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Abraham Lincoln: A Numismatic Legacy Considered

Prelude to War

On January 12, 1848, a 39-year-old Whig congressman from Illinois named Abraham Lincoln took to the House floor and spoke these words:

"The blood of this war, like the blood of Abel, is crying to the Heavens against the President of the United States!"

The remarks were part of a political charge against President James K. Polk, a Southern Democrat, who had thrust the United States into a state of war against Mexico after a U.S. patrol was routed by Mexican forces in disputed territory located near present-day Brownsville, Texas.

Lincoln's remarks reveal the bitter partisan nature of the war. Polk was an expansionist who envisioned a scenario where he could claim California from Mexico. Polk had already seen to the admission of Texas in 1845 after more than a decade of U.S. interference in the erstwhile Mexican territory. Lincoln and other anti-war northerners saw the conflict as a war of American aggression, which was carried out for the purpose of expanding slavery and tilting the balance of the power to the South.

Over the next generation, bloody skirmishes in the Border States fomented the structural tension that existed between northern Industrialists and southern elites, making the country ungovernable as a united political entity. When Lincoln won the highly-partisan, highly-regional presidential election of 1860 with virtually no southern support (Virginia's 1.1% being one of Lincoln's better returns south of the Mason-Dixon), southern states sensed the possibility of a permanent electoral disadvantage and seceded from the Union, ushering in a period of total war.

Lincoln's administration was considered the most activist in American history by his contemporaries. He suspended the writ of habeas corpus and acted without congressional or judicial oversight, virtually transforming the office of the president into the leader of all branches of government. In response to these critics, who accused Lincoln of acting extra-constitutionally in declaring war on the seceding states, Lincoln stated that it made no sense to "lose the nation and yet preserve the Constitution" . After five of the bloodiest years in American history, Lincoln prevailed and the South relented.

It was in Lincoln's success and the humanist way in which he conducted himself during the war, and the shock of his assassination so soon after its end, that turned the contemporary perception of Lincoln around and led future generations of academics and lay people to consider him one of the greatest presidents, if not the greatest, in the history of the United States.

America's reverence towards Lincoln was borne out in a variety of ways, from the naming of towns and town cars, to the proliferation of folk art, to the creation of cultural archetypes like "Honest Abe".

In terms of numismatics, and with the possible exception of George Washington, no figure in American history looms as large as Abraham Lincoln.

American Coinage in the Lincoln Presidential Era

Lincoln's tenure as President of the United States saw many developments in terms of the national coinage. From 1861-1865, the United States produced more than 100 million Indian head cents, the majority of which were of the copper-nickel variety. These featured an oak wreath and shield reverse that replaced the one-year laurel wreath reverse of 1859. In 1865, the composition of the new "small cent" was changed to bronze in order to put a stop to wide-spread hoarding of the nation's coinage.

In 1864, the United States issued a two-cent coin which is notable today only because it introduced the motto IN GOD WE TRUST to our nation's coinage. The motto was created at the behest of Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase, who in turn was responding to a request by the Reverend M. R. Watkinson of Pennsylvania, who wrote in a letter dated November 13, 1861:

"You are probably a Christian. 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 all seeing 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"

Mercifully, Chase did not execute Watkinson's specific recommendations, but he did order James Pollock, the Director of the Mint, to develop and implement a new motto that included God. After three years of tinkering, the Mint decided on IN GOD WE TRUST, a phrase adapted from the last stanza of Francis Scott Key's poem "Defence [sic] of Fort McHenry" - better known in song form as the Star Spangled Banner.

Nearly twenty million two-cent pieces were struck in 1864. Congress was so taken with the new motto that it passed an Act on March 3, 1865 that authorized, but did not demand, the use of IN GOD WE TRUST on "gold, silver, and other coins".

The final year of Lincoln's presidency saw the introduction of a nickel three-cent coin. The wafer-thin coin served alongside the smaller silver trime and was intended to serve as a stop-gap, circulating until war-time hoarding of intrinsically valuable gold and silver coins came to an end. The little-circulating three-cent nickel was produced in gradually declining mintages (with the exception of 1881), and eventually discontinued in 1889.

Lincoln's term is also marked by the loss of the Dahlonega and New Orleans Mints, which fell into the hands of the Confederacy at the onset of hostilities. The New Orleans Mint resumed its assaying operations in 1876 and coining from 1879 through 1909. Dahlonega never reopened and the facility was sold off in 1871.

