The Presidential dollar series: Failure or success?
- Published: Feb 17, 2017, 6 AM
If success of the 2007 to 2016 Presidential dollar program were to be measured by how well it met the primary goal of the authorizing legislation — to increase the use of dollar coins in circulation — then it can justly be said that the goal was not met.
From 2007 to 2016, the United States Mint issued 39 different Presidential dollars to celebrate 38 different men. The first 20 coins were issued for circulation, at least technically if not in actuality, with the remainder of the series produced only for collector sales because the coins of 2007 to 2011 had gone straight to Federal Reserve vaults to sit, unneeded in commerce.
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For collectors, this result was no surprise. The Eisenhower dollar, the Anthony dollar, and the Sacagawea dollar — they all failed to replace $1 Federal Reserve notes in circulation. Americans persistently have avoided using bulky dollar coins — even the smaller ones like the Anthony and Sacagawea coins — since they much prefer foldable $1 notes that can be tucked away in wallets and pockets. Even as far back as the Morgan silver dollar, the public largely preferred the note to the coin.
So why were Presidential dollars issued in the first place?
A few years before the end of the State quarter dollars program in 2008, its legislative creator, Rep. Michael Castle, R-Del., began looking for a similar coin program — one that would pump multiple new coin designs into circulation every year, and both promote coin collecting and continue a concept that the State quarter dollars represent: coinage as history lessons.
However, rather than simply repeating the State quarters series, Castle conceived of depicting every U.S. president on a circulating dollar coin, struck on the same manganese-brass clad planchets being used for the Sacagawea dollars. He predicted that not only would the program be embraced by collectors, it would encourage wider circulation of a dollar coin.
He was wrong, clearly. When was the last time any of you reading this article received a Presidential dollar back in change from anyone ringing you up at a cash register?
Few in the collector community expected the Presidential dollars to circulate any more widely than any other dollar coin for the past hundred years. And yet, Castle’s legislation did create a series that some collectors have embraced. During the program’s run, coins were released into circulation without their edge inscriptions, rumors circulated that the government had voted to remove the motto “In God We Trust” as yet another assault on religion, coins were released with a range of different finishes, and even a few extremely limited-mintage versions sold out. And it all began with legislation that failed the first time it was placed before Congress.
At the beginning
On March 9, 2004, Castle introduced the Presidential $1 Coin Act of 2004. The measure called for temporarily abandoning the portrait of Sacagawea on the obverse of the dollar coin and replacing it with portraits of American presidents, with a Statue of Liberty design on the reverse. Castle’s bill called for several design innovations — for the presidential portraits and Statue of Liberty to be rendered rim-to-rim, for dropping LIBERTY as one of the inscriptions (the Statue of Liberty design would stand in for the inscription), and for moving certain mottoes, emblems, year date and Mint mark to the edge of each coin. Castle’s goal was to have clean and clutter-free designs by moving the bulk of the text to the edge.
Coin World editor Beth Deisher praised the proposal in an Editorial in the March 22, 2004, issue, calling it “an idea whose time has come.” She added, “Defying the conventional wisdom that no dollar coin will successfully circulate as long as the paper equivalent is available, Castle is betting that once most Americans see and use the coins, they will want to continue to use them.”
In proposing the idea of a Presidential dollar coin program, Castle had cited a 2002 study conducted by the General Accounting Office that reports more Americans would use the dollar coin if there were a rotating design similar to that of the 50 State quarters, Deisher noted in her comments. According to the report, “many Americans who do not seek, or who reject, the new $1 coin for use in commerce would actively seek the coin if an attractive, educational rotating design were to be struck on the coin.”
In an interview with Coin World’s Michele Orzano, Castle stressed the results of that report, saying that he hoped that people would start asking banks for each new Presidential dollar, just as they had for the State quarter dollars. The State quarters program was a wild success, with some 120 million Americans collecting them at the peak.
