By David Thomason Alexander for CoinWeek ….
The continuous drumbeat of politics throughout the United States in 2015-2016 should have directed collectors to one of numismatics’ most neglected areas, America’s rich heritage of political medalets that recall the drama of vanished Presidential campaigns. Medalets of successful contenders are fascinating bits of Americana, but issues of candidates who failed to secure election exert their own powerful “what might have been” fascination.
These are the candidates studied some 60 years ago by historian Irving Stone in his best-seller, They Also Ran. Among them were war heroes, professional politicians, doctrinaire opponents of slavery and party hacks offering unsound solutions to complex problems. There were also some notable eccentrics.
Besides determining the nation’s destiny for the next four years, presidential campaigns provided high entertainment in an America still largely rural and not yet saturated by the mass media. Political candidates had to rely on newspapers of limited circulation, speeches by candidates themselves and prominent local backers. Public gatherings included fish fries, pig roasts, barbecues, bonfires and appearances at county fairs.
Fireworks and marching bands provided both color and noise. Many Americans of that era were also valiant drinkers, and political gatherings were often uproarious affairs punctuated by raucous language and flying fists. Dueling was still practiced in parts of the nation, dictating restraint in dealing with candidates of violent temper.
Campaigning called for quantities of paper- and cloth-printed items, from bandannas to flags. More durable goods included inexpensive metal badges and coin-like medalets of brass, copper and White Metal (an alloy of Tin) struck in substantial quantities at low cost for wide distribution.
A Guide for the Perplexed
Despite their historical importance, these items have never attained the popularity of contemporary coins and tokens. To achieve understanding and popularity today, political medalets require a standardized vocabulary and definitive catalogs. “Medalet” is the proper term for medals of diameter less than a half dollar, although “medal” is frequently and carelessly applied to all. “Medalette” is a somewhat precious alternate spelling with a limited following among collectors.
Collectors coming over from the world of coins automatically view holed medalets as damaged just as a holed coin would be. A better descriptive term is “pierced for suspension”, which describes both hole and purpose. Such piercing was deliberate, allowing suspension from a jump ring, pinback cloth ribbon or thin neck cravat. Cloth is perishable; medalets far less so, and piercing recalls the medal’s original purpose long after the cloth has disappeared.
Coin collecting vocabulary suffices for other aspects of political medalets. Designers’ and makers’ names can be important and are sometimes found on the actual pieces. Condition is somewhat simple, Uncirculated being preferred if at all possible. Worn or damaged pieces find little demand, especially White Metal examples whose surfaces easily corrode and become unsightly.
Modern cataloging is amazingly sparse. Insurance executive J. Doyle De Witt (born 1902, died 1972) published A Century of Campaign Buttons, 1789-1889 in 1959. It was based on the 25,000 items in his own collection, later donated to the University of Hartford. This title was misleading – few “buttons” were included in this listing, which focused primarily on medalets.
In 1981 the book reappeared with the title American Political Badges and Medalets, 1789-1892, through Quarterman Publications of Lawrence, Massachusetts. The new book added the election of 1892 but was otherwise identical to the 1959 work. The new edition bore the name of Edmund B. Sullivan, a member of the University of Hartford faculty, as sole author.
Sullivan was a reviser rather than author, but star placement of his name made it seem that he had simply appropriated De Witt’s work. Though vastly better than nothing, neither book offered in-depth biographies of medal-issuing candidates or adequate histories of their campaigns. Neither volume offered explanations of the colorful slogans, symbols and events that molded these historic struggles.
Reference numbers in the present text refer to American Political Badges and Medalets, 1789-1892. It should be noted that alloys of pieces illustrated are not the only metals employed for any given type, and many more types exist for most candidates than shown here. Our review ends with the 1892 election, as medalets were being swamped by the new and cheap pinback political button.
In the Beginning
Exactly when political medalets first appeared is still debated. The 1840 election may have marked the transition from circulating tokens relating to the great banking crisis and devastating economic Depression of the Hard Times to political pieces whose primary function was election propaganda.
