A cent isn’t worth much these days. In fact, if you find one on the street, it’s hardly worth the energy of bending over to pick it up. But I recently stumbled across an old, American cent whose message and meaning is probably worth more than all the gold in Fort Knox.
In April of 1787, the Continental Congress approved the design of a new “United States” cent. This design, rich with symbolism, was created by none other than Benjamin Franklin.
The deepest value of these cents was not derived from any monetary value that the Continental Congress placed upon them. No, the value of these cents was derived from the sense of value that they gave to a fledgling America.
The design was both practical and profound. The front features a sun and a sundial with the words “Fugio” (a Latin phrase meaning, “I fly”) and “Mind Your Business.” It was a pictorial representation of the idea that time flies—so get to work!
While the design on the front features practical business advice, it was the design on the back that meant the most to me.
The back of the cent features an image of thirteen chain links in a circle, representing the original thirteen colonies. In the center of these links is the motto “We Are One.”
Now, you might not think thats anything significant. But when understood in its context, this simple image carries profound wisdom for the ages.
In 1787, the thirteen original colonies had just emerged, battered and bruised, from a bloody war of independence. Despite their victory, their governments were young and unstable and their respective economies were near collapse. The Continental Congress could hardly agree on anything (does any of this sound familiar?). All the while, England appeared to be biding its time—waiting for the moment when America’s adolescent experiment with independence would fail.
Given all of these poor conditions, it looked as though America’s revolutionary victory could, at any moment, be counted worthless and tossed aside in favor of its former dependency on England.
But within two years, something remarkable happened—something that changed everything—the colonies united. America embraced the message of the Constitution: “We the people…in order to form a more perfect union” are one. And within George Washington’s two terms as President (eight years), America’s previous problems essentially evaporated.
The common sense of Ben Franklin’s copper cents is simple, profound, yet incredibly difficult to live: when “We Are One”— when we are united—we prosper.
But what does that mean for us? Are we as divided as America was then? Perhaps not to the same degree, but in times like these we must remember Mark Twain’s sage advice, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”
We are living in a state of perpetual war (Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and terrorism). Despite the encouraging sentiments from a “hope”-ful administration, we seem stuck in the rut of a recession. And our government, more concerned about political posturing instead of political compromise, seems unconcerned about the long-term consequences of the “Fiscal Cliff.” Given these circumstances, the nation is howling for prosperity yet the response of our politicians has been: divide and conquer.
Solutions and prosperity will not be found in pinching pennies but in reading the common sense on a copper cent: “We Are One.” But how do we become one? Well, the answer to that question is found on the obverse of Ben Franklin’s cent: “Mind Your Business.” Does that sentiment mean to work harder or start your own business? Given Franklin’s propensity to create aphorisms, I think there’s a much deeper meaning involved.
This ‘deeper meaning’ is probably best described through an exchange in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Fearing for his own welfare, Scrooge tells the the ghost of Jacob Marley that he (Marley) “was always a good man of business,” the implication being that Scrooge’s equal successes in business would compensate for his lack of humanity. To this, his business partner replied:
“Business!” cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again. ”Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!”
The business we should mind, as a nation, should be the common welfare of all our citizens. America requires a unity that pervades every part of society: black, white, religious, non-religious, straight, gay, Republican, Democrat, liberal, conservative, Tea Partier, Occupier, the 1% and the 99%. I’m not suggesting that we have government-led initiatives aimed at helping these various groups of people. I’m suggesting that WE lead initiatives to help our fellow men. Mankind is our business.
Just imagine what could happen if our nation lived as one, if we saw our happiness and prosperity inseparably linked together—as represented by the links on Ben Franklin’s copper cent. What if instead of judging the value of the citizens we meet as cents on the street, we see them as people that are worth more than all the gold in Fort Knox?
Imagine what could happen if we re-embraced one of Benjamin Franklin’s last contributions to our country, living the motto “We Are One.”
The deepest value of Ben Franklin’s copper cents—a people united—is of inestimable worth.