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A Short Numismatic History of the United States

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Governments are inveterate despoilers of the freedom, wealth, and lives of their citizens. As consolation, the citizens usually receive little more than lofty words and pretentious sentiments from the political leaders in charge of the looting, murder, and enslavement. Less commonly, governments produce something concrete, such as a marble palace for the ruler or an alabaster temple for the commemoration of some supposedly noble public goal.

However, one of the few universal, tangible products of government which citizens experience directly is their government’s medium of exchange. Even this government product usually offers a lopsided exchange for the citizen. Base metals and paper are usually offered to the subject in return for his much more valuable and often unjustified faith in the validity of his government.

At the outset, the numismatic history of the United States is as singular as its political history. Just as the new government was remarkable for the powers its Constitution did not permit, so the new U.S. coinage was unusual for what it did not depict. There were no representations of any political figures, ancient or contemporary. Odd as it may seem to modern Americans, the faces of Washington, Franklin, and Jefferson did not make it onto America’s earliest coinage. Such bygone greats as Caesar and Alexander were also notably absent.

Our early American predecessors seem to have bypassed the rich symbols that abounded on the coinage of preceding nations. There were no gods or goddesses, nor was the mint impelled to create a mythological parallel to the Roman she-wolf nursing Romulus and Remus. Though the new nation was rich in folklore, none of its earliest coins depicted traditional examples, such as Washington’s felling a cherry tree or Franklin’s flying a kite.

Instead, the newly established mint adopted an exceptional course that reflected the American vision as novus ordo seclorum, a new order of the ages. For perhaps the first time in history, a country minted coins that attempted to convey an idea by means of an image. That was no easy undertaking. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but the reverse may also be true. Some words are worth a thousand pictures, and ideological words can be so potent that no picture can do them adequate justice. Despite the daunting nature of its task, the new mint proved itself equal to the challenge.

Starting as early as 1792, the United States minted half-dimes of silver. In 1793 copper pennies followed, and in 1795 $5 coins were minted from gold. The workmanship of these early coins was not very elaborate. In fact, they were only slightly more complex than Roman coins minted millennia earlier. Without exception, these coins portrayed Liberty in the form of a female head or bust. The central importance of Liberty was emphasized by the absence of any competing words or symbols on the front of the coin. There was no “In God We Trust” and no ornamentation, aside from a few stars. Bearers of these new coins saw only a picture of Liberty and her name. These coins were the numismatic equivalent of vanilla ice cream. At first, even Liberty’s attire was austere; only the 1795 half-eagle shows her wearing a hat (see pictures).


1793 “Chain” Cent

1795 Half-Dime


1795 Half-Eagle ($5.00)

This sober uniformity in coinage lasted for the next 117 years, a relative eternity compared to the frantic pace of modern monetary change. Copper pennies, silver dimes, and gold eagles — the U.S. mint consistently produced sound money.


The dawn of the inflationary era

A few premonitory variations appeared during the latter half of this period of numismatic tranquility. Beginning in 1851, silver three-cent pieces were minted. These were the tiniest American coins ever minted, and they were produced in relatively scanty numbers compared with the more widespread one-cent pieces. A six-pointed star of uncertain origin appeared on the front of the new three-cent piece. Some viewed this coin with contempt, as evidenced by the archaic expression “not worth a thr’penny bit,” which was the American analogue of “not worth a brass farthing.”

After 1856, large copper cents were replaced by cents of our current size. One intriguing reason for this change was cited by James Ross Snowden, who was mint director at that time; he complained that the cost of making and distributing the large cents “barely paid expenses.” Sure enough, the copper content of the new, small cents was less than half that of the large cents, marking what was arguably the first significant debasement of U.S. currency in the snowballing progression that followed. Perhaps to confuse the issue, between 1856 and 1858 the mint replaced Liberty with an eagle image, so that the new cent would seem a totally different coin rather than just a less valuable, smaller version of the old one. However, Liberty returned sporting an Indian headdress in 1859.

