The American decimal coinage system was anchored by three denominations: 10 cents, 1 dollar and 10 dollars. Ten-dollar coins were officially named eagles after our national symbol, and the other two gold coins authorized in 1792 were expressed as fractions of the eagle. Congress envisioned the eagle being the gold coin most used in both domestic and foreign commerce. It would seem logical that a coin of this stature would be the first gold coin the new nation would mint.
It was the half eagle, however, that was minted first, perhaps at the urging of bankers. In this era many foreign coins were legal tender in America and were familiar to all. Half eagles came closest to the value of the most common foreign gold coins then circulating. Specifically, the half eagle matched up well with British guineas and sovereigns, French 24 livres and Brazilian 4,000 reis, as the difference in gold content among these is about 0.02 troy ounces. As people tend to prefer the familiar, half eagles became the coin banks would request, pretty much ignoring the larger eagle.
The eagle’s value was also a hindrance. It was too large for everyday transactions, and too small for large transactions. Ten dollars was a substantial amount of money in 1795, and few individuals had need for such a large coin. When large payments were required, the familiar doubloons, 5-guinea British coins and Brazilian 12,800 Reis were the favored pieces. Simply stated, eagles had very little demand and even less circulation. Eagles, first minted in 1795, were struck each year through 1804, except for 1802 when none were produced due to lack of demand.
In the early 1800s the ratio between gold and silver prices had reached a point where American gold coins were worth more as bullion than as coins. As a result, our gold coinage was being exported for melting. It made no sense to produce coins that would only be melted and would never enter the channels of commerce. In 1804 President Thomas Jefferson gave the Mint a verbal order to cease the minting of eagles.
The little-used denomination would not return until 1838.
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