Q. David Bowers
Launching a New Era
The observation in 1982 of the 250th anniversary of George Washington's birth provided the opportunity for the Treasury Department to produce a new commemorative coin, the beginning of a new era of special issues. By this time there were vast changes in the relationship between the Treasury Department and collectors, and Mrs. Donna Pope, director of the Mint, was well on the way to forging a closer bond between the Mint and the numismatic fraternity than had ever existed before.
On December 23, 1981, legislation (public Law 97-104) was adopted that provided for the production of not over 10 million silver Washington half dollars of .900 fine silver, an alloy which had not been used for regular coinage since 1964. It was specified that profits from the issue were to be applied to the national debt. According to the act coins were to be dated 1982 and produced until December 1983, thus in effect authorizing restrikes. (The practice of restriking would be continued on certain later commemoratives as well and had a rich history in the early commemorative series (1936 Cleveland half dollars restruck in 1937 furnish but one example).)
How the Washington Half Dollar Came to Be The Washington commemorative half dollar had its inception in the summer of 1980 when David John, a 31-year-old numismatist from Georgia, came to Washington to do postgraduate work at Georgetown University.(Details of David John's involvement and the ensuing legislation and certain of the text and quotations are from a transcript of a manuscript sent by Burnett Anderson to Coins magazine, January 26, 1982.) He became a legislative assistant to Rep. Doug Barnard, Jr., of Augusta, Georgia, a Democratic congressman and member of the Banking, Finance, and Urban Affairs Committee. "I was looking at a new edition of the Red Book, ", John later stated in a recollection, "and the pages of the bicentennial coinage made me think of commemoratives. Then I ran across the story of the Washington quarter in another book, and a flash of mental addition gave me 1982, the 250th anniversary of Washington's birth, for an ideal new commemorative."
David John prepared a proposal which was approved by Rep. Barnard, who had it converted into legislative terms as H.R. 2524. The assistance of other congressmen was enlisted including that of Rep. Frank Annunzio (who was to become very important in other commemorative legislation of the decade). John soon learned that Annunzio had been working on a similar Washington commemorative proposal but for a silver dollar. "We wanted to get a flow of commemorative coins started," Annunzio said, "but not a deluge of them like some small-time dictator who puts out a coin on every pretext he can find, every time you turn around. Just then Doug Barnard came up with his bill, and we were happy to go along. The only problems were technical."
Modifications to the original bill included limiting the issue to 10 million pieces, limiting the markup or profit on the coins, and specifying that profits go toward reduction of the national debt. The U.S. Mint was to be the distributor.
The Treasury Department, which had been against commemorative proposals for many years, endorsed this one. In congressional testimony U.S. Treasurer Angela M. (Bay) Buchanan ended the suspense and delighted numismatic listeners with the words, "At the outset, let me inform you that the Treasury Department supports this proposal.. .. "(In correspondence with the author, March 12, 1991, David L. Ganz noted that he had written an article, "Towards a Revision of the Minting and Coinage Laws of the United States," for the Cleveland State Law Review, Vol. 26 (pp. 177-251), later reprinted (with additions) in The Numismatist. Certain of the Treasury's later changes in attitude were reflective of the contents of this article.) Among those testifying in favor of the bill were ANA President George D. Hatie and numismatist Anthony Swiatek. Complications later developed when Congress sought to approve 1984 Olympic commemorative coins in the same time frame. Delays occurred, and the bill "disappeared" for many months. Finally, in the closing days of 1981 it was acted on by the Senate. The proposal was signed into law by President Ronald Reagan on December 23, 1981, thus making possible the first American commemorative coin for nearly 30 years.
Chief Engraver Elizabeth Jones, who had ascended to the post in 1981 following the retirement of Frank Gasparro, was selected to prepare the design, which was done with the assistance of staff engraver Matthew Peloso, who worked on the reverse.
Mint Director Donna Pope reviewed the early sketches and subsequently approved the final design. The obverse depicted Washington on horseback. The reverse showed an angular view of Washington's home, Mount Vernon, with an overlay of a heraldic eagle near the bottom of the coin. Elizabeth Jones's EJ initials appeared on both the obverse and the reverse, whereas Matthew Peloso's MP initials appeared subtly in the foliage near Mount Vernon on the reverse.
An article on the front page of Coin World, May 12, 1982, noted that Mint Director Donna Pope had released photographs of preliminary sketches of the new Washington half dollar design. Further:
"Both the obverse and reverse sides of the coins are in the process of being completed by Elizabeth Jones. The preliminary concept and sketches have been reviewed and approved by the Commission of Fine Arts and by Secretary of the Treasury Donald T. Regan ....
"The director of the Mint estimated that it will be several months before the coins, which will be struck in both Proof and Uncirculated condition, will be made available for purchase. Details of the historic coin offering will be announced in the next several weeks, she said .... Meantime, Mint Director Donna Pope said in Washington she would do everything in her power to expedite the issuance of the coin, long awaited by the collecting community. She complimented Mint Engraver Jones upon the first coin design in her career with the U.S. government; Ms. Jones came to the job with a worldwide reputation as a sculptor-engraver-medallist. 'I am very pleased with the design, and I will do everything I can to speed it along,' Mrs. Pope said."