Monday, December 11, 2017

Ditties, Dirges, and Duels On 3Quarks

I have a problem. Each December I write a political New Year's ditty to send to friends and family. I've had a good time with them, even when the news (at least from my perspective) is less than cheery. I get to crib shamelessly from great authors of the past, ruin perfectly good metre with my tuneless ear, and throw in some real groaners. My "Mitchie at the Bat" is considered a classic of the genre, and even last year's dirge-y "Wreck of the Hillary C" induced a small avalanche of comments from the similarly agonized.

But I'm blocked. Eleven months of government by cattle-prod has depleted my mirth supply, so, in a last-minute Hail Mary, I am going to recharge by pivoting to a dispassionate discourse about something we are all passionate about—money. Not Bitcoin, or something esoteric that's way above my humble understanding, but plain old cash—the real stuff, actual specie, as in old coins.

I happen to have a few. Not many, and they don't have much in the way of numismatic value, but they are a treasure trove of history, and history cheers me up. About a dozen assorted coins dating from the late 18th Century to 1892, all from a worn-out purse my grandmother found in her basement catacombs. Among them were some two-cent pieces from the 1860s, a half-dime, an 1803 large penny, a commemorative coin from the Columbian Exposition, and an absolutely exquisite 1826 Capped Bust half-dollar.

To a junkie like me (for history, not necessarily for coins) they are all wonderful. Collectively, they tell a story that starts with 16 states and ends with 44, of powdered wigs and multi-hour speechifying, several wars, horses and stagecoaches, cotton pickers and cotton merchants, the creation of whole new cities out of swamp, and the building of an empire (by whatever means necessary) that stretched across the continent.

I was particularly lucky to have that 1826 half because, while it might have been the least rare, it had more stories to tell than I originally anticipated. It was in unusually good condition, well struck (perhaps early in the year, when the dies were still new) and with a faint patina that enhanced its beauty. Today's pocket change doesn't have much personality, but this half-dollar had elegance and character and craft, and even a little provenance to intrigue. This half had something to say. The design was by John Reich, a German immigrant who arrived here in 1800 (the model was supposedly his "fat German Mistress"). His work was noticed by Thomas Jefferson, who arranged for the US Mint to hire him as an assistant to the Engraver…but first they had to redeem his bond--because Reich came here as a bondsman, owing twenty guineas, to be paid off by working for $1 per week, for two years, for a Philadelphia engraver. Beyond that rather stark reminder that the unalienable rights in the Declaration of Independence allowed for a few business transactions, it also turns out that 1826 was a rather unexpectedly significant year, one that not only had the poetic passings of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson (both on July 4, the 50th Anniversary of the ratification of the Declaration), but a spicy brew of political chaos which included a duel of honor that might have, but didn't, alter the course of American History.