1900 Lafayette Memorial Silver Dollar

The Lafayette Dollar Is Created

The 1900-dated Lafayette silver dollar represents the first United States commemorative coin of that denomination and the only silver dollar commemorative to be minted until decades later in the 1980s. Interestingly, from an official viewpoint the "1900" designation appearing on the Lafayette dollar is not the official date of the coin. Indeed, apparently, the coin has no official date.

In 1899 the Lafayette Memorial Commission sought to raise funds to erect in Paris in 1900 (in connection with the Universal Exposition to be held there) a statue of General Lafayette on horseback, to be sculpted by Paul Wayl and Bartlett. This was to be a gift of the American people to honor the Frenchman who in 1777, when he was not quite 20 years old, risked his life and fortune when he paid for French troops to come with him to America to aid the colonists. Although he was wounded in the Battle of Brandywine, Lafayette, who received the designation major general, served until the end of the war. In 1824 the French hero of the American Revolution visited the United States once again, was given a grand welcome, toured all 24 states, and was designated by Congress as "the nation's guest." The relationship between America and France has been close ever since that time, as evidenced, among other things, by France's gift to America of the Statue of Liberty, dedicated in 1886.

In early 1899 the Commission petitioned Congress for an appropriation to coin 100,000 commemorative half dollars. By the time the legislation was approved on March 3, 1899, the authorization was for 50,000 silver one-dollar pieces, to be known as Lafayette dollars, to bear designs selected by the director of the Mint, with the approval of the secretary of the Treasury. The Treasury was authorized to purchase in the open market $25,000 worth of silver bullion or as much as might be needed to coin such pieces. Subsequently the quantity of 38,675.875 ounces of fine silver was purchased for $23,032.80, making possible the striking of 50,000 coins per the legislation, plus an additional 26 pieces for assay. It was intended that the coins be sold for $2 each to the public.

The die work for the Lafayette dollar was accomplished by Chief Engraver Charles E. Barber, who, according to conventional history, took the portrait of Washington from the famous bust by Jean Antoine Houdon (the same portrait that was to be utilized years later by John Flanagan when the 1932 Washington quarter dollar was created). Lafayette's portrait, which appears behind and slightly forward of Washington's, was said to have been taken from an 1824 "Defender of American and French Liberty" medal made in France by Francois Augustin Caunois. (Caunois (June 12, 1787-1859), a pupil of Dejoux, enrolled in the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in 1813. Later he became a medalist who was well known for his portraits.)

However, as historian Arlie Slabaugh has pointed out, the conjoined portraits of Washington and Lafayette on the obverse of the 1900 commemorative dollar were almost certainly plagiarized by Barber from the obverse of the Yorktown Centennial medal of 1881, made from dies engraved by Peter L. Krider. (Taft was one of America's best-known sculptors; unfortunately, he was never associated with coinage. Taft was interested in numismatics, particularly in medals and on at least two occasions welcomed groups of visitors consisting of American Numismatic Association convention attendees. The quotation is from The History of American Sculpture (New York, 1930), as in turn quoted by Cornelius Vermeule in Numismatic Art in America (1971, p. 101). Trygve Rovelstad, designer of the 1936 Elgin Centennial half dollar, studied under Taft and was considered to be an especially brilliant pupil.) Stated more kindly, the Yorktown medal was an intermediary between the commemorative dollar and the earlier work of Houdon and Caunois. The shallow relief of Barber's work is but a travesty of Krider' s extremely detailed high relief artistry.

Bartlett's Statue

On the reverse of the Lafayette silver dollar was shown Bartlett's statue of Lafayette on horseback, a representation taken from an early model that differed in certain respects from that eventually erected in Paris. Bartlett's surname appeared on the coin.

The project had its inception when a Chicagoan suggested that a statue honoring Lafayette be paid for by a subscription among American schoolchildren, and that an American sculptor be commissioned to do the work. Karl Bitter (who had supervised the sculpture exhibits at the World's Columbian Exposition) was contacted, but he suggested that Paul Wayland Bartlett, who had spent much of his adult life in Paris and who had close ties with France, would be a better choice. On July 4, 1899, the architect of the Louvre, then visiting New York City, approved Bartlett's sketches, which the artist had created in New York. The actual work of sculpting in plaster was done by the artist in the small French village of St. Leu. Exhibited at the Louvre, the finished plaster model was widely admired. This was the version depicted on the 1900 Lafayette dollar.

In the meantime in 1899 school children all over the United States engaged in fund raising, many of them contributing coins from their savings toward the sum of $50,000 needed to create the statue and present it to France in time for unveiling in connection with the 1900 Exposition in Paris. (A smaller version of this statue was later displayed at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition held in San Francisco in 1915.) The Paris Exposition, or Exposition Universelle, was France's equivalent of the World's Columbian Exposition held in Chicago seven years earlier and showcased the achievements of the French nation. Certain of the settings were designed by Alphonse Mucha, master of the Art Nouveau movement.