The Language of Liberty

by Oliver D. Hoover

Part 1: Vernacular Language(s)

Although the Latin and English inscriptions found on the coins of the American Confederation period represent an interesting numismatic window into the cultural and political milieu of the early United States, they rarely receive serious treatment in the literature. Instead they are usually relegated to mere lists with translations of the Latin legends. Indeed, most of the lists that have been published to date ultimately derive from that which appeared in The Coin Collector’s Journal of 1897. Because the inscriptions are rarely discussed in detail and translations of the Latin legends are sometimes poorly rendered, it seemed worthwhile to take a look at the various inscriptions found on the coins and interpret them in their historical context. This first installment deals with the vernacular inscriptions, while those in future issues of the ANS Magazine will address the Latin legends.

It is notable that in a new country, where the spoken and written language of the masses was English, only three major coin series (Continental Currency patterns, FUGIO cents, and Massachusetts coppers), out of some sixteen new and planned coinages, used English as the primary language for their inscriptions.

Continental Currency Patterns (Breen 1085-1098)

Considering the spirit of revolution driving the Continental Congress in 1776, one might be tempted to think that the use of English legends for the Continental Currency patterns (Fig. 1) was purposely intended to signal a break with the royal coinage of Great Britain (Fig. 2), which had regularly employed Latin inscriptions since before the time of the Anglo-Saxon kings. On the other hand, there does not seem to have been any concern about also including the Latin motto FUGIO (“I fly”) and sometimes the inscription EG FECIT, variously interpreted as “E[phraim] G[etz], E[lbridge] G[erry], or E[lisha] G[allaudet] made it” on the reverse (see part 2 of this series for discussion of the merits of these reconstructions), alongside the English denomination CONTINENTAL CURRENCY and motto MIND YOUR BUSINESS.


Fig 1. United States: Continental Congress. Tin Continental Currency pattern, 1776. Newman 3-D. (ANS 1911.85.7) 38 mm.

Fig 2. Great Britain: England. George III. AE halfpenny, 1774. Peck 907. (ANS 1949.65.44). 29 mm.

The coexistence of English and Latin legends on the same coin suggests that there was a different model in mind when the design of the Continental Currency was being considered. These two languages probably appear together on the coin patterns for the simple reason that the types and mottoes are all taken directly from the fractional paper notes (Fig. 3) authorized by Congress on February 17, 1776. Unlike European coinage, which had a long tradition of Latin inscriptions, all American paper money had been printed in English since December 10, 1690, when the Massachusetts Bay Colony authorized the Western world’s first public paper currency. Indeed, almost all paper money of the early modern period was printed in vernacular languages (Fig. 4) rather than Latin, in part because it was more crucial to the common man to be able to read the values and conditions of exchange found on fiduciary paper. The Latin inscriptions of contemporary metallic coinages were largely honorific or propagandistic and often had little to do with value. Besides, disputes over the value of coins could be solved easily by recourse to a scale, typology, and rating schedules. Because their use of language is closer to that of paper money than contemporary coinage, perhaps it would not be inappropriate to think of the Continental Currency patterns as notes that just happened to be produced in metal.


Fig. 3. United States: Continental Congress. Half dollar paper note, 1776. Newman, pp. 36-37. (ANS 1974.103.3).

Fig. 4. Sweden: Karl XII. 10 daler silfwermynt paper note, 1717. Pick A64. (ANS 0000.999.34884).

Fugio Cents (Breen 1300-1345)

The English legends on the FUGIO cents of 1787 (Fig. 5) require little comment, as they and the types with which they are connected are all directly taken from the earlier Continental Currency patterns. Through copying, the ultimate model for these federal coppers was also the paper dollar fractions of February 17, 1776.


Fig. 5. United States: Continental Congress. AE FUGIO cent, 1787. Newman 11-B. (ANS 1949.136.9). 28 mm.

Massachusetts Coppers (Breen 702-705 and 959-973)

It is not entirely impossible that the decision to use the English legends COMMONWEALTH / MASSACHUSETTS for the 1787-1788 copper cents (Fig. 6) and half cents of that state could have been influenced by some desire to break with royal custom in the wake of the American Revolution. The three unique copper patterns (Fig. 7) probably designed for Massachusetts by Paul Revere in 1776 are also notable for their use of English rather than Latin inscriptions (e.g., PROVINCE OF MASSA[CHUSETTS], STATE OF MASSACHUSETTS, MASSACHUSETTS STATE, GODDESS LIBERTY, and LIBERTY AND VIRTUE) and might also support this view. However, it is just as likely, if not more, that the English legends of 1776 and 1787-1788 should all be understood as merely a continuation of local custom.


