The US Fugio Coin: Time Flies, So Mind Your Business

I'm sure you have most likely heard mention of the copper coin that is most consistently referred to as the Fugio. Over the years the coin has been called a great number of different names. Some of the most commonly used ones besides Fugio are the Franklin Cent, the Ringed Copper, or the Sun Dial Cent. Interestingly enough though with all the names the coin has been given, there is no record of it ever having been given an official name by the United States Congress who authorized the coin to be minted. The Fugio is a relatively desirable coin. A lot of people who metal detect consider it to be a bucketlister. If your interest lies in finding colonial US stuff, well then, a Fugio is probably right up there at the top of your list of items that you are either grateful to have dug or that you hope to find someday.

I still remember the moment when I found my first and only Fugio that I have dug, so far. It was in the Spring of last year. I was detecting in the fields located behind an old home site that was built in the 1700's. The Fugio was actually my first signal of the day. When I pulled it from the hole I couldn't really make out any details on the coin. I had absolutely no idea what kind of copper coin it was; just that it was a very toasty looking one. We detected the site for another hour and a half or so. We weren't finding much of anything good so we decided to leave and head on over to search for some cellar holes in the woods nearby. It wasn't until after we arrived back home and started to clean up our finds that I realized what type of copper coin it was. I have to admit that even though it is a total turd, probably the worst looking Fugio you have ever seen the likes of, I was still pretty darn happy about finding it. The side with the sundial design is totally wiped and you can just barely make out the thirteen thick circles on the other side, but I saved it from the ground and I love it.

The Fugio coin has quite an interesting and unusually complicated history. If you were to research the Fugio coin thoroughly, you would find that the records related to their definitive history are meager at best and the information surrounding their production and circulation is unclear and often conflicting. The records that exist and documentation that has survived strongly implies that the coins production involved corrupt and dishonest acts from its very beginning.

In the mid to late 1780's, there were a lot of ongoing problems with the current coinage circulating in America. There was a great shortness of smaller denomination coins. Counterfeit coins were another problem and there was also an issue with the copper coins that were currently in circulation being much too light in weight. The light weight coppers, counterfeits, and lack of small denomination coins were damaging the economy. Congress wanted to stabilize the situation. To combat the ongoing problems, Congress authorized the minting of a national federally issued copper coin, the first of its kind.

And so, the story of the Fugio begins. At the time a national mint run by the government did not exist within America. A Board of Treasury administered America's finances. The Board of Treasury received numerous private proposals. Some asking for employment in a government mint, others offering to conduct the mint themselves, and several from individuals who offered to produce and supply the government with the coins they desired. Of the proposals there was one from Matthias Ogden of New Jersey and his associates that offered to mint the coins on their own account, under government supervision, and to pay into the Treasury 15% of the profit from the coins as a royalty for the privilege. There was also a proposal from James Jarvis. Jarvis had a controlling interest in a Connecticut enterprise, a company for coining coppers which is known for having minted Connecticut State Coppers. He offered to produce the 300 tons of coins within 3 years and to accept payments from the government over the course of a 20 year period at the rate of 6% interest.

The contract was awarded to Jarvis. One can infer from the official documents that Jarvis most likely secured the contract as the result of a bribe in the amount of $10,000 to William Duer, the Head of the Treasury Board. There is a record of a private article that was drawn up between Jarvis and Duer stating that Duer would receive the amount of $10,000 after the coining process had been completed. Some of the economic opportunities of the era could be easily exploited because the business ethics of the period permitted the mixing of public office and private profit to a degree that definitely would not be tolerated today. Would Jarvis have been awarded the contract without securing Duer’s support? Who’s to say? Duer was certainly a political opportunist and not the most scrupulous of businessmen. Over time, Duer was linked to the involvement of several various acts of crime and corruption and he eventually landed himself in federal prison where he spent the rest of his life.

