US Coins

From The Memory Bank: U.S. commems find new life

David John

Coin World photo.

United States commemorative coins had descended into the “dark ages” and few within the numismatic community as the decade of the 1980s began held any hope of revival.

Commemorative coin proliferation, highly questionable themes, plus private profiteering in the original series led U.S. Treasury officials to oppose all commemorative coin proposals starting in the 1950s.

The last commemorative coin in what has become known as the “Early” or “Classic” commemorative coins series — the George Washington Carver–Booker T. Washington half dollar — was struck in 1954.

In early 1981, coin collector David John was reading the “Red Book” (A Guide Book of United States Coins). He recalled recently that as he was perusing the commemorative section, he began to wonder “if we could ever do another issue” and realized that George Washington’s 250th birthday was just a year away.

Fortunately, he was well positioned to take action. He was a staff member in Rep. Doug Barnard Jr.’s Washington, D.C., office.

Barnard, a Democrat who represented Georgia’s 10th congressional district, had just been re-elected to his third term in Congress.

Today, John vividly remembers approaching Rep. Barnard to introduce legislation to authorize a new commemorative coin honoring the anniversary of Washington’s birth.

“The first time that I brought it to Mr. Barnard, he was not interested, but I tried again and he readily agreed this time so we had the bill drafted.”

Rep. Barnard introduced the bill (H.R. 2524) on March 16, 1981. Just three weeks later, on April 7, Rep. Frank D. Annunzio, chairman of House Subcommittee on Consumer Affairs and Coinage, introduced H.R. 3133.

“The two bills were due to Ken [Swab], who was a staffer on the Annunzio subcommittee on coinage,” John explained. “He took our bill and added a surcharge on each coin that was to be used to reduce the federal debt.

“That was a key factor in getting the bill through. As was customary in those days, the improved version was introduced under the chairman’s name with Mr. Barnard as the primary co-sponsor.”

John notes: “Once that was done, we tackled Treasury’s opposition to any new commemoratives. As it happened, they wanted Mr. Barnard’s support for some Reagan initiatives, something he planned to do anyway. However, they did not know that and when we asked them to re-examine their policy, they agreed to reverse it.”

The Annunzio-Barnard alliance was powerful. “Our two offices worked together to get the bill passed,” John said.

Thirty-two years ago, David John’s pursuit of an idea led U.S. commemorative coins out of the “dark ages” and launched the Modern Commemorative era.

He still collects coins, and specializes in medieval English coins.

Currently he is senior strategic policy adviser at the AARP Public Policy Institute.

Rep. Barnard retired from Congress at the end of his of seventh term in 1992 and at the age of 91 resides in Augusta, Ga.

Next month: The Reagan Treasury’s take on commemoratives.

Beth Deisher was editor of Coin World for 27 of the 31 years she was on the publication’s staff. She may be contacted at

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