Q. David Bowers
Harlotry in Coinage
The 1923-S Monroe Doctrine Centennial commemorative half dollar is one of the most interesting of its era and has one of the most convoluted backgrounds of any issue in the series.
In 1923 the motion picture industry, by that time well situated in Hollywood and adjacent areas (the center of the industry having moved there from Fort Lee, New Jersey and other Eastern locations the decade before), was having more than its share of problems. The slaying of film director William Desmond Taylor under mysterious circumstances (the scenario for which has brought forth many theories and several books since that time), the death of Virginia Rappe in an orgy held in a San Francisco hotel and the association of comedian Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle with it, and a general lapse in the moral situation in the film community brought much unfavorable publicity to the field, and several steps were taken to correct the situation. Among the suggestions brought forward was the creation of a public film exposition.
Someone whose identity was not recorded came up with the idea of cashing in on the commemorative half dollar craze and sponsoring a special issue of pieces to be sold at a premium. An inscription on the letterhead used by the promoters of the issue read: "Monroe Doctrine Centennial.
First Annual American Historical Revue and Motion Picture Industry Exposition, Commemorating the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Monroe Doctrine, June 1, 1923. Under the Direction and Supervision of the Motion Picture Industry. "Curiously, no motion picture personality or facility was proposed as part of the design of the coin, although perhaps the face of comedian Charlie Chaplin, if used, would have been an appropriate commentary on the ludicrousness of the entire situation. Instead the group thought to legitimize the coin by giving it an older historical context.
It so happened that 1923 coincided with the 100th anniversary of the Monroe Doc-trine, the declaration by President James Monroe that European countries that interfered with countries in the western hemisphere or established new colonies in it would meet with disapproval or worse from the American government. Conversely, the United States would not be-come involved in European politics.
The Monroe Doctrine came about when Secretary of State John Quincy Adams foresaw that the so-called Holy Alliance (consisting of France, Austria, Russia, and Prussia) might intervene in America, ostensibly to restore to Spanish domination the newly independent countries of Peru, Buenos Aires (Argentina), Chile, Venezuela, and Colombia-with the unstated real objective to take certain possessions which the Holy Alliance felt that Spain could not protect. A scenario was envisioned whereby California, Chile, and Peru would be seized by Russia, and Mexico would fall under the control of France. Russia, in particular, was viewed as a threat because of its ownership of Alaska and its proximity to the West Coast of the United States.
Further, England would take Cuba. In reality the Monroe Doctrine did little, as the United States lacked the power to enforce it; and in the 1830s when France and England seized additional land in the western hemisphere, officials in Washington did not intervene.
On December 18, 1922, Walter Franklin Lineberger, a California representative in Congress, introduced legislation for the Monroe Doctrine Centennial commemorative half dollar, stating that the 1823 declaration had prevented France, England, and Russia from attempting to obtain California from Mexico, which controlled the territory at the time. Addressing the coinage proposal, Senator Frank Greene of Vermont (a state which was to have its own commemorative coinage in a few years) commented sarcastically: "It seems to me that the question is not one of selling a coin at a particular value or a particular place. The question is whether the United States government is going to go on from year to year submitting its coinage to this well-harlotry."
This and other objections notwithstanding, on January 24, 1923, Congress authorized the coinage of not more than 300,000 silver 50-cent pieces in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the Monroe Doctrine, stating that "the coins herein authorized shall be issued only upon the request of the Los Angeles Clearing House and upon payment by such Clearing House to the United States of the par value of such coins."