On Dec. 27, 1904, President Theodore Roosevelt wrote a personal
letter to his secretary of the Treasury, Leslie Mortier Shaw:
“My dear Secretary Shaw:
“I think our coinage is artistically of atrocious hideousness.
Would it be possible, without asking permission of Congress, to employ
a man like Saint-Gaudens to give us a coinage that would have some beauty?”
This brief letter explained the president’s opinion about the art
on current U.S. coinage, and asked if he could have someone like
Augustus Saint-Gaudens redesign the coins. It was the “genesis” — the
beginning — of the renaissance of American coinage design that
produced new, modern, creative designs on U.S. circulating coins over
the next generation.
The letter to Secretary Shaw has been often quoted, but the
references have all been from a copy held by the Library of Congress.
The original, delivered as personal mail and not official
correspondence, has been hidden — until now.
After more than a century, the original letter signed by President
Roosevelt has been discovered. Few documents of American numismatics
come close to the importance of this letter.
Dated Dec. 27, 1904, the letter was written on White House
stationery, marked “Personal,” and is addressed to “Hon. L. M. Shaw,
Secretary of the Treasury.” Following this personal letter, a flurry
of official correspondence and personal letters show how the medal and
coin design project developed over the next two-and-a-half years.
Discovery of letter
According to Heritage Auctions, the letter was recently discovered
in a group of letters and other documents signed by various presidents
and notable Americans including Benjamin Franklin, William Henry
Harrison and John F. Kennedy.
The group of letters, including this one signed by Theodore
Roosevelt, was purchased in Long Island by a part-time book and
manuscript dealer and collector.
Both seller and buyer were aware of the letter, and following the
purchase, the buyer contacted Heritage Auctions due to its reputation
in selling rare manuscripts as well as coins.
Heritage contacted John Reznikoff, a leading manuscript
authenticator, appraiser and dealer, for his opinion on the letter.
Reznikoff had the following to say about the “genesis” letter:
“It’s not uncommon to see Presidential relics of this nature hit
the open market. I’ve recently brokered a John Adams letter related to
early coinage, a chunk of James Garfield’s personal library, the
papers of Superintendent of the Mint James Kimball and even the
majority of Truman’s Secretary of the Treasury John Snyder, which was
purchased at Sotheby’s.
“This letter is obviously and overtly authentic and my personal
inspection under great scrutiny confirms this. I’ve handled many
Theodore Roosevelt letters but none has captured the bravado of his
language more than this one; it invokes the word most associated with
him: ‘Bully!’ ” Reznikoff said.
“If hypothetically limited to the manuscript market, this letter
would command a significant premium. Only a coin aficionado, however,
could properly place its import in the numismatics world. I suspect,
on a bad day, it would transcend an autograph collector’s wildest
dreams and, for a true coin guy, it’s one of the hobby’s Holy Grails.”
I was also asked to examine the letter, and I compared it to
original materials in the Theodore Roosevelt Center at Dickinson State
University; Theodore Roosevelt Collection, Harvard College Library;
Elting Morison, John M. Blum, et al., editors of The Letters of
Theodore Roosevelt. eight volumes. Cambridge: Harvard
University Press, 1951-1954; Papers of Augustus
Saint-Gaudens, Dartmouth College; and the Theodore Roosevelt
papers in the Library of Congress.
(Two years before his death on Jan. 6, 1919, Theodore Roosevelt
gave to the Library of Congress a large body of his personal papers.
Additional papers of Theodore Roosevelt — ID No.: MSS38299 — were
given to the Library of Congress by Theodore Roosevelt and
Edith Kermit Carow Roosevelt. Additional material was received by
gift, transfer and purchase, 1939 to 2002. These papers were arranged,
indexed and microfilmed in 1969. Subsequent additions were processed
in three segments between 1979 and 2004. Material received from 1964
to 1983 was processed as Addition I between 1979 and 1983. Material
received between 1986 and 1996 was processed as Addition II in 1997.
Material received from 1999 to 2002 was processed in 2004 as Addition
III. In 2009 the finding aid was expanded by including description of
the main collection from the published index.)
No original of the Dec. 27, 1904, letter to Shaw is contained in
any of the collections.
Dickenson State University and Dartmouth did not have the letter
referenced in their collections. Morison and Blum include only the
text in their reference. The Harvard collection includes originals of
several letters written by Roosevelt on Dec. 27, 1904, and adjacent
dates; however, these are items donated to the collection by their
original recipients and not from Roosevelt’s files. Several letters
show use of the same letterhead as on the genesis letter to Shaw.
The Library of Congress collection includes Roosevelt’s original
press copy (“letter press”) books, and microfilm images of the pages.
An image of the letter to Secretary Shaw appears on Microfilm Reel No.
336 at Page 22.
Prints of the microfilm image were made. The image supplied by
Heritage and the microfilm press copy image appear to be identical
with exception of the letterhead and a pencil annotation. The
letterhead visible on the letter consigned to Heritage is not visible
on the microfilm copy. This is not of concern since printed
letterheads often did not transfer to the press copy paper.
Overall, the letter in Heritage’s custody is consistent with
Roosevelt’s press copy and agrees in form and material with other
letters written during the late December period. I fully agree with
Reznikoff that it is entirely original.
The genesis letter was obviously received by Secretary Shaw. He
quickly responded to Roosevelt’s comments and followed up with other
correspondence. Because the letter was personal in nature, and clearly
marked as such, it would likely have been placed in Shaw’s personal
papers, not official government correspondence. This was and remains a
commonplace approach to such documents.
Beyond this basic material, we know nothing about the letter’s
location until it was discovered by the Long Island manuscript dealers.
The genesis letter to Secretary Shaw is the original as signed by
President Theodore Roosevelt. It was the personal property of
Secretary Shaw until it passed to others by unknown means. It is not
only a vibrant part of American history, but it is the point of origin
for the collaboration of Roosevelt and Saint-Gaudens that led to the
complete redesign of America’s coinage. A large part of U.S.
numismatic heritage would be missing if this letter had never been