Thomas Jefferson came of age in a confusion of currency. The gold and silver of many kingdoms filled the gap created by a chronic scarcity of British coins in the American colonies. Jefferson's memorandum books reveal that he loaded friends bound for England with precious metal of all shapes and nationalities. In 1769 he handed Matthew Maury, seeking books for Jefferson and ordination for himself in London, three gold Portuguese half johannes (joes), two gold German ducats, and a silver coffee pot, weighing twenty-two ounces.1 A year later, one of Jefferson's most troublesome legal clients finally paid him in a motley mixture of silver and gold — half joes and moidores from Portugal, doubloons and pistoles from Spain, and 308 English half crowns.2
To compound the disorder of the situation, each colony had its own rates of exchange. On crossing the border from Virginia to Maryland in 1775, Jefferson had to note in his memorandum book the new values of Spanish dollars and pistareens and Portuguese half joes, as well as English guineas and shillings.3 But for Jefferson, even a purely British system would have been an ordeal. He described the mysteries of arithmetic for an American school boy, "puzzled with adding the farthings, taking out the fours and carrying them on; adding the pence, taking out the twelves and carrying them on; adding the shillings, taking out the twenties and carrying them on."
"But when he came to the pounds," Jefferson continued, "where he had only tens to carry forward, it was easy and free from error." Jefferson began advocating decimal reckoning as an orderly alternative to the currency chaos in 1776. In 1784, after his "Notes on the establishment of a Money Unit," he recommended a system with the advantages of convenience, simplicity, and familiarity. The Spanish dollar was convenient in size, its decimal division would make computation simple, and its multiples and subdivisions would accord with already well-known coins. "[E]ven Mathematical heads," he admitted, "feel the relief of an easier substituted for a more difficult process." Jefferson's lucid arguments overwhelmed rival plans and the United States soon became the first nation in history to adopt a decimal coinage system.4
Jefferson was one of the earliest Americans to consider a decimal currency. He gave it, in 1784, its most articulate and persuasive expression in his "Notes on Coinage." Congress, convinced by these arguments, adopted it with little dissent. It was eventually implemented because of the agreement of major figures in the U.S. government with the basic principles of Jefferson's argument. Jefferson also became part of the realization of the system through his involvement with the establishment and first years of the U.S. Mint.
- Lucia Stanton, 1994
1760s. There are several references to Jefferson winning or losing small amounts of money by playing cross and pile, a heads-or-tails coin-tossing game. He also played pitchers, which involved throwing horseshoes, quoits, coins, etc. at a target.5
1769. Jefferson asked a friend (Matthew Maury, who was going to England to be ordained) to buy him some books in London. To provide the funds for the purchase, Jefferson gave Maury 3 half-joes (Portuguese coins), 2 German coins, and a silver coffee pot, with a combined worth of 17 pounds.6
1776. In September, Jefferson drafted the revised report of a Congressional Committee on the value of gold and silver coins. Like the original report, it advocated reference to the Spanish dollar for a table of values. What was new about Jefferson's version was its expression of values in decimalized divisions of the dollar.7
1784. Jefferson wrote "Notes on the establishment of a Money Unit, and of a Coinage for the United States," advocating the Spanish dollar as the basic unit, divided decimally.8
1785. In Paris, in the summer, Jefferson had his "Notes on Coinage" printed. He sent 100 copies to Charles Thomson to put in the hands of "every member of Congress when they should enter on the subject." A few days before Jefferson wrote to Thomson, Congress had already adopted the dollar as the money unit, with decimal division.9
1786. David Salisbury Franks, who had recently been in North Africa, gave Jefferson "Moorish coins." Jefferson insisted on paying for them and paid Franks sixty livres (the equivalent of ten dollars) for the coins.10
1786. Probably in December, Jefferson, along with James Watt, Matthew Boulton, and Ferdinand Grand, witnessed at the Hôtel de la Monnaie, in Paris, the new coining process of Jean Pierre Droz (1746-1823). Grand obtained for Jefferson two sample coins and Jefferson sent these to Congress with David Salisbury Franks. Jefferson was unsuccessful in his later efforts to secure Droz and his method for the fledgling U.S. mint.11
1790. On April 4, Jefferson submitted his "Report on Copper Coinage," advocating an American mint and the methods of Jean Pierre Droz.12
1790. On July 4, Jefferson drafted his final report on Weights and Measures as part of his hope that the unit of money would be an integral part of a decimalized system of weights and measures.13
April 1792. The U.S. Mint was established.
Fall 1792. The U.S. Mint was placed under the jurisdiction of the Secretary of State — Jefferson at the time. At Jefferson's suggestion, David Rittenhouse was named its first director.
- Chronology compiled by Lucia Stanton, 1994
Jefferson, Thomas. "Notes on Coinage." PTJ, 7:150-202. Transcriptions available at Founders Online.