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NNP Blog

Mar 31 2018
Continental Dollars

Continental Dollars Revisited

There is perhaps no more famous verse in the Book of Ecclesiastes than verse 9 of its very first chapter: “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.”

In January 2018, Erik Goldstein and David McCarthy published an article entitled “The Myth of the Continental Dollar” in The Numismatist which contended that the 1776-dated pieces were not American coins at all, but medals struck in England after the war’s end. The theory, buttressed by solid documentary and contextual evidence, has convinced most skeptics, your author included.

But the papers of Eric P. Newman suggest Goldstein and McCarthy were far from the first to come to this conclusion.

In the summer of 1949, Newman was getting to know Dayton, Ohio dealer James Kelly through the mail. Their exchange of letters began the previous spring but was renewed in July 1949 when Newman admitted to Kelly "your low priced Colonial material has intrigued me." He asked to inspect two rarities: the Confederatio cent of 1785 and a Continental dollar struck in brass.

The Confederatio cent was returned to Kelly on July 20, 1949 after Newman discovered he already owned an example of that variety. “As far as the brass Continental dollar is concerned,” Newman wrote that day, “I have very little enthusiasm for it.” He offered two double eagles as trade bait. Though their value fell well short of the Continental dollar’s asking price, Newman figured he had a shot, reiterating that he “like many others at the present time, have little enthusiasm for the expensive Continental dollars.”

Kelly declined Newman’s offer (though he would have accepted three double eagles of Newman’s choice in trade). On July 25, 1949, Newman offered more perspective on why Continental dollars just weren’t on the top of his wantlist at that time.

“I am sorry that I am returning the Continental dollar in brass. I am still interested in it, but because of recent research of others the evidence points to the fact that these may be satirical pieces made in England after the Revolutionary War and not contemporary pieces. I don't know the facts on this but it may be true. If at a later date you want to get rid of it on the basis I suggested, don't hesitate to let me know.”

Nearly 70 years ago, Newman had heard a theory that, while not precisely the Goldstein-McCarthy concept, was pretty darn close. Where did it come from?

Damon G. Douglas was one of the most well regarded numismatists of his generation. His brief biography here on NNP at once completely undersells his importance as a numismatic researcher and underscores just how forgotten his legacy is today. In the late 1940s, Douglas was considered one of the leading (and perhaps the single most preeminent) researcher of early American coins. He was a leader in the numismatic community, serving on the board of the American Numismatic Association during World War II and as President of the august New York Numismatic Club from 1949 to 1951. In March 1954, the Bronx Coin Club reported that it had “regretfully accepted the resignation of Damon Douglas.” He had burnt out, lost his interest in continuing his research, and set sheaves of excellent but unfinished or unpublished manuscripts aside. Many were donated to the American Numismatic Society after his death in 1974, but after 1954 he is not known to have involved himself in numismatics again.

Douglas’ interests closely paralleled Newman’s own. Surely Newman knew almost everything in the somewhat basic article Douglas penned for the April 1948 issue of The Numismatist entitled “British-American Colonial Coins,” but one paragraph stood out. 

“The wave of fast depreciating paper Continental currency seems to have barred other coining attempts during the war,” Douglas wrote. “A possible exception is the so-called ‘Continental dollar.’”

Douglas continued. “Known chiefly in type metal or pewter, it bears the legends and devices of the paper 1776 fractional Continental currency with the addition of the words 'Continental Currency -- 1776.' Completely ignored by Congress, it was produced, according to Du Simetier's (sic) 1784 notebook, in London probably as a satire on the paper currency that was becoming a synonym for worthlessness.”

The paragraph clearly stuck in Newman’s craw, not only then, but for decades. In 1973, he wrote to the New Jersey Historical Society looking for the notebook kept by pioneering Philadelphia numismatist Pierre Eugene DuSimitiere. “The late Damon Douglas, who spent much time in your archives doing numismatic research, wrote an article in 1948 mentioning an entry in the diary of Peter Eugene du Simitiere (1706-1784). Do you have that diary in your collection, or have you a suggestion of where it could be located?” Newman’s archives record no reply. The following day, he jotted a similar letter to the Library Company of Philadelphia requesting information on the diary, recalling Douglas’ 1948 article and calling him “a fine researcher.” Again, no reply is included in the Newman archive. Newman also requested DuSimitiere’s diary at the American Philosophical Society, but apparently never located where it actually was: the Library of Congress, where Goldstein located it in 2017.

This is a story of what-ifs. What if Damon Douglas hadn’t given up on coins in 1954? Might he have published a further expose on the Continental “dollars” decades ago? What if Eric Newman had access to the Internet in the early 1970s, whereby, instead of finding dead ends with unanswered letters, searchable databases of major institutional holdings could have revealed the location of DuSimitiere’s papers easily? What if the Newman Numismatic Portal had existed when Douglas’ numismatic career ended, offering a universally accessible repository for his world-class research, rather than having his papers lay undiscovered for decades and little used in the collections of the ANS?

This saga also points out the inefficiency of numismatic research. Much of what modern researchers “discover” was found but forgotten, written but misplaced, or published but little understood decades ago. While original documents (like the explanatory “explication” on the Continental “dollar” that was preserved in the British Museum but never properly described) are the mother’s milk of good research, underutilized secondary sources can lay a trail of breadcrumbs back to sources that have never been scrutinized by modern numismatists. A surfeit of sources is a wonderful problem to have. And, in many ways, the Newman Numismatic Portal is the solution.

Link to previous John Kraljevich blog entry: https://nnp.wustl.edu/blog-post/515967

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