Coins are the "calling cards" of a nation, representing its ideals, its heritage and its people_past and present. As President of the American Numismatic Association_which is chartered by Congress and is the world's largest organization for collectors of coins, paper money, tokens and medals_I do not know that I would go so far as to label the current designs of America's coins "crummy," but I do contend that, overall, our coins are not worthy of this great nation.
Before I am chastised too severely by traditionalists, I will note that there are exceptions to my last statement. The 50 State Quarters Program and the Sacagawea "golden" dollar are more in keeping with the school of thought that coins announce a nation's presence to the world. These coins have excited the country and are creating legions of new collectors, young and old.
The primary reason these new quarters and dollar coins hold their current status is that their designs represent a change from the stagnant images of the last century. Prior to their issuance, the coinage of the United States had become merely pockets full of dusty "headstones" depicting some of America's great leaders. Portraits of kings and queens, emperors and empresses, princes, dukes and presidents have graced the coinage of many
countries almost since coins were first created in ancient Lydia about 2,700 years ago. The coins of the ancient Greeks and Romans initially featured sacred images and ideals, but eventually these "calling cards" displayed the heads of Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar and their successors.
To prevent such self-aggrandizement and potential deification, the United States established a rule that no living person should be portrayed on a coin of the realm. Even George Washington rejected having his image placed on a coin on the grounds that it smacked of monarchy and was out of place in a republic. (However, just because such a rule exists, does not mean it cannot, from time to time, be set aside. The most recent aberration was the 1995 Special Olympics commemorative $1 coin, featuring program sponsor Eunice Shriver. To her credit, Mrs. Shriver noted that while she was proud to be portrayed on the coin, she did so to help the very worthy cause of Special Olympics International.)
Despite President Washington's early objections, his portrait and those of Presidents Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, Franklin Roosevelt and John Kennedy grace American coins today. With apologies to fans of the popular rock 'n' roll group, these coins occasionally are referred to as "Dead Heads," and many Americans have no idea who they are or what they represent.
Let there be no mistake, I am not calling for the removal of our President's portraits from our coins. Americans are too conservative to accept such a drastic change. We are here today to discuss America's coinage and the possibility of new designs. However, I wonder how far this discussion would proceed if we advocated replacing one or two of the Before suggesting such a change, we must consider the political ramifications of that action. Maybe all the current subjects should be replaced with new interpretations, new visions of Liberty or with other important expressions of America and its heritage. Perhaps we should simply take a lesson from our friends at the United States Bureau of Engraving and Printing, who redesigned our nation's paper money without casting aside the familiar subjects.
Therefore, I propose we move first to redesign our coins without discarding the subjects. Having said that, let me reiterate: our current coin designs are not worthy of this great nation. In fact, they are worlds apart from conveying the motion, energy and ideals portrayed on coins produced during this nation's "Golden Age" of coinage in the early part of the last century.
That progressive time is credited to the vigor and foresight of President Theodore Roosevelt. Like many of us today, the young president was not satisfied with the coins of his day. After all, some of the designs were old_like the $10 Coronet Head gold piece that first rolled off the Mint's presses in 1838. The designs were repetitious and stagnant_like the virtually identical dime, quarter and half dollar created by Charles E. Barber and minted from 1892 to 1916. While Barber's creations were dramatically different from the static Seated Liberty motifs that identified the same denominations from 1837 to 1891, our nation's coins still were far from what Roosevelt envisioned.
Today, we are at this symposium because Senator Phil Gramm, like President Roosevelt, believes it is time we again review the designs of America's circulating coinage. I, too, believe we should re-examine our "calling cards." I just wish it were as simple as it was in Roosevelt's day.
That Golden Age of American coinage began innocently at a dinner, where Roosevelt found himself seated next to America's great sculptor of the day, Augustus Saint-Gaudens. The redesign revolution grew out of a conversation between the two men that centered around their mutual admiration of ancient Greek coins. The stunning, artistic portraits of those ancient people's gods and goddesses helped them spread their culture throughout the Mediterranean arena and as far east as India. Even today, the beauty and craftsmanship of those historical coins remain unmatched.