Collector reaction, however, was mixed. A young collector, 17-year-old Jeremy Katz, precisely the kind of collector that Castle hoped would embrace the program, expressed opposition in a Guest Commentary in the April 12, 2004, Coin World. Katz wrote, “Supposedly, the legislation for the two series proposes to ‘revitalize the design of United States coinage’ and return to these circulating coins ‘aesthetic beauty.’ Are presidents beautiful? I personally have never picked through my pocket and exclaimed, ‘Wow! This portrait of George Washington is exquisite. I bet I could look at this all day!’ ”
In Letters to the Editors columns in Coin World in the weeks that followed, collectors debated the merits of the program, with some in favor of the idea and others skeptical that the dollars would circulate any more widely than the Anthony and Sacagawea dollars.
Both of those programs were widely promoted by the government before their introduction and officials had high hopes that the use of dollar coins would result in lower use of dollar bills. That never happened. The 1979 Anthony dollars were struck to the tune of 757.8 million pieces — that nobody wanted to use in commerce outside of the transportation industry. Mintages declined precipitously in 1980 and 1981 as the coins were struck strictly for collector sales those two years. More were struck for circulation in 1999 after the hundreds of millions of coins languishing in vaults were finally used up. When the Sacagawea dollar was introduced in 2000, the result was the same — a massive mintage of 1.28 billion coins in the first year, rejection by the public, vastly smaller mintages in subsequent years, and, starting in 2002, production directed only to collector sales.
No wonder so many collectors were skeptical about the Presidential dollars succeeding where the two previous hadn’t.
One objection to one provision of Castle’s bill arose in the Senate — to the removal of Sacagawea, the only woman and only Native American depicted on an existing coin. Sens. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., and Ben Nighthorse Campbell, R-Colo., said that stopping production of the Sacagawea dollar as the country was celebrating the bicentennial of the Lewis and Clark Expedition was particularly ill-timed.
The objections in the Senate were strong enough that, despite passage in the House, the 108th Congress closed without approval of the legislation. Castle, undeterred, reintroduced legislation in February 2005, in the 109th Congress.
In reintroducing the legislation, Castle said, “Just like the State quarter program that has been so successful, the Presidential dollar coins bill is a win-win proposition. The Presidential coins will teach history while generating revenue for the U.S. Treasury. ...”
The House passed the bill in April 2005, though not before being amended with a provision seeking the four different reverse designs for the Lincoln cent in 2009, the bicentennial of Abraham Lincoln’s birth. The bill also permitted continuing some production of the Sacagawea dollar, though no totals were required.
Late in 2005 the Senate published its own version of the bill and on Dec. 13, the House approved the Senate version. The measure as approved not only authorized the Presidential dollars, it approved companion First Spouse gold coins and bronze medals (also part of the House bill), continued production of the Sacagawea dollar, the four 2009 Lincoln cent commemoratives, and the American Buffalo gold bullion coins.
With passage of the Presidential dollar program, it was now time for the United States Mint to get busy creating the designs for the first four coins. The Mint’s initial efforts pleased no one outside of the Mint’s top echelon and, quite frankly, were considered insulting by many in the collector community.
The wrong approach
All U.S. coinage and medal designs must be reviewed by two federal panels — the Commission of Fine Arts and the Citizens Coinage Advisory Committee. The panels look at the designs submitted to them, make their recommendations (sometimes asking for modifications to certain designs or rejecting an entire series of designs). The CCAC, in particular, affords the public a means to provide direct input to the Mint on coinage designs.
Some CCAC members were wary of the Mint’s ability to produce quality artwork for the Presidential dollars. In 2004, sculptor Daniel Altshuler, who at the time was one of the CCAC’s most outspoken members, said that the “bigger issue” would be the Mint’s lack of good portrait artists. “It’s a mistake to do it right now,” he said.
The worst fears of the CCAC and CFA were realized during their respective January 2006 meetings. The Mint presented the panels portraits copied from the bronze Presidential medals that the U.S. Mint had been offering to collectors for years. As Coin World reported in its Feb. 6, 2006, issue, “The only differences are the ornamentation and inscriptions surrounding the portraits of Presidents George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison.”
