Not Worth a Continental
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Written by SeacoastNH Archive Presents 
Historic Portsmouth #419

You think you’ve got money troubles? Be happy you’re not dealing in the first paper dollars issued by the not-so-united-states to support the cost of the American Revolution. If you accepted this four dollar “continental” as payment, there was a good chance the next guy might not honor it. (Continued below)


States were also printing their own currency and we were far from a united front. Inflation raged and many Continental dollars were later redeemed at 1/100th of their face value. The same note today might be worth thousands of dollars to a collector. This note in the collection of the Portsmouth Athenaeum was part of an “emission” by the Continental Congress of May 9, 1776. The shaky paper currency (colonists were mostly used to barter and coins at the time) was reportedly backed up by $5 million in Spanish milled dollars, or the equivalent in gold or silver. The notes were actually signed in red ink by Thomas Leech and in black ink by John Howard. This particular bill is in two pieces, but since Scotch tape had not been invented, it is joined by a straight pin. The engraving shows a wild boar on one side and a maple fruit on the other. The printed text includes the phrase “Aut mors aut vita decora.” (Either death or an honorable life.) That bellicose slogan sounds a lot like the New Hampshire motto “Live Free of Die.” The notes were printed in Philadelphia on paper that contained blue fibers and mica flakes. Another Continental dollar from the era includes a slogan that might well be adopted by the banking industry today. It reads “The outcome is in doubt.”  (Courtesy Portsmouth Athenaeum)

$4 Continental Note from 1776 in Portsmouth Athenaeum collection