Short Numismatic History of the United States
by Edward Elmer - April
are inveterate despoilers of the freedom, wealth, and lives
of their citizens. As consolation, the citizens usually receive
little more than lofty words and pretentious sentiments from
the political leaders in charge of the looting, murder, and
enslavement. Less commonly, governments produce something
concrete, such as a marble palace for the ruler or an alabaster
temple for the commemoration of some supposedly noble public
However, one of the few universal, tangible products of government
which citizens experience directly is their government’s
medium of exchange. Even this government product usually offers
a lopsided exchange for the citizen. Base metals and paper
are usually offered to the subject in return for his much
more valuable and often unjustified faith in the validity
of his government.
At the outset, the numismatic history of the United States
is as singular as its political history. Just as the new government
was remarkable for the powers its Constitution did not permit,
so the new U.S. coinage was unusual for what it did not depict.
There were no representations of any political figures, ancient
or contemporary. Odd as it may seem to modern Americans, the
faces of Washington, Franklin, and Jefferson did not make
it onto America’s earliest coinage. Such bygone greats
as Caesar and Alexander were also notably absent.
Our early American predecessors seem to have bypassed the
rich symbols that abounded on the coinage of preceding nations.
There were no gods or goddesses, nor was the mint impelled
to create a mythological parallel to the Roman she-wolf nursing
Romulus and Remus. Though the new nation was rich in folklore,
none of its earliest coins depicted traditional examples,
such as Washington’s felling a cherry tree or Franklin’s
flying a kite.
Instead, the newly established mint adopted an exceptional
course that reflected the American vision as novus ordo seclorum,
a new order of the ages. For perhaps the first time in history,
a country minted coins that attempted to convey an idea by
means of an image. That was no easy undertaking. A picture
may be worth a thousand words, but the reverse may also be
true. Some words are worth a thousand pictures, and ideological
words can be so potent that no picture can do them adequate
justice. Despite the daunting nature of its task, the new
mint proved itself equal to the challenge.
Starting as early as 1792, the United States minted half-dimes
of silver. In 1793 copper pennies followed, and in 1795 $5
coins were minted from gold. The workmanship of these early
coins was not very elaborate. In fact, they were only slightly
more complex than Roman coins minted millennia earlier. Without
exception, these coins portrayed Liberty in the form of a
female head or bust. The central importance of Liberty was
emphasized by the absence of any competing words or symbols
on the front of the coin. There was no “In God We Trust”
and no ornamentation, aside from a few stars. Bearers of these
new coins saw only a picture of Liberty and her name. These
coins were the numismatic equivalent of vanilla ice cream.
At first, even Liberty’s attire was austere; only the
1795 half-eagle shows her wearing a hat (see pictures).
1793 “Chain” Cent
1795 Half-Eagle ($5.00)
This sober uniformity in coinage lasted for
the next 117 years, a relative eternity compared to the frantic
pace of modern monetary change. Copper pennies, silver dimes,
and gold eagles – the U.S. mint consistently produced
The dawn of the inflationary era
A few premonitory variations appeared during the latter half
of this period of numismatic tranquility. Beginning in 1851,
silver three-cent pieces were minted. These were the tiniest
American coins ever minted, and they were produced in relatively
scanty numbers compared with the more widespread one-cent
pieces. A six-pointed star of uncertain origin appeared on
the front of the new three-cent piece. Some viewed this coin
with contempt, as evidenced by the archaic expression “not
worth a thr’penny bit,” which was the American
analogue of “not worth a brass farthing.”
After 1856, large copper cents were replaced by cents of
our current size. One intriguing reason for this change was
cited by James Ross Snowden, who was mint director at that
time; he complained that the cost of making and distributing
the large cents “barely paid expenses.” Sure enough,
the copper content of the new, small cents was less than half
that of the large cents, marking what was arguably the first
significant debasement of U.S. currency in the snowballing
progression that followed. Perhaps to confuse the issue, between
1856 and 1858 the mint replaced Liberty with an eagle image,
so that the new cent would seem a totally different coin rather
than just a less valuable, smaller version of the old one.
