US Coins

Congressional gold medals honor many heroes

This is the first in a series of articles from the June 2105 issue of Coin World Monthly on congressional gold medals struck by the U.S. Mint:

While the U.S. Mint’s annual sets and its many current collector, bullion and circulating coins might be its best known products, another series deserves collector attention, too.

Since the Continental Congress authorized the first congressional gold medal in 1776 to recognize Gen. George Washington’s military achievements during the Revolutionary War, the nation’s legislators have approved some 160 pieces of legislation authorizing such medals to recognize people in a wide range of fields for contributions to the nation and society. Themes of the medals today range from peacemakers to military heroes to pioneers of space exploration.

The original gold medals awarded only rarely appear on the market, and when they do, prices can be spectacular (a congressional gold medal awarded to Zachary Taylor sold for $460,000 in November 2006). Fortunately for collectors, however, a much more affordable alternative exists — the duplicate bronze medals.

As early as the 19th century, duplicates of the earliest medals were produced, often in silver and sometimes in bronze or copper, in different diameters for sale by the Mint to the public. Eventually, bronze became the preferred composition for the collector versions of the congressional medals, as well for the Mint’s many other medal series. 

During the 20th century, Mint customers had a limited array of these bronze medals to select from. That was because from the mid-19th century, when the Mint began catering to the collector community, to the last two decades of the 20th century, Congress authorized congressional gold medals sparingly and in only a few categories, dominated by the themes of military exploits and exploration. As an illustration, from 1902, when the first medal of the 20th century was authorized, until 1977, fewer than 40 medals were authorized. Congress rarely authorized more than one medal a year (1946 was an exception, as Congress honored a trio of military leaders in the post-war era). Often, several years would pass with no medal authorized. 

That restraint ended in the late 1970s.

Four medals were authorized in 1980; in 1982, five medals gained congressional approval. For the remainder of the century, Congress authorized congressional gold medals regularly, with multiple awards issued in some years. 

Several factors contribute to the abrupt rise in the number of medals awarded in the late 20th century and early 21st century.

In 1996, Congress restricted the number of commemorative coin programs (the commemorative series had been resurrected in 1982) to two programs a year after the coin collecting community began complaining about too many coins, many commemorating people and events that did not always resonate with collectors. Members of Congress thus began turning to gold medals to honor individuals and groups that another time might have been celebrated with a coin.

The growing diversity of the nation and government appears to have also played a role. The congressional gold medal was originally used as a national expression of appreciation for distinguished military achievements or to recognize lifesaving heroics, particularly water rescues.

More recently, though, in addition to recognitions for military service to the nation, recipients of congressional gold medals have been recognized for their humanitarian and philanthropic achievements, medical breakthroughs, fighting for civil rights and demonstrating sportsmanship, as well as participation in historical and cultural events, among other considerations.

Recognition is also accorded to world leaders for efforts toward establishing world peace, to world advocates for the preservation of human rights, and to those who provide relief to suffering around the world.

While some might decry the number of gold medals being issued, the ever expanding series of bronze duplicate medals gives collectors multiple opportunities to collect. You can pursue all of the medals if you like, but if you want to limit your purchases, you can probably find a subset of issues that will attract you. 

Interested in aviation and space history and exploration? A number of medals await, from a 1909 medal honoring the Wright brothers to a 2009 medal honoring John Glenn and the three Apollo 11 astronauts — Buzz Aldrin, Michael Collins and Neil Armstrong.

Fascinated by the Civil Rights movement in the United States? A growing number of medals recognize the individuals and groups who helped promote equality in the nation.

Interested in military history? By far, congressional gold medals have been authorized for military distinctions more than any other reason, with nearly half of the almost 160 medals issued addressing a military theme, according to a list of recipients published by the House of Representatives.

One law, the Code Talkers Recognition Act of 2008, will result in the production and presentation of 33 congressional gold medals to Native American tribes that had members who participated as military code talkers during World Wars I and II.

Of the 33 Code Talkers medals, 27 have been presented. The 2008 act also provides for silver duplicates of the gold medal to be presented to surviving code talkers or family members who have applied for them.

U.S. Mint officials say production of the silver medals costs approximately $275 per medal. Several hundred silver duplicates have been produced by the Mint for the Code Talkers medal program.

Navajo Code Talkers received their congressional gold medal recognition under separate legislation in 2000, with the Navajo Code Talkers Gold Medal Act.

Currently, once legislation is passed by Congress to authorize a gold medal, creation of candidate designs is the responsibility of the U.S. Mint.

The Mint’s engraving staff at the Philadelphia Mint and its pool of outside professional artists, in the Artistic Infusion Program, generate obverse and reverse designs, from which, after review, the Citizens Coinage Advisory Committee and the Commission of Fine Arts make recommendations.

Their recommendations, along with recommendations of U.S. Mint representatives and the medal recipient or designee, are forwarded to the Treasury secretary or designee for final approval.

Then, the U.S. Mint’s engraving and production staff begins sculpturing the approved designs and making sufficient tooling, including the dies, to strike the medals. The average cost for the United State Mint today to produce a single congressional gold medal is roughly $25,000 to $30,000, depending on the price of the metal.

Current bronze duplicates of the 3-inch gold medals are available in 1.5-inch and 3-inch sizes from the U.S. Mint’s website at Most of the bills authorizing the gold medals give the Mint authority to strike the collector versions of the medals.

A complete cumulative listing of the medals authorized as well as the recipients can be found at

Keep reading this series:

Native American Code Talkers most recognized with congressional gold medals

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