Former members of the U.S. Assay Commission, which met every year from 1792 until 1977, except for 1815 when the Mint burned, are slated to meet at Philadelphia Aug. 8 to coincide with the anniversary convention of the American Numismatic Association. The Old Timer Assay Commissioner Society (OTACS), believes that this will be its last meeting.
Scheduled, with approval from the U.S. Mint, to meet in the second floor Assay Commissioners’ room of the “new” Philadelphia Mint, the last men and women standing anticipate a tour of the facility that opened in August 1969, some show and tell – including the register of commission members from 1940 to 1977, some time for socializing and remembering the days of yesteryear, followed by a soft drink toast and the singing of Auld Lang Syne.
OTACS was founded in 1964 at a time when the Assay Commission was still in full swing, undertaking a function mandated to it in the original Mint Act of April 2, 1792, and reiterated in the Coinage Act of 1873, which then governed American minting and coinage law. Members were added each year as the President of the United States appointed new commissioners.
That continued until 1977, when President Jimmy Carter, in the name of economy and efficiency in government, declined to name any public members. In 1980, the commission was abolished, setting the stage for the eventual demise of the group of former commissioners, as death and infirmity claimed them.
First of the commissions, actually a trial of the pyx, a British term, were mandated by the original Coinage Act of April 2, 1792. They were deemed so essential to the confidence of the public in the national money that section 18 of the legislation directed that the original inspectors were to include the Chief Justice of the United States, the Secretary and Comptroller of the Currency, the Secretary of State and the Attorney General of the United States.
This was neither a casual request nor one that was considered so unimportant an aide could attend. The statute is explicit: this who’s who “are hereby required to attend for that purpose,” meaning that in July of 1795, Chief Justice John Jay, Secretary of State Edmund Randolph, Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton, Attorney General William Bradford may have gathered at the Philadelphia Mint.
In the Jefferson Administration, consider this remarkable group: Chief Justice John Marshall; Secretary of State (and future president) James Madison, Secretary of the Treasury Albert Gallatin, Attorney General Caesar Rodney might all have been there.
By the time that the Act of Jan. 18, 1837, was approved, the cabinet officials and the Chief Justice were omitted in favor of the U.S. District Court Judge from the Eastern District of Pennsylvania (the state having been divided in half for judicial purposes), other governmental officials and “such other persons as the President shall, from time to time, designate for that purpose, who shall meet as commissioners, for the performance of this duty, on the second Monday in February, annually...”
Starting in the midst of the Truman Administration, a serious numismatist or two had begun to be appointed. Some who assisted the government in some numismatic or related matter were similarly given the honor. Among the early appointees: Max Schwartz (1945), the New York attorney who later became ANA’s legal counsel; Ted Hammer (1947), John Jay Pittman (1947), Admiral Oscar Dodson (1948) and Hans M.F. Schulman (1952).
My dear friend of more than 40 years, Paul R. Whitnah, then of Little Rock, Ark., was appointed by the President in 1973; he was one of the youngest commissioners. He is now in his sixties. The following year, at age 22, President Nixon appointed me. (You can do the addition: the 38 years that have passed make me 60 years old).
Many of the former commissioners are now gone; their eligibility for OTACS membership came with the presidential appointment – which did not require advice or consent of the U.S. Senate. (The president appointed and you either accepted or declined). The oldest surviving commissioner (and OTACS member) is probably Eric P. Newman, a 1967 Commissioner, who recently celebrated his 101st birthday.
But according to Arthur Fitts III, who functions with his wife, Prudence, as the executive director and head of the secretariat for OTACS, the number of surviving members of OTACS is probably under three dozen, now with ages ranging from, well, 60 to 101.
OTACS has met as a social organization, part of the events surrounding the anniversary convention of the ANA, since 1964. Back when I was ANA president and foresaw this day, suggested that OTACS open its membership to members of the Citizens Coinage Advisory Committee. That might have added a generation to OTACS.
But Adna G. Wilde, Jr. (Commissioner in 1975) opposed and was persuasive in maintaining the exclusivity for the club whose membership has necessarily declined every year since.