The 1840 election highlighted another phenomenon, turning an intended insult into a triumphant political slogan. Political enemies regarded the aged War of 1812 hero, General William Henry Harrison, as a doddering backwoods oldster, sneering “Give the old man a log cabin and a barrel of cider and he’ll be perfectly happy!”
The campaign that followed saw Harrison’s backers adopt cabin and cider barrel for parade floats, printed fliers, bottles and on thousands of brass and White Metal medalets. Never forgotten, log cabin and barrel were resurrected for the 1888 campaign of his grandson Benjamin Harrison, using an 1840 die hailing both symbols along with slogan “People’s Choice,” (White Metal, 38mm).
A few medalets boosting Kentucky’s Henry Clay appeared as early as the 1832 and 1836 campaigns, but Clay’s perennial presidential races went into full cry by the campaigns of 1840 and 1844. A youthful Clay appeared on brass 27.5mm medalets (HC 1840-1), inscribed American System, United We Stand.
Clay ran again and again without ultimate success, supposedly remarking “I’d rather be right than President”. New York’s Thomas L. Elder published a catalog of Clay issues early in the 20th century listing dozens of types; only three are noted here, including the brass just noted.
Its engraver’s signature I.B.G., probably identifies John B. Gardiner of Ugly Head Washington medal fame. (HC 1840-1). The obverse bears a youthful draped bust r. with HENRY CLAY AND THE AMERICAN SYSTEM. Rev Wreath encloses UNITED/ WE/ STAND, the state motto of Kentucky.
Baltimore Convention – Farmer of Ashland Medal, 1844 (struck Ca. 1860). Brass, 37mm, 4mm thick. By J.F. Thomas of Newark. (HC 1844-18). Obverse presents a small togate bust l. in oval oak wreath. Rev 11-lines hail Clay and running mate Theodore Freylinghuysen of New Jersey. Clay was now a statesman of world reputation, but identification as THE FARMER OF ASHLAND was good political strategy!
In the enthusiasm of the early coin collection years, some attention was paid to medals. Restrikes began to appear of popular candidates of the past, including A Tariff for Protection medalet (1844, struck ca. 1860). Copper, 19.2mm, 2.7mm thick. (HC 1844-30 Var.) boasting a tall caricature head r., HENRY – CLAY on wavy field. Reverse bears a wreath, A TARIFF/ —- FOR / PROTECTION.
Prelude to War
By the mid-1850s the stresses leading the nation to civil war were bubbling. The Whig Party had faded away, leaving its standard bearers high, dry, and unemployed, and the busy 1856 campaign saw the newly organized Republican Party enter the fray.
Former President Millard Fillmore ran again with support from the American or Know-Nothing Party. This 34 mm White Metal piece is known as the Millard Fillmore Internal Dissensions Medal, struck in 1856 by F.B. Smith and Hartmann, NY. (MF 1856-3).
The obverse bore the bust of MILLARD FILLMORE. The reverse presented an oak circle enclosing the very timely admonition, BE/ VIGILANT/ AND WATCHFUL/ THAT/ INTERNAL DISSENSIONS DESTROY/ NOT/ YOUR PROSPERITY. This, of course, was precisely what would happen in 1860-1861.
The fast-rising Republicans’ most impressive medal was the 61mm White Metal piece with the head of explorer-soldier John Charles Fremont with slogan ROCKY MOUNTAINS ECHO BACK FREMONT by engraver Anthony C. Paquet, (JF 1856-1). On the reverse an oak circle encloses THE/ PEOPLE’S CHOICE/ FOR/ 1856/ “CONSTITUTIONAL/ FREEDOM”.
Fremont’s beautiful wife is hailed on the 27.5mm Brass Jessie’s Choice Medal, 1856. (JF 1856-12). A low-relief civil bust ¾ l., appears with tiny COL. JOHN C. FREMONT above, JESSIE’S CHOICE below. Reverse bears a Federal eagle, FREMONT & DAYTON, THE PEOPLE’S CHOICE.
