US Coins

Cleveland political medal mocks Queen Victoria

The Research Desk from the Feb. 13, 2017, weekly issue of Coin World:

American political medalets go back at least to the 1840s, and over the decades, pieces appeared lampooning some candidates or extravagantly praising others.

Candidates with long political “shelf lives” such as Democrat Grover Cleveland, are represented by a long list lavishing fervent praise or stinging denunciation. Cleveland was America’s only president to serve two terms separated by four years of Republican rule (by Benjamin Harrison, 1888 to 1892).

Nearly all medals of this era were cataloged by J. Doyle DeWitt in 1959 in his A Century of American Political Buttons, which reappeared as American Political Badges and Medalets 1789–1892, with a title page now identifying the author as Edmund B. Sullivan.

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Neither cataloger included a holed brass 24.5-millimeter diameter, 2.3-millimeter thick medal of 1888 that bore a heartless caricature of a bloated, fat-necked president facing right with legend G. CLEVELAND, / AND FREE TRADE.

The reverse presents a design unique to American politicals, a fat-faced, short-necked female bust left wearing a British crown with legend VICTORIA REX, KEEP MY PAUPERS BUSY. The portrait of the aged queen, then celebrating 50 years of reign, is viciously mocking, but VICTORIA REX is a ludicrous error, translating Victoria “King,” not the correct VICTORIA REGINA, “Queen.” 

Characterizing British workers as paupers was a favorite ploy of Republican advocates of a protective tariff to shield Americans from free trade, then identified with Britain.

The so-called Free Trade Question ignored the fact that President Cleveland did not, in fact, advocate free trade in his December 1887 annual message to Congress but rather “freer trade” with the rest of the industrialized nations. 

Republican congressman and future President William McKinley charged a Democratic Free Trade conspiracy to run down American manufactures and trade in order to boost those of England.

Republican slogans in the following 1888 presidential race included “Cleveland Runs Well in England” and “America for Americans — No Free Trade.”

The 1888 presidential election swung to Benjamin Harrison and Free Trade soon yielded to Free Silver as the chief American political bugaboo.

The “King Victoria” medal is of uncertain origin and is very elusive today.

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