The year I served, 1974, was truly a numismatist’s year. My classmates, as we have referred to ourselves over what is now almost 40 years, included some then and future hobby luminaries: Don Bailey (former officer of Arizona Numismatic Association), John Barrett (member of several local clubs), Dr. Harold Bushey, Sam Butland (Washington Numismatic Society vice president), Charles Colver (well-known California numismatist), David Cooper (Central States Numismatic Society vice president), George Crocker (South Carolina Numismatic Association president), Joe Frantz (Organization of International Numismatics secretary), Maurice Gould (ANA governor), Ken Hallenbeck (past president, Indiana State Numismatic Association and future ANA president.).
Also: Dr. Robert Harris, Jerry Hildebrand (organizer World Coin Club of Missouri), Richard Heer, Barbara Hyde (TAMS board member, sculptor), Philip Keller (past president of the American Society for the Study of French Numismatics), Reva Kline (member of several upstate New York coin clubs), Stewart Koppel (past president, Aurora, Ill., Coin Club), Charles M. Leusner (Delaware County Coin Club).
Rounding out the Commission: Capt. Gary Lewis (past president of Colorado-Wyoming Numismatic Association and another future ANA president), Fred Mantei (past president Flushing Coin Club), Lt. Col. Melvin Mueller (member of many local and regional clubs), James L. Miller (COINage Magazine publisher), John Muroff (Philadelphia Coin Club member) and Harris Rusitzsky (Rochester Numismatic Association member).
The White House said the 25 commissioners, working in such varied fields as medicine, dentistry, law, engineering, forestry research and the military, share a common interest in coins and the science of numismatics.”
Early in its history, and indeed, into the first half of the 20th century, the appointees were either political themselves, or politically connected. Ellin (Mrs. Irving) Berlin, commissioner 1941, was one example; Mrs. R. Henry Norweb (1955) was another. So was Sen. H. Willis Robertson (1962), chairman of the Senate Banking Committee and father of television evangelist and onetime presidential hopeful Pat Robertson.
William Ashbrook, a member of Congress from Ohio, who sponsored the legislation chartering the ANA in Congress, served six times between 1908 and 1920. Albert Vestal, a member of Congress from Indiana, served consecutively from 1920-1925. There were many other congressmen and senators through the years, as well.
Abolition of the Assay Commission came in two stages. In 1977, President Jimmy Carter declined to name any public members to the Commission, ending a practice of more than 117 years. Then, F.T. Davis, director of the General Government Division of the President’s Reorganization Project, got into the act.
“We are conducting an organizational study of the Annual Assay Commission,” he wrote me on Sept. 6, 1977. “The study will focus on possible alternative methods of carrying out the functions of the Commission.”
I prepared a memorandum for Davis at his request, answering several questions, careful to take no position on its continued validity. Earlier in the year, in a major law review article proposing a “Revision of the Minting & Coinage Laws of the United States” which was published in the Cleveland Law Review, I had essentially concluded that it was a political choice to decide whether to continue the commission.
Davis asked if the mission of the Assay Commission was essential. I replied “More aptly, the question is whether or not assaying of coins is essential. The answer is an unqualified yes to that.” Indeed, the Mint regularly conducts assays of its coin product as a means of assuring quality. (The 1987 foul-up was an administrative problem; the gold coins were assayed and came up short, but a decision was made to issue them, anyway).
Davis also asked what the function of the commission should be in the succeeding two years if it was continued. I suggested that the law be “rewritten to provide for compositional analysis of all subsidiary coinage plus the dollar coin.”
The die was already cast, however, and the Carter Administration (having already declined to name public members) simply let the Assay Commission whither away until, in 1980, it expired with the passage of Public Law 96-209 (March 14, 1980). The irony is that only a short time later, the Mint was again producing precious metal coinage where accurate weight and fineness are even more essential.
So as the ANA convention returns to Philadelphia, the OTACS organization got Mint permission to host an event in the Assay Commissioner’s Room. (Commissioners will pay for the cost of the event as they also paid for their transport and expenses associated with their service).
Plans include a floor tour of the Philadelphia Mint, and a gander at some artifacts.“We have located the original Register of the Annual Assay Commission Members 1940-1989 and a commission member Presidential certificate. We will have them and other artifacts and galvanos available in the Old Assay Room for your members and guests to review,” said U.S. Mint spokesman Tim Grant.
And when it is all over, the dozen or so OTACS members and guests, will sing Robert Burns’ “Auld Lang Syne,” written more than two centuries ago – four years, in fact, before the Assay Commission was created.