Sir Isaac Newton, Master of the Royal Mint (1699-1727)


Introduction:

Sir Isaac Newton is, perhaps, best known as an English physicist and mathematician who is widely recognised as one of the most influential scientists of all time and as a key figure in the scientific revolution.

 

Isaac Newton: Portrait of man in black with shoulder-length, wavy brown hair, a large sharp nose, and a distracted gaze (Godfrey Kneller, 1689)

Isaac Newton: Portrait of man in black with shoulder-length, wavy brown hair, a large sharp nose, and a distracted gaze (Godfrey Kneller, 1689)

  • His book “Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy”, first published in 1687, laid the foundations for classical mechanics
  • Newton made seminal contributions to optics
  • He shares credit with Gottfried Leibniz for the development of calculus
  • Newton’s Principia formulated the laws of motion and universal gravitation, which dominated scientists’ view of the physical universe for the next three centuries
  • By deriving Kepler’s laws of planetary motion from his mathematical description of gravity, and then using the same principles to account for the trajectories of comets, the tides, the precession of the equinoxes, and other phenomena, Newton removed the last doubts about the validity of the heliocentric model of the Solar System
    • His work also demonstrated that the motion of objects on Earth and of celestial bodies could be described by the same principles
    • His prediction that Earth should be shaped as an oblate spheroid was later vindicated by the measurements of Maupertuis, La Condamine, and others, which helped convince most Continental European scientists of the superiority of Newtonian mechanics over the earlier system of Descartes
    • Isaac Newton predicted the world would end in 2060 !

Among his less well known attributes and feats is the fact that he was a devout but unorthodox Christian and, unusually for a member of the Cambridge faculty of the day, he refused to take holy orders in the Church of England, perhaps because he privately rejected the doctrine of the Trinity – Newton may have been, in principle, a Unitarian !

  • During that time, any Fellow of a college at Cambridge or Oxford was required to take holy orders and become an ordained Anglican priest
  • However, the terms of the Lucasian professorship required that the holder not be active in the church (presumably to devote more time to science)
  • Newton successfully argued that this should exempt him from the ordination requirement, and Charles II, whose permission was needed, accepted this proposal – thus, at the age of 27, he became Lucasian Professor of Mathematics in Cambridge  (a post now held by Stephen Hawking)
    • Thus a conflict between Newton’s secretly held religious views and Anglican orthodoxy was averted
    • Charles II, it should be remembered, may have secretly been a Catholic, and he publicly converted to Catholicism on his death bed
    • Chales II’s brother, and successor, James II publicly declared his conversion in 1675 and when he became king, his Catholicism triggered the Glorious Revolution and, in turn, the Williamite Wars – so Newton was clever enough to avoid publicity
      • Historian Stephen D. Snobelen describes Newton as “a heretic”
      • Snobelen concludes that Newton was “at least a Socinian sympathiser (he owned and had thoroughly read at least eight Socinian books), possibly an Arian and almost certainly an anti-trinitarian”
  • Beyond his work on the mathematical sciences, Newton dedicated much of his time to the study of biblical chronology and alchemy, but most of his work in those areas remained unpublished until long after his death
  • Newton was also an MP for Cambridge University in 1689–90 and 1701–2
    • According to some accounts, his only comments were to complain about “a cold draught in the chamber and request that the window be closed”
  • He was also Warden and Master of the Royal Mint – the topic of this numismatic article
  • Despite his financial savvy, Newton was one of many people who lost heavily when the South Sea Company collapsed
    • Their most significant trade was slaves, and according to his niece, he lost around £20,000

Warden of the Royal Mint

Isaac Newton was appointed Warden of the Royal Mint in the spring of 1696 on the recommendation of Charles Montague, 1st Earl of Halifax, and Chancellor of the Exchequer.

  • This was his first public appointment

The Royal Mint was then in the Tower of London and Newton arrived in April 1696 to take up his new duties. It was a time of great activity, for the Royal Mint was grappling with financial challenges associated with the re-coinage of old silver coins dating back to the reign of Elizabeth I and beyond.

