Unrestrained Liberty

Trace evolving Liberty on coins
Published : 08/07/11
Text Size

Like many Coin World readers, I’m a baby boomer who vividly recalls the protest years of our youth, when men burned their draft cards and women, their bras — the latter in response to the United States’ failure to pass the Equal Rights Amendment.

Originally proposed in 1923, the ERA was meant to further enhance the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, ratified by Congress in 1920, granting women the right to vote.

Four years earlier in 1916, Lady Liberty appeared on the Standing Liberty quarter dollar. To understand Liberty’s history, one first must fathom the difference between “liberty” and “freedom,” words used interchangeably now.

Freedom is associated with rights. Liberty is associated with movement.

In the Colonial period, liberty was the right to move about without restraint, imprisonment or “impressment” — compelling men into navies by force — a major cause of our War of 1812. To this day, when sailors dock in port, they go on “liberty,” free to move about in harbor cities.

We cherish the right to move about freely wherever and whenever we want, which is why our enemies still try to strike fear in us, using car bombs, bus and train explosions, and hijacked planes.

Our earliest coins depicting Lady Liberty are symbolic reminders never to allow that fear into our hearts.

Designer Henry Voigt’s 1793 Flowing Hair, Chain, ameri. cent, the first coin struck by the U.S. Mint for circulation, was controversial for the interlocking chains on the reverse symbolizing links of the former Colonies to each other.

Chains restrict liberty, so the design was changed to the Wreath reverse.

However, 19th century Mint designers succeeded in restraining Lady Liberty until MacNeil “liberated” her in the Standing Liberty quarter dollar.

You can trace these claims through her depictions by analyzing Lady Liberty’s hair and environment. Coins in the 19th century adorn her locks with banner, coif or tiara, seemingly placing her in a salon rather than her natural habitat outdoors.

In fact, Lady Liberty’s movement is symbolized by her flowing hair, a feature that continues through the Liberty Cap and Draped Bust cents.

Two of our loveliest coins, Adolph A. Weinman’s Walking Liberty half dollar and Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ $20 double eagle, reverberate with us today.

Weinman’s coin depicts a flag-draped Liberty striding toward a new dawn, with an eagle on the reverse in lockstep in the same direction. Saint-Gaudens’ coin restores Liberty’s wind-swept hair as she marches out of the coin and into our consciousness.

May it be raised along with devices symbolizing Lady Liberty’s enduring reminder that freedom of movement ensures freedom from fear.

Michael Bugeja, a coin collector since childhood, is a professor at Iowa State University and also serves as president and Webmaster of the Ames, Iowa, Coin Club. He is a nationally known author, journalist and educator.

You are signed in as:null

Please sign in or join to share your thoughts on this story

No comments yet