Another variation occurred with the issue of the copper two-cent pieces of 1864 and the “nickel” five-cent coins of 1866. The latter were actually 75 percent copper and 25 percent nickel, as they remain to this day. The front or obverse of both of these coins showed a shield image instead of Liberty. A new motto also appeared: “In God We Trust.” One explanation offered for this change was the country’s contemporary paroxysm with the Civil War. Both the motto and the shield may have been subtle references to the divine and military intervention deemed requisite to restore unity after the years when the United States had literally broken in two. The two-cent coin was minted for only nine years, and by 1883 Liberty reappeared on the five-cent coin.

In the late 1800s a variety of commemorative issues were minted. These were not as widely circulated as the regular Liberty coins and were of more interest to collectors than to the general population. However, the modern trend away from Liberty and toward historical figures was foreshadowed in these coins, for their obverse showed Columbus, Isabella, Lafayette, Jefferson, Lewis and Clark, and the like.

Finally, in 1909 the current numismatic age dawned with the 72-million-piece onslaught of the Lincoln penny. The word “Liberty” appeared next to the bust of Abraham Lincoln, and “In God We Trust” was added above his head as well as “E Pluribus Unum” on the reverse side. The arrival of this coin coincided roughly with the reign of our first modern, paternalist, global-interventionist president, Theodore Roosevelt. From this point forward, the Zeitgeist of the United States seems to have changed irrevocably. What had once been a nation ruled by the law of Liberty had now become a nation ruled by the law of men, and men inexorably replaced Liberty on the coinage from that point forward.

In 1913, an Indian replaced Liberty on the buffalo nickel. “Liberty” appeared next to the Indian’s head, but he was not the same Liberty in Indian headdress that had appeared on the 1859 penny. In 1916, Americans got their first Roman god on their coinage. Mercury’s image replaced Liberty on the dime. The word “Liberty” still appeared above Mercury’s winged head, but the difference between the ancient god and the uniquely American personification of Liberty was evident.

In 1932, Franklin Roosevelt became president. He wasted no time remaking the U.S. government according to his vision. The worship of a new, secular god swept over the shores of the Potomac. Shiny new temples of white stone sprang up all over Washington. Hordes of ambitious new priests made their pilgrimage to serve in these temples, and most were loath to depart whence they had come. Some were elected, but most were appointed. Progressive tithes were exacted from the country at large with the imposition of graduated income taxes. The new god was replete with all the divine attributes of omniscience, omnipresence, omnipotence, and omnibenevolence.

In keeping with Roosevelt’s grand scheme, cataclysmic changes swept through the mint. Mere cessation of gold coinage was deemed insufficient. Instead, private ownership of gold coins was outlawed. The mint suddenly behaved like a leaf blower switched in reverse. Gold was vacuumed from the citizens’ pockets and sucked into the mint, where an orgy of melting occurred. Simultaneously, George Washington replaced Liberty on the quarter.

Six years later, in 1938, Jefferson appeared on the nickel, and eight years after that, following Roosevelt’s death, Roosevelt’s image assumed its eternal place on the dime. A scant two years later, in 1948, the final numismatic image of Liberty was displaced by Benjamin Franklin on the half- dollar. The symbolic reign of Liberty was over, and the reign of men was established.

Up to the present, the only other significant change in U.S. coinage has been the metallic debasement necessitated by the sybaritic spending of the Great Society. The second half of the 20th century coincided with the 20-fold inflation of the dollar. As copper and silver became more expensive to coin, they were replaced with much cheaper zinc and nickel. A thin plating of copper was retained on the zinc penny for the sake of deceptive appearances. Dimes, quarters, and half-dollars were debased from silver to a copper-nickel composite. Gold and silver coins disappeared from the pockets of the American people.

This sad tale is not yet over. The pessimist foresees the future appearance of even baser images and metals in our coinage. The optimist still dreams of a return to the sound money of bygone days.

Throughout history, the substance and image of a nation’s coins reify its guiding spirit. Even today, most Americans would probably prefer a golden Liberty to a cupronickel Roosevelt, but noble preferences are little match for the velvet glove and iron fist of the modern American megastate.

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    Edward Elmer is an orthopedic surgeon practicing in South Texas.