Near-Mint 1796 No Stars Quarter Eagle, A Founding Issue of United States Coinage History

    1796 $2 1/2 No Stars AU 58 NGC. After two terms, during which he established a national government, stabilized the federal economy, and recovered territory from both Great Britain and Spain, George Washington decided not to seek re-election as president in 1796. On September 17 of that year, the founder of our nation finalized his famous Farewell Address. Although not delivered as a speech, Philadelphia's Daily American Advertiser published the document for the benefit of its readers shortly thereafter. As one would expect from the leader of a fledgling nation, Washington focused the majority of his address on domestic concerns that included the union of America's citizens behind their new government. "While, then, every part of our country thus feels an immediate and particular interest in union, all the parts combined cannot fail to find in the united mass of means and efforts greater strength, greater resource, proportionably greater security from external danger, [and] a less frequent interruption of their peace by foreign nations…" Washington was also keen to point out that political unity would preclude the United States' need for a large military and spare its citizens the dangers to their liberty that such an establishment would entail. "Hence, likewise, [the citizenry] will avoid the necessity of those overgrown military establishments which, under any form of government, are inauspicious to liberty, and which are to be regarded as particularly hostile to republican liberty." Written at the time of growing conflict overseas, this last statement by Washington provided a window through which attentive American citizens could view the deleterious effect of ever-increasing armies on their brethren in Europe.
    In a stroke of fortune that seemed to betray divine provenance, the United States of the late 1790s and early 1800s had the opportunity to witness the manifestation of Washington's greatest fears from its safe vantage point on the western shore of the Atlantic Ocean. The French Revolution, although initially dedicated to the republican ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity, eventually succumbed to the meteoric rise of its greatest defender. After showering himself with military success in campaigns throughout Europe, Napoleon Bonaparte used his influence over France's revolutionary armies as a springboard to the position of First Consul in 1799. Five years and countless victories later, Napoleon would proclaim himself Emperor of the French in 1804. Despite the number of presidents who have followed the trail of military victory to the White House, the United States appears to have heeded both the warnings of its first president and the failures of its sister revolution in France.
    First coined in 1796, the quarter eagle established a precedent in United States coinage history that should have appeared as an anathema to the outgoing president. Robert Scot's reverse motif depicted a bundle of arrows in the eagle's dexter (or more honorable, left facing) claw and relegated the olive branch of peace to the sinister (right facing) claw. In direct contravention to Washington's advice, this configuration placed America's warlike tendencies above its peace loving intentions. Perhaps in a vain effort to counterbalance this vivid proclamation, numismatic scholars have attempted to market Scot's Capped Bust quarter eagle as one of the first coins to utilize the pilleus cap of freedom. Closer examination reveals that the cap atop Liberty's head is, however, similar in style to the mobcap that was popular in fashion circles at the time. Despite its seemingly ominous prediction for the future of American liberty, the Philadelphia Mint used this design to produce the first 963 quarter eagles between September 22 and December 8, 1796. While the delicate obverse design would succumb to the addition of stars before the end of the year, the heraldic eagle laid the foundation for the reverse motif of all silver and gold denominations from 1798 through 1807. Nevertheless, Scot's alteration of the obverse created a one-year type coin whose absolute rarity is further enhanced by its unflagging popularity among advanced gold collectors.
    The present near-Mint example is clearly superior to the typically encountered survivor of this prized Capped Bust Right quarter eagle delivery. Save for incompleteness of strike on the eagle's head and neck feathers, both sides are largely free of the striking anomalies that often characterize the issue. Liberty's hair curls are quite well detailed despite noticeable adjustment marks throughout the central obverse. In addition, both the E in LIBERTY and the denticled borders display noteworthy definition--a fact that precludes die deterioration and seems to suggest an early die state. The reverse displays the small die lump about the eagle's left (facing) wingtip that nearly touches the F in OF. This feature, coupled with the position of the cloud indentation to the left of the upright of the first T in STATES, is diagnostic of the final group of 897 pieces that the Philadelphia Mint coined on December 8, 1796. Both the obverse and the reverse are free of mentionable post-production distractions and display subdued honey-gold coloration. Blushes of copper iridescence are also noted throughout the reverse. Since carefully preserved representations of this first-year quarter eagle never fail to raise eyebrows when they appear in the numismatic marketplace, we anticipate that this gorgeous coin will excite bidders' desires when its crosses the auction block. Population: 14 in 58, 8 finer (9/99).
    From the Joseph J. Abbell Collection of U.S. Gold Coins. (NGC ID# 25F2, PCGS# 7645)

    Weight: 4.37 grams

    Metal: 91.67% Gold, 8.33% Copper

    View all of [The Joseph J. Abbell Collection ]

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    Auction Dates
    January, 2000
    7th-10th Friday-Monday
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