Benjamin Franklin’s Priceless Penny

The front of the Fugio Cent, "Mind Your Business."
The front of the Fugio Cent, “Mind Your Business.”

A penny 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 penny 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 value of these cents was not from any monetary value that the Continental Congress placed upon them. No, the value of these cents was came 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 is the design on the back that I find most meaningful. The back of the penny 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.”

Back of Fugio Cent "We Are One."
Back of Fugio Cent “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, the governments of each of the colonies were young and unstable and their economies were near collapse. The Continental Congress could hardly agree on anything. Meanwhile, England appeared to be biding its time—waiting for the moment when America’s adolescent experiment with independence would fail.

Given these conditions, it looked as though America’s revolutionary victory would, 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 once again. America embraced the message of the Constitution: “We the people…in order to form a more perfect union” are one,and after 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.

Statue of Ben Franklin
Statue of Ben Franklin

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 live in a time of perpetual war, civil unrest, and economic uncertainty. Solutions and prosperity will not be found in pinching pennies but by embracing 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 other side of Ben Franklin’s penny: “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. The American experiment 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. Because 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 unique, and wonderful individuals 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.

The grave of Benjamin Franklin—covered in pennies.
The grave of Benjamin Franklin—covered in pennies.

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