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Do Living People Belong on Currency?
By R.W. Julian
December 16, 2013

This article was originally printed in Numismatic News.
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In ancient times, and extending up to the present day, it was normal for the ruler of a country to have his or her portrait on the circulating coinage. For many of the Roman rulers the coinage is the only representation known for a given emperor.

The question of a living person appearing on American coins has always been controversial and is likely to remain so. The last time this came to public attention was in 1995, nearly 20 years ago, when Eunice Kennedy Shriver, a sister of President John F. Kennedy, was shown on the obverse of the silver dollar honoring the International Special Olympics.

Part of the problem with the Shriver portrait was the question of whether she was in fact entitled to the honor. There remained, however, the overall question of living portraits on coins of the United States. Between 1921 and 1936 four other such portraits had appeared, though none of them garnered much public attention. The question actually dates back well over 200 years.

In the fall of 1791, due to public pressure for a national coinage, the Senate appointed a special committee to write a bill for consideration. The work was finished in late December of that year and one of the provisions called for the portrait of the current president to appear on the coinage.

Patterns were struck carrying the portrait of George Washington but it is said that he objected to his profile on the coins and asked that the dies be destroyed. The earliest printed report yet found for this long-standing rumor appeared in 1824, but this was of course based on memories of those living in the 1790s.

When the Senate bill was presented to the House of Representatives in early 1792 several of the House members objected to the presidential portrait on the coinage though others warmly defended the idea. In due course, however, those opposing the portrait carried the day. A reluctant Senate agreed and the revised bill became law in early April 1792. The final legislation mandated a head of Liberty, a point which remained in force until 1892 and the advent of the Columbian half dollar.

The belief that Washington had intervened in the portrait question became a fixed fact by the middle of the 19th century and remains so even today. This aversion to living people on the coinage is also well established in other countries where there is no hereditary ruler, a fact that can easily be seen by consulting the Krause books on modern world coinage.

Despite the presumed Washington intervention over the coinage portrait there seems to have been a different view about paper money. Private bank notes of the early 1800s sometimes carried well-known individuals in their motifs and the federal government did the same during the Civil War.

In the death struggle between the Union government of Abraham Lincoln and the Confederacy under Jefferson Davis both sides used portraits of key figures in their respective realms. For the Union, Lincoln and Edwin Stanton appeared on the Greenbacks while even a senator, William Fessenden, was shown on one of the fractional currency notes.

On the other hand the use of portraits on coinage during the nineteenth century remained off limits until 1892. It is true of course, that some designs, such as the Morgan dollar, were based on the profiles of real people, but the public did not consider this to be out of line, merely of more than passing interest as to the identity of the person chosen.

At the end of World War I the view about living persons on the coinage underwent a subtle change. The 1921 Alabama commemorative half dollar, which came a little late to honor the centennial of statehood in 1919, featured profiles of the first and current governor. The latter was Thomas E. Kilby and he was the first living person, as such, to appear on an American coin. These did not circulate, however, being sold mostly to residents of that state and thus passed under the radar.

The Kilby portrait was followed by that of President Calvin Coolidge on the 1926 sesquicentennial half dollar. The motif is somewhat ironic in that Washington was supposedly against his portrait being used while Coolidge was the current chief executive. These half dollars did circulate in the marketplace though not all that widely as those receiving them in change were likely to keep them as souvenirs.

As in 1921 there seems to have been no public adverse comments on the use of the Coolidge portrait. And there the matter rested until 1936 when two additional living portraits appeared on the half dollar. In one case, that of Sen. Carter Glass, a former Treasury secretary, on the Lynchburg, Va., coin. Glass was not all that thrilled and protested without success.

The other was Sen. Joseph Robinson on the Arkansas commemorative, but the situation here was a bit different. Robinson was terminally ill and in fact died in the following year. It may have been considered a final honor for a man about to die.

Use of such portraits in 1936 no doubt contributed to the demise of the commemorative program at the end of the 1930s but to what degree is not known. The next such portrait of a living person came in 1995 as pointed out above and it is useful at this point to resume the 1860s discussion of paper money portraits.

The problem with the use of living portraits on the coinage is that some scholars believe that this contravened an obscure law passed on April 7, 1866. This piece of legislation was in response to the use of a portrait which infuriated several members of Congress. The law stated in part that “no portrait or likeness or any living person, hereafter engraved, shall be placed upon any of the bonds, securities, notes, fractional or postal currency of the United States.”

That fractional currency was on the list is interesting in that these notes of less than a dollar in value were considered the paper equivalents of the corresponding coins. A case can therefore be made that coins were included in the prohibition against living coinage portraits. This interpretation has, however, been argued both ways and readers are encouraged to make their own judgments.

These fractional notes, derisively called “shinplasters” by the public, were issued from the summer of 1862 when silver coins were hoarded by the public. Most of the notes at first were printed by private bank note companies but in mid-1863 Congress transferred the fractional printing to a newly-formed government printing office, later called the Bureau of Engraving and Printing.

One of the fractional notes issued was to cause a great deal of trouble in early 1866. The Treasury had control over the designs appearing on these notes and the Secretary (Hugh McCulloch) had innocently issued an order that “Clark,” meaning William Clark of Lewis and Clark fame, was to appear on the next issue of 5-cent notes.

Spencer Clark, in charge of the printing office, chose to interpret the order in his favor and decided that his own portrait should appear on the next issue. Clark avoided submitting proofs of the dies to McCulloch, who was thus kept in the dark about which Clark was going to appear on the notes. Spencer Clark no doubt felt that the use of portraits such as that of Lincoln during the war would be sufficient cover for his portrait.

