Shortly after the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776, the Continental Congress appointed a committee of three—Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and John Adams—to design an official seal for the United States.
Jefferson wanted a depiction of “The Children of Israel in the Wilderness”; Franklin suggested a representation of Moses parting the Red Sea; and Adams wanted a picture of Hercules standing between two allegorical figures representing Virtue and Sloth. Seems they couldn’t agree, so they hired a Swiss-born artist named Pierre Eugene du Simitiere to come up with a compromise design. Du Simitiere combined the three themes, then added his own flourishes. Of course, they hated it.
Frustrated, they hired a Philadelphia lawyer named William Barton to come up with something better. Barton proposed a mishmash of symbols, including an eagle and crest on one side of the seal and an unfinished pyramid on the other. But that wasn’t right either. Finally, Secretary of Congress Charles Thomson stripped away everything except the eagle and the pyramid and added a shield over the eagle’s chest, an olive branch (symbolizing peace) in one of the eagle’s claws, and a bundle of arrows (symbolizing war) in the other. This is the seal that was finally adopted, and you can see it on the $1 bill.
In the end, two elements of du Simitiere’s original design did make it into the final seal: the all-seeing eye of Providence, which was placed atop the unfinished pyramid; and the motto “E Pluribus Unum” (“From Many, One”), which is printed on the banner the eagle holds in its mouth.
So, where did du Simitiere get the motto? Believe it or not, historians speculate that he borrowed it from the masthead of The Gentleman’s Magazine, a popular publication in the late 1700’s. The editors of the magazine, in turn, took it from “color est e pluribus unus,” a line in Virgil’s poem “Moretum” that “refers to making a salad.”
With the nation embroiled in civil war, a small-town Pennsylvania preacher named N.R. Watkinson sat down to write a letter. It was addressed to Salmon P. Chase, Secretary of the Treasury under President Lincoln.
Rev. Watkinson was concerned that “recognition of the Almighty God” had been overlooked on the nation’s coinage. He believed that proudly declaring such recognition “would relieve us from the ignominy of heathenism” and “place us openly under the Divine protection that we have personally claimed.”
The letter read as follows:
Ridleyville, Pa., Nov 13, 1861
You are about to submit your annual report to Congress respecting the affairs of the national finances. One fact touching our currency has hitherto been seriously overlooked. I mean the recognition of the Almighty God in some form in our coins.
You are probably a Christian. What if our Republic were now shattered beyond reconstruction. Would not the antiquaries of succeeding centuries rightly reason from our past that we were a heathen nation. What I propose is that instead of the goddess of liberty we shall have next inside the 13 stars a ring inscribed with the words “perpetual union”; within this ring the all-seeing eye, crowned with a halo; beneath this eye the American flag, bearing in its field stars equal to the number of the States united; in the folds of the bars the words “God, liberty, law.”
This would make a beautiful coin, to which no possible citizen could object. This would relieve us from the ignominy of heathenism. This would place us openly under the Divine protection that we have personally claimed. From my heart I have felt our national shame in disowning God as not the least of our present national disasters.
To you first I address a subject that must be agitated.
(signed) N. R. Watkinson
Minister of the Gospel
NOTE: The “all-seeing eye” Rev. Watkinson suggested is exactly the same used on the Nova Constellatio silver coinage of 1783 (and subsequently used on the Nova Constellatio copper coinage of 1785).
Exactly one week later, on November 20, 1861, Secretary Chase wrote the following letter to Mint Director James Pollack.
Treasury Department, Nov. 20, 1861
No nation can be strong except in the strength of God, or safe except in His defense. The trust of our people in God should be declared on our national coins.
You will cause a device to be prepared without unnecessary delay with a motto expressing in the fewest and tersest words possible this national recognition.
(signed) S. P. Chase
Chase declined to forward Rev. Watkinson’s more specific suggestions, but instead gave Pollack general instructions to devise a new motto without making any particular recommendations.
In a lengthy letter dated December 26, 1861, Director Pollack responded to Chase, suggesting that the most appropriate place for the new motto would be on the reverse of the coins, above the eagle.
