerce completely. Accordingly, President Thomas Jefferson halted the production of gold eagles (along with silver dollars) in 1804. The Mint coined no more eagles until 1838, when the new Coronet Head design by Christian Gobrecht appeared.
Coin Descriptions Provided by Numismatic Guaranty Corporation (NGC)