There were two contracts which Jarvis signed. Both contracts were dated May 12, 1787. The first contract specified the terms of payment and the delivery schedule Jarvis needed to follow. The 300 tons of copper coins were to be delivered to New York upon the following schedule. Twenty-five tons were due by December 1, 1787. Another twenty-five tons were due by March 25, 1788. Fifty tons of coins were expected to be delivered by August 31, 1788 and then another hundred tons were due the following year on August 31, 1789. The final hundred tons were expected to be delivered by May 11, 1790. The contract also provided for an extension in time, of the amount of nine months, if any of the vessels carrying copper supply from Europe were lost or captured during transport. The second contract was for the transaction of 37 tons of copper that the government lent to Jarvis. It included an acknowledgment by Jarvis that he already received 12,809 pounds of copper on January 16, 1787. This contract specified that payment on the loan was required to be made for the entire 37 tons on or before August 31, I788 in authorized copper coins, valued at $14, 828.01. All together Jarvis obligated himself to the manufacturing and delivery of 32,149,468 copper coins. Can you imagine how common the Fugio would be today if 30 million of them had actually been produced?

The Board of Treasury dictated to Jarvis the design elements that were to appear on the coin. Jarvis followed their instructions and minted the coins to their specification. The following was specified in the contract: "On one side of each piece stamp the following device: thirteen circles linked together, each of which to bear the name of one of the states in the union; a small circle in the middle with the words "American Congress" flowing round it; and in the center of that circle the words "We Are One" and on the opposite side of the same piece the following device is to be stamped: a dial with hours expressed on the face of it; a meridian sun above it; on one side the word "Fugio", and on the other the year "1787" in figures; and the words "Mind your Business" below the dial.". An amendment was added to the specifications of the coins design at the bottom of the contract. It stated "strike out the word together and change it to the words a small circle; Instead of "American Congress" say "United States"; and strike out the word flowing".

Congress never once used the terms obverse and reverse or front and back when dictating the design of the coin in the contracts. They may have specified it verbally to Jarvis himself but there is no record of such. So, technically, no one really knows for sure which side is the front and which is the back. Generally speaking, the obverse side of a coin is usually the side that has the more important inscription. Some historians’ state that the side with the date is definitely the obverse while others make the argument that the name of the nation entitles the side upon which it appears to be the obverse.

Benjamin Franklin is often credited with designing the Fugio since it is a well known fact that he was the designer of the 1776 Continental Currency dollar coin. The Fugios design is essentially the same. There is no record however of Benjamin Franklin directly having anything specifically to do with the design or production of the Fugio. The Board of Treasury is who selected to use several of the elements from Franklin's design of the Continental Currency dollar coin. You know what else I learned in all my research that is rather quite interesting? In the year 1756, David Rittenhouse, an accomplished clock and instrument maker, made an eight day clock for his Father-In-Law, Mr. Barton. Over the dial plate he engraved the motto "Tempus Fugit" which means time flies and beneath it was the motto "Go about your business". Now that really just has to make you wonder, doesn't it? Was the clocks design part of Benjamin Franklin's inspiration? Could he have even possibly known about it? Or is it simply just a coincidence?

Abel Buell of New Haven, Connecticut is credited with creating the dies for the Fugio. He also created the dies for Connecticut State copper. Buell was caught and convicted of counterfeiting at an early age. He was sentenced to the mandatory punishment of imprisonment, cropping, and branding. It seems like an awfully harsh punishment if you ask me, but it is said that he got off pretty easy. He served a very short sentence. Only the tip of Buell's ear was cropped off and authorities permitted for it to be sewn back on. And, he was branded as high as possible on his forehead. Buell was an outstanding inventor and improviser. He was the first Connecticut resident to ever receive a patent.

The amount of copper Jarvis would need to complete the contract couldn't be found anywhere within America. Shortly after the contracts were signed, Jarvis left the states for Europe in search of investors and copper to import. Historians believe that Jarvis may have made arrangements before leaving for Europe for someone to begin coining the Fugio coins in New Haven, Connecticut. It has been suggested that he left his wife's father, Samuel Broome in charge in his absence. I imagine that Jarvis had probably planned to use the copper he received on loan from the government to make the first delivery of 25 tons of copper coins that would be due.

Jarvis' trip to Europe was a failure, the first of many. He was unable to secure any copper. The first and second scheduled delivery dates came and went without the Board of Treasury receiving receipt of even a single copper coin. A delivery of Fugio coins was finally made to the Board of Treasury shortly before May 21, 1788. It contained only 8,968 lbs of coins. Jarvis failed to abide to the terms of the contracts. He only paid a small part of the copper back. The records indicate that the Board of Treasury only ever received the one delivery of copper coins in the amount of about 4 tons. So, where exactly did the 37 tons of copper end up? Did Jarvis sell some of the copper outright? Given that Jarvis was in search of copper, it doesn't make much sense that he would have sold it but you never know. Were there more Fugio coins made and just never delivered? If that is the case why were they never delivered to the Board of Treasury? Or was the copper used instead for another purpose all together such as the minting of Connecticut State copper coins?