Fig. 6. United States: Massachusetts. AE cent, 1787. Ryder 3-G. (ANS 1943.9.31). 29 mm.

Fig. 7. United States: Massachusetts, Boston mint. AE halfpenny, 1776. Breen 702. (ANS 1917.136.2). 29 mm.

Already in 1652, when John Hull first began to produce silver coinage for the Massachusetts Bay Colony, Latin legends had been eschewed in favor of English, except for the denominations, which were still given in Roman numerals. The abbreviation NE for New England was used on the early shillings (Fig. 8), sixpences, and threepences, rather than the Latin NA for Nova Anglia, and the full English inscription MASATHVSETS IN / NEW ENGLAND appeared on the later willow, oak, and pine-tree issues (Fig. 9).


Fig. 8. United States: Massachusetts, Boston mint. AR NE shilling, 1652. Noe NE.13. (ANS 1946.89.6, ex W.B.O. Field coll.). 28 mm.

Fig. 9. United States: Massachusetts, Boston mint. AR pinetree shilling, 1652. Noe Pine.1. (ANS 1946.89.48). 29 mm.

The unusual use of vernacular legends at this early date is linked to two important factors: the largely Puritan religious makeup of the colony’s inhabitants, for whom Latin smacked of “popery,” and the desire to emulate the style of the contemporary coinage of the Puritan-led English Commonwealth. With the execution of King Charles I in 1649, the usual Latin inscriptions found on the royal coinages of Great Britain were dropped from the money and replaced by English legends naming the Commonwealth (Fig. 10), although they returned again in 1656 with the authorization of a special quasi-royal coinage for Oliver Cromwell as Lord Protector (Fig. 11). However, this seems to have had no effect on Massachusetts silver, which probably continued to be produced with English inscriptions (and a frozen date of 1652) until as late as 1682, when the mint was finally closed. Hence, the state coppers of Massachusetts appear to have picked up the language tradition from where Hull and his associates left off over a century earlier.


Fig. 10. English Commonwealth. AR shilling, 1651. Spink 3214. (ANS 1954.203.351, ex Herbert Ives coll.). 29 mm.

Fig 11. English Commonwealth: Oliver Cromwell. AV broad, 1656. Spink 3225. (ANS 1906.115.8). 29 mm.

The continuity of the English-language tradition may also be part of the general tendency to promote a Massachusetts regional identity that is exhibited in the types used for the coppers. Both the province halfpenny of 1776 and the coppers of 1787-1788 feature the obverse type of a standing Indian, based on the original design of the seal granted to the Massachusetts Bay Colony by King Charles I in 1629. The pine tree depicted on the 1776 state penny may have been intended to recall the old pine-tree silver coinage of the seventeenth century, although it might just as easily represent a contemporary Liberty Tree. Lastly, the preferred description of the State of Massachusetts as a Commonwealth on the 1787-1788 coppers seems to consciously hark back to the heady days of the 1650s, when the British monarchy was briefly replaced by a Commonwealth led by Puritans, the once persecuted coreligionists of the Massachusetts Bay colonists. While the Cromwellian revolution had been short lived and was ultimately overthrown, that of Massachusetts and the other American colonies had succeeded for the long term.

New Hampshire Coppers (Breen 705-708)

Like the Massachusetts patterns designed at the outbreak of the Revolutionary War, a very rare series of copper patterns was also made for New Hampshire in 1776 (Breen 705-706), which featured the English reverse inscription AMERICAN : LIBERTY encircling the initials W. M. As these coins were produced in the context of the Revolution, one might again be tempted to see the use of English as an assault on British royal tradition. However, such an interpretation would probably be a mistake here as well. The formula of an English inscription surrounding the initials of the authorized producer of the coinage (in this case, William Moulton) is almost certainly derived from the long tradition of privately struck English and Irish merchants’ tokens (Fig. 12).


Fig. 12. United States: New Hampshire. AE halfpenny pattern (?), 1776. Breen 708. (ANS 1988.75.1). 27 mm.

