American dollar coin, whence it came, whitherit goes
The Old Times, June 2007
By Jim Billings
SAUK CENTER, MINNESOTA – The United States Senate authorized a dollar coin with George Washington’s image. That was 1792. Washington, then president, reportedly disapproved and the House rejected it. Despite his wishes, Washington has circulated on the paper dollar since 1869, the “quarter” since 1932. Now in 2007, we have Washington on the dollar coin – stylized, stern, and heroic.
Dollar coins are coming big time. It buys what a quarter would in 1971 when the “Ike” dollar (favorite of casinos) was first minted. Parking meters await.
The series bears images of presidents in golden copper alloy. Four a year, minted chronologically. Not the living ones, though – too monarchical. Frontal image, 3/4 perspective.
The Statue of Liberty adorns the new dollar’s reverse. America’s most cherished monument, it is widely used in media, in carnivals and mass-produced kitsch, and in serious art. In God We Trust, e pluribus unum, date, and mint marks appear edge-incused to conserve space. And “$”, for the first time, appears on an America coin.
The dollar was made official American monetary unit in 1785. Prior to the dollar, American colonial money included a smorgasbord of foreign coinage, bills of exchange, bills of credit, and various commodities including tobacco leaves and wampum (beads made from shells, strung as a necklace, and value-coded by color). The English discouraged importing their coinage; The Spanish eight reales (“piece of eight”), the international silver standard, was the primary circulating coin.
“Liberty” has long represented freedom on American coinage. A bust adapted from the Roman personification of Liberty on the “heads” was first depicted as a young woman with flowing hair (1794), then with a ribbon (1795), seated holding a flag and a shield (1836-1873), more coiffured (1878-1921), a radiant bust, the “Peace Dollar” (1921-1935).
On gold dollars, Liberty appeared (1849-1854), then, ironically, an Indian princess (1854-1889). And “Liberty” was perplexing to Europeans who witnessed America’s use of slavery.
Only recently have actual persons appeared on “heads”. Eisenhower (1971-1978), Susan B. Anthony (1979-1981 & 1989), Sacagawea with infant son Jean Baptiste (2000 to present) and the new series showing presidents.
For over 200 years, the “tails” side, posed a bald eagle, a magnificent bird. It soars high while seeing great detail from afar. And fierce, if need be. The eagle is depicted variously as free standing or flying or featured on the National Seal (1798-1803). Then on the “Peace” dollar (1921-1935) the eagle rests and is accompanied by the moon on the Eisenhower dollar (1971-1974). The eagle has yielded stage to Liberty Bell (1976) and to Statue of Liberty, starting this year.
Coinage has changed little from the first comprehensive system devised by ancient Romans. An emperor’s profile adorned the “heads”; the “tails” side celebrated virtues like “Honorius”, even “Libertas”, or a military victory. This was Rome’s principle mass media. Three women, the Monetae, personified metals of coinage. These same metals have comprised American dollar coinage: Gold (1849 California gold rush until 1889), silver (1794-1935), and copper alloys (from 1971.)
In early 15th century, Henry VII changed coin portraiture from a frontal generic image to profile specific image. By this convention, Washington is depicted both as historical person (profile on quarter), and as the nation’s father (frontally on paper dollar). President and Presidency.
And the bald eagle, became an image on heraldry, that is an image of a symbol of the nation. Then sports teams, delivery services, fraternal lodges…
Depicted on the dollar is a simulacra of imagery, that is imagery with origins mostly forgotten. Once placed in the popular domain, an image is on its own, losing sight of beginnings. Reportedly, Dolly Parton entered a Dolly Parton Look-Alike contest and lost.
Forgotten is the difficulty of erecting the 305 foot high monument and gathering funds from French and American citizens. Perhaps also, full recognition of Liberty’s quixotic path in both America and France, along with remembrance of mutual friendship. And of Washington’s arduous gift to American independence.