At first the motto OUR TRUST IS IN GOD was suggested, but it contained too many letters to comfortably place on smaller coins. “We therefore, selected for greater brevity the words ‘GOD OUR TRUST’ which carries the same idea.”
Pollack had his staff prepare four pattern dies containing the proposed motto: reverses of the silver half dollar and ten-dollar “eagle” gold coins, with and without a scroll. The new dies were paired with the regular obverse dies and struck in both copper and the regulation metals (silver and gold, respectively). Thus a total of eight different GOD OUR TRUST pattern coins dated 1861 were struck.
With more pressing matters such as the financing of the war effort occupying his time, Secretary Chase had not responded to Director Pollack as of June 16, 1862.
On that date Pollack wrote to Chase noting that it was now time to prepare dies for the 1863 coins. Chase’s delay apparently accounts for the fact that no new dies were cut with the proposed motto in 1862—instead, a total of six patterns were struck using the same four motto reverse dies and new 1862 obverse dies. None were struck this year in gold.
1863 was a year of great experimentation at the U.S. Mint. Patterns were produced for the proposed copper one-cent, two-cent, and three-cent pieces, plus the ten-cent “postage currency” pattern, as well as other coins. A total of twenty-nine pattern coins bearing some form of the new motto were produced. In addition to the initial GOD OUR TRUST motto, GOD AND OUR COUNTRY was used on a two-cent pattern, and the ultimately adopted motto IN GOD WE TRUST appeared on two-cent, quarter-dollar, half-dollar, and dollar patterns.
As part of a long letter to Secretary Chase dated December 8, 1863, Director Pollack recommended the coinage of the bronze one- and two-cent pieces.
United States Mint
I also propose for your consideration the coinage of a two-cent piece, same material and double weight of the cent, and with such devices and motto as may be approved by you. This piece would be a great public convenience, and its coinage, in my opinion, should be authorized. The devices are beautiful and appropriate, and the motto on each such, as all who fear God and love their country, will approve. I prefer the “shield and arrows” to the “head of Washington” on the obverse of the coin. They are submitted for your consideration. If you approve the change of material, and the coinage of the two-cent piece, or wither, I will, if you direct it, prepare a supplement to the existing laws, to be by you submitted to Congress for their action.
Director of the Mint
Chase consented and Pollack drafted proposed legislation, which was later passed as part of the Mint Act of April 22, 1864. Chase approved the pattern two-cent piece with the shield design and motto IN GOD WE TRUST.
The condition or state of wear of a coin, termed its “grade,” is one of the main determining factors of a coin’s value. Learning how to grade coins is essential for making sensible decisions, whether buying, selling, or investing.
The History of Coin-Grading Systems
In the early days of coin collecting, grading of coins was done by “instinct.” Dealers had different grading systems based on their individual experiences, observations, and opinions. There was very little standardization.
Discussions on coin-grading systems were held by The American Numismatic Association (ANA) held discussions on coin-grading systems for decades, but it was not until the 1970’s that definite steps were taken to compile a book of universal grading standards. In 1978, The Official ANA Grading Standards for United States Coins was first published, representing a consensus of professional numismatists’ grading systems.
In recent times, coin values have increased sharply. In many instances coins that were sold at $100 twenty years ago command prices of $2,000 or more now. A very small difference in a coin’s grade can mean a very large difference in its price. The exact grade of a coin is more important now than ever before.
The Official A.N.A. Grading Standards for United States Coins (order here)
It is recommended that anyone considering an investment in rare coins should become familiar with the Official A.N.A. Grading System for United States Coins, outlined below. Descriptions of Uncirculated grades are presented first, followed by a listing of circulated grades. Also included is a series of pictures illustrating a typical coin in the respective states of wear. The information provided herein is intended only as an introduction. A complete grading guide to each individual series of United States coins is detailed in The Official A.N.A. Grading Standards for United States Coins (reproduced below).