In the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, the initials of the issuer (and sometimes also those of his wife) surrounded by an inscription, often naming the location of the issuers’ shop, was a standard feature of merchant’s tokens. Because the merchant-issuers did not always have classical educations themselves, English was a more appropriate language than Latin for them. In any case, their tokens were intended for use by all members of society, from the most highly educated nobleman to the simplest street urchin, thereby making Latin a hindrance to many potential token users. Of course, for the many illiterate persons who also used the tokens, English or Latin made little difference. To aid this sizeable group, the obverse types of merchants’ tokens were almost always pictorial, often employing some sort of heraldic device or a type related to the issuing merchant’s goods and services as an obverse type. The New Hampshire coppers are no different, in that they feature the image of a Liberty Tree on the obverse. By taking the popular merchant’s token as the model for the state coinage, English inscriptions were almost a requirement. Interestingly, this model also served to cast the revolutionary government of New Hampshire and its agent, William Moulton, as political merchants and hawkers of the ideology of freedom from royal domination.

However, this pattern was not ultimately approved by the New Hampshire House of Representatives. Although the legend AMERICAN LIBERTY and the Liberty Tree obverse type was retained, the merchant’s token-style reverse was abandoned. The inscriptional reverse was instead replaced by a somewhat crude rendering of a harp (Breen 708) (Fig. 13), which Breen (60) suggests may possibly derive from the eight-dollar Continental Currency notes of May 10, 1775. However, the form of the harp is actually much closer to that found on the contemporary Irish halfpence of George III (Fig. 14), suggesting that it may have been used on New Hampshire coppers as an indicator of value or as a means of lending an air of traditional legitimacy to the Revolutionary coinage.


Fig. 13. Great Britain: England, Bristol. AE Bristol farthing token, 1652. BW. Gloucs. 12. (ANS 1967.159.257). 21 mm.

Fig. 14. Great Britain: Ireland, George III. AE halfpenny, 1766. Spink 6612. (ANS 1940.113.439). 28 mm.

Vermont and Connecticut Coppers (Breen 714-734 and 736-880)

In addition to English, Breen (61, 65) has suggested that French was also used for the abbreviated legend INDE ET LIB found on the reverses of Vermont (Liberty type) and Connecticut coppers (Figs. 15, 16). Presumably, his decision to expand the inscription in French as Indé[pendence] et Lib[erté] (“Independence and Liberty”) stemmed from the fact that in classical Latin the usual word used to express the idea of independence was libertas, which, of course, was usually reserved to translate English “liberty” on American confederation coinages. However, Breen seems to have been unaware of the postclassical development of the Latin word independentia, which not only serves as the source of the English “independence” but still survives today as a preferred form in the Neo-Latin used for major documents of the modern Catholic Church.


Fig. 15. United States: Vermont, Machin’s Mills. AE “copper,” 1788. Ryder 27. (ANS 1979.124.33). 28 mm.

Fig. 16. United States: Connecticut, Machin’s Mills. AE “copper,” 1786. (ANS 2005.37.331, gift of the Colonial Newsletter Foundation, ex Edward R. Barnsley coll.). 28.8 mm.

While it is true that in February 1778 an alliance was forged between the American Continental Congress and the government of King Louis XVI, resulting in crucial French financial and military support for the continuing war against the British, it seems improbable that this would have been cause for the coin designers of Vermont and Connecticut to use a French inscription almost a decade later. There was not such a high Francophone population in either of these states to warrant a French reverse legend, even considering Vermont’s shared border with Quebec (a British province at the time of the Revolution) and its pockets of Quebecois settlers who had joined the American fight against the shared enemy. The use of French to appeal to a minority population would be especially bizarre, since neither Connecticut nor Vermont employed English inscriptions on their coppers. Likewise, there is no obvious longstanding tradition behind the legend that would make a French inscription appealing here, unlike the cases of the French mottoes used on the coat-of-arms of the British monarchy (“dieu et mon droit” [“God and my right”]) and on the insignia of the Order of the Garter (“honi soit qui mal y pense” [“Shame on him who thinks evil of it”]). The latter was supposed to have been spoken by Edward III, the founder of the order, as a reproach to courtiers who had mocked the Countess of Salisbury when her garter slipped down her leg at a ball, while the former was reputed to be the watchword used by Richard the Lionheart at the Battle of Gisors (1198). Based on the evidence, it seems clear that the proper expansion of INDE ET LIB must be the Latin INDEPENDENTIA ET LIBERTAS.

Our review of the English legends that appear on Confederation-period coinages shows that in virtually every case the vernacular language was preferred to Latin, not out of some revolutionary desire to break with the past, but instead to closely follow the various longstanding currency models that were used by each of the issuing authorities when designing their money. The Continental Congress looked to the paper currency and Massachusetts remembered its own silver coinage, while New Hampshire imitated the old pattern of the merchant’s token. Thus, English legends actually functioned as a conservative element on the coinages of a new country founded by revolution.

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