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Washington Cent -1791

Learn About the Three Variations of the 1791 Washington Cent

Just after the end of the Revolutionary War with Great Britain, the fledgling American government needed coinage. Circulating in the former colonies were all sorts of private tokens and foreign coins. But a new country needed its own coinage. The British form of W. and Alexander Walker, commissioned John Gregory Hancock to design two different types of cents – both with George Washington on the obverse. The idea was to make cents that the U. S. Government might be interested in using and to make them for the government.

The two different types are known as the “Large Eagle Cent” and the “Small Eagle Cent”. The obverse of the Large Eagle cent has a military bust of George Washington, facing left, with “WASHINGTON” on the left periphery and “PRESIDENT” on the right periphery with the date “1791” below.

The reverse has a large heraldic eagle as the central vignette, facing left, in its beak is a banner with “E PLURIBUS UNUM” on it. The body of the eagle is a patriotic shield with 13 vertical stripes, but no horizontal space at all. In the eagle’s left talon are 13 arrows and in its right talon is an olive branch. Above the eagle at the top periphery are the words “ONE CENT.”

(A 1791 Washington Large Eagle Cent – Obverse [left] Reverse [right].)

The Washington Small Eagle cent was very similar in design. It also depicted George Washington, facing left, in military garb. The date of the proposed coin was moved from the obverse to the reverse. The obverse still had the “WASHINGTON” and “President” around the periphery.

The reverse depicted a smaller-sized American eagle with upraised wings. The shield on the eagle was the more common American shield with thirteen vertical stripes and thirteen smaller horizontal stripes. Above the eagle were eight five-pointed stars, and clouds above the stars. In the eagle’s left talon there were now only six arrows, while the right talon still held an olive branch.  Above the clouds was the legend “ONE CENT” while below the eagle was the date “1791”.

(A 1791 Washington Cent, Small Eagle, Obverse [left], Reverse [right].)

A wooden cask of about 4,000 of these “cents” was shipped to Philadelphia to be distributed to members of Washington’s cabinet as well as United States Senators and Congressmen. This was done in hope of impressing these gentlemen and securing a contract to mint large enough quantities to be distributed across the country. It is believed that of the 4,000 coins, 2,500 were Large Eagle coppers and 1,500 were Small Eagle coppers.

The coins were beautiful in design, and the likeness of Washington was well-done. The eagles were very patriotic and conveyed the spirit of this new country and new President. But when President Washington saw the coins, he strenuously objected.

He objected to the fact that his face appeared on the coin. He felt it was too representative of a monarchy, which he has just dispatched in the last war. Washington also objected to the idea that the coins should be made by a foreign entity and shipped to America. That was not what George Washington wanted.

Washington wanted America to open its own mint and to strike its own coins from its own designs. Washington understood that having its own coinage was critical to establishing the United States of America as its own sovereign entity.

It was more than a simple design. These contractual coins were representative of all that Washington wanted to do away with. These beautiful coins were doomed before they were even given a chance. But Washington knew that if he didn’t strenuously object, his fame was such that no one else would have objected.

Some uniface die trials exist of both the obverses and reverses of both the Large Eagle and Small Eagle cents. In order to salvage some of the designs, the Washington Large Eagle cent obverse was used on a 1791 Liverpool Halfpenny token.

Due to the disbursement to the elected officials, and the remainder of undistributed coins, these coins did circulate among the early states and are widely collected as Washington colonial coins.

(A 1791 British Liverpool Halfpenny Token, Obverse [left], Reverse [right].)

DateTypeMintageFine ValueUnc Value
1791Small Eagle1,500$525$2,750
1791Large Eagle2,500$400$2,500
1791Liverpool ½ PEst. 1,000$1,000$5,000

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