May 11, 2011
Most former presidents who appear on United States coins have been mated with those coins in what might be described as "marriages of convenience."
There was no compelling reason to match George Washington with the quarter, for example, or Thomas Jefferson with the nickel. Nor was John F. Kennedy closely identified with the half dollar, or Dwight D. Eisenhower with the dollar. In each case, the coin was chosen not so much because it was fitting, but because it was handy. Jefferson got the nickel, for example, because it was due for a design change, and Kennedy got the half dollar because Benjamin Franklin, the coin's former occupant, seemed less likely to be missed than the men on the other coins.
There was ample cause to issue a coin in Franklin D. Roosevelt's honor after his death on April 12, 1945. He had guided the nation out of the Great Depression and to the very threshold of final victory in World War II, steering the ship of state through 12 of the most tumultuous years in history. He had his critics to be sure – bitter ones, at that, for the emotions he stirred were intense. But his achievements clearly entitled him to a niche among the nation's great leaders, and a place of honor on its coinage.
Three coins, the Lincoln cent, Mercury dime and Walking Liberty half dollar, were ripe for replacement at the time, all having been in service for the statutory minimum of 25 years. There was never any doubt, though, that the choice would be the dime, for this was the coin that Roosevelt had used to wage war on the domestic front war against disease.
The March of Dimes, the annual campaign to raise funds for the fight against polio, was as synonymous with Roosevelt during his years in the White House as the New Deal and the Good Neighbor Policy. In 1937, he personally announced the establishment of the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis to "lead, direct and unify the fight on every phase of this sickness," and thereafter he played a personal role in the yearly fund drives whenever possible.
Roosevelt's involvement with the March of Dimes was underscored by the fact that the drive culminated each year on his birthday, January 30. Perhaps his greatest contribution to the cause, though, was not what he did during any specific fund drive, but what he represented throughout his later life: a symbol of man's ability to surmount this feared disease, for he himself was among its many victims.
Roosevelt was stricken by polio in 1921, at the age of 39, while vacationing at his summer home on Campobello Island in New Brunswick, Canada. The disease paralyzed him from the waist down, and he never regained more than limited use of his legs. His political ambitions – and his determination to attain them – were not the least bit crippled, however, and he battled doggedly to rebuild his health and his career.
Roosevelt managed to win the governorship of New York State, bucking the strong Republican tide which swept the country, including New York, in 1928. Two years later, he was reelected resoundingly. Then, in 1932, he sought and won the Democratic nomination for president and rode to victory over Herbert Hoover, who was seeking reelection.
Roosevelt brought such verve and vigor to the presidency that people tended to forget he was physically handicapped, and photographers and cameramen reinforced his dynamic image by acceding to White House requests to take all their pictures of him from the waist up. The March of Dimes served to remind the nation each year that for all his dynamism, this remarkable leader had to rely on braces, crutches and a wheelchair.
Just as the March of Dimes had been linked to FDR's birthday, the introduction of the new Roosevelt dime in 1946 was tied to the March of Dimes. Leland Howard, the acting director of the U.S. Mint, made this clear at the time. "It is desired," he said, "that the new dimes be produced at the beginning of the calendar year in sufficient quantity to use them in the infantile paralysis drive." On Jan. 30, 1946, the 64th anniversary of Roosevelt's birth, the first of the new dimes marched into circulation.
By 1953, just 15 years after the first March of Dimes, the annual appeals had raised more than $50 million, and victory was in sight. Many of the dimes had been channeled into research, and one of those engaged in that work, Dr. Jonas E. Salk of the University of Pittsburgh, had developed a vaccine which showed promise of being effective in preventing the disease.
Extensive field trials were conducted in 1954. On April 12, 1955, the 10th anniversary of Franklin Roosevelt's death, the exciting results were announced: the Salk vaccine was safe and effective, and for once polio itself was the victim, trampled by millions of relentless marching dimes.
The March of Dimes has shifted direction in the intervening years: its primary targets now are birth defects and arthritis. The Roosevelt dime has undergone changes, too: originally 90-percent silver, it became a silverless "sandwich" metal coin of copper-nickel alloy in 1965. Now as before, the coin and the cause make a happy combination, and the happiest part of the marriage is the presence of Roosevelt's portrait.
The president who couldn't walk is marching now in unison with his dime.