Charles: Here we go. Mary Lanin, formerly of the CCAC [Citizens Coinage Advisory Committee], had high hopes for this 2026 program when we last spoke on the topic in March 2023 at the Whitman Expo in Baltimore. I have to admit, the fanfare surrounding the 250th Birthday (I refuse to use the word “semiquincentennial” in conversational speech) of the United States is much more subdued than the fanfare that surrounded the early 1970s work of the American Revolution Bicentennial Administration. But those were simpler, more innocent times.
Out of the gate, the Mint seems to ponder three major obverse themes: dead presidents, historical figures, and depictions of Liberty. Frankly, I’m tired of the old chestnuts and believe an imperial coinage has seduced Americans into a sense of complacency about their role in government and has turned elected officials into house gods.
I’m neutral on other historical figures because in seeing the constant output of historical figure coins and medals, I think it’s time to give them (and the Statue of Liberty) a rest. Give me Liberty or I’ll give you shrugs.
Hubert: Alright. So I’m starting with a blank slate because I honestly don’t know what I would want to see on these coins. First up: Liberty. I would like U.S. coinage to drop the presidents anyway so yeah I’m interested in seeing “depictions of Liberty”. But what does “reflected” mean? I’m probably overthinking it but if the question isn’t straightforward then I suspect the depiction won’t be.
Charles: It’s not good when a theme as open ended as “Where we Began, Where We’ve Been, Where We’re Going” is presented for public comment. At some point you enter Boaty McBoatFace territory. Or better yet…
According to the polling firm Morning Consult, a majority of Americans haven’t expressed confidence that the country is on the right track since May 2021… and that was by just one point. The reality is, we live in a turbulent and highly partisan time. Furthermore, I don’t believe that motifs on coins do all that much to raise awareness about much of anything. After 10 years of 50 State quarters, more than half of all Americans can’t name all 50 states. The U.S. Mint, in 2007, published a survey that pointed to the fact that most Americans were unfamiliar with America’s founding fathers and many of our most significant presidents. The resulting Presidential dollar coins did not do much to rectify that situation.
When the America the Beautiful quarter program launched in 2010, the National Park Service reported 281,303,769 annual visitors. After the release of 56 park quarters, that number, even accounting for COVID, had only increased by about 15%. How much of that was the result of the art on the backs of our pocket change is hard to know.
What we do know is that this theme is too open ended. America is a great country with a challenging history. It is a story of winners and losers, justice and injustice, kindness and cruelty, honor and dirty tricks. How can this story possibly be told on a metal disc without descending into hagiography? How can you tell of the good without slighting the bad or vice versa?
This is why I believe that allegorical representation offers the best solution. Much as the Educational Notes of the 19th century told of a country hurtling towards the future, the same could be done to mark the 250th anniversary. We plan to be around for another 250 years, no? Let the coins tell the story of a people determined to create that future.
Hubert: Not only do I think the Mint couldn’t do justice to these concepts but they seem overtly propagandistic.
Charles: We will soon approach a point where no living American remembers a time when George Washington wasn’t on a U.S. coin. Alice Paul was commemorated in 2012. Frederick Douglass in 2017. Elizabeth Peratrovich in 2020. Rosa Parks was honored with a Congressional Gold Medal in 1999. A bronze version of her medal can be purchased from the Mint. Only Harvey Milk has not been honored in coin form. He was honored on a postage stamp in 2014 and had a U.S. Naval ship named after him in 2016. I get that these names are provided as “illustrative” examples, but what these examples are truly illustrative of is the lack of any real idea about how to proceed.
Let’s go back to the 1976 coin designs. Who did they honor? The quarter honored the drummer boy – a common citizen. The half dollar honored Independence Hall – a place where citizens gathered to chart their course. The dollar honored the Liberty Bell and the moon – one was an imperfect communicator of Liberty and the other was a symbol of 200 years of American innovation and achievement. Like them or not, you have to admit that those designs conveyed powerful ideas.
This approach, to borrow from the parlance of our times, is mid.
Hubert: How can we even begin to do right by any of these or other historic events on a handful of coins for one year? I think this is a door best left unopened. Who’s really going to be satisfied by the editorial decisions that would have to be made?
Hubert: At least the concepts presented so far haven’t been losers, per se. But this one is. I dare say ANY of the other concepts SHOULD go on a coin before philosophy and philosophers. Is there a philosophy or philosopher that we can all unite behind as a country?
Charles: If people can’t name all 50 states or the first five presidents in order, I’m sure that Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics is tip of tongue. It’s a shame, actually, because we’d be in a much better place as a society if people took a more considered approach to civic life. To take another potshot, in his Ethics, Aristotle lays out a series of moral virtues and vices. Among the vices are self-indulgence, cowardice, greed, vanity, dishonesty, injustice. These seem like key ingredients for what passes as American representative government these days. Hard pass.
Hubert: We’ve done this before, haven’t we?
Charles: Yeah, on the 2018-20 American Platinum Eagle. I found that the ideals that were enumerated on the coins “Life, Liberty, Happiness” seem out of place with modernity. We don’t live in an era when these concepts are ascendent.
Besides, how does one convey the “self-evident truths” described in Jefferson’s declaration on a canvas the size of a cent or a dime? And in 2026, is Jefferson truly the best messenger?
At the quarter mark of the of the 21st century, I would prefer we focus on a modern identity and not one so self-evidently pockmarked with contradictions.