  • Auxiliary mints were being set up in various parts of the country
    • Newton took on the the job of deputy comptroller of the temporary Chester branch of the Royal Mint
  • This enormous operation was completed within three years
  • By mid-1699, Newton was able to devote more time to his main duty of investigating and bringing to justice those who clipped and counterfeited the coin of the realm
    • Newton estimated that 20% of the coins taken in during the Great Recoinage of 1696 were counterfeit
    • Counterfeiting was high treason, punishable by the felon’s being hanged, drawn and quartered
  • Newton decided to use his powers to stop counterfeiting
    • Despite this, convicting even the most blatent criminals could be extremely difficult
    • Disguised as a habitué of bars and taverns, Newton gathered much of that evidence himself
      • Newton had himself made a justice of the peace in all the home counties
      • Then he conducted more than 100 cross-examinations of witnesses, informers, and suspects between June 1698 and Christmas 1699.
      • Newton successfully prosecuted 28 ‘coiners’
    • One notorious ‘coiner’ eluded him – William Chaloner
      • Chaloner had trained as a nail maker’s apprentice, but he found a more lucrative application for molten metals: coining 30,000 guineas.
      • This counterfeiter’s self-made wealth enabled him to pose as a gentleman and his undoubted knowledge of the law allowed him to evade prosecution
      • Chaloner appeared before a parliamentary committee, where he insinuated that Newton was incompetent and blamed Mint employees for the epidemic of phony coins.
      • Enraged, Newton intensified his efforts
        • By September 1697, Newton had enough evidence to lock Chaloner up—but not for long.
        • Working through intermediaries, Chaloner bribed the prosecution’s star witness into fleeing to Scotland. Chaloner was released and accused Newton of framing an innocent man
      • Newton then began to work ‘outside of the law’ in order to catch Chaloner – he bribed crooks for information, he started making threats, and he ‘leaned on’ the wives and mistresses of Chaloner’s crooked associates
        • After nearly two more years of relentless pursuit, Newton’s extreme measures had gathered enough evidence to put Chaloner away for good.
        • This time, the charges stuck.
        • On March 3, 1699, the infamous Chaloner was found guilty of high treason and sentenced to hang.

Master of the Royal Mint

In 1699 the post of Master of the Royal Mint fell vacant by the death of Thomas Neale. Though technically less senior than that of Warden, it was a more lucrative post because the Master acted as a contractor to the Crown and profited from the rates at which he put the work out to sub-contractors.

Isaac Newton in a 1702 portrait by Godfrey Kneller

Isaac Newton in a 1702 portrait by Godfrey Kneller

  • The Mastership was offered to Newton and he took up its duties with effect from Christmas Day 1699
    • The positions of Warden and Master were intended as sinecures (offices that require or involves little or no responsibility, labour, or active service), but Newton took them seriously, retiring from his Cambridge duties in 1701
  • Surviving the political upheavals of those troubled times, he remained as Master until his own death in March 1727
    • In April 1705, Queen Anne knighted Newton during a royal visit to Trinity College, Cambridge
    • The knighthood is likely to have been motivated by political considerations connected with the Parliamentary election in May 1705, rather than any recognition of Newton’s scientific work or services as Master of the Mint
    • Newton was the second scientist to be knighted, after Sir Francis Bacon
  • As a result of a report written by Newton on 21 September 1717 to the Lords Commissioners of His Majesty’s Treasury the bimetallic relationship between gold coins and silver coins was changed by Royal proclamation on 22 December 1717, forbidding the exchange of gold guineas for more than 21 silver shillings
    • This inadvertently resulted in a silver shortage as silver coins were used to pay for imports, while exports were paid for in gold, effectively moving Britain from the silver standard to its first gold standard.
    • It is a matter of debate as whether he intended to do this or not

Isaac Newton: The Irish Connection

Drapier’s Letters (1724) was a series of pamphlets against the monopoly granted by the English government to William Wood to provide the Irish with copper coinage.

  • It was widely believed that Wood would need to flood Ireland with debased coinage in order make a profit.

In these “letters” Swift posed as a shop-keeper—a draper—to criticise the plan. Swift’s writing was so effective in undermining opinion in the project that a reward was offered by the government to anyone disclosing the true identity of the author.

  • Though hardly a secret (on returning to Dublin after one of his trips to England, Swift was greeted with a banner, “Welcome Home, Drapier”) no one turned Swift in
1722 Wood's Hibernia Halfpenny, D: G: REX, Rocks at Right (pattern)

1722 Wood’s Hibernia Halfpenny, D: G: REX, Rocks at Right (pattern)

The government eventually resorted to hiring none other than Sir Isaac Newton to certify the soundness of Wood’s coinage to counter Swift’s accusations.

  • The Drapier does not directly attack Isaac Newton’s assay of Wood’s coin, but instead attacks the process behind the assay and the witnesses who testified before the Privy Council.
  • In his criticism of the Privy Council’s report, the Drapier claims that the report is part of Wood’s propaganda and lies, because Wood released three proposals concurrent with the report:
    • lowering the patent production quota from £100,800 to £40,000 worth;
    • that no one is obliged to accept more than five pence halfpenny per transaction;
    • and to sell the coin at 2s 1d a pound or his raw copper at 1s 8d a pound.
  • Wood’s choice of wording, that the Irish would be “obliged” to accept the coin, was criticised by the Drapier who then accused Wood of “perfect High Treason” for obliging the people to take any copper coin when the king lacked the constitutional authority to do such a thing
  • In the second letter, the Drapier walks a careful line between openly indicting the king and merely hinting at his relationship with Wood’s patent; while the Drapier accuses Wood, he constantly refers to the king’s authority and power to issue legal tender (this is called “the King’s Prerogative”).
  • In particular, the Drapier claims that the king is unable to force his people to accept any copper based currency.
    • As the Drapier points out, the constitution establishing Ireland as a kingdom limits the authority of the monarch because it forces the people of Ireland to use only gold or silver coins as official currency

 

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