By David Provost for CoinWeek …..
Author’s Note: My intention for this series of “stories” is to present lesser-known information about the US commemorative coins series derived from my original research in the records of Congress and/or the reports and correspondence of the individual coin sponsors. The information presented will not simply be a reworking of the information presented in the standard reference works on the series. I sincerely hope you enjoy the backstories presented in this series and I welcome your comments and suggestions.
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On February 3, 1954, President Dwight D. Eisenhower effectively ended the classic US commemorative series with his veto of three different commemorative coin bills. Eisenhower notified Congress that while he recognized the “importance to the country” of the 300th anniversary of the city of Northampton, Massachusetts, the 300th anniversary of New York City, and the 150th anniversary of the Louisiana Purchase, he thought it both “wiser and fairer” to withhold his approval of the proposed 50-cent pieces so as not to bring forth “a flood of other authorizations.”
Eisenhower’s message to Congress was clear: there would be no new commemorative coins on his watch.
Though the striking of new commemorative coins stopped, attempts to get new coins authorized did not. Nearly every successive session of Congress saw commemorative coin bills proposed. Most garnered little discussion in either the Senate or the House, but their continued introduction indicated interest remained and that it would only be a matter of time before a new commemorative coin was approved.
Nearly 20 years later, on October 18, 1973, President Gerald R. Ford signed into law the Act that provided “a new coinage design and date emblematic of the Bicentennial of the American Revolution for dollars, half dollars, and quarter dollars.” The Act called for copper-nickel circulation coins, as well as 40% silver pieces minted specifically for collectors. The seed of the modern US commemorative series was planted, renewing dialogue about such coins within the numismatic hobby.
The seed blossomed a few years later with the introduction of H.R.2524 to honor George Washington with a silver half dollar. The bill was introduced in the House of Representatives by Druie Douglas Barnard Jr. (D-GA10) on March 17, 1981. Representative Barnard was a member of the Committee on Banking, Finance and Urban Affairs to which coinage matters were referred. He was a supporter of US commemorative coinage and would go on to be a co-sponsor of such legislation in the future.
Mr. Barnard’s bill called for the minting of a minimum of 10 million 90% silver half dollar coins, with the potential for additional coins as necessary to meet collector demand. The coins were to bear designs “emblematic of the two hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the birth of George Washington” and were to be sold during 1982 “at a price equal to the cost of minting such half dollar coins (including labor, materials, dies, use of machinery, and overhead expenses).” The “at a price equal to” specification effectively prohibited the United States Mint from selling the coins at a profit.
The bill also amended the Coinage Act of 1965 (PL 89-81) which, among other things, set the metallic composition of all US coinage; the Act set the composition of the half dollar to be a clad coin of 40% silver. The Act allowed for the continuation of 90% silver coins only until an adequate supply of the clad coins was produced; it prevented the striking of 90% silver half dollar coins beyond five years of the Act’s effective date of July 23