The three hundredth anniversary of Roger William founding of Providence was the occasion for this special half dollar in 1936. Nowhere does the coin refer to Providence (originally Providence Plantations); only a knowledge of local history will allow one to infer that the Art Deco obverse design (loosely after Providence city arms but minus the city motto WHAT CHEER) alludes to the landing of Roger Williams, June 24, 1636. At left, a Narragansett Indian extends his fantastically elongated hand, palm down, in a welcoming mudra to the exiled ex-Puritan dissenter Roger Williams. Williams stands, Bible in hand , in a canoe from which a musket barrel end extends, apparently somewhere in Narragansett Bay. Behind the Indian is a stylized maize (corn) plant; under it, on coins from branch mints, is the D for Denver or the S for San Francisco.
Dates 1636-1936 allude to the tercentenary of Roger Williams purchase of land from local Indians to set up his religiously tolerant farming settlement. Williams said of this place, "In a sense of Gods mercifull Providence unto me I called the place Providence." Mingling the sun's rays with LIBERTY was deliberate symbolism for religious freedom, a major theme of the coin and the celebration.
The reverse loosely copies the state arms. Those enormous flukes on the anchor were constant on the dozens of versions of the colonial seal, found on paper money as early as 1710. However, the motto HOPE was only a substitute for the actual motto, IN TE DOMINE SPERAMUS or "In There, O Lord, we hope." This was probably to avoid repetition, as the colonial motto was echoed in Brown University's motto IN DEO SPERAMUS and Salmon P. Chase's translation of the latter (late 1836) which he directed to appear thereafter on U.S. coins as IN GOD WE TRUST. That fact may account for the unusual prominence of the latter motto on obverse, just above the sun's rays and LIBERTY, emphasizing the symbolism of religious freedom.
State wide celebrations, principally in Providence, of the tercentenary, coordinated by the Rhode Island and Providence Plantations Tercentenary Committee. Enough political pressure was applied through Senators Jesse Metcalf and Peter Gerry and Representative John O'Connell, induce Congress to pass the authorizing bill jointly with that for the Hudson coins; this became the Act of May 2, 1935.
Mr. Farnum, Director of the Rhode Island School of Design, who originally assigned the coin project to Benson and Carey after the Tercentenary Committee turned it over to him (March 1935). Judge Letts in the meantime received so many demands by local designers, however, that by September 1935 he changed his mind and ordered that a competition be set up, with a $350 prize. Of the fifty entries, the Benson/Carey collaboration was one of three finalists, and at final judging on November 6, it won, after certain alterations demanded by the Committee. Among these, unaccountably, was omission of the quotation from Roger Williams and any references to the city; comparison of the original rejected models with those accepted will be most instructive.
After the Federal Commission of Fine Arts approved the models (with remarkable lack of enthusiasm) on December 20, 1935, the latter went to the Medallic Art Company for reduction, and the reductions in turn went to the Philadelphia Mint for translation into working hubs and dies. In January, the Philadelphia Mint stuck 20,000 coins, the Denver and San Francisco batches following in February; so that the first sets could be offered on March 5.
March 5 proved to be a day of immense noise and confusion. The Tercentenary Committee turned over 6,750 half dollars to the Providence coin dealer Horace M. Grant for nationwide distribution. To their chagrin, he reported that he had already received 11,500 orders from all 48 states, Canada and various foreign customers, and more were expected.
To fulfill the Committee's commitments to Grant, amounts allocated to local banks were reduced, and Grant himself had to buy coins back from local recipients. By 11 AM of the same day, March 5, individuals who wanted 6 or more coins were given from one to three depending on their location. By noon, the Rhode Island Hospital National Bank (acting as prime depository and distributor of the coins to the 30 participating banks) had exhausted its supply. Arthur L. Philbrick, Treasurer of the Committee, later claimed that "approximately 45,000" of the total were sold by noon, and that local residents received their coins before the mail orders. The issue was supposedly exhausted before 3PM.
Despite these claims, many became skeptical in ensuing weeks and months. Rumors began that this or that influential banker owned over 1,000 sets and would sell lots of give or ten sets to the highest bidder, but nobody named names. Other rumors claimed that this or that person could get you 150 sets at much and such a figure. We are unable to confirm any of these rumors, or to evaluate how much was based on sheer envy of those who were lucky enough to be ahead of others on waiting lines. Whatever the merits of the claims or the rumors, the coins have remained permanently in demand, and we know of no large hoards.