Monday, November 16, 2009

Coin Monday: What’s in a Chain?

Nov. 16, 2009
Written by John Dale

Symbolism, as any political cartoonist can attest, is a tricky tool, built almost entirely on connotations.

Judged correctly, symbols are powerful; misjudged, however, they are damaging.

Worse yet, a symbol may be accepted in one context but decried in another. The use of a chain as a device on late 18th century U.S. coinage offers an interesting case study: it was accepted on the Fugio cents of 1787, but rejected on the Chain cents of 1793.

The Fugio cents, the first coins issued by the United States under the authority of the U.S. Constitution, used a chain motif on the reverse, 13 linked circles around the motto “WE ARE ONE.”

On the obverse, a sun hangs over a sundial and aphorisms, such as FUGIO (“I fly,” or when paired with the sundial, “time flies”) and the ever-popular “MIND YOUR BUSINESS.”

The chain was interpreted as a call for national unity, important with the still-fractious debates over Constitutional ratification ongoing; at the least, the chain motif received less comment than the controversy surrounding fulfillment of the Fugio cents’ coinage contract.

(Side note: the Fugio cents, though not popularly known, received an oblique mention as the “first U.S. coins” on the PBS children’s game show Where in Time is Carmen Sandiego? The episode centered around Sir Vile traveling back to the ancient kingdom of Lydia to steal the first minted coins. When I played along at home, I didn’t miss a single question. I wonder why…)

When the first U.S. Mint opened in 1792 and copper coinage began the next year, the cent also featured a chain on the reverse, but it was paired with a portrait of Liberty on the obverse. The Chain cent received immediate criticism.

Many public comments interpreted the chain as a symbol of slavery and not national unity. One famous complaint, the source variously given as a Philadelphian or Bostonian newspaper: “The chain on the reverse is but a bad omen for Liberty…”

Liberty herself was said to be “in a fright” by the same commentator. Bowing to public pressure, the Mint quickly scrapped the Chain cent reverse, replacing it with a wreath.

Both the Fugio cents and the scarce Chain cents are highly prized by collectors of early copper, and the Chain cents in particular have been popular for more than a century and a half. The idea of a chain on a coin, on the other hand, took much longer to catch on.

I’ll admit I might have missed an obscure issue somewhere in the past, but after the Chain cent, the next such design I can find is a modern commemorative struck more than two centuries later, the 1994 U.S. Prisoner of War Museum silver dollar.

The obverse shows an eagle with a chain on its leg. On that design, unlike those of the past, the symbolism is clear. The chain is broken.

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-John Dale Beety

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