Charles: As is the case with many of the ideas brought up in the survey, the United States Mint and the CCAC have already had a bite at this apple. The resulting coins are illustrative of the best they could come up with.
I’m not knocking botanical themes on coins. One of my favorite U.S. coin designs of all time, the 1935 Connecticut half dollar, boasts a spectacular tree. That tree had more than just symbolic meaning. It was the Charter Oak. The very tree was where the Royal Charter of the Colony of Connecticut was hidden from royal loyalists. Sadly, the tree was felled by a lightning strike in August 1856. As for the design, it would be impossible to do it justice on a modern coin (see the 1999 Connecticut quarter). The fact that the Mint has abandoned “dish” shaped fields and high-relief designs in pursuit of cost savings and mass production has cheapened the look of our national coinage.
But what’s really nutty is that we are now six questions into this survey and I have not seen one truly substantial idea put forward.
Hubert: Too tangential. Pass.
Charles: When James Madison wrote “Knowledge will forever govern ignorance…” he was doing so in reference to Kentucky’s 1822 funding of a public education system. After failing to marshal much local interest in an educational survey put forward by the Kentucky Assembly the year before, “foreign” participants led by Madison, Jefferson, and Robert Y. Hayne, the former governor of South Carolina, gave the state legislature the input it needed in order to set up a successful program. Of this particular accomplishment, Madison wrote, in that same letter, that it “couldn’t be too much applauded.”
Fast forward to the present and our nation’s educational system finds itself under attack by conspiracy-brained lunatics. That same system is systematically underfunded in working class or poor communities, whereas in the affluent suburbs public education rivals exclusive private institutions. Given the sorry state of affairs, I don’t see this as a concept worthy of national celebration.
Charles: Yes on Liberty and yes on modern interpretations of Liberty. The Rhett Jeppson-era mint was onto something with its modern interpretation of Liberty series. Forget what the haters say, the 225th Anniversary of the United States Mint High Relief gold design from 2017 will undoubtedly go down as a classic. The series was aborted after that, but as originally conceived it was meant to deliver additional ethnic depictions of Liberty. We would have been better off had it continued as I, for one, would have enjoyed seeing an Asian-American likeness, an Indigenous American likeness, along with likenesses from other ethnic groups that comprise America’s great melting pot… and, yes, that includes European Liberties.
Hubert: On the second question, what exactly do they mean? Have we had any “historic” designs that were “symbolic” of Liberty? I thought they were Liberty inasmuch as the personification of Liberty appeared on our nation’s coinage until we caught the imperial bug in 1909. Personally, I’m tired of the classic design rehashes of recent decades.
Would I prefer a modern symbolic representation of Liberty? Yes. I would very much prefer it. Not that more abstract ideas CAN’T work or be good art, it’s just that after a century of imperial coinage I feel that only Lady Liberty can “cleanse the palate”. But I’m probably asking more of the program than intended.
Hubert: Would “Historic Change” be a more general, abstract version of previous historical event concepts? If so, this has more possibility to it but I still question whether or not it’s even worthwhile to try. But the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and other topics are better served on dedicated commemoratives. Besides, these have been done before.
Charles: I couldn’t agree more. What’s wrong with the 250th birthday of the country being a party? Aren’t we owed a national party? Fourth of July Firework shows, with all their bombast and splendor are, at their core, an invocation of the British naval bombardment of Fort McHenry. But is this knowledge essential to one’s enjoyment of them? If anything, I’d say patriotism is a personal matter and each person who has patriotic spirit within them approaches it in their own way. We do not need a committee of bureaucrats sucking all of the fun out of a national celebration by foisting coins upon us designed around these lazy tropes.
Hubert: Seems like it could work. Willing to look at the designs.
Charles: I’m neutral on these concepts because I believe at their core, these are fundamental to explaining who we are as a nation. I have no idea how these themes translate into pieces of art – especially given how literal U.S. coin designs have become since the “golden era” of Saint-Gaudens and the Frasers.
Charles: Yes! From this moment onward, every U.S. commemorative coin should celebrate paying taxes. Who comes up with this stuff?
Hubert: These are boring, routine things that mature, responsible citizens accept as their civic duty to perform. Can hear the controversy already. Pass.
Charles: The survey keeps going back to American civic conflicts for what should be a celebratory coinage. Think back to the 1876 Centennial celebrations. Those were held a decade after a brutal and bloody civil war. Were there memorials to that great conflict? Certainly. A mammoth granite figure of a Union soldier stood sentry at the entrance to the main building. But so too was the torch and hand of the as-yet-to-be-built Statue of Liberty. In fact, on medals and souvenir tokens commemorating the event, Liberty was a major theme. Eagles, presidents, Independence Hall, and the Liberty Bell also got their due. For more on that subject, check our Ron Abler’s excellent book A Cabinet of Centennial Medals.
Charles: Back to this issue. I get the sense that the CCAC or the Mint or whoever the major stakeholders are for this program have already decided what they’re going to do and that this questionnaire has been put forth to cover someone’s ass in the event that someone complains. There isn’t one kernel of a new idea presented in any of these questions. Unfortunately, I do not hold much hope that the 2026 coins are going to match the 1976 coins. That’s a real shame as the Mint has so many talented artists at its disposal and there is so much to America worthy of celebration.
Charles: They are asking this again? We are descending into push poll territory. The Mint has already produced coins with these themes. Last I checked, the 2018 “Life” coin is still available for purchase.
Hubert: More of the same – see above. Also, it’s been done!