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America’s Scandalous Coinage

November 25, 2015

Some people have been surprised over the recent controversy over choosing a female portrait for the new US $10 bill design. Perhaps most Americans don’t care whose picture appears on the dollar bills as long as the currency retains its value, but a significant number do have strong feelings about the designs used. In this case, those campaigning for a woman to feature on the $10 bill claimed that it was unfair that only male portraits have been used over the past century. The US Treasury has agreed on this demand, and now they are in the process of choosing a design that depicts a women associated with America’s democratic values.

It is easy to conclude that this is a classic case of twenty-first century political correctness in action, but the fascinating history of US currency shows that concern over the images used is nothing new. Moral, religious, and political lobbyists have taken strong offence over certain coin designs and successfully campaigned for changes. This article covers some of the most interesting and salacious of these episodes in American monetary history.

The US Mint Signals Support for Slave Owning?

Even someone with the most rudimentary knowledge of American history knows how the young nation was divided by the issue of slavery. This disagreement eventually led to the Civil War (1861-65) but for many years before this time the conflict between proponents and opponents of slavery was simmering. Even something an innocuous as a coin design could bring the fight to the fore, and that’s exactly what happened in the early 1790s.

The US Mint began life in the basement of a building at Sixth and Cherry Streets in Philadelphia in 1792. The silver for the first half dime coins was supplied by President George Washington. Many people at the time wanted America’s new coinage to carry the President’s image in the same way that coins of other countries had the image of their king or queen, but he rejected this idea. Instead the engravers used the image of a classical female figure that represented to the people of the time the concept of Liberty. This figure became a standard element on most American coins well into the twentieth century.

While the Liberty figure raised no eyebrows in the early 1790s (a few years later it did become controversial), the same was not the case with the other side of a large copper cent coin minted in 1793. The reverse of the cent (in numismatics the side of the coin with the date is called the obverse and the opposite site the reverse) used a thirteen link chain to represent the thirteen founding colonies of the USA. Some citizens decided that the chain design endorsed slave owning, and they strongly protested. The US mint took note of their objections and the following year the chain was replaced with a wreath design.

No Immodest American Coins

An interesting episode in American numismatic history occurred in 1916. A new quarter dollar coin was issued with the female Liberty figure portrayed in a very revealing dress. This was a time when women wore long dresses buttoned up to the neck so the appearance of a female on the coin with half of her bosom uncovered was widely viewed as scandalous. This new design evoked such strong criticism that the US Mint quickly abandoned it. In the following year they minted new quarters with a more modestly clad Liberty figure. Who could imagine such a scenario occurring today?

The Parson’s Appeal to the Secretary of the Treasury

The terrible slaughter of the American Civil War triggered a religious revival among the general population. In the spirit of the time Rev. M. R. Watkinson wrote to Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase on November 13, 1861, as follows:

“Dear Sir: You are about to submit your annual report to the Congress respecting the affairs of the national finances.

One fact touching our currency has hitherto been seriously overlooked. I mean the recognition of the Almighty God in some form on our coins… What if our Republic were not shattered beyond reconstruction? Would not the antiquaries of succeeding centuries rightly reason from our past that we were a heathen nation? What I propose is that instead of the goddess of liberty we shall have next inside the 13 stars a ring inscribed with the words PERPETUAL UNION; within the ring the allseeing eye, crowned with a halo; beneath this eye the American flag, bearing in its field stars equal to the number of the States united; in the folds of the bars the words GOD, LIBERTY, LAW.

This would make a beautiful coin, to which no possible citizen could object. This would relieve us from the ignominy of heathenism. This would place us openly under the Divine protection we have personally claimed. From my hearth I have felt our national shame in disowning God as not the least of our present national disasters.

To you first I address a subject that must be agitated.”

Whether a letter of this kind would evoke the same positive response today is open to debate, but Secretary Chase was certainly convinced by the clergyman’s argument and he instructed James Pollock, Director of the Mint at Philadelphia:

“Dear Sir: No nation can be strong except in the strength of God, or safe except in His defence. The trust of our people in God should be declared on our national coins.

You will cause a device to be prepared without unnecessary delay with a motto expressing in the fewest and tersest words possible this national recognition.”

Thus the famous “In God We Trust” motto that appears on United States currency was born. Yet its continual appearance on US coins could not be taken for granted.

The Presidential Coin Designer Offends Religious Feelings

In the early years of the twentieth century America was governed by President Theodore Roosevelt. Apparently presidents one hundred years ago had a little more time on their hands than their contemporary counterparts since President Roosevelt made the redesign of America coinage his “pet baby.” One of his most controversial decisions was the order to remove “In God We Trust” from US coins. His intentions were not anti-religious but rather the opposite – he believed engraving these words on coins was a sacrilegious practice. However by this time the American public and its representatives had got used to the motto appearing and his arguments failed to persuade. An act of Congress in 1907 restored this famous motto to the nation’s coinage.

The Secret Communist Coin Engraver

In 1945 the dime with a portrait of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (still in use today) was first issued by the US mint. Not to be confused with his early twentieth century namesake this president led the American government in the 1930s and during the Second World War. President Roosevelt died just as the end of the war was in sight. The American people appreciated his leadership during these challenging years and there was strong support to commemorate him with a new coin design. However, the design upset some people in a way nobody at the mint could have imagined. The coin designer was called John Sinnock. His artistic work was acknowledged by placing his initial below the President’s head on the dime. The sudden appearance of “JS” on the coins sparked rumors across the country that communist sympathizers at the mint, or in the US government, had decided to pay a secret tribute to the most famous JS in the world at that time – Soviet leader Joseph Stalin!

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