Inspired by their discussion, Roosevelt offered the sculptor the following proposition: if Saint-Gaudens would design a new series of U.S. coins, then he, as President, would order the Mint to produce them for circulation. As a result of resistance at the Mint and Saint-Gaudens' failing health, the artist redesigned only the $10 and $20 gold pieces, first issued with his designs in 1907. (The latter is among the most beautiful coins ever produced by this country and today the motif graces the American Eagle gold bullion coin.)
After Saint-Gaudens died and Roosevelt left office, the energy of their numismatic revolution continued. Carrying on the tradition were:
Victor David Brenner's portrait of Abraham Lincoln on the cent in 1909 to the present (the longest-lived American coin design_91 years)
James Earle Fraser's Buffalo nickel in 1913 to 1938 (considered America's only original coin design)
Adolph A. Weinman's Winged Liberty Head (or Mercury) dime and Walking Liberty half dollar in 1916 to 1945 and '47, respectively (two of the finest examples of the Roosevelt / Saint-Gaudens tradition)
Hermon A. MacNeil's Standing Liberty quarter in 1916 to 1932 (probably the most controversial of the Golden Era coins)
Anthony De Francisci's 1921 to 1935 Peace dollar (capturing the heroic quality of Liberty and the theme of peace in celebration of the end of the "Great War")
It is hard to believe we actually spent those works of art as ordinary money.
To show the impact American coins can have, I would like to talk about one of them_the Walking Liberty half dollar. The powerful symbols emblazoned on this silver coin offered the dream of liberty and the promise of freedom to a young woman in Finland during the darkest days of World War II. It ignited a vision that one day she, like so many others before and after, would come to the United States of America.
That woman was my mother_Zoe Margerette Zetterborg_who was born to a Russian father and Swedish mother. My mother's first impression of this great nation came from our coins. Holding a Walking Liberty half dollar in her hand, she saw Miss Liberty draped in the American flag, her left hand clutching an olive branch close to her heart, demonstrating the importance of peace to the human soul. Liberty's right hand reaches out to a brilliant, new horizon, welcoming all who want to share the dream of this nation. (That same design today graces the Mint's American Eagle silver bullion coin.)
My mother desired a better place to raise her family; a place where freedom was not just an idea, and liberty and justice for all were more than just a dream. She had to trade that half dollar, a few other silver coins and pieces of dinnerware for a 20-pound bag of potatoes and a few eggs to help sustain her family during the war. However, she never lost hope because that sliver of silver provided a tangible link to the place my mother eventually would call home.
I wonder how many people today are holding an American coin and trying to understand this nation's struggles, triumphs and promises. Do our circulating coins today embody our heritage and provide the same hope they did 80 or 90 years ago? I think not! Can we do better? We not only can . . . we must!
The 50 State quarters and golden dollar are a great beginning. They demonstrate that Americans not only can accept new designs for their coins, but also can embrace them. Children are learning_and enjoying_the history and geography of the United States through the new and exciting issues.
But, do the simple bust portraits of Lincoln, Jefferson, Roosevelt, Washington and Kennedy symbolize the trials and tribulations of America? Again, I do not believe so. Should they? Again, they must!
If, as I suggested, we are to keep the subjects on our coins, then give them vitality, meaning and life. We need to make our coins representative of the ideals, heritage and people that characterize America. We can see an example of this in the New Jersey quarter issued last year. On the obverse is an updated treatment of Robert Flanagan's portrait of George Washington, originally created in 1932. Designed as a one-year circulating commemorative coin to mark the 200th anniversary of the first president's birth, it has become a familiar, albeit uninspiring, symbol of our nation.
Turn the New Jersey quarter over, and you will find a most stimulating scene: General Washington and his army crossing the Delaware River, turning the tide of the American Revolution. This design is an example of the energy, motion and vitality that can and should be infused into our nation's coinage.
There is a tremendous pool of creative talent inside and outside the United States Mint. We must give these medallic sculptors the opportunity to match their talents to those of Saint-Gaudens, Fraser and Weinman. We can meet the rigors of modern minting and at the same time give these artists the freedom necessary to create coins worthy of being our calling cards . . . worthy of being the coins of this great nation.