Stephan Gohmann is a professor of economics at the University of Louisville.
Have you checked the coins in your pocket lately? If you see a shiny coin with the image of a man on a galloping horse, be advised that it’s not an arcade token but a real U.S. quarter dollar. This new coin is the first of 50 state commemorative quarters to be released over the next decade by the U.S. Mint, which is allowing each state to design the back of the quarter for its own version. The Delaware horseman is Caesar Rodney, a Revolutionary War general who rode all night from Dover to Philadelphia to cast a crucial vote in an effort to assure unanimous support for independence by the 13 original colonies.
The minting of “Caesar” on a U.S. coin symbolizes something that at least some members of the Second Congress worked to avoid. A major disagreement during debate on establishment of the mint was over the image to engrave on coins—a political leader or a symbol of Liberty. Although Liberty won, a cursory check of the coins in your pockets will make it clear that this victory, like others of the founding fathers, was short lived. Not one currently circulating coin bears an image of “Lady Liberty” or anything similar; instead, the images are of politicians.
One contention of those members of Congress who were against the practice of placing a politician’s image on a coin was that it would seem emblematic of a monarch. Ironically, with this new Delaware quarter, Americans now have a Caesar on their coins!
Prior to 1909, Americans came into contact with an image of Liberty every time they touched a coin. Since then, that daily association has diminished, and in 1947, when Benjamin Franklin’s visage ended the reign of the “Walking Liberty” half dollar, the government eliminated all incidental contact with Liberty. The Liberty half dollar supplanted by Franklin (without his permission), was the last U.S. coin in circulation to be minted with her image. While current coins bear the inscription “Liberty,” they no longer contain her image. The sole exceptions are patriotic-seeming coins intended to be sold to collectors, such as silver dollars and gold and platinum coins of higher denominations. It is time to bring Liberty back!
Although many may argue that what appears on our coins is of little importance, the image of Liberty gives a daily reminder of what the founders believed when the country began. That Liberty has been replaced on every coin by a politician (with the current exception of the dollar) is an indicator of how the ideology of government leaders has changed. The Second Congress showed reverence for liberty and limited government. Today’s coins, with the image of politicians, show reverence for government and its leaders.
A Brief History of Liberty
On December 21, 1791, the Senate had the first reading of “a bill establishing a mint and regulating the coins of the United States.” The bill contained a section pertaining to emblems to be placed on the coins. On one side of the coin was to be “an impression or representation of the head of the President of the United States for the time being, with an inscription which shall express the initial first letter of his Christian or first name and his surname at length . . . and upon the reverse . . . shall be the figure or representation of an eagle.” Apparently, there were senators who opposed having the President’s image on the coin because on the second reading an amendment was proposed. The amendment said that the coin should include an engraving of two hands united surrounded by circles equal to the number of states in the Union at the time of coinage. On the reverse was to be a representation of the female figure of justice holding balanced scales, with the inscription, “To all their due.” This amendment was defeated on January 12, 1792, and the bill passed the Senate with its original wording intact.
When the bill reached the House of Representatives, an amendment was put forth to strike the requirement of the President’s image in favor of some emblem of Liberty. In support of the motion, Representative John Page said “it had been the practice in Monarchies to exhibit the figures or heads of their kings upon their coins either to hand down in the ignorant ages in which this practice was introduced, a kind of chronological account of their Kings, or to show to whom the coin belonged.” He further argued that the money of the United States is “not the money of the President. I am certain it will be more agreeable to the citizens of the United States to see the head of Liberty on their coin than the head of Presidents. However well pleased they might be with the head of the great man now their President, they may have no great reason to be pleased with some of his successors.” Page obviously had great foresight.
In rebuttal, Representative Samuel Livermore suggested that the head of the President would make a good emblem of liberty. After debate, the amendment was split in two. The first part striking the words “or representation of the head of the President” passed 26 to 22. The second part calling for an emblem of Liberty passed 42 to 6. The Senate, however, disagreed with this amendment and moved that the House should recede from its position.
When the Senate’s response was sent back to the House, Livermore argued in support of the Senate saying that it would flatter the President at no expense to the country. This notion was rebutted by Representative John Francis Mercer, who had been Washington’s aide-de-camp. He pointed out that rulers such as Nero and Caligula had also had their images on coins, so it might not necessarily be an honor. Representative Egbert Benson felt uneasy leaving the representation of Liberty up to the judgment of an artist and ridiculed the idea that the people would be enslaved by their president and his image on a coin.
John Page again defended Liberty arguing that “as long as the people were sensible of the blessings of liberty, and had their eyes open to watch encroachments, they would not be enslaved; but if they should ever shut them, or become inattentive to their interests and the true principles of a free Government, they, like other nations, might lose their liberties; that it was the duty of the members of that House to keep the eyes of their constituents open and to watch over their liberties.” He argued further that he did not want to treat the president as a monarch and wanted to give few incentives to those who wished to be president. Page feared that certain ambitious individuals would hope to make a name for themselves by becoming president and then having their names handed down through history through their image on coins. Given how almost every modern president has been conscious of the legacy he would leave, Page again seemed to be unusually insightful.
