If John Beat George: What Early American Coins May Have Looked Like
By Gerald Tebben
If Federalist John Adams had won the presidency in 1789, it is likely that his portrait would have appeared on coins, similar to this 2007 Presidential dollar. (Photo: Coin World)
In an alternate universe, our first president, John Adams, placed his own portrait on coins in 1792. President William Jennings Bryan ushered in an era of giant silver coins in 1896, and President Alton Brooks Parker allowed old designs to continue to circulate in 1904.
But that’s just in our alternate reality.
It’s unlikely that our next president, whether Democrat or Republican, will have much impact on the nation’s coins, but that was not always so. The history of our coinage is studded with incidents in which the chief executive made key decisions about hard money.
When the nation’s first coins were being considered, many assumed they would bear the president’s portrait; just as European coins had the king’s face.
George Washington’s portrait appears on private patterns. Even the official 1792 Birch-cent pattern bears the notation “GWP” for “George Washington, president.”
Washington would have none of it, believing the practice monarchical. Consequently, a personification of Liberty appeared on circulating coins for more than a century.
Being a Federalist, John Adams believed the office of president should mirror the pomp and grandeur of royalty, even proposing that the president be addressed as “his highness.” (Photo: Coin World)
If Federalist John Adams had won in 1789, it is not unlikely that his portrait would have appeared on coins. Adams believed the office of president should mirror the pomp and grandeur of royalty, even proposing that the president be addressed as “his highness.”
In 1896, the issue wasn’t whether the president’s portrait should appear on coins, but whether there should be free coinage of silver at the ratio of 16 to 1 in proportion to gold.
The historical link between the two metals broke down in the mid-1800s as more and more silver was mined in the West.
By 1896, when Democrat William Jennings Bryan ran against Republican William McKinley, the relationship in the marketplace approximated 32 to 1.
While the debate mostly dealt with whether federal paper money would be backed by gold, which was stable, or silver, which was inflationary, satirists seized upon the idea of oversize coins.
Jewelers, including Tiffany & Co., struck their own Bryan dollars that were roughly twice the size of real coins. Collected by political and so-called dollar collectors, the pieces give a comical view of what might have been if Bryan had won.
Theodore Roosevelt probably had the greatest impact of any president on coinage. Inspired by the high-relief coins of ancient Greece, Roosevelt set in motion the complete redesign of the nation’s coins, starting with the Saint-Gaudens gold pieces in 1907.
The redesign was largely personality driven
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