However, Liberty returned sporting an Indian headdress in
Another variation occurred with the issue of the copper two-cent
pieces of 1864 and the “nickel” five-cent coins
of 1866. The latter were actually 75 percent copper and 25
percent nickel, as they remain to this day. The front or obverse
of both of these coins showed a shield image instead of Liberty.
A new motto also appeared: “In God We Trust.”
One explanation offered for this change was the country’s
contemporary paroxysm with the Civil War. Both the motto and
the shield may have been subtle references to the divine and
military intervention deemed requisite to restore unity after
the years when the United States had literally broken in two.
The two-cent coin was minted for only nine years, and by 1883
Liberty reappeared on the five-cent coin.
In the late 1800s a variety of commemorative issues were
minted. These were not as widely circulated as the regular
Liberty coins and were of more interest to collectors than
to the general population. However, the modern trend away
from Liberty and toward historical figures was foreshadowed
in these coins, for their obverse showed Columbus, Isabella,
Lafayette, Jefferson, Lewis and Clark, and the like.
Finally, in 1909 the current numismatic age dawned with the
72-million-piece onslaught of the Lincoln penny. The word
“Liberty” appeared next to the bust of Abraham
Lincoln, and “In God We Trust” was added above
his head as well as “E Pluribus Unum” on the reverse
side. The arrival of this coin coincided roughly with the
reign of our first modern, paternalist, global-interventionist
president, Theodore Roosevelt. From this point forward, the
Zeitgeist of the United States seems to have changed irrevocably.
What had once been a nation ruled by the law of Liberty had
now become a nation ruled by the law of men, and men inexorably
replaced Liberty on the coinage from that point forward.
In 1913, an Indian replaced Liberty on the buffalo nickel.
“Liberty” appeared next to the Indian’s
head, but he was not the same Liberty in Indian headdress
that had appeared on the 1859 penny. In 1916, Americans got
their first Roman god on their coinage. Mercury’s image
replaced Liberty on the dime. The word “Liberty”
still appeared above Mercury’s winged head, but the
difference between the ancient god and the uniquely American
personification of Liberty was evident.
In 1932, Franklin Roosevelt became president. He wasted no
time remaking the U.S. government according to his vision.
The worship of a new, secular god swept over the shores of
the Potomac. Shiny new temples of white stone sprang up all
over Washington. Hordes of ambitious new priests made their
pilgrimage to serve in these temples, and most were loath
to depart whence they had come. Some were elected, but most
were appointed. Progressive tithes were exacted from the country
at large with the imposition of graduated income taxes. The
new god was replete with all the divine attributes of omniscience,
omnipresence, omnipotence, and omnibenevolence.
In keeping with Roosevelt’s grand scheme, cataclysmic
changes swept through the mint. Mere cessation of gold coinage
was deemed insufficient. Instead, private ownership of gold
coins was outlawed. The mint suddenly behaved like a leaf
blower switched in reverse. Gold was vacuumed from the citizens’
pockets and sucked into the mint, where an orgy of melting
occurred. Simultaneously, George Washington replaced Liberty
on the quarter.
Six years later, in 1938, Jefferson appeared on the nickel,
and eight years after that, following Roosevelt’s death,
Roosevelt’s image assumed its eternal place on the dime.
A scant two years later, in 1948, the final numismatic image
of Liberty was displaced by Benjamin Franklin on the half-dollar.
The symbolic reign of Liberty was over, and the reign of men
Up to the present, the only other significant change in U.S.
coinage has been the metallic debasement necessitated by the
sybaritic spending of the Great Society. The second half of
the 20th century coincided with the 20-fold inflation of the
dollar. As copper and silver became more expensive to coin,
they were replaced with much cheaper zinc and nickel. A thin
plating of copper was retained on the zinc penny for the sake
of deceptive appearances. Dimes, quarters, and half-dollars
were debased from silver to a copper-nickel composite. Gold
and silver coins disappeared from the pockets of the American
This sad tale is not yet over. The pessimist foresees the
future appearance of even baser images and metals in our coinage.
The optimist still dreams of a return to the sound money of
Throughout history, the substance and image of a nation’s
coins reify its guiding spirit. Even today, most Americans
would probably prefer a golden Liberty to a cupronickel Roosevelt,
but noble preferences are little match for the velvet glove
and iron fist of the modern American megastate.