This was an astonishing decision and almost everyone thought it a bad approach.
The Mint explained its choices in a statement released Jan. 20, 2006:
“The United States Mint has produced presidential medals from the earliest days of the republic,” it began.
“Most of these medals were designed during the terms of the presidents with input from the administration and sometimes family of the president. The design process approvals originally came from the secretary of war.
“We’d like to think that this is how the presidents, themselves, would like to be portrayed. In most cases, these designs are classic when viewed today. But they are contemporary to the president’s own lifetime and offer a historic window through which the public can view the timeline of our nation. These are classic, beautiful designs, often from periods when sculpture and medallic design were regularly employed for the production of official United States Mint coins and medals.
“From the terms of Thomas Jefferson through Benjamin Harrison, a period of nearly 100 years, the presidential medals were used by the United States government in conjunction with official treaty negotiations.
“These images are in the public domain,” the Mint added, as a puzzling afterthought.
At its Jan. 24 meeting, the CCAC unanimously urged the U.S. Mint to abandon its plans to use the images from its Presidential medal series for the new Presidential dollar coins. As Coin World reported in its news coverage, “If we go forward with this, there will be tremendous criticism,” predicted committee member Donald Scarinci of New Jersey, a coin collector and a medal specialist. He led the charge against the proposed designs, labeling them “an insult” to Congress, the American people and to coin collectors. He pleaded with Mint officials not to press forward with their plans, despite their statements that they need to quickly get the new coins into production.
Coin World’s Deisher blasted the Mint editorially for its approach as well.
Facing such criticism, Mint officials got the message and fast. Three days after CCAC rejected the design concepts, Mint officials announced a decision to seek additional designs from their team of designers.
When the CCAC next met, Feb. 28, the Mint had 41 new portraits ready for review. This time, the CCAC praised the Mint’s efforts and quickly voted on their preferences. In doing so, the CCAC favored frontal or three-quarter views of the four presidents and rejected profiles like those rejected in the January meeting. The panel’s approach would govern the style of portrait to appear on the vast majority of the coins issued in the years that followed, and ensured that new portraits, not portraits resurrected from the past, would be used.
The coins circulate, or not
The program was simple. Beginning with the release of the George Washington Presidential dollar Feb. 19, 2007, four Presidential dollars were to be issued every year through 2016 at least, and possibly beyond. Sitting presidents and living former presidents were ineligible to be depicted. Any former president had to be deceased at least two years before being eligible for depiction on one of the coins.
In the days leading up to the official launch ceremony for the first Presidential dollar, scheduled for Feb. 15, banks in a dozen states began releasing the coins a week early. But finally, the first coins were in circulation, or were they?
No groundswell of public interest arose to use the new Presidential dollar coins in lieu of the Federal Reserve note of the same denomination. Mintages for the Washington coin would be the pinnacle of Presidential dollar production, with the John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison coins that followed in 2007 all struck in smaller numbers. Essentially, the only members of the public interested in the coins were collectors, and not even all of them wanted the coins in their collections.
By mid-2008, it was clear that the Presidential dollar program had not resulted in widening circulation of the coins in commerce. Failure of the coins to circulate had the same effect on mintages as it had for the earlier Anthony and Sacagawea programs: Mintages for the Presidential dollars (like the Anthony and Sacagawea coins) fell steadily through and after 2007, and most of the coins went into Federal Reserve vaults instead of active circulation.
By the middle of 2011, the number of Presidential dollars in storage at Federal Reserve facilities had reached more than 1.25 billion coins. The problem of insufficient storage space was so acute that, as Coin World reported in its July 25, 2011, issue, plans for building a new storage facility were underway at the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas to handle the surplus inventory, according to the 2011 Annual Report to the Congress on the Presidential $1 Coin Program submitted in June by the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System.
Clearly, something needed to be done to avoid making coins that no one other than a small number of collectors wanted.
On Dec. 13, 2011, U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner suspended production of Presidential dollars for circulation, while ensuring that the Mint retained authority to strike circulation-quality Presidential dollars for numismatic sales.