After many appeals and a request of extension that was denied, Jarvis admitted his failure in a letter to the board. The Board of Treasury took measures to recover their losses and Jarvis fled from the states. We are left to conclude that since the government did not receive any further payments that the majority of the copper was used to finance Jarvis' operation of making Connecticut State coppers. How many coins would result from 37 tons of crude copper? We do not know. Undoubtedly, some waste in smelting and refining would occur. The Connecticut State copper only weighed 144 grains so it was lighter in weight than the Fugio and more profitable to make especially if Jarvis never intended to pay the government back for their copper. I like to think that Jarvis had the best of intentions. I like to believe that about everyone, but who really knows. Maybe he had expected to secure enough copper in Europe that using a little to make Connecticut State coppers wouldn't hurt? Or maybe he was betrayed by his Father-In-Law? Wishful thinking, poor planning, and scandalous wrong doing ultimately is what lead to the failure of the project.

The Fugio coins weigh on average 157 grains as was specified by the Board of Treasury. Now it has been repeatedly implied that Fugio coppers are one cent coins and were to be marketed as such. There are a few problems with the Fugio being labeled as a one cent coin though. The Fugio, unlike most coins of the time period, had no denomination amount attached to it. In the contracts and all official documents they were referred to always by their weight. If it was to be valued at one cent why was it never officially labeled as such? The most major problem with the Fugio being valued at one cent though is the coins weight. It was only 157 grains in weight. At the point in America's history when Fugio coins would have circulated, the majority of copper coins in circulation were British. British Half Pennies weighed on average between 152 to 153 grains each. So, do you think any merchant was going to accept a 157 grain coin at the value of one cent when the value of the 153 grain British half penny was worth only a half of a cent? We are talking about a time when a coins weight and metal content ultimately determined it value. It was not like it is today where the nominal value of the dollar is backed by the federal government. To the people Fugio coins would simply have been coppers at the going rate. During that time, any copper coin or token that weighed between 140-165 grains would have most likely been accepted at par with the British Half Penny. The Board of Treasury knew this. I'm sure they probably predicted the problems involved with circulating 157 grain coins at a one cent standard that is if it was ever their intention to do so in the first place. So if the Fugio was intended to be a one cent coin, it was a failure in that regard as well.

We are left in ignorance as to the exact amount of Fugio coins that were minted, the specific dates they were struck, the time period of their circulation, the amount that went into circulation, and the area where they circulated. The one delivery of 8,968 lbs received by the Treasury may very well have been the entire production of Fugio coins made. Official figures just aren't available. All of the coins were struck with the date 1787 but they most likely were minted sometime in the year 1788. Some may have been minted after that as well too. The information regarding the Fugio coins release into circulation is unclear as well. Some say that the coins were never put into circulation at all. Now this simply just can't be true. If they were never put into circulation we wouldn't find them when we go metal detecting. Also, if you take into consideration the number of well circulated, non-dug examples one could infer that a rather large portion of the coins must have been released into circulation by someone. I don't have the answer for how many were put into circulation, when they were put into circulation, or where they circulated. I can tell you that they have been found all over the Northeast, in the state of Connecticut where they were minted, in New York, in Massachusetts, in New Jersey, and in Vermont to name a few. The fact that they have been dug in so many states is further indication that they were put into circulation. It's not clear if the US government is responsible for their release into circulation though. Documents show that the US Treasury made a deal and sold at least a portion of the Fugio coins, on credit, to Royal Flint, who planned to put them into circulation. However, a few days after making the deal a copper panic began devaluing copper by about 75% of its value. Flint landed himself in prison for not being able honor his end of the contract. Its unclear if Flint released the portion of Fugio coins he privately purchased into circulation.

Unfortunately, there is so much we are left not knowing about the history of the Fugio coin. It is somewhat of a mystery that I am afraid will never be solved. I hope you enjoyed reading this. I really enjoyed researching the coins history. Its design is simply just enchanting and its motto is well really awesome. Time flies, so mind your business! The clock is ticking so go do what it is you need to do. I think it's telling me that I need to go metal detecting now. Happy Hunting! Have a great week!

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