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What Presidents Appear On Coins and Why?

A collection of pennies.
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In 2009, the United States Mint joined the nation in celebrating the bicentennial of Abraham Lincoln’s birth. The 16th President was a man who, in a time of great division, remained wholly dedicated to the preservation of the Union. In 1909 he became the first American President to be featured on a circulating coin when Theodore Roosevelt and the United States Treasury Department decided to celebrate his 100th birthday by redesigning the one-cent coin.

The History Of Presidents On U.S. Coins

The decision to change the design of the 1909 penny was reported in the Annual Report of the Director of the Mint without any explanation of the reasons why the Agency was abandoning more than 115 years of tradition by placing the image of a President on a circulating coin. Researchers and numismatists appear to agree that Theodore Roosevelt’s earlier discussions with sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens may also have included the topic of honoring Lincoln, but the artist’s death in 1907 ended the possibility of a Saint-Gaudens designed coin commemorating the birth of the 16th president.

For more than a century after the founding of the nation, American Presidents and this new Republic, with its system of self-government untested and unmatched in all the world, through a period of rapid growth and development than included massive industrial advancement, one of the most devastating civil wars in all of human history and the conquest of the skies on the sandy dunes of North Carolina. In the context of a lifetime, this first American century could accurately be described as a very active childhood.

The success or failure of what George Washington himself dubbed “this great experiment” depended on Americans’ ability to steer clear of the obstacles and pitfalls which, over time, may have contributed to the downfall and ultimate collapse of other civilizations once deemed great.

Like the representative government itself, the images chosen to appear on American coins were another statement of the difference between the system against which American colonists rebelled and the government for which American citizens would work. England was just one in a long line of civilizations that routinely paid tribute to their sovereign by engraving his or her portrait onto the coins of the realm. That tradition extended back to the very beginning of coins as a medium of exchange. Emperors and kings have always been so honored.

It is reasonable to suggest that it was a belief in unrestricted opportunity as an American birthright that helped guide Congress in the creation of many federal institutions charged with governing the new nation, including the United States Mint, whose chief purpose was the coining of American money. Concerning the images that would be featured on American coins, the Mint Act of 1792 specifically states “...there shall be the following devices and legends, namely. Upon one side of each of the said coins, there shall be an impression emblematic of liberty…” The elected representatives knew that they could more effectively strengthen the democratic principles on which the nation was formed by stamping coins with designs of Liberty rather than an image of George Washington.

A U.S. quarter.


Coin Design and the Adding of U.S. Presidents

In executing the blueprint of the nation’s democracy, one of the masterstrokes of the founding fathers was their understanding of the universal appeal and importance of ideals to the average citizen. In a time of obvious inequality and institutionalized slavery Thomas Jefferson’s simple declaration that “all men are created equal” was more likely to convey an understanding by the leaders that this new government was not a constitutional monarchy, that a man from humble beginnings could rise to hold the nation’s highest office, a story made real by the emergence of a self-educated lawyer from the American heartland, Abraham Lincoln.

As decades passed and the American experiment continued to gain legitimacy through its continued growth and prosperity, honoring the vision of the nations’ founders and great leaders became important and, some would say, necessary public discussion. More so, it was already being done. From great portraits and statues honoring battlefield accomplishments to important volumes of the nation’s early history like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Ulysses S. Grant were being written and molded into the fabric and folklore of the country.

Interestingly, when President Theodore Roosevelt began to discuss invigorating American coin design with the world-renowned sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Roosevelt desired to bring elements of classically influenced sculpture that eventually resulted in both Saint-Gaudens’ Liberty and Adolph Weinman’s Walking Liberty. Each of these designs was used for a time on circulating coins, yet both would be retired before the 20th Century was half over.

Although the collaboration with Saint-Gaudens resulted in some of the country’s most beloved numismatic designs, the gifted sculptor was often frustrated by what he believed to be excessive and unnecessary bureaucracy in his dealings with both the Treasury Department and the United States Mint. This can be seen in letters between the Mint Director and the artist dated 1894when Saint-Gaudens was working to design a medal for the Chicago World’s Fair. Saint-Gaudens’  priority was sculpture, and he struggled with concerns dealing with the coinability of his designs.

Unlike Saint-Gaudens, the sculptor Victor David Brenner was dedicated to furthering the ties between sculpture artists and numismatics. Towards the end of the 19th Century, he served as an instructor at New York’s School for Die-Cutting and was listed as member #434 in the American Numismatic Association. His 1907 plaque of Abraham Lincoln caught the eye of President Roosevelt, who wished to see it used on American circulating coinage.