The question that the House recede from its amendment was defeated 32 to 24. Then the Senate backed down, and the bill passed both houses. Liberty became the emblem for all United States coins.
All was well for Liberty on our coins until 1890 when a bill passed Congress foreshadowing the beginning of the end. The Mint had often redesigned coins, but almost always included the figure of Liberty. The 1890 act allowed the director of the Mint, with concurrence from the secretary of the treasury, to redesign any coin as long as it then remained unchanged for at least 25 years. The director had great discretion regarding the emblem of Liberty.
Over the next half of a century, Lady Liberty would disappear from our coins. Liberty was removed first from the penny, and then from the nickel, quarter, dime, and half dollar.
TR and the Coins
One of President Theodore Roosevelt’s pet projects was the design of the U.S. coins. Some coins minted during his presidency are thought to feature the most beautiful representations of Liberty. Roosevelt commissioned Augustus Saint-Gaudens to design a coin with Liberty in the classical Greek and Roman design. One of Saint-Gaudens’s students, Adolph Weinman, was responsible for creating the Mercury dime, which is an image of Liberty in Mercury’s headdress. However in 1909, President Roosevelt wished to issue a coin to commemorate Lincoln’s 100th birthday. The Lincoln penny would replace the Indian-head cent. But the image on that penny was not an actual Indian; it was the head of Liberty in Indian headdress. The minting of the Lincoln cent breached the intent of the Second Congress. Liberty was replaced by the image of a president who many would argue usurped constitutional powers held by the people and the states.
The five-cent piece was initially a half dime. Liberty appeared on the silver half dime from its first minting in 1794 until 1873. The nickel five-cent piece, established by the Act of May 16, 1866, did not initially have a representation of Liberty. It had a shield on one side and a “5” surrounded by 13 stars on the obverse. In 1883, these nickels were replaced by a Liberty-head nickel that was minted until 1913. In that year, Liberty was replaced by the Indian-head or buffalo nickel. Twenty-five years later, the Jefferson nickel replaced the buffalo nickel, again contrary to the intent of the Second Congress.
The Washington quarter was issued in 1932 to commemorate the 200th anniversary of his birth. The standing Liberty quarter had been subject to considerable criticism due in part to the initial design that showed Liberty with one breast exposed. Lady Liberty was replaced with the word “liberty” imprinted next to the image of President Washington, the President whose image Congress explicitly debated against placing on coins.
The dime was first minted in 1796 and contained a representation of Liberty until 1945. The change to the Franklin Roosevelt dime was made by the director of the Mint, Nellie Tayloe Ross, shortly after Roosevelt’s death, at the urging of Representative Clyde Doyle. In his letter he said that using Roosevelt’s likeness would please the American people and would increase the circulation of the coin. He favored putting Liberty on the other side, but that did not occur. The wings on Liberty’s headdress on the old Mercury dime represented liberty of thought. How ironic that this dime was replaced in 1946 by one bearing the likeness of the great champion of big government.
In 1948 Nellie Tayloe Ross again removed Liberty from a coin. This time the Walking Liberty half dollar was replaced by one with the image of Benjamin Franklin. Fifteen years later, Franklin’s image was replaced by that of John F. Kennedy. The Kennedy half dollar had to be legislated since the Franklin had been minted for only 15 years and not the required 25. Weeks after Kennedy’s death, President Lyndon Johnson sent a letter to Congress requesting that the half dollar bear the likeness of President Kennedy. Congress wanted to act quickly so that the new 50-cent dies would be ready in time for the new year. Representative William Moorhead of Pennsylvania used the precedent of the coinage of the Roosevelt dime to argue for the immediate change to the Kennedy half dollar. Representative Durward Hall from Missouri opposed the bill, arguing that the House was acting too quickly “under the guise of mass psychological hysteria.” Hysteria won out. The bill passed the House 352 to 6 and shortly thereafter passed the Senate.
Liberty has not appeared on a circulating coin for 52 years. Most of the population of the United States was not alive when the last Liberty coin was minted.
So what does this history tell us? Our coins originally were emblematic of liberty. Now they are emblematic of strong centralized government and reverence for its past leaders. One reason we don’t have Lady Liberty on our coins may be found in words spoken by John Page during the debate on the mint: “it was the duty of the members of that House to keep the eyes of their constituents open and to watch over their liberties.” By removing the image of Liberty from our coins, perhaps federal authorities hoped to reduce any possibility that the American people would realize that their liberties were slipping away.
- Annals of Congress, Second Congress, Senate, January 1792, p. 71.
- Annals of Congress, Second Congress, March 24, 1792, p. 484.
- Ibid., p. 488.
- See Ted Schwarz, Beginner’s Guide to Coin Collecting (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday Dolphin Books, 1980).
- Congressional Record, 1945, pp. A2207–2208.
- Congressional Record, 1963, p. 248225.