Stopping the flow of dollar coins to the Federal Reserve had an immediate effect on collectors: they no longer could acquire new releases from local banks at face value. That had been a problem for some time already in some regions of the nation, as local banks were reluctant to order the new issues when released for theoretical circulation. But for collectors who had been successfully acquiring the coins at face value from their banks, the Geithner decision was unpopular: now they would have to pay a premium for the coins.
So, as many in the hobby had predicted before the Presidential dollar series was authorized, the coins failed in commerce. But did anything catch the collector’s attention, beyond the four new portraits each year?
Yes, and it involved the coins’ distinctive edge inscriptions.
Problems with the edge
As noted earlier, Castle wanted many of the statutory inscriptions moved to the edge of the Presidential dollars to free up space for larger design elements and the added inscriptions identifying the depicted president, his years in office, and his order in the line of those who served in the office.
The date, Mint mark and mottoes IN GOD WE TRUST and E PLURIBUS UNUM were required to appear on the edges of the earliest Presidential dollars.
Edge inscriptions are nothing new for U.S. coinage. Some of the earliest U.S. coins bore edge inscriptions identifying their denominations. Edge inscriptions disappeared in the 1830s but were resurrected in 1907 on the Saint-Gaudens gold double eagle and used as late as 1933.
When the Presidential dollar program became a reality, Mint officials began exploring techniques for applying the edge inscriptions and, for circulation strikes, settled upon a technique very similar to that used in the 18th and 19th centuries: the edge inscriptions would be added in a step separate from and following the striking of the obverse and reverse sides. (A different system, involving a three-piece edge collar bearing the inscriptions, was used for Proof coins.)
In practice, the coins were struck with plain edges, fell in random positions from the press and were transported, by hopper, to a separate station where they were passed through a rapidly rotating circular die that impressed the incused letters and numbers into the edge.
Since the coins were randomly, the edge devices could read right-side-up in relation to either the obverse or reverse. As well, the location of the edge elements, the date for example, was also unpredictable relative to the position of obverse and reverse design elements This randomness resulted in many questions from collectors. Many, noting that the inscriptions on some coins read correctly when the obverse was facing up and others when the reverse was facing up, wondered if they had error coins. They didn’t.
But lots of real errors were generated.
One type involves multiplied edge inscriptions, with either partially or completely duplicated edge inscriptions found, and some coins having the duplicate inscriptions in the opposite up and down orientation to each other. Another edge error involves improper spacing between individual elements of the inscription. Faint edge inscriptions are encountered, and on some coins, dropped letters from either the obverse or reverse are found impressed into the edge.
The most famous edge error, however, involved coins with no edge elements at all.
During the first year of production, the equipment that imparted the edge inscriptions was separate from the otherwise fully integrated production line at the Mint’s facilities. Most other steps in production were directly linked; blanks, planchets and coins moved from one point in the production process to the next along conveyor belts, including for transport to the bagging stations, where finished coins were prepared for shipment to the Federal Reserve Banks.
Not so for the edge station in 2007.
Early in the production of the Washington coin at the Philadelphia Mint, a massive quantity of coins were moved from the coining presses directly to the bagging station, bypassing the equipment that would have added the edge inscriptions. The result was the release of tens of thousands of Washington Presidential dollars with plain edges in late February. Coin World noted that most find reports for the coins were concentrated in cities across Florida, primarily Jacksonville. Finds were also made in the Chicago area. Initial reports indicated that one or two hoppers of the coin, each hopper containing 350,000 coins, could have been involved.
Government officials launched an investigation and, in March, reported their initial findings, confirming that one or more hoppers of the coins had not been transported to the edge-inscription stations.
While officials took steps to prevent any more 2007 dollars from being released without edge devices, smaller quantities of the Adams and Jefferson dollars were released with plain edges, presumably the result of a similar mishap.
In 2008, the edge-inscription station was physically connected to the production line, which resulted in many fewer such errors in the future.