Uncirculated Grades (Mint State)
MS-70 – The perfect coin. Has very attractive sharp strike and original luster of the highest quality for the date and mint. No contact marks are visible under magnification. There are absolutely no hairlines, scuff marks or defects. Attractive and outstanding eye appeal. Copper coins must be bright with full original color and luster.
MS-69 – Must have very attractive sharp strike and full original luster for the date and mint, with no more than two small non-detracting contact marks or flaws. No hairlines or scuff marks can be seen. Has exceptional eye appeal. Copper coins must be bright with full original color and luster.
MS-68 – Attractive sharp strike and full original luster for the date and mint, with no more than four light scattered contact marks or flaws. No hairlines or scuff marks show. Exceptional eye appeal. Copper coins must have lustrous original color.
MS-67 – Has full original luster and sharp strike for date and mint. May have three or four very small contact marks and one more noticeable but not detracting mark. On comparable coins, one or two small single hairlines may show under magnification, or one or two partially hidden scuff marks or flaws may be present. Eye appeal is exceptional. Copper coins must have lustrous original color.
MS-66 – Must have above average quality of strike and full original mint luster, with no more than two or three minor but noticeable contact marks. A few very light hairlines may show under magnification, or there may be one or two light scuff marks showing on frosted surfaces or in the field. The eye appeal must be above average and very pleasing for the date and mint. Copper coins display full original or lightly toned color as appropriate.
MS-65 – Shows an attractive high quality of luster and strike for the date and mint. A few small scattered contact marks, or two larger marks may be present, and one or two small patches of hairlines may show under magnification. Noticeable light scuff marks may show on the high points of the design. Overall quality is above average and overall eye appeal is very pleasing. Copper coins have full luster with original or darkened color as appropriate.
MS-64 – Has at least average luster and strike for the type. Several small contact marks in groups, as well as one or two moderately heavy marks may be present. One or two small patches of hairlines may show under low magnification. Noticeable light scuff marks or defects might be seen within the design or in the field. Attractive overall quality with a pleasing eye appeal. Copper coins may be slightly dull. Color should be appropriate.
MS-63 – Mint luster may be slightly impaired. Numerous small contact marks, and a few scattered heavy marks may be seen. Small hairlines are visible without magnification. Several detracting scuff marks or defects may be present throughout the design or in the fields. The general quality is about average, but overall the coin is rather attractive. Copper pieces may be darkened or dull. Color should be appropriate.
MS-62 – An impaired or dull luster may be evident. Clusters of small marks may be present throughout with a few large marks or nicks in prime focal areas. Hairlines may be very noticeable. Large unattractive scuff marks might be seen on major features. The strike, rim and planchet quality may be noticeably below average. Overall eye-appeal is generally acceptable. Copper coins will show a diminished color and tone.
MS-61 – Mint luster may be diminished or noticeably impaired, and the surface has clusters of small contact marks throughout. Hairlines could be very noticeable. Scuff marks may show as unattractive patches on large areas or major features. Small rim nicks, striking or planchet defects may show, and the quality may be noticeably poor. Eye appeal is somewhat unattractive. Copper pieces will be generally dull, dark and possibly spotted.
MS-60 – Unattractive, dull or washed out mint luster may mark this coin. There may be many large detracting contact marks, or damage spots, but absolutely no trace of wear. There could be a heavy concentration of hairlines, or unattractive large areas of scuff marks. Rim nicks may be present, and eye appeal is very poor. Copper coins may be dark, dull and spotted.
AU-58 – (Very Choice About Uncirculated) – The barest trace of wear may be seen on one or more of the high points of the design. No major detracting contact marks will be present and the coin will have attractive eye appeal and nearly full luster, often with the appearance of a higher grade.
AU-55 – (Choice About Uncirculated) – Only small traces of wear are visible on the highest points of the coin.
AU-50 – (About Uncirculated) – With traces of wear on nearly all of the highest areas. At least half of the original mint luster is present.
EF-45 – (Choice Extremely Fine) – With light overall wear on the coin’s highest points. All design details are very sharp. Mint luster is usually seen only in protected areas of the coin’s surface.