Eternal Progression Medal, 1856 was struck in 34.2mm Copper by F.B. Smith & Hartmann, N.Y. (JF 1856-4). A high-relief civil bust r. of JOHN C. FREMONT joins a reverse with slogans FREE SOIL/ */ FREE SPEECH/ FREE LABOR/ AND/ ETERNAL/ PROGRESSION. “Progress” was the intended word. Deep mahogany surfaces and high-relief make this a piece of true medallic quality.
Fremont’s career was checkered: loss of his Mariposa land grant in the newly acquired California and court martial in a web of conflicting commanders appointed to govern that state. His Civil War service was complicated by his strong anti-slavery position, which led him to unilaterally declare slaves free in his area of military command.
The 1860 contest had involved a record number of contenders seeking to head off the impending civil war. At least three candidates arose out of the disintegrating Democratic Party. One was John Bell, Constitutional Union Medal, 1860. White Metal, 38mm, by Benjamin F. True. (JBELL 1860-1). The obverse presents a frock-coated bust l. of this Tennessee candidate, the reverse a federal eagle.
Southern Democrat and former Vice President John C. Breckinridge appears on a companion piece by Benjamin F. True as candidate of the Southern Democrats (JCB 1860-1) with the same reverse. A 26.6mm brass medalet bears a nearly facing bust of regular Democrat STEPHEN A. DOUGLAS famed as CHAMPION OF POPULAR SOVEREIGNTY and for his earlier success in debates with Abraham Lincoln.
It is not well remembered today that powerful voices were raised in the North against going to war, some with the slogan LET THEM GO! A reminder is the Stephen A. Douglas MYOB Medalet, 1860. Copper, 19.3mm. (SD 1860-22). The obverse presents a civil bust ¾ r., and slogan INTERVENTION IS DISUNION, MYOB (Mind Your Own Business) between two stars. 72 Copper pieces were struck by George Hampden Lovett, a prolific engraver of New York, whose brother Robert designed the 1861 Confederate cent.
War and Postwar
By 1864 there was widespread dissatisfaction with President Lincoln and his conduct of the seemingly endless war. Fremont would run against Lincoln without success. One medalet is Fremont Trophy of Arms, 1864. Brass, 30.4mm. (JCF 1864-4) with its frock-coated bust ¾ r. in solid circle, eagle on drum and arms.
The wartime 1864 election in the North saw Lincoln’s re-election despite the opposition of disgruntled Generals George B. McClellan and John C. Fremont. McClellan soon saw that the Democratic Convention was controlled by “peace at any price” delegates and Confederate sympathizers and effectively bailed out.
His postwar political efforts were limited to New Jersey state contests. One type mocked him as GENERAL G(UN) B(OAT) McCLELLAN, CANDIED-DATE FOR ANYTHING ‘SWEET’. (31.2mm Brass). The reverse called him VERY LITTLE MAC, I COULDN’T BE PRESIDENT IN 1865, BUT I’LL BE BIG INJUN IN 1877. I’LL BE GOVERNOR OF NEW JERSEY.
Postwar American politics would be overshadowed by the issues over handling the newly freed slaves, how the conquered Southern states were to be governed and what their role would be in the reunited country. The governing Republicans were divided, with the Radicals led by such figures as Thaddeus Stevens seeking revenge against the defeated South, “waving the bloody shirt”.
The Democratic Party attempted to reassert itself as the second party of the land, continuously haunted by the Southern Democrats’ role in secession and in the Confederacy. In the first postwar contest it nominated New York Governor Horatio Seymour and Union veteran Frank P. Blair of Missouri.
A Copper 32mm medal presented an oddly frizzy-haired bust of the New York governor above CONSTITUTION with letters separated by stars, and name HORATIO SEYMOUR. The reverse was inscribed NO NORTH NO SOUTH, THE UNION INSEPARABLE, 1868 at center. (HS 1868-4).
A 30.4mm Copper medal presented a more lifelike facing Seymour bust and both candidates’ names in the obverse legend. (HS 1868-5). The reverse now took off the gloves and stated boldly WHITE MEN TO GOVERN, THE RESTORATION OF CONSTITUTIONAL LIBERTY. The racial card had been played only three years after Appomattox and would not be put down for the next 100 years.