The plain edge coins are among the most valuable of Presidential dollars, with Mint State 65 examples of the Washington coin selling for about $75 today, and the Adams and Jefferson coins selling for $350 to $400 in the same grade.
Two related, rather spectacular edge errors exist. At least one example is known of a 2007-D Sacagawea dollar with a 2007-D Presidential dollar edge inscription, making it a design edge mule. A Sacagawea dollar of that year should have had a plain edge, not an edge inscription. The coin was found in pocket change in 2007 and sold in a July 2012 auction for $17,161.10. Another apparently unique error, also a design edge mule, was reported in January 2010. A collector found a Zachary Taylor Presidential dollar of 2009 with a 2010-D edge inscription in a roll of 2010-D Native American dollars acquired directly from the U.S. Mint. The Taylor dollar was the last of the 2009 Presidential dollars. These two errors apparently occurred when (1) the struck 2007 coin was unintentionally fed into edge inscription equipment and (2) the 2009 dollar was fed into an edging machine fitted with a 2010 edge die.
Another category of interesting errors involving the edge occurred when a number of unstruck planchets were edge lettered but not struck between obverse and reverse dies. These pieces are blank on their faces but bear lettered edges; they were found in rolls of Washington dollars.
Some Proof 2007-S Thomas Jefferson Presidential dollars were found with elements of the edge inscriptions out of sequence. Proof coins are struck with three-piece segmented collars that form the edge inscriptions at the time of striking. Mint workers created the Jefferson dollars with out-of-sequence inscriptions by installing the individual collar segments in the wrong order. On the error coins, the motto IN GOD WE TRUST on the edge is followed by the motto E PLURIBUS UNUM.
The Presidential dollars errors were not the only cause for excitement to arise from the use of edge inscriptions, however.
Ugly (and false) rumors
The introduction of the Washington coin in January 2007 spurred an email campaign that apparently arose early, according to a posting at Snopes.com, the popular rumor-busting website. The website in 2013 posted the text from the following email collected in February 2007:
“U.S. Government to Release New Dollar Coins
“You guessed it
“ ‘IN GOD WE TRUST’ IS GONE!!!
“Who originally put ‘In God We Trust’ onto our currency?
“My bet is that it was one of the Presidents on these coins.
“All our U.S. Government has done is Dishonor them, and disgust me!!!
“If ever there was a reason to boycott something, THIS IS IT!!!!
“DO NOT ACCEPT THE NEW DOLLAR COINS AS CHANGE
“Together we can force them out of circulation.”
The author of the email could not be bothered to research the history of the motto’s use (it was authorized under authority of the Treasury Department during the Civil War, first appearing in 1864 on the new 2-cent coin, and not put on a coin by “one of the Presidents”).
The website, of course, labeled the rumor as “False” and explained the circumstances behind the coin. However, the story appears to have circulated pretty widely in certain religious circles.
Deisher, in an Editorial in the Oct. 1, 2007, issue of Coin World, related a neighbor’s inquiry. She wrote that the neighbor, after discussing some rebuilding plans with her, said, “I’ve got a totally nonrelated question, and I’m sure you know about this.”
After Deisher prompted him, the man asked, “Well, I want to know why our government wants to remove ‘In God We Trust’ from our coins?”
She assured him that there was no such plan and asked where he had heard the rumor. She shared his response: “He explained that he had attended a retreat recently sponsored by his church and that the removal of the motto from the new Presidential dollars had been discussed there. The tenor of the discussion had been the need to ‘restore’ the motto to the new dollar coin.”
The criticism reached such a level that Congress passed legislation ordering that the motto IN GOD WE TRUST — which by congressional order had been placed on the edge — be moved to either the obverse or reverse, at the Mint’s discretion. Starting in 2009, the religious motto began appearing on the obverse of each Presidential dollar.
The Mint’s many products
Over the years, the United States Mint has offered the Presidential dollars in various products, including:
??Bags, boxes, and rolls of circulation-quality coins.
??Proof sets of various kinds, including sets that contained only a given year’s four Presidential dollars.
