About Us
Coins For Sale
Selling Your Coins
Rare Coin Archives
Coin Collecting
Investing in Coins
Coin Information
Coin Articles
/World Coins
Books, Loupes etc.
Link to Us
Contact Us
  Sign up for our free NewsLetter
  Sign Up 






1799 Half Eagle

1799 Half Eagle

The first United States gold coins were half eagles made in 1795. These coins had a face value of five dollars. The Coinage Act of April 2, 1792 authorized the half eagle and other denominations. It was to weigh 135 grains and be made of .9167 fine gold. This weight and fineness did not change until the Act of January 18, 1837 when the weight became 129 grains and the fineness became .900. The coin was not minted until Congress lowered the amount of money that the Chief Coiner and Assayer had to place as a personal bond. Henry Voigt and Albion Cox were appointed to these positions, but neither had the $10,000 necessary to post the bond. It wasn’t until the amount was lowered in 1794 to $5,000 and $1,000 respectively that Voigt and Cox could work with gold or silver. This delay explains why copper coins were made until 1794. The delay also enabled Mint officials to amass enough gold bullion and prepare dies for the first gold coin. When production of the half eagle officially began on July 31, 1795, 744 half eagles were made on that first day.

Robert Scot, the Chief Engraver, used a Capped Bust Right design for the obverse with a Small Eagle for the reverse. Like their quarter eagle and eagle counterparts, they show Liberty wearing a turban-like cap. Unlike classical Greek goddess portraits, she is modestly draped. The soft-capped Liberty was taken from an ancient Roman design. Her hat bisects a grouping of stars. This design feature proved to be problematic because the idea was to add a star with each new state entering the Union. The reverse was also a problem because the eagle, perched on a simple branch, was thought of as too “scrawny.” To improve the design, Scot turned to the eagle on the Great Seal of the United States. In 1795 two reverses were made, the Small Eagle and the Heraldic Eagle. For the Heraldic design Scot combined a small headed eagle with a body wide enough to support the thirteen stripes of the shield.

The early gold coins share the fact that many were melted down for their gold content. The life-span of the series, from 1795 to 1807, encompassed the presidencies of George Washington, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson. Although the heraldic eagle reverse was not made until 1798, it nevertheless exists with 1795, 1796/5, and 1797 obverses. The 1798 dies had a large 8 and thirteen reverse stars. The colors of the shield were shown by raised engraver’s lines. The red stripes are made of five raised lines. This code was created by engravers in the sixteenth century to show colors in coats of arms that could only be printed in black and white. The next die had a large date and shield with three raised lines each with fourteen stars above. Elias Boudinot, the third Mint Director, ordered these changed to thirteen stars. They are found either in a cross or arc pattern. There were also small date 1798 coins. The coins of 1799 had a large final 9 and either large or small stars. According to the official record, only 7,451 pieces were minted. The next year had a mintage of 37,628; however, many of these are believed to have been dated 1799.

Record keeping in the Mint’s early years was fairly inaccurate. At the end of the eighteenth century Philadelphia had recovered from the British occupation and Revolutionary War. It was the second largest city in the English-speaking world, but it could do nothing to protect its citizens from the mosquito-borne epidemic of yellow fever. Its wealthy citizens went to the countryside to escape, and the poor grimly waited their fate. Of course these annual epidemics caused havoc with all manufacturing that required continuity, such as a coinage sequence. In addition to yellow fever, chaos at the Mint was also caused by chronic bullion shortages, coin dies that would wear out and had to be re-engraved because they were not taken out of production until they failed completely, and a Chief Engraver, Robert Scot, who was in his seventies and had failing eyesight.

Scot’s obverse design shows Liberty facing right. Below her is the date which is off center to the left. Between the date and the word LIBERTY on the left side of the coin are eight stars. Five stars follow LIBERTY down to the bust. Liberty wears a large, soft cap. Her hair flows down and also shows on her forehead. Liberty’s cap was certainly not a Phrygian or liberty cap. The liberty cap, emblematic of freedom, was worn by freed slaves and freed gladiators in Roman times. It was a close fitting cap used to cover a shorn head, which was one of the way slaves were identified. The oversized cap worn by Liberty has been called a turban because one of Liberty’s hair strands wraps around it, and the design has been called the Turban Head because of it. The reverse shows a heraldic eagle.

However, Scot mixed up the positions of the arrows and olive branch. The arrows held in the wrong claw signify defiant militarism. Either Scot made an error copying the image of the Great Seal, or he deliberately changed the symbolism. Perhaps the design was a warning to France, with whom the United States was engaged in an undeclared naval war, and others to be mindful of the new country’s sovereignty. In the field above the eagle are thirteen stars and above them, seven clouds. A banner from wing to wing has the motto E PLURIBUS UNUM. As seen on contemporary Large Cents, dentils are at the edge of both the obverse and reverse of these coins.

This new design, the Heraldic Eagle reverse, is identical to the one used on silver coins of 1798 to 1807. It is the only time a United States gold coin used the same obverse or reverse design as a non-gold coin.

Scot was born in 1744 in Edinburgh, Scotland or England. (Documentary evidence is lacking as to where he was born.) He was trained as a watchmaker in England and learned engraving afterwards. He moved to the United States in 1777, where he worked as an engraver of plates, bills of exchange, and office scales. During the Revolution, he was an engraver of paper money. In 1780 he was made the State Engraver of Virginia. He moved to Philadelphia the next year. He was appointed Chief Engraver of the United States Mint on November 23, 1793 by David Rittenhouse, Mint Director. Scot’s ability to make dies was limited, and he was advanced in years with failing eyesight. His work was somewhat less than that done in Europe at the time, and Scot was criticized for its poor quality. He was responsible for designs of most of America’s first coins.

Weight: 8.75 grams
Composition: .9167 gold, .0833 silver and copper
Diameter: approximately 25 millimeters
Edge: reeded


Have a question? Contact us here

Have a friend who might be interested?
Inform them about us now!
Your E-mail: Your Name: Friend's E-mail: Friend's Name:
Send to a Friend
US Rare Coin Investments 2003 - 2015 U.S. Rare Coin Investments