There is nothing like reliving history. Coin collectors can do it all the time. Sometimes the whole country can do it. Right now we can do it together.
News that the Congress is acting to get the motto ?In God We Trust? off the edge of the Presidential dollar has a familiar ring to it for for students of numismatics.
As a kid I read the story of President Theodore Roosevelt and his deep interest in coinage. Giving free rein to sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Roosevelt wanted to create an American coinage that rivaled the beauty of ancient Greek issues. In choosing Saint-Gaudens, he found an artist who could realize the presidential dream.
A funny thing happened on the way to beautified coinage. It is called the law of unintended consequences.
America got the Saint-Gaudens $20 gold design in 1907. Indeed, even now it is breathtakingly beautiful. The artist delivered fully on his promise and more. Americans could hold their heads up in the company of the artists of classical antiquity. Unfortunately, classical antiquity wasn?t passing judgment on the coins. Modern Americans were.
The design ran afoul of the more practical considerations regarding coinage of the 20th century.
The gold coin was beautiful, but it wouldn?t stack properly at the teller?s window at the bank. Bankers wanted the relief lowered so they would stack.
Then there was the matter of ?In God We Trust.? Roosevelt had a thoughtful man of faith?s reasons to get rid of the motto. He thought the motto on the coin was disrespectful to God and was the source of all sorts of jokes like ?In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash.?
Roosevelt had the power to let the motto lapse on the $20 when it was introduced. It did not stay his power for long. Congress immediately crafted a bill that mandated the use of the motto on the coin and it reappeared there in 1908.
The coin is still beautiful, but it is not what either the President or the artist originally had in mind.
Fast forward 100 years. We have the introduction of the Presidential dollars. It incorporates some creative design.
It had been suggested by active hobbyists during the many Mint listening sessions conducted by Henrietta Holsman Fore that modern coin designs were cluttered by the many required mottoes and that by moving some to the edge, it would free up more obverse and reverse space for artists to work with.
There was even a clever reference to the ?third side of the coin.?
Unfortunately, clever does not seem to cut it with the public any more than aspiring to the standards of the ancient Greeks did 100 years ago.
We have an opposite problem today. Even with more space to work with, many collectors think the new dollar designs are too shallow and too cheap looking for coins of the United States.
The plain edge errors that allowed the new coins to be called ?Godless dollars? was like a red flag to a bull and Congress is reacting much like it did a century ago. The clever move of the motto to the edge will be rescinded if the U.S. Senate agrees to what the House of Representatives has already passed.
History repeats. It wasn?t supposed to be this way. To hear hobbyists enthuse among themselves about lettered coin edges must have been similar to Roosevelt conversations with Saint-Gaudens. It sounded great in theory. The Chinese say be careful what you wish for, because you might get it. Nobody involved foresaw how the general public would perceive the new Presidential coin with lettered edge.
Not to worry though. Design modifications on 2008 Presidential dollars will give us something new to collect and something new to talk about. We can pass on these stories for the next 100 years, though I don?t think anybody wants to stand up now and say he was in favor of the ?Godless dollars.? Heaven forbid.