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The first centavo coin

by Ricardo de León Tallavas

Some numismatists interested in the history of Mexican coins report that the person responsible for introducing the decimal system in Mexico was President Benito Juárez in 1857. This is not true since Juárez was not the president at the time. However because of this misconception a domino effect has begun and has hidden the truth of events that did in fact give birth to the first successful public issue of coins bearing the words peso and centavo.

The first time that a Mexican coin bore the word centavo was in a rare pattern of 1841 from the time when Santa Anna was President of Mexico. This pattern reflects the introduction of the decimal system as one of the possible solutions to the massive economic crisis suffered in those days in Mexico. The cause of this crisis was the lack of stability in the rate of copper coinage, being valued too high by the merchants when given as change, but cheaply accepted back in trade. Santa Anna tried to introduce the decimal system officially in a decree dated 13 December 1853, but the Ayutla Revolution of General Juan Alvarez ended the regime of President Santa Anna and his plans to have a decimal coinage in MexicoValle, Juan N. del. El Viajero en México. Tip. de Castro. México. 1859. p. 338; Tovar, Pantaleón. Historia Parlamentaria del Cuarto Congreso Constitucional. Impr. Cumplido. México. 1868. Vol. II. p. 398; La Casa de Moneda de México a más de 450 años. Porrúa. México. 1989. p. 45.

Another attempt to introduce the decimal system in Mexico occurred in 1857 when Comonfort was President and a new Constitution was issued. The decree of 15 March 1857Diario de Avisos, Año II, Tomo I, 17 April 1857 provided that silver coins of one peso, fifty, twenty-five and ten centavos would be introduced as well as one centavo coins in copper. However Mexico was in the turmoil of one war after another with a struggle of power between liberals and conservatives. These interminable wars prevented the mint from striking any coins of decimal denominations. Juárez ended up becoming President of Mexico after the conservative party had been defeated. A lack of money compelled Juárez to stop all payments to the countries that held Mexico’s foreign debt, which led to the invasion of Mexico by the French. It took the Mexicans most of 1862 trying to stop their arrival in Mexico CityPradeau, Alberto. Historia Numismática de México de 1823 a 1950. Vol. I. pp. 86, 87 and 92; Mayer, Greg. The Republic One Centavo. Nopalitos Publishing. San Antonio. Tx. 2010. pp. 73- 74..

Under these circumstances it is inconceivable to think that Juárez could even make an attempt to start a decimal coinage, but a rare pattern of one centavo coins was produced engraved by a designer named Paredes.

1862 1c obverse1862 1c reverse

KM-PN86 1862 1c pattern (Stack’s-Bowers Baltimore Auction, 20 November 2012. lot 11320)

The only issue of coins that Juárez was able to strike and issue successfully in Mexico City at that time was the one centavo coins dated 1863.

1863 1c obverse1863 1c reverse

KM-390-1 1863 1c pattern (Stack’s-Bowers Baltimore Auction, 2 April 2011. lot 8807)

It differs from the 1862 pattern design, more closely resembling the pattern of 1841. These copper coins were mostly struck between January and March of 1863, and rare silver coins of five and ten centavos were struck exclusively in April of that year. This was barely four weeks before Juárez’s departure from Mexico City (on 31 May) for San Luis Potosí, when facing the imminent occupation of the capital by the French armyKrause, Chester et al. Standard Catalog of Spain, Portugal and the New World. Krause Publications, Iola, WI. 2002. p. 383..