??Uncirculated sets of various kinds, including an annual set containing only that year’s Presidential dollars in Uncirculated set quality.
??An annual Uncirculated Dollar Coin set, which contains the year’s Presidential dollar, Native American dollar, and American Eagle silver dollar.
??Sets of circulation examples of the coins.
??Presidential dollar and First Spouse bronze medal sets, one for each couple.
??Presidential dollar coin covers, containing Philadelphia Mint and Denver Mint examples of a particular coin housed within an illustrated philatelic cover.
??And several Presidential Coin & Chronicles sets containing, among other memorabilia, Presidential dollars with special finishes and a related medal honoring the same president.
The latter product was offered for just a handful of presidents, the first issued in 2013 to celebrate the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt.
The set contained a standard Proof 2013-S Theodore Roosevelt dollar, a .999 fine silver Presidential medal from his second term (the first time for the medal to be struck in silver), a bronze 1.5-inch Bald Eagle National Wildlife Refuge System Centennial medal, and a 4-inch by 6-inch print honoring President Roosevelt’s military service.
The set was sold for $57.95 with no product or household limits. Today the set sells in the secondary market in a fairly wide price range, with recent eBay transactions at prices from $122 to $212.
The next Coin and Chronicles set offered honored Theodore’s distant cousin, Franklin Roosevelt. That set contains Proof 2014-S examples of the Roosevelt dollar and Roosevelt dime, a silver Roosevelt Presidential medal, a bronze Roosevelt Presidential medal, and four stamps with Roosevelt themes (he was a noted collector of stamps). It was offered at the same price as the first Roosevelt set, with the product limited to an edition of 20,000 pieces.
All four presidents honored in 2015 — Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson — were the theme of separate Presidential Coin & Chronicles sets, each with a mixture of coins, medals and other items. However, one innovation resulted in heightened collector demand for the sets. Each Presidential dollar in the four sets was a Reverse Proof 2015-P version, making each coin a distinct issue (the earlier sets had regular Proof versions, which are indistinguishable from the Proof versions offered in other sets).
As with the Franklin Roosevelt set, the 2015 sets were offered in limited numbers, with Reverse Proof dollar helping the 17,000 Truman sets and 17,000 Eisenhower sets to sell out in about 15 minutes each. Anticipated demand for the Kennedy set with its Reverse Proof dollar led Mint officials to boost the mintage of that set first to 25,000 and then to 50,000; the higher product limit resulted in the set being available for a longer period of time (though it, too, eventually sold out, after 80 percent sold in the first day). The Johnson set, with a product limit of 25,000, sold out in about four hours.
The Mint changed course in 2016, the closing year of the program, by offering a Coin & Chronicles set only for Ronald Reagan. No sets were offered for Richard Nixon, the only president to resign from office, and Gerald Ford, the only president not elected to either that position or the vice presidency. No Jimmy Carter dollar was issued since the former president is still living.
What have we learned?
The Presidential dollar proved, again, that Americans do not like to use dollar coins. The dollar note is seen as more convenient, and designs on the dollar coins seem to play little role in whether the coin is accepted (the design of the Anthony dollar was widely disliked, at least among many coin collectors, while the design of the Sacagawea dollar is widely praised; no matter, neither coin circulated widely).
The program also seemed to indicate that the State quarter dollars program was a fluke in gaining wide popularity outside of traditional collector circles. The public did not embrace collecting the series from circulation (just as it has not embraced the America the Beautiful quarter dollar series to the same degree as the State quarter dollars program).
Will Congress learn any lessons from the Presidential dollar program? In the last Congress, legislation authorizing a 56-coin commemorative small dollar program honoring American innovation was introduced Sept. 14, 2016, in the House by Rep. Jim Himes, D-Conn. The program, had it passed, would have limited production to numismatic issues with none intended for circulation. However, the measure gained no real support in Congress and did not pass.
It seems clear that dollar coins are a bad idea, certainly for circulation. Let’s see whether Congress has learned anything.
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