Leon Worden

Move over, Washington, the states are coming!

Leon Worden · November 20, 1996

New York Senator Alphonse D'Amato is probably best known today for leading the investigation into activities collectively known as Whitewater. Judging from the outcome of the recent election, it seems a lot of folks either didn't understand Whitewater or felt the good senator was wasting his time on things that don't directly impact most Americans.

I'm here today to report that D'Amato is about to do something that will directly impact every last American, square in the pocketbook. Literally.

As chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, D'Amato is being asked to dot the i's and cross the t's on legislation authorizing 50 new types of 25-cent pieces over the next ten years.

Move over, George Washington, the states are coming.

Under HR 3793, otherwise known as the "50 States Commemorative Coin Program Act," the U.S. Mint will produce five new commemorative quarters in each of the next ten years, each featuring a different U.S. state. What distinguishes this program from other commemorative coin programs is that the new quarters will circulate alongside the rest of our pocket change.

The bill, introduced this summer by Rep. Michael N. Castle (R-Delaware), was enthusiastically embraced by coin hobbyists who haven't seen a major change in circulating U.S. coinage since the Eisenhower dollar began production in 1971.

Numismatists often fault Congress for being too slow to change our circulating coinage. Whenever changes are made, interest in the hobby picks up. That happened briefly in 1975-76 when Congress celebrated the American Bicentennial with new designs on the back of the Washington quarter, Kennedy half and Ike dollar. But it's tough to blame Congress for going slow after the failure of the Susan B. Anthony program of 1979-81.

When it comes to coinage, we're quite different from the rest of the world. In many places, current rulers and heads of state grace the coin of the realm. That idea was actually proposed for this country in 1792, when the Mint Act called for coins to bear the image and name of the current president. But George Washington was too modest a man for that, and he squelched the plan.

As a result, Washington's portrait didn't appear on any widely-circulating coins until 1932, the 200th anniversary of his birth. Only a few English-made coppers in the late 1700s, a commemorative dollar in 1900 and a half dollar in 1926 had borne Washington's likeness before.

The 1932 Washington quarter was shrouded in controversy from the onset. The national Fine Arts Commission held a contest to select the coin's designer and judged Laura Gardin Fraser the winner. Fraser sculpted a strong, right-facing bust for the obverse and a mighty eagle for the reverse. But there was a drawback to Fraser's entry that had nothing to do with her skill as an artist. Fraser was a woman.

Treasury Secretary Andrew W. Mellon refused to let a woman design a U.S. coin. He vetoed the recommendation of the Fine Arts Commission in favor of an unremarkable design by sculptor John Flanagan. Flanagan didn't even bother to make Washington look human. He simply copied a marble bust by French sculptor Jean Antoine Houdon that probably didn't resemble Washington much. For the reverse, Flanagan designed a flat eagle that doesn't lend itself to high relief even with the most polished of dies. The Fine Arts Commission judged Flanagan's entry "unacceptable," but Mellon's decision was final.

The controversy might have ended if the Treasury had stuck to its original plan. The 1932 Washington quarter was intended to be a one-year-only issue. But the quarter that preceded it, the Standing Liberty, was so disliked that even Flanagan's design was preferable.

All of this is not to say that the Washington quarter is going away next year. There may be some details to iron out, but it seems the five new coins in each of the next ten years will be minted in addition to the Washington quarter, with a California coin likely scheduled for the sesquicentennial year of 2000.

Now that the elections are behind us, hopefully Mr. D'Amato will find a moment to energize the coin hobby and put some interesting pieces of Americana into everyone's pocket.

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Leon Worden is a Santa Clarita resident. His commentary appears on Wednesdays.

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