President Lincoln and the One Cent Coin

It remains unclear as to precisely how and when the decision was reached to use Brenner’s portrait of Lincoln on the one-cent coin. The Numismatist reported in its January 1909 issue, that “It is probable that the half dollar piece will be selected as the principal coin to bear the Lincoln head…” United States Mint Director Frank Leach reportedly dismissed the story as premature. Following the revelation that Lincoln would be featured on a new cent, subsequent issues of the magazine reported on developments surrounding the new coin and in July 1909, reported that more than 22 million new Lincoln cents had been coined in Philadelphia. They were officially released on August 2, 1909.

The public response to the new one-cent coin was predictably mixed. While many Americans embraced the new design, there was no doubt a significant number who opposed the change. Considering that a large number of Civil War veterans were still living in 1909, those who had fought for and wore the uniform of the Confederacy may have found it difficult, if not impossible, to carry the image of Lincoln, the man responsible for vanquishing their secessionist dreams, in their pockets.

Adding George Washington to U.S. Coins

It would be twenty-three more years before another former President would join Lincoln on the face of America’s circulating coins. In preparation for the 1932 bicentennial of George Washington’s birth, the Treasury Department and the George Washington Bicentennial Commission suggested a competition to honor the first President on both a coin and a medal.

Official rules were released to the public early in 1932, and participants were instructed to model their designs on the bust of Washington created from a life mask by noted sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon.

The work of accomplished sculptor Laura Gardin Fraser, whose husband James had designed the Indian Head (sometimes called the Buffalo) nickel, was chosen for the Washington Bicentennial Medal. For the Washington circulating coin, Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon chose the work of New York sculptor John Flanagan, whose portrait of Washington in profile still graces the obverse of the quarter today. Laura Fraser also created a design for the circulating coin, but it was not chosen by Treasury officials for that purpose. The design she submitted for the coin can be found on the United States Mint commemorative 1999 George Washington Death Bicentennial Gold Five-Dollar.

A President of the United States must be deceased for two years before they can appear on the new Presidential Dollar Series. This new series of coins, which began in 2007, features deceased United States Presidents on a dollar coin, released at the rate of four per year. The program will continue to release four new coins per year, in the order that they served in office. In a few years, we will be able to see all of the deceased presidents on coins. Before this program began, there were only six Presidents on coins.

The U.S. nickel.


U.S. Presidents on Coins

Abraham Lincoln: 16th president (1861-1865) - appears on the penny or 1 cent coin. His image also appears on the 5 dollar bill. In 1909, the one-cent coin was redesigned to celebrate the 100th birthday of Abraham Lincoln, making him the first American President to be featured on a circulating coin. The first of these Lincoln Cents were officially released on August 2, 1909, and are still being produced today.

Thomas Jefferson: 3rd president (1801-1809) - appears on the nickel or 5 cent coin. His image also appears on the 2 dollar bill. The decimal system that is used in the United States for coins and currency was first proposed by Thomas Jefferson. The Jefferson nickel, first minted in 1938, remained unchanged for 66 years. It was updated to feature the Westward Journey Nickel Series in 2004, however, Thomas Jefferson still appears on the new coins.

FDR - Franklin D. Roosevelt: 32nd president (1933-1945) appears on the dime or 10 cent coin. Having battled polio most of his life before succumbing to it in 1945, FDR became a huge supporter of the March of Dimes. This became a huge determining factor in choosing the dime or ten-cent coin to bear his image. Less than a year after his death, the Roosevelt dime made its first public appearance on FDR’s birthday, January 30, 1946. It is still minted today. Franklin Delano Roosevelt served four terms as Americas Commander in Chief, longer than any other person before or since.

George Washington: 1st president (1789-1797) - appears on the quarter or 25 cent coin. His image also appears on the 1 dollar bill, the most widely used paper money in the United States. The Washington Quarter was first released in 1932 to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the birth of the first president. His image still appears in the quarters today.

JFK - John F. Kennedy: 35th president (1961-1963) - appears on the half dollar or 50 cent coin. The Presidential Coat of Arms, which is part of the Presidential Seal, appears on the reverse of the Kennedy Half Dollar. Not long after President John F. Kennedy was assassinated on November 22, 1963, in Dallas, Texas, President Lyndon Johnson issued an Executive Order in the White House directing the United States Mint to honor the nation's fallen leader on the United States half dollar. The first Kennedy half dollars were minted on February 11, 1964, and are still being produced today.

Dwight D. Eisenhower: 34th president (1953-1961) - appears on the one-dollar coin which made its debut in 1971. The Eisenhower dollar was only issued between the years of 1971 and 1978. By 1964 United States Presidents were featured on every regular issue circulating coin in the United States. Each of the Presidents of coins of the United States was chosen in recognition of service to their country.



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