The 1900 Lafayette dollar represents the first commemorative silver dollar issued by the U.S. In 1899 the Lafayette Memorial Commission sought to raise funds to erect in Paris in 1900 a statue of General Lafayette on horseback. This was to, be displayed at the same time the Universal Exposition was to take place. Paul Wayland Bartlett was named as the sculptor. Lafayette, French hero of the American Revolution, had risked his life and fortune for the American cause. It was fitting that his image be a contribution by the United States to Paris while worldwide interest was focused upon the Exposition.
In 1899, the Lafayette Memorial Commission petitioned Congress for an issue of 100,000 commemorative half dollars. By the approval date, March 3, 1899, the authorization was changed to 50,000 silver one-dollar pieces, to be known as Lafayette dollars, and 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 $25,000 worth of silver bullion or as much as might be needed to coin such pieces. Metal was not to be taken from the ample quantities authorized and/or on hand for coining Morgan dollars.
Subsequently, the quantity of 38,675.875 ounces of fine silver was purchased for $23,032, making possible the striking of the authorized 50,000.
Lafayette dollars, plus 26 additional pieces reserved for the Assay Commission. The intention was to sell the coins to the public at $2 each.
Bartlett and the Statue
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 City. A sculpture model of the statue was created by Bartlett in St. Leu, a small French village. From this the image was taken for the 1900 Lafayette commemorative.
In the meantime, schoolchildren from all over the United States raised funds toward the $50,000 needed for the statue. Noted sculptor Lorado Taft, in The History of American Sculpture, related how Bartlett described the early version of his statue:
Lafayette is represented in the statue as a fact arid a symbol, offering his sword and services to the American colonists in the cause of liberty. He is shown sitting firmly on his horse, which he holds vigorously. Lafayette's youthful face is turned toward the west, his sheathed sword being slightly uplifted and delicately offered. He appears as the emblem of the aristocratic and enthusiastic sympathy shown by France to our forefathers. His youth, his distinction, his noble bearing, the richness of his costume, and the trappings of his horse everything serves to emphasize the difference of his race and his education. The statue was desired for the Fourth of July, 1900, but the order was given so tardily that it was impossible to have the bronze ready. Indeed, the one-third sized model was completed but six weeks before the date of unveiling. A colossal plaster model was therefore prepared and used upon the occasion. That even this could be accomplished in six weeks is remarkable, but the French are at home in such problems. The "working model" was sawed into pieces and distributed in several establishments in Paris; thus the horse and rider developed in various parts of the city at the same time. These scattered fragments were brought together only a day or two before the ceremony but fitted perfectly.
Bartlett made changes, and the finished statue installed in 1908 in the Place du Carrousel in the Court of the Tuileries adjacent to the Louvre was somewhat different than that on the dollar.
The Coin Design
Chief engraver Charles E. Barber, best known for his 1892 dime, quarter, and half dollar designs, did the die work. Numismatic historian Arlie Slabaugh has observed that Barber's work is virtually certainly a plagiarism of the obverse of the Yorktown Centen-nial medal of 1881, engraved by Peter L. Krider.
A problem arose concerning the dating of the new coin, for the Lafayette Memorial Commission desired the pieces to be struck as early as possible in 1899, but to bear the date 1900 to coincide with the Paris Exposition. Mint practice did not permit the antedating of a coin (a practice widely ignored over the years, especially later during the commemorative era of the 1930s). Thus, the dating issue was circumvented by placing on the reverse an inscription which read as follows: ERECTED BY THE YOUTH OF THE UNITED STATES IN HONOR OF GEN. LAFAYETTE / PARIS 1900. This was not intended to be the date of the coin, but, instead, the date that the statue was to be erected. Technically, it can be said that Lafayette dollars have no date, a curious situation in American numismatics. Certainly, 1900 does not refer to the date the coins were struck (1899).
Among other curious aspects of the piece is that this represents the first time President Washington's image appeared on a coin struck in quantity at a U.S. mint. Earlier, Washington appeared on many privately issued coins, tokens, and medals, as well as numerous Mint medals, and even on U.S. patterns (in the 1860s), but it was not until the Lafayette dollar that Washington's image was available on a piece intended for widespread public distribution.
Another interesting footnote is that the denomination is expressed on the coin as LAFAYETTE DOLLAR, rather than ONE DOLLAR used before and since. Probably, this was inspired by the use of such unusual denominational wording as COLUM-BIAN HALF DOLLAR and COLUMBIAN QUAR. DOL. to express the denominations of the commemorative silver coins issued for the World's Columbian Exposition earlier in the same decade.