The image of monarchs on coins is ingrained in numismatic tradition dating back to ancient Greece and Rome, which is why George Washington never wanted his portrait on a quarter dollar or, for that matter, on any other denomination.
He had just defeated a king and didn’t want to be viewed as one on a coin.
So strongly was this belief shared at the time that the law creating the U.S. Mint, or Coinage Act of 1792, stated:
“Upon one side of each of the said coins there shall be an impression emblematic of liberty, with an inscription of the word Liberty, and the year of the coinage; and upon the reverse of each of the gold and silver coins there shall be the figure or representation of an eagle, with this inscription, ‘UNITED STATES OF AMERICA.’ ”
I’m a member of the Citizens Coinage Advisory Committee, which has been trying for several years to recapture designs “emblematic of liberty” on circulating coinage.
My comments here are my own and do not represent the views of the CCAC or the U.S. Mint.
However, in my capacity as a CCAC member, last year I did recommend that the body pass a resolution to create “Liberty-themed” coins.
At its April meeting, the CCAC did just that, stating: “Liberty-themed circulating coins provided some of the most inspiring, uplifting and beautiful coin designs ever created.” The resolution also noted that, in numismatics, “Liberty-themed coins are among the most sought after collectibles.”
A resolution is a proclamation. It lacks the power of law. Suffice it to say, however, that our views have interested members of Congress, which has the authority to issue such circulating coinage.
We also know that Americans love their presidents, including Lincoln, the first U.S. leader to appear on one of our coins, starting in 1909, some 117 years after the first coinage act was passed designating Liberty-themed coins.
The CCAC would not do away with portraits of Lincoln, Jefferson, Washington and Kennedy; it would prefer that the issue of Liberty-themed coins alternate according to denomination with current circulating coins still featuring those presidents.
The committee envisions a congressional act that would generate revenue for the U.S. Treasury Department, due to the collectibility of coinage, similar to the surge in revenue and interest in numismatics created by the 50 State Quarters Program and subsequent America the Beautiful Quarters program.
Beginning in 2015, such an act would introduce a Liberty-themed dime; the next year, the quarter dollar would bear a Liberty theme. In subsequent years, the dime and quarter dollar would alternate with new designs, minted alongside current coins depicting Roosevelt or Washington.
The proposal also calls for plans for a Liberty-themed half dollar to be minted with the current noncirculating Kennedy half dollar. That Liberty design would change every 10 years.
You may note that the cent and 5-cent coin are overlooked in the rotating cycle. This is because our aim is to generate revenue for the Treasury, and the cent and 5-cent piece cost more to make than what they are worth in metal.
That brings me to a personal observation.
Could it be that we continue to mint the costly cent and 5-cent coin not because we want them but because we would have to eliminate two presidents from our coinage?
If we did away with the cent and 5-cent coin, 20 years from now, children might wonder if Roosevelt was more important than Lincoln and Jefferson. If not, they might ask, then why are only FDR and Washington on our coinage?
Which explains, once again, why our first president and his patriot contemporaries preferred Lady Liberty on the heads side of a coin rather than a head of state.
MICHAEL BUGEJA writes the “Home Hobbyist” column for Coin World and is a member of a CCAC subcommittee promoting the minting of Liberty-themed coins.