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Gold medal deserved for numismatic role

Edward W. Brooke III, who served two terms as junior senator from Massachusetts from 1967 to 1979, has been voted a congressional gold medal by the Senate where he served and the House of Representatives.
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Edward W. Brooke III, who served two terms as junior senator from Massachusetts from 1967 to 1979, has been voted a congressional gold medal by the Senate where he served and the House of Representatives.

He will join the ranks of about 185 other men and women with this coveted award.

Now 89 years old and living in Miami, with reported land holdings in Saint Marten, Brooke has had a life of firsts that Rep. Niki Tsongas recently recited: ?the first African American elected to the United States Senate by popular vote. I am proud that he accomplished this feat in my home state of Massachusetts, which he represented from January 1967 until January 1979.?

She relates how, ?He has been Captain Brooke, Professor Brooke, and Attorney General Brooke. He has fought for civil rights in our country and against apartheid in South Africa. For his many accomplishments, he has received numerous medals and awards, most notably the Bronze Star and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.?

What is remarkable is that, ?In a political world growing increasingly divisive and polarized, Sen. Brooke has always had the distinct ability to separate the political from the personal. My husband, Paul, ran for the Senate against Sen. Brooke in 1978. Although the race was tightly contested, Sen. Brooke was always respectful, always warm, and Paul, in turn, greatly admired him.?

Brooke was born in Washington, D.C., Oct. 26, 1919, attended the public schools there, graduated from Howard University in 1941 and from Boston University Law School 1948. He served as a captain in the U.S. Army infantry with five years of active service in the European theater during World War II.

His political rise began as chairman of the Finance Commission in Boston 1961-1962. He was then elected attorney general of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in 1962, re-elected in 1964, elected as a Republican to the Senate in 1966; re-elected in 1972.

Before this latest honor, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom on June 23, 2004.

There?s a major numismatic component to Brooke?s Senate tenure, one that has affected commemorative coins ever since. It?s worth retelling, even as the nation readies to honor him with an award first given to George Washington in 1776. It has to do with Bicentennial coinage and the silver-clad component.

First, some background.

The importance: from the Bicentennial coin program has flowed all modern American commemorative coinage. In the absence of the 1973 approval, it is highly unlikely that, by 1981, the Treasury would have endorsed the George Washington commemorative half dollar. It is even less likely that the state quarter program would ever have become reality.

That in turn cascades to the Lewis and Clark nickels, the Presidential dollar coin program of 2007, the Lincoln cent design changes of 2009 and programs not yet authorized but somewhere past the drawing board.

Lessons learned from Bicentennial coin sales have become part of the legislative process and, ultimately, enshrined in the current silver proof coin program that augments the regular proof set program that the Mint has promoted since 1950.

When Treasury Secretary Shultz signed off on the transmittal letter in March 1973, no one could have predicted the eventual result.

Indeed, by the time that Shultz became Secretary of State in the Reagan Administration in 1982, an Olympic commemorative program was about to become one of the most successful merchandising programs in direct mail history.

That was a long way from the minds of the framers when the original legislation was proposed in the winter of 1973. Indeed, since the 1920s, the Treasury Department had opposed issuance of any commemorative coins as inimical to the coinage system.

From the time that Herbert Hoover was President in 1929, and onward, the Treasury opposed nearly every commemorative coin proposal. In the early 1930s, the so-called golden era of commemoratives, the Treasury lost more battles than it won.

But after 1939 when even Congress recognized that there were substantial abuses inherent in the system, the Treasury successfully blocked most commemorative proposals and brought the series first born in 1892 to an end in 1954.

Congress refused to even give serious consideration to commemorative coin proposals after 1954, preferring to substitute national medals as an alternative to utilizing the coinage system for commemorative purposes.

First hints that there was a potential for policy reversal came on Jan. 4, 1973, when Rep. Wright Patman, D-Texas, then the powerful chairman of the House Banking and Currency Committee, and a populist, sent a weekly newsletter to constituents in which he suggested that his committee would ?consider legislation for a new coin to be placed in circulation with an appropriate design symbolizing the origin and history of our great nation? for the upcoming Bicentennial.

Just nine days later, the American Revolution Bicentennial Commission?s Coins and Medals Advisory Panel met in Washington and heard an electrifying announcement from Mint Director Mary T. Brooks, truly the unsung heroine of the effort to obtain Bicentennial coinage.

Although the same members of the panel had previously endorsed an across-the-board shift in all coin designs, the Treasury had turned the proposal down flat in 1970. Mrs. Brooks told me that she ?was about as popular as Typhoid Mary by the time I got through reading my paper? representing the official Treasury position to the panel.