EF-40 – (Extremely Fine) – With only slight wear but more extensive than the preceding, still with excellent overall sharpness. Traces of mint luster may still show.
VF-30 – (Choice Very Fine) – With light even wear on the surface; design details on the highest points lightly worn, but with all lettering and major features sharp.
VF-20 – (Very Fine) – As with VF-30 but with moderate wear on the higher surface features.
F-12 – (Fine) – Moderate to considerable even wear. Entire design is bold. All lettering, including the word LIBERTY (on coins with this feature on shield or headband), visible, but with some weakness.
VG-8 – (Very Good) – Well worn. Major designs visible, but with faintness in areas. Head of Liberty, wreath, and other major features visible in outline form without center detail.
G-4 – (Good) – Heavily worn. Major designs visible, but with faintness in areas. Head of Liberty, wreath, and other major features, as applicable, visible in outline form without center detail.
AG-3 – (About Good) – Very heavily worn with portions of the lettering, date, and legends being worn smooth. The date is barely readable.
The exact descriptions of circulated grades vary from one coin series to another, so the preceding commentary is of a general nature. It is essential to refer to the proper section of The Official ANA Grading Standards for United States Coins when grading any coin.
Nonstandard Grades and Terms
Although not recognized by The Official ANA Grading Standards for United States Coins, intermediate grades such as AU-53, VF-35, VF-25, F-15 and G-6 are employed by some grading services and dealers. Also, some dealers use the abbreviation XF (instead of EF) to designate coins in Extra (or Extremely) Fine condition. Additionally, three other nonstandard grades are sometimes applied to coins that grade below AG-3:
FR-2 – (Fair) – Extremely worn. Most of the coin’s surface may be smooth. The date may not be readable. Possibly exhibits slight to moderate damage.
P-1 – (Poor) – Hardly recognizable. May be damaged considerably.
B-0 – (Bad) – Unrecognizable and/or severely damaged and unable to be attributed.
The term PQ or “+” might also be included by a grader who believes that a coin is better than the minimum grade requirements, but does not satisfy the criteria for the next higher grade (for example, MS-63 PQ or MS-63+). A grade range may also be given (for example, VF–EF). In addition, the designation BU (Brilliant Uncirculated) is frequently used to describe Uncirculated coins. Because of the absence of a numerical grade, this term is ambiguous at best. Often, coins that are offered as BU may in reality be AU (About Uncirculated) by strict definition.
A split grade may be assigned when there are significant differences in the obverse grade and reverse grade of the same coin. Split grades are normally denoted with a dual grade in obverse/reverse format. For example, a coin with a split grade of F/VF would have an obverse grading Fine (F) and a reverse grading Very Fine (VF). Typically, coins with a split grade are valued at the level of their lowest grade, whether obverse or reverse.
In addition to numerical grade, the market value of a coin is determined by several other factors. Some of these are: quality of strike, brilliance or toning, centering, planchet quality, aesthetic appeal, and supply vs. demand. Collectors and investors are also encouraged to seek one or more second opinions from a professional before purchasing a coin with a high market price.
Perhaps you noticed that U.S. dimes, quarters, half dollars, and silver dollars have ridges, or grooves, around their edges. They were not put there for decoration, but had a very important purpose at one time in history.
During our country’s earlier years, all coins were made of gold or silver, and did not have ridges. Each coin’s value was based on the amount of gold or silver in it. For example, a $10 gold piece contained ten dollars’ worth of gold, and silver dimes contained ten cents’ worth of silver.
But some dishonest people sought to make an illegal profit from these coins. They filed bits off the edges and sold them for their value in gold or silver. On the smaller-sized coins it often went unnoticed, but this dishonest practice decreased the value of the original gold or silver coin.
To prevent this, the government began milling, or grooving, the edges so a coin could easily be identified if it was trimmed.
Coins today are no longer made of pure gold or silver, but the milled edges remain on most of them because people are accustomed to seeing them that way.