Missouri Civil War officer Frank P. Blair was nominated to secure veterans’ votes, but the ticket did poorly under the prevailing atmosphere of postwar bitterness, suspicion, lingering recrimination and hostility. Exploiting very widespread fears of African-American domination directed many voters, not only in the South.
The especially chaotic 1872 election pitted Republican war hero Gen. Ulysses S. Grant against New York newspaper editor, political commentator, reformer and philosopher Horace Greeley. His running mate was B. Gratz Brown, a Missouri Unionist like Frank Blair. Greeley is remembered today for his many eccentricities and quotable statements urging westward settlement including, “Go West, young man, go West!”
He was also fatally honest, first editorially approving the Civil War and supporting Lincoln while demanding swift emancipation of the slaves. Advocating a non-punitive postwar settlement, he was horrified when Confederate President Jefferson Davis was laden with irons and thrown into Fortress Monroe. Greeley sparked savage and enduring controversy by joining others to raise Davis’ bail.
Mainline Republicans kept up a storm of abuse and their vengeful “waving the bloody shirt” kept passions high. Greeley joined Carl Schurz’ new Liberal Republican Party, advocating universal amnesty, uniform currency, impartial suffrage and national reconciliation. His medalets show that he was also the candidate of the northern Democrats, still licking their wounds from their 1868 defeat.
Greeley’s eccentricity in dress fascinated the voters. His white wide-brimmed hat and jacket, fuzzy under-chin beard seized attention and his traveling to campaign was a departure from long-established norms in which candidates stayed near home trying to look presidential.
One medalet by George Lovett hailed this internationally famous and wealthy New York Tribune editor as the Honest Old Farmer of Chappaqua, then and now a well-to-do town just north of New York City where Greeley had his country home. (White Metal 31.3mm. HG 1872-2.). In passing, it might be noted that two of the Tribune’s foreign correspondents were Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, the fathers of Communism.
A somewhat more restrained title The Sage of Chappaqua dominated 23mm Brass medalets (HG 1872-10); his membership in the Liberal Republican party was hailed on brass 28mm medalets (HG 1872-4). Vice presidential candidate B. Gratz Brown appeared on White Metal medalets (HG 1872-3) and on hollow 28.4mm brass shells (HG 1872-22).
Terrible setbacks punctuated the end of this campaign. Greeley lost control of his newspaper the Tribune and was told to clear out his office. His beloved wife Mary died suddenly, and the unprecedented cascade of vituperation and abuse finally wore him down. The loss of his editorship triggered a nervous breakdown before the presidential balloting was finalized, and death came to Greeley on November 29, 1872.
A Stolen Election
The elections that followed continued with disorder and accusations of fraud into the 1890s. Allegations of corruption spread on both the federal and state levels, causing the continued exploitation of memories of the Civil War to gradually lose their effect. Rampant political corruption came to the fore, notably the Tweed and Canal rings in New York.
Outcry for reform led to the nomination of Democrat Samuel J. Tilden of New York in the Centennial election of 1876. Opposing him were Republicans Rutherford B. Hayes and Thomas A. Hendricks. Hayes and wife “Lemonade Lucy” would set a high tone in an alcohol-free White House.
The stage seemed to be set for a Democratic victory at last. Tilden was an unlikely candidate whose gaunt appearance strongly suggested ill health; he was a bachelor in a country that last experienced a single President in 1856 and he was a man of profound intellect whose personal library later helped form the great New York Public Library.
Tilden’s actual campaign is recalled by a relatively small number of medalets of indifferent design, including the 24.5mm Copper Aggressive Leader of Reform (SJT 1876-10) and 22mm White Metal Tilden-Hendricks Medalet (SJT 1876-11). Far more remarkable is the post-election array of defamatory satirical medalets designed to block Tilden’s re-nomination in the contest scheduled for 1880.
A grotesque situation followed the actual voting, which appeared at first to give Tilden a majority of both the popular and electoral votes. The Republicans then worked to divert the electoral votes of Louisiana, South Carolina, Florida and Oregon while relying on continued federal military occupation to steer other Southern states to Hayes.