Lincoln's Numismatic Heritage

Lincoln's appearance on political tokens distributed during the 1860 Presidential campaign caused some consternation among his political rivals. Q. David Bowers, in his Guide Book of Lincoln Cents, shows two of the pieces.

Shortly after Lincoln's death, the Mint began to develop the half dime's eventual replacement: the nickel five-cent piece. Having a far greater impact in American coinage than the nickel three-cent piece, the nickel five-cent coin debased the denomination and rewarded the politically well-connected industrialist Joseph Wharton, who had a virtual monopoly on the mining and manufacture of nickel and nickel alloy. Some prototype pieces depicting the slain president were struck up (Judd 486-488), but ultimately rejected in favor of James B. Longacre's shield design.

Luckily for the numismatic community, a Lithuanian-American sculptor named Victor David Brenner would come along a little more than forty years later and transform American coinage with a design featuring none other than Abraham Lincoln.

The Lincoln cent (1909-Present) inaugurated one of the single most important eras in our national coinage. This "Golden Age" started with Brenner's sculptural profile of Lincoln on the cent and culminated with Saint-Gaudens' Beaux Arts-inspired designs on the eagle and double eagle gold coins.

Of all the designs from this period (1909 through 1933, the year gold coin production ended), only the Lincoln cent remains. The coin's design is so exceptional that it is at once classic and modern. When American coinage saw its next great wave of redesigns, in what became known as the modern period, each denomination, one after the other, copied the precedent of Brenner's Lincoln cent by featuring presidents or founding fathers in profile in the center of a clean, non-cluttered obverse.

On June 1, 1918, another coin bearing Lincoln's likeness was authorized by Congress - this being a half dollar commemorative coin to be struck for the commemoration of the Illinois Centennial. The coin's design, which features George T. Morgan's interpretation of Andrew O'Conner's statue of Lincoln, perfectly captures the President's introspection and solemnity. The coin's reverse depicts the seal of the State of Illinois. While not rare, this early classic commemorative is hugely popular for Lincoln coin fans.

In the mid-1950s, notable American sculptor James Fraser and Mint personnel talked about a total redesign of the cent that would retain Lincoln's likeness. These conversations never resulted in a coin and in 1959, President Dwight D. Eisenhower announced without much fanfare that the fifty-year-old wheat reverse would be replaced by a new reverse depicting the Lincoln Memorial, designed by Chief Engraver Frank Gasparro. The Lincoln Memorial cent became the first U.S. coin to feature an image of the same person on both sides of the coin.

In 2009, in order to celebrate the bicentennial of Lincoln's birth and the 100th anniversary of the Lincoln cent, the Mint offered four commemorative reverses. The designs depict four distinct periods of Lincoln's life beginning with the famed log cabin of his childhood, continuing to his teenage years in Indiana where Lincoln educated himself, then onto his career as a politician and attorney in Springfield, Illinois, and finally, to the era of Lincoln's presidency, with a design that shows the Capital Building's iconic dome still under construction. French bronze planchets used to coin the original Lincoln cents were used to make proof versions of the coin, while post-1982 zinc was used for business strikes.

Along with the four cent designs, the Abraham Lincoln Commemorative dollar was also offered. Congress authorized a mintage of up to 500,000 coins featuring designs "emblematic of the life and legacy of President Abraham Lincoln". It is one of the modern commemorative era's most successful programs, which speaks to Lincoln's enduring popularity and import.

The coin's obverse features a likeness of Lincoln adapted from Daniel Chester French's statue that sits in constant vigil as the centerpiece of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC. The design was created by Master Designer Justin Kuntz and sculpted by Don Everhart. The coin's reverse features the last 43 words of the Gettysburg Address.

Collectors were enthusiastic about the release of the commemorative, which was offered in uncirculated and proof configurations. It was also coupled with the Lincoln Coin and Chronicles Set, which was offered at $55.95 on October 15, 2009 and sold out by 6:00 pm the next day.

In 2010, the Mint began production of a new cent reverse featuring a Union shield. The design was submitted by an American painter named Lyndall Bass. Bass says that the design is "emblematic of President Lincoln's preservation of the United States of America as a single and united country." She notes that the scroll across the shield stands for the "re-establishment of trust in the economic flow of currency after the Civil War."

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