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The Hidden Message on Ben Franklin’s Fugio Cent

Perhaps the United States of America would not have become so politicized had we all followed a good piece of advice from Benjamin Franklin.

In Benjamin Franklin’s 1737 book, Poor Richard’s Almanac, he stated what would be his literal and figurative idea behind money, “A penny saved is two pence clear.” Contrary to popular belief, Franklin, who was known for his invaluable maxims, never wrote the phrase, “A penny saved is a penny earned.”

The first coin in circulation in the newly formed United States was the copper Fugio cent. It was designed by Benjamin Franklin, and sometimes referred to as the “Franklin cent.” Technically, some of the features of the coin were used on earlier proposed colonial coins and currency, but they were never released and not worth a Continental.

The Fugio cent was created in response to small currency coin shortages during that period, as the Colonies were tired of relying on Great Britain’s supply of coins, particularly small currency copper coins, the production of which was paused in 1775. It is estimated that two-thirds of all copper coins traded in Great Britain were counterfeit by the mid 1780s, and in 1887 Great Britain began using privately made Conder Tokens made of copper for smaller currency.

On the back of the Franklin cent, introduced in 1787, there are thirteen rings symbolizing the original thirteen colonies in a literal sense. These linked rings create an unbroken chain encircling, “We are one,” along with “United States.”

Beyond its broader figurative significance, Franklin regarded the number thirteen as an important number in his own philosophy. Throughout the coin’s design, Franklin imbues his ethical and moral positions along with literal and symbolic messaging. He provides an exact weight of 10 grams of copper, or 157.5 grains. Even the subtle addition of grooved edges is a homage to historical moral character and the relation to money as it equally deters clipping or counterfeiting.

And there’s more. In 1752, Franklin openly supported the change to the Gregorian calendar being used throughout the Colonies. Prior to that, only various colonies observed the same calendar year. The Gregorian calendar fits thirteen weeks in by a multiple of four, equaling a total of fifty-two weeks. With each week being dedicated to one of his key virtues for personal development, four times per year.

The thirteen interlocking rings on the coin’s design symbolize the colonies and Franklin’s virtues. He believed every person should be responsible for their character building. Within his desire for personal development, he proposed thirteen virtues.

  1. Temperance – Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation.
  2. Silence – Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation.
  3. Order – Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.
  4. Resolution – Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.
  5. Frugality – Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; i.e., waste nothing.
  6. Industry – Lose no time; be always employed in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.
  7. Sincerity – Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly, and, if you speak, speak accordingly.
  8. Justice – Wrong none by doing injuries, or omitting the benefits that are your duty.
  9. Moderation – Avoid extremes; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.
  10. Cleanliness – Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, clothes, or habitation.
  11. Tranquility – Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.
  12. Chastity – Rarely use venery but for health or offspring, never to dullness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another’s peace or reputation.
  13. Humility – Imitate Jesus and Socrates.

In his philosophy of personal progress, he believed people should dedicate a week to practicing each of these respective virtues . After thirteen weeks, when each virtue has been practiced, the cycle begins anew, and this happens four times a year. Franklin believed if each person focused on these virtues for an entire week, four times per year, they would surely progress.

This reflects Franklin’s belief that virtue did not come naturally to humans, but was achieved over time through discipline. This was one reason Franklin saw time as precious, and he believed a country’s liberty is made by each individual working on themself. As a Stoic, he understood life’s delicate and finite number of years, all the way down to the importance of respecting others’ time, as well as one’s own. Contrary to popular myth, Franklin did not invent Daylight Savings, but he certainly believed in the importance of a strict schedule making the best use of daylight and personal progress throughout one’s life.

This too is reflected in the Fugio Cent. On the front of the coin is a sun smiling and shining down onto a sundial, and within the sundial are hours of the day. The word Fugio imprinted on the left is a Latin word meaning “I fly,” or “I flee,” but it has more of a philosophical and historical recognition of ‘time flying by,’ a theme reflected in three words on the Fugio Cent.

Franklin’s Advice

On the bottom-front of the Fugio coin was his advice. Inscribed on the coin: Mind Your Business. By this, he meant the literal taking care of one’s own affairs. Some historians have taken the meaning of this statement in conjunction with Fugio, as a nod to the older Tempus Fugit and Carpe Diem, to be translated as, “Time flies, so do your work,” or, “Time flies, so use it wisely!”

He meant “mind your business” socially as much as he meant it literally, and I believe this is supported by the entirety of his work. Franklin was an inventor, innovator, motivational writer, philosopher, politician, and founding member of the United States. It was not so much that he was a proponent of laissez faire, per se. However, being the liberty-loving, pragmatic Stoic that he was, he did believe that each person should push themselves to their personal best within their industry and personal lives in order for the majority of people to live better lives together.

Today, the United States faces coin shortages, plummeting values in currency, deteriorating ethical positions, debased currency risks, Gresham’s Law and the introduction of cryptocurrency as a cheaper form of currency, the Federal Reserve’s fractional reserve banking, government monetary and fiscal controls with fiat currency and without shared value commodities, extended welfare programs, ongoing redistribution schemes, never-ending wars, and many other issues.

Holding Franklin’s ethical virtues in relation to money is what helps prevent the decay in value of that currency. This is why throughout history intelligent and ethical people, and countries, have reverted back to these similar ethical positions when currencies begin to collapse. Money and morality are intertwined in such a way that ‘money’ without ‘morality’ can no longer remain ‘money;’ and ‘morality’ that lacks the appreciation of ‘money,’ cannot remain ‘moral.’

In the end, Benjamin Franklin’s advice in economics, currency, and life is to be taken literally and figuratively: Mind Your Business.

Content syndicated from Fee.org (FEE) under Creative Commons license.

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