They succeeded in forcing the decision into the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, which voted strictly on party lines to give victory to Rutherford B. Hayes three days before the Inauguration. Many outraged voices were raised demanding force if necessary to head off an illicit Hayes victory, but Democrat Tilden warned against force so soon after Appomattox.
The secretive Tilden agreed that he had been robbed but provided his supporters with no firm leadership, apparently believing that he would be nominated again in 1880 and would win by emphasizing the “stolen election of ‘76” as a deciding issue. He began his 1880 campaign four years early!
His enemies were ready.
The New York Tribune published what it said were ciphered (encoded) letters from an unknown writer (possibly Tilden’s nephew Col. William Pelton) to members of the commission examining the electoral votes, offering bribes ranging from $10,000 to $200,000 to assure their votes for Tilden. Whether he had any role in the “Cipher Controversy” was never proven, but the possibility that the Father of Reform was involved was enough to destroy his chances for the 1880 nomination.
New York numismatic pioneer Isaac F. Wood created three elaborate 31.23mm anti-Tilden medalets using dies by engraver George Hampden Lovett, struck 1876-1878 but confusingly placed by DeWitt among regular 1876 Tilden campaign issues. All bore a small, glum-looking Tilden bust at obverse center.
The first (SJT 1876-5) bore a mock funeral theme, blaming Tilden for killing the Democratic Party with Tildenopathy. The Democratic Reception medal (SJT 1876-6) mocked his insensitivity, I DON’T CARE ABOUT YOUR PIECE OF CAKE BUT I MUST SHOW YOU MY SORE TOE.
Lincoln had instituted a small income tax to finance the war, and Wood attacked Tilden as an income tax cheat on SJT 1876-7, SHAMMY THE SHAMELESS CHEATS UNCLE SAM ON HIS INCOME TAX, THE PEOPLE WILL NEVER CONDONE IT. All these medalets were struck in Silver, Copper, Brass and White Metal, making it a task to assemble full sets today.
A dignified 27.8mm brass goldplate design closely copied tokens of a wildly popular patent medicine called Drake’s Plantation Bitters (SJT 1876-9). A full profile Tilden bust faced r. with legend TILDEN’S “CONVENTION” BITTERS. S:J:T:-1880-X-IT. The reverse bore the actual patent medicine’s slogan DRAKE’S “PLANTATION” BITTERS S.T.-1860-X, a “cipher” boasting that Drake had begun marketing his alcohol-based nostrum in 1860 with capital of $10.
Public memory of the “Stolen election” faded startlingly fast. The only later numismatic reference forms part of the reverse design of a Grover Cleveland Inaugural Medal of 1893 (GC 1892-3 45mm), bearing four busts of great Democrats of the past including Thomas Jefferson, Founder of Democracy 1801-1809; Old Hickory and Andrew Jackson 1829-1837; Grover Cleveland 1885-1893. At base is S.J. TILDEN ELECTED AND COUNTED OUT 1876.
Tilden returned to his law practice and ultimately retired to his estate “Greystones” in the Bronx, dying in August 1886. He was buried in a palatial tomb in Cemetery of the Evergreens in his native New Lebanon, N.Y. Recently restored, this elaborate monument bears a haunting summation, I STILL TRUST THE PEOPLE.
“Rum, Romanism and Rebellion”
Narrowly defeated in the closely contested election of 1880 were Democratic contenders Major General Winfield Scott Hancock and his Indiana colleague W.H. English. Everywhere hailed as A SUPERB SOLDIER – A MODEL PRESIDENT, the imposing candidate embodied the belief that overweight showed one to be “a Man of Substance.”
His campaign medalets often referenced his war service, with which the enigmatic number 329 was long associated, along with Army of the Potomac’s three-leaf clover badge. A very common medalet in brass is very common today, but his 25.7mm White Metal medal by William H. Key scarcer with its high-relief bust (WSH 1880-5).
