By Richard Graff
In 1982 I visited the Old San Francisco Mint and made a purchase in their souvenir shop, which was the start of a collection I have been working on ever since. The purchase was a set of 1.312-inch diameter Presidential bronze medallions, which at the time consisted of medallions from George Washington through Jimmy Carter.
Over the next 30 years I have faithfully added a medallion for each President as they came out. Then in 2007 the Mint started the Presidential $1 series, the First Spouse $10 gold series and a series of duplicate First Spouse bronze medallions. Of course the latter was a natural must-have addition to my President’s collection, and I have added them at the rate of four per year ever since.
There were a number of Presidents who entered office as either a bachelor or widower, thus having no spouse. What has happened so far in those instances is that the Mint has produced a coin/medallion with a representation of liberty on the obverse that appeared on the coins in circulation during the administration of that President.
We are currently on our 44th President, and there have been even fewer First Ladies, which makes them a very select club indeed. I think it is a very noble gesture to honor our nation’s First Ladies in this manner, and I enjoy my collection very much. The medallions I purchased initially have developed some incredibly beautiful toning after 30 years of aging.
This year the Mint will release four coins/medallions in the First Spouse series for the wives of Chester Arthur, Grover Cleveland and Benjamin Harrison. That is four First Ladies for only three Presidents. No, none of the three Presidents had two wives. The reason is that Grover Cleveland was our 22nd and 24th President, both before and after Harrison. His wife Frances will have two coins/medallions, one for each of her husband’s terms. Ironically, the Mint only issued one medallion for Grover Cleveland and I had to purchase another one to fill the spot in my collection for his second term. Cleveland is the only person in American history to serve two terms non-consecutively, an accomplishment that I highly respect him for. But wait, things get even stranger.
Logic would tell you that the first release in this series for 2012 would be for the wife of President Arthur, but it will be for Alice Paul. Who is she, you might ask and what is her relationship to President Arthur? Well, she had no relationship to the President, and her only connection to him was being born during his administration, something he was in no way responsible for.
Alice Paul, born in Mount Laurel, N.J., on Jan. 11, 1885, was a woman who embraced the cause of women’s suffrage. She was drawn to this cause on a trip to England in 1907 and on her return in 1910 became passionately involved in the cause on the home front. She became a leader in the movement, organizing marches, demonstrations and giving speeches. She was not opposed to the use of civil disobedience and violence to obtain her goal. At one point she, along with other members of her group, was arrested and subjected to harsh treatment. When news of these events was covered by the press, she and her cause gained public support. As a result of the efforts of Alice Paul, and others like her, the 19th amendment to the Constitution was ratified on Aug. 26, 1920, giving women the right to vote in America. Alice Paul died on July 9, 1977.
Like the Founding Fathers of our nation, Alice Paul believed strongly in a just and noble cause, one that she was willing to fight for and make personal sacrifices to achieve. I, for one, applaud and respect her efforts and believe she is worthy of commemoration. However, Alice Paul was never a First Lady, and her inclusion in this series is undeniably inappropriate, and in my opinion disrespects the First Ladies that this series was created to honor.
It would be appropriate for her to be honored on a commemorative dollar or half dollar dated 1985 for the centennial of her birth, or 2077 on the centennial of her death, or 2020 marking the centennial of ratification of the 19th Amendment. But then 1985 is long past, 2077 is a long time coming, but 2020 is just around the corner.
So how then did she come to be represented in this series, for which she does not qualify, with a coin/medallion released in 2012, a date that has no significance to her or her accomplishments?
Politics is the answer. When legislation creating the Presidential $1 coin, the First Spouse $10 gold coin and the First Spouse bronze medallion series was proposed as the Coin Act of 2005, Alice Paul was specified to fill this First Lady spot left open by the death of President Arthur’s wife in 1880. Arthur’s wife, Ellen, came down with a cold, developed pneumonia and died two days later on Jan. 12, 1880, a year and a half before her husband became President upon the death of James Garfield.
So the bottom line is that some legislators wanted Alice Paul to be commemorated on a coin and did not care what coin it was or when it was minted. They had their own personal agenda and used their political office to get it done. The question now is, how will collectors receive the coin/medallion and what impact will it have on sales?
As to the medallions, I have no idea if anyone but me is collecting them. In the case of the $10 gold coins, sales have been declining drastically since the initial release. The Martha Washington issue of 2007 had a proof mintage of 19,169 and the uncirculated mintage was 17,661. In just two short years the release of the 2009 issue for Sarah Polk told a very different story. The proof mintage was 3,512 (a drop of 81.7 percent) and the uncirculated mintage was 1,893 (a drop of 89.3 percent).
In a series that has seen the issue price double in five years and currently costs collectors around a grand a pop, and given the economic conditions of today, the drastic drop in sales comes as no surprise. Couple that with the break in established policy for Presidents without spouses and I wouldn’t be surprised if the Alice Paul issue has the lowest sales in the series. Not a very fitting honor for Alice Paul. But then it could work out the other way around, as that would give this coin the lowest mintage in the series and that would make it the key coin. In numismatics value depends on mintage and demand. Her issue might be the lowest mintage, but since she has no place in this series, the question is, will there be any demand? Only time will tell.
As for me, I don’t have the bucks to buy even one of the $10 gold coins let alone put together a complete set, so the question is strictly academic. I will however purchase the bronze version, even though I feel she does not belong in my collection. The medallion will exist as part of the series by act of Congress and I am collecting the series, so I need to fill the hole.
There are a number of the Presidents in my collection that I have no respect for, and a few that I hold in the greatest of contempt, but I have their medallions in my set. Although I feel Alice Paul is inappropriate for this series, at least I respect her. It works for me.
Richard Graff of Hillsboro, Ore., is a long-time numismatist who started collecting in 1958. His favorite collection is early commemorative half dollars. To have your opinion considered for Viewpoint, write to David C. Harper, Editor, Numismatic News, 700 E. State St., Iola, WI 54990. Send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.