Mrs. Brooks was not a personal proponent of the official position she delivered, and worked hard for three long years to change it within the Treasury Department.

?I must swear you all to secrecy,? the official transcript reports that she told the Advisory Panel, and then proceeded to give a report that ?does give you a little hope.? The compromise reached was reflected in the dual goal of changing the views of the Treasury, and those it had given to Congress in the intervening years.

Changing the prior congressional mindset was made clear enough in Shultz?s covering letter to the Congress, noting that the proposal ?would not strain the Mint?s production capacity and the lack of wide circulation of the coins would not be disruptive to in the daily Commerce of the country.?

As initially proposed, the half dollar and dollar would be produced in copper-nickel, and in limited circulation quantities since there wasn?t much demand for these two denominations. The Mint imagined that about 150 million halves and perhaps 75 million dollars would be produced.

Gradually, after May 1973 hearings in the House, and June 1973 hearings in the Senate, it morphed into a proposal that would include a truly circulating coin ? the quarter. This is the coin which Rep. Leonor K. Sullivan, D-Mo., who chaired the Consumer Affairs subcommittee, gave credit to John Jay Pittman, President of the American Numismatic Association, for his strong advocacy of the coin.

Treasury caved on the issue, led in large measure by prompting from Mrs. Brooks, and a distinctive circulating commemorative would thus accompany two other coins that circulated only nominally.

Then, there were proposals to add a gold coin to the Bicentennial package; this passed the Senate on a 4-to-3 vote on July 11, 1973, as some 93 members of the Senate simply stayed away from the debate. This was the work of Sen. Mark O. Hatfield, R-Ore., a medal collector and member 59160 of the American Numismatic Association.

Hatfield called me at home in Arlington, Va., to tell be about the vote. He also told me how Sen. John Tower, R-Texas, then threatened a Presidential veto of the legislative package ? because of a fear that a gold coin would somehow fully remonetize the precious metal and set off an international payments crisis.

 By the time the smoke cleared, a political deal w as in the works and here is Ed Brooke?s numismatic cameo appearance.

Brooke introduced an amendment that succeeded in authorizing the striking of 45 million silver-clad Bicentennial coins, intended for collectors. Another 15 million could be produced if there was sufficient demand. (Brooke did this for a business constituent of Massachusetts, who made the cladding).

What is remarkable about the Bicentennial coinage legislative process, on reflection of 35 years is that from start to finish, it took just seven months to complete. The legislation was sent to the Hill on March 5, and on Oct. 18, 1973, President Nixon signed Public Law 93-127.

From the Bicentennial coin program, the Mint learned some truisms about the marketing of modern commemorative coins, which differ substantially from selling mint sets and proof sets, previously their dominant sales product.

 First, they learned that despite Brooke?s advocacy, it was a mistake to produce a fixed number of coins (45 million silver pieces, split among three denominations), rather than establish a maximum and produce only as many as there was demand for or to utilize a time-deadline approach without limit.

This was particularly painful, because, again despite Brooke?s point of view, hundreds of thousands of silver proofs, and silver uncirculated Bicentennial coin issues sat in mildewed bags. Many eventually had to be melted because they had damage and were unsalable.

Second, they learned the marketing ratio that is preferred by collectors: proofs, overwhelmingly, over the identical uncirculated coin. This preference continues to this day, making uncirculated commemoratives the scarcer of the two by a three or four to one margin. Brooke was brilliant here, allowing either to be counted toward the goal.

Third, they witnessed the usefulness of a copper-nickel clad commemorative coin that circulated. Jack Ahr?s colonial drummer boy, more than 30 years after the last coin was placed into circulation, still can be found as a permanent reminder of the Bicentennial.

Fourth, without special interests benefitting from the merchandising of the program, it could nonetheless be a highly successful endeavor ? and there could be considerable involvement of the community at large in the program. The special interests in the manufacturing process, advocated by Brooke, is a different story and legacy.

Fifth, a wide-open design competition, however interesting, produces only a small percentage of useful designs ? and a high percentage of those entering for a variety of reasons that have little to do with artistic ability.

Finally, there is the lesson that should have been learned but either hasn?t been, or has been ignored. That is that absent some assistance to the marketplace, the price of the special coins cannot be sustained once interest in the program wanes and moves on. Sen. Brooke was only interested in the manufacturing end.

In the case of the Bicentennial coins, that means for collectors that, in many cases, the silver proof and uncirculated sets can be purchased in 2008 for not much more than they cost when they were first offered for sale in 1975.

Regardless, Ed Brooke?s legacy casts a giant shadow, and his other accomplishments merit the gold medal.