Clark also perhaps felt safe in that the fractionals in 1865 carried the portrait of United States Treasurer Francis E. Spinner and work was under way on a 50-cent note honoring Sen. William Fessenden, who had also been a treasury secretary.

It is not quite clear when the Spencer Clark notes were first issued to the public but it appears to have been sometime in January or February 1866, about the same time that the Fessenden issue was put into the marketplace.

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The Clark portrait came to the attention of Pennsylvania Congressman Russell Thayer in late February 1866 and he took immediate exception to the motif. (Thayer did not have problems with either Spinner or Fessenden, however, as these were well-known and prominent individuals.) On March 1, 1866, Thayer retaliated against Clark by amending an appropriation bill to now read “hereafter no portrait or likeness of any living person shall be engraved or placed upon any of the bonds, securities, notes, or postal currency of the United States.”

In support of his amendment Thayer sarcastically remarked to the House that “I hold in my hand a 5-cent note of this fractional currency of the United States. If you ask me, whose image and superscription is this? I am obliged to answer, not that of George Washington, which used to adorn it, but the likeness of the person who superintends the printing of these notes… I would like any man to tell me why his face should be on the money of the United States…and I trust the House will support me in the cry which I raise of Off With Their Heads!”

With pointed rhetoric of this kind the House quickly adopted the Thayer amendment and sent the proposed legislation to the Senate for approval. The latter body did not get around to this bill until mid-March and Thayer’s amendment got a cold reception. Senator Fessenden, who was on the fifty-cent note just issued, came up with the bizarre claim that “that it is regarded at the Treasury as a security against counterfeiting to put the likenesses of living persons on some of these notes.” His colleagues unexpectedly agreed and refused to accept the Thayer proposal.

The Senate version of the appropriation bill was returned to the House where it too met with a less than pleasant reception. Thayer led the attack, using the old rumor about Washington and his portrait on the coinage. Thayer, however, garbled the story by claiming that the first silver dollars had carried Washington’s portrait and all had been destroyed by presidential order.

Thayer then ridiculed the current lineup of paper money portraits by noting that “2 Clarks make 1 Washington [10 cents], 2 Washingtons and 1 Clark make 1 Fessenden [25 cents], 2 Fessendens make 1 Spinner [50 cents], 2 Spinners make 1 Chase [1 dollar], and 5 Chases make 1 Madison [5 dollars].” It was an effective comparison.

The congressman also noted that, in opposition to the Treasury claim, about the portraits of living persons being more difficult to counterfeit, that “A picture is a picture, and it is as easy to counterfeit one of these pictures of living personages as it would be to counterfeit the resemblance of the departed heroes and sages … whose images should adorn the currency of the United States if we are to have these embellishments upon it.”

At this point there was opposition in the House, from none other than a future president, James Garfield. He claimed that succeeding generations might not know the leaders of the country from the 1860s without portraits appearing on the currency, a curious argument that made little sense.

Underlying the debate was the fact that Spencer Clark was widely disliked by people within and outside the government. He was openly accused of blackmailing women into accompanying him on trips or staying at his home when his wife was away.

Garfield’s arguments were neatly answered by another colleague, Representative James Brooks, who noted that “When the name of Grant shall have faded away; when the magnificent victories of Sherman… shall have been forgotten; when the name of [General George] Thomas shall have sunk into oblivion; when even Lincoln shall have been buried with Julius and Augustus Caesar, there will arise one remarkable man… and that is Clark, the printer of the public money!”

The debate lasted for a while longer but in the end the House agreed with Thayer and defied the Senate. Congressman Brooks perhaps said it best when he stated that “No man should be immortalized upon the public money of the country until the verdict of posterity has been pronounced upon his name, and it can go down upon that record sanctioned by the voices of men of all parties, of all politics, and all religions.” One would think that his statement is as good today as it was in 1866.

It is important to note that Thayer considered fractional currency as representing the hoarded silver coinage of this country. Moreover the word “currency” in the 19th century included coins.

Senators held fast to their views on the subject of portraits, causing a conference committee to be created to iron out the differences. This group sided with the House and in due course the Thayer amendment was enshrined into law. The final bill was signed by President Andrew Johnson on April 7, 1866.

There was another law signed on May 10 which bore on the Clark portrait. It authorized the coinage of copper-nickel 5-cent pieces (i.e. “nickels”) but also ordered the Treasury to issue no more fractional notes of less value than 10 cents; this kept the Clark note from further circulation.

By 1920, when the Alabama coin was authorized by Congress, the 1866 debate and underlying principles had been long forgotten and the portrait of Governor Kilby was placed on the coinage. The same was of course true in 1926 and 1936 for the next three such motifs.

Eunice Shriver on the silver dollar in 1995 was something of a special case. There was a conference committee on differing wording on a particular bill and Joseph Kennedy II, Shriver’s nephew, was a member. He slipped in three commemoratives and got away with it because most legislators were unwilling to destroy the rest of the bill because of the arrogance of one person.

The Shriver coin, in particular, has been attacked for honoring something that did not happen. Researcher Thomas DeLorey investigated the founding of the International Special Olympics and discovered that the true founder was then living in Chicago; it appears that she was forced to resign in lieu of not receiving the promised Kennedy money to expand the games. Her successor was of course Eunice Shriver.

The matter was made worse by Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin who could have chosen stylized athletes but instead picked Shriver. Apparently the depiction of handicapped athletes overcoming their disabilities was of little importance in the world of Washington politics.

In all, the history of living persons appearing on our coinage deserves closer inspection. With better understanding among those who count, perhaps we will not see such portraits again on the coinage.

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