More fascinating and unlisted in DeWitt is a 28mm Copper Satirical designed by George Hampden Lovett AFTER Hancock’s defeat. The obverse presents a paddle wheel steamer sailing r.. GOOD FOR A FREE PASSAGE ON THE/ STEAMER HANCOCK/ CAPT. ENGLISH/ NOV. 2, 1880. Below is FOR SALT RIVER/ DIRECT. CHINESE LINE.
The complicated satire includes name on the steamer Hancock bound for Salt River, symbol of oblivion; Captain English the vice presidential candidate; Chinese Line refers to a nonsensical controversy centering on barring Chinese immigration to the U.S. The entire reverse is inscribed THE GREAT/ REPUBLICAN/ VICTORY/ OF/ 1880, suggesting that this medalet is a gloating satire against defeated opponents.
The 1884 campaign ended in a Democratic victory for one-time Buffalo, N.Y. mayor Grover Cleveland, who had grained fame as an advocate of municipal reform famous for the slogan “a public office is a public trust”. His Republican opponent was veteran political campaigner James G. Blaine, whose image as an armored knight in a white plume (JGB 1884-16, 26mm White Metal) boosted his fame.
However, his decades in politics and big business also provided plenty of fodder for attacks based on real or alleged past deeds–including railroad speculation and the Credit Mobilier correspondence ending with the instruction, “Kindly burn this letter!”.
Cleveland turned up scandals of his own, including accusations of having fathered an illegitimate daughter publicized in a campaign jingle, “Ma, ma, where’s my pa?” Blaine stumbled when a politically active New York Presbyterian minister Samuel D. Burchard denounced the Democrats at an election reception as the party of “rum, Romanism and Rebellion”.
Blaine undoubtedly shared the prevailing anti-Catholic feeling of the day, but a quick disavowal of Burchard’s outspoken bigotry might have saved the day. Instead, by his silence he lost to the physically imposing Cleveland, leading to the issue of the 27.9mm copper and White Metal “double barreled” satirical Beef takes the Presidential Chair, I Say Nothing Medalet (CG 1884-11).
Numismatist J.N.T. Levick sponsored this remarkable piece satirizing both winner and loser. Cleveland was mocked as a huge male buffalo, BEEF TAKES THE PRSIDENTIAL CHAIR, R.R.R. Rum, Romanism and Rebellion) DID IT. The reverse showed a vulture-like bird with Blaine’s bearded features roosting in a dead tree with I/ SAY/ NOTHING/ BECAUSE – I/ HAVE/ NOTHING/ TO SAY.
Cleveland served two Presidential terms, separated by one term of Republican rule under Benjamin Harrison. This era saw an anti-Democratic satirical (24.5mm Brass) that is not listed in DeWitt, This piece was enough to have provoked an international incident by its unlovely caricatures of Britain’s Queen Victoria and a bloated Cleveland.
The obverse bore a swollen frock-boated Cleveland bust r. with no visible neck with tall sans-serif G. CLEVELAND, AND FREE TRADE. The reverse offers a crowned bust facing l. with legend VICTORIA REX, KEEP MY PAUPERS BUSY. The Cleveland bust was merely insulting but calling the British monarch Victoria KING (thanks to the designer’s ignorance of Latin) was insulting. The reference to “Paupers” echoed decades of American political sloganeering about “British pauper wages” that was a tiresome exaggeration.
By 1892 the day of the political medalet was largely over, as cheap celluloid pinback buttons swept the field. Prominent American numismatist Augustus G. Heaton published his slim pamphlet, A Treatise of U.S. Branch Mints, often referred to as “Mint Marks.” This work permanently directed coin collectors’ attention to coins bearing mint marks as the only legitimate targets of collecting interest.
Up to this point, collectors seeking a date set of any U.S. denomination were satisfied with one piece of each known date. After Heaton’s work was published, one had to have one coin of every date and mint mark. In ancient and world coins, medals and tokens fell away rapidly, with interest in medals recovering only in the late 20th century.
For politicals, a revival would seem inevitable but has long been delayed. Perhaps this brief overview will trigger renewed interest in this fascinating and colorful field.
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