One Man’s Crusade: The Twenty Cent Coin

Date
Apr, 03, 2020
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One theme that’s been well-covered here on the blog has been the ability of influential politicians to get bills passed authorizing various types of coins. Whether it’s for fiscal reasons, to commemorate important people in American history, or because someone really, really liked a particular design, politicians have been able to get all sorts of coins authorized, minted and circulated.

There’s also plain old self-interest.

John Percival Jones might not have been the most powerful politician in Nevada history, nor the most infamous. Nevertheless, he was a towering figure in the Silver State for decades, serving as a U.S. Senator for 30 years.

Precious metals would make up an important, if not vital, part of his life story and political career. Jones had made his fortune in mining, first during the California Gold Rush in 1849 before moving next door to Nevada in 1868 to become part-owner of a silver mine that was part of the Comstock Lode.

During that time, Jones showed political aspirations, serving in the California state senate from 1863 to 1867 and unsuccessfully running for Lieutenant Governor of the state in 1867. Six years later, in his new home state, Jones was elected to the U.S. Senate by the Nevada state legislature.

Evidently, Jones was a power player immediately upon joining the Senate. Shortly after his inauguration, Jones began pushing for the creation of a silver twenty-cent piece, arguing that the new coin was necessary to protect his constituents. Small-denomination coins were in short supply in the western U.S., and Jones maintained that customers often got short-changed due to the lack of nickels and pennies in circulation.

The money in circulation is wholly gold and silver coin, and the smallest coin in use is the bit, ten-cent piece – sometimes spoken of as a ‘short bit,’ as not being twelve and one-half cents, the ‘long bit.’ There being no smaller change in use than the dime, the bit passes for the half of twenty-five cents. Thus, whenever a customer throws down a quarter of a dollar in payment for a drink or a cigar, he gets back a dime, and so has paid fifteen cents for his ‘nip’ or smoke. The new twenty-cent pieces, of which Senator Jones, of Nevada, is the father, will, however, cure this little ill. In the ‘two-bit,’ or twenty-five cent saloons, everything is twenty-five cents, even the same drinks that are sold in the git houses for ten cents; as lager beer, soda water, lemonade, cider, and the like.

Dan De Quille, History of The Big Bonanza, 1876- quoted at DoubleDimes.com

According to DoubleDimes.com, the story became part of the official record when the U.S. Mint (whose then-director, Henry R. Linderman, was in favor of the coin) included it as justification for the proposed twenty-cent piece. “Perhaps Senator Jones was once short-changed himself, heard anecdotes of such occurrences from his constituency, or just needed a memorable story to convince others of the need for his new coin,” the authors at DoubleDimes wrote. “Regardless, if solutions to this short-changing problem were needed, there were far more simple ways to address the issue than creating a new denomination. An obvious solution would be to produce more dimes.”

Then again, Jones was probably more concerned with the type of money that folded. Like the other silver miners in his state, Jones stood to make a fortune off the new coin. The price of silver had fallen in the years leading up to the authorization of the twenty-cent piece, as supply, which had been greatly augmented by the Comstock Lode, far outstripped demand. By creating a new silver coin that would, coincidentally, be minted at the then-newly opened Carson City mint, Jones ensured a steady stream of revenue for him and his fellow miners.

To be fair to Jones, the idea of a twenty-cent piece was nothing new. Thomas Jefferson had proposed one when he unveiled his decimal-based monetary system in 1784. Subsequently, there were at least two concerted efforts to create the twenty-cent piece according to the DoubleDimes.com. Senator Uriah Tracy of Connecticut tried to pass a bill authorizing a silver “double dime” and a two-cent piece, but was derailed after then-U.S. Mint director Robert Patterson expressed his opposition – albeit mainly in relation to the proposed two-cent coin. Another attempt in 1850 failed, and with the Civil War on the horizon, people began hoarding silver and gold coins, leading to deflation. In fact, one argument used by proponents of the twenty-cent piece was that it would result in more silver being released into circulation (although why people wouldn’t just start hoarding those coins, too, was left unanswered).

Another reason for the twenty-cent coin was to replace the Spanish reales still in circulation – particularly out west. A once-popular trade currency that dated back to pre-colonial times, the reale was losing value thanks to instability in Spain, competition from domestic currency, and wear and tear. Holders of the old reales would be able to exchange two “bits” (the Spanish dollar was known as the “piece of eight” because it was often broken into eight equal pieces, each worth 12.5 cents) for a new twenty-cent coin – reflecting the reale’s depreciation.

Perhaps because of these reasons, the twenty-cent coin easily passed Congress without much debate. Jones introduced his bill in the Senate on February 10, 1874 and it was passed on June 23, 1874. According to the Congressional Record, the only objection came from Senator Lewis Bogy of Missouri, who had announced on the floor he’d object to every bill on the calendar unless one of his bills was considered. Ultimately, he relented and Jones’s bill was passed without a formal vote. The House then took up the bill and, like the Senate, passed it without much deliberation on March 3, 1875. Rep. Clinton Merriam of New York was the only member of the House to raise an issue with the bill, but his concerns were limited to a sentence: “In consideration of the fact that this twenty-cent piece is only to be used on the Pacific coast, I waive any objection.” The bill was signed by President Ulysses Grant and the first coins rolled off the press the following year.

In retrospect, it’s a bit stunning that everyone in Washington simply accepted the coin without much resistance. It’s even more shocking that a freshman Senator, on his first bill, managed to get the Senate, House, Treasury and White House all behind a coin that seemed superfluous. According to numismatic historian Q. David Bowers, Senator John Sherman of Ohio testified in 1878 before the House that the coin only came about because “Jones asked for it.” Talk about Senatorial Courtesy.

By the time Sherman testified, though, the twenty-cent coin was already on its way out. The coin proved to be unpopular with the general public, who confused the coin with the similar-sized and designed quarter – not the last time that would happen in American numismatic history. While the Mint unveiled some promising designs that would have, at the very least, given the twenty-cent piece some distinguishing characteristics of its own, the Mint ultimately made the decision to adopt the same Seated Liberty design on the obverse that adorned the dime, quarter, half dollar, and dollar of that era. On the reverse, the twenty-cent piece had a slightly different-looking eagle compared to the quarter, but it was a difference that most people could easily overlook.

The Double Dime was a Nevada production, and intended to neutralize the production of the “long and short bit,” but was a failure from the start. It was introduced in 1875, and most of the amount coined was confined to that year. No coin ever caused more profanity, because it was so often taken for a Quarter, to the discomfort of the receiver.

San Francisco Bulletin (published as Daily Evening Bulletin), July 1889 – quoted at DoubleDimes.com
1888-S Seated Liberty Quarter – not to be confused with the Twenty-Cent Piece

The coin only circulated in 1875 and 1876. The mint struck a small number of proof specimens in 1877 and 1878 and these coins are now worth a ton of money. Additionally, many of the 1876 coins were melted down – as a result, only about two-dozen 1876-CC twenty-cent pieces are known to exist today.

The coin was demonetized in 1878 by many of the same Congressmen that had authorized it. “It is understood by all, I think, that the coinage of the twenty-cent piece was originally a mistake, and that being so nearly the size and weight of the twenty-five-cent piece the two are often confounded,” Senator Justin Morrill (R-VT) said. Senator Aaron Sargent (R-CA), who had been the floor leader when the original bill passed in 1874, added that he thought the twenty-cent piece could have succeeded had the country moved to a pure decimal system (based on tenths of dollars) as opposed to the bit-oriented status quo (with a quarter being equal to two bits).

[T]he measure itself would have been very effectual originally if it had been coupled with a provision doing away with the half dollar, making a forty-cent piece and a decimal system all the way through. I think the measure was originally designed as the commencement of an improvement in that direction and to avoid the anomaly of twelve and a half cents, or half a quarter of a dollar, there being no coin in which such change can be made. But, as the twenty-cent piece has been coined and we have gone no further and as the twenty-cent piece is very near in size to the twenty-five-cent piece, I think such legislation as is now proposed is judicious.

Senator Aaron Sargent, April 23, 1878

Linderman, agreed, writing years later that the twenty-cent coin had been a mistake, but only because the government hadn’t eliminated the quarter. Linderman argued that the 20 cent piece made more sense than a quarter and pointed out that, had it replaced the quarter, our coinage and dollar denominations would have matched up (as in: 1, 5, 10, 20, 50, 100).

Conspicuous by his silence during the demonetization debate was the man who had almost singlehandedly willed the twenty-cent coin into existence in the first place. By then, Jones had other things on his mind. In 1875, he paid $162,500 (or $3.82 million in 2019 dollars) for land near Los Angeles and would use his new property to create the town of Santa Monica.

He wasn’t done advocating on behalf of free silver though. In 1896, he left the Republican Party after it adopted the gold standard and went so far as to campaign for Democratic nominee William Jennings Bryan, a proponent of free silver. He’d return to the GOP in 1900 and retired from the Senate in 1902 to spend time in his town of Santa Monica.

His other claim to fame is taking a leading role in the passage of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. Using incendiary language, some of which, unfortunately, wouldn’t be out of place today, he warned that the U.S. was under attack from “this inferior Chinese race” who knew nothing about democracy or freedom, only “oppression, barbarism and degradation.” Jones went on, arguing that China had never made any contributions to civilization while questioning whether they had actually invented gunpowder or the mariner’s compass. Despite Jones’s argument that Chinese were inferior, he, nonetheless, worried that they would overwhelm Americans with their sheer numbers and bring the country down to the level of China.

I, for one, cannot conceive that a nation has not the right to exclude from its shores whatever the mass of its people shall believe injurious to its welfare. Whenever this country believes that the incoming of any race or any or any portion of a race is inimical to the best interests of our people, then the power has come and the power is inherent to remedy the threatened evil.

Senator John P. Jones, March 9, 1882.

Looks like the twenty-cent coin wasn’t Jones’s lasting legacy, after all.

The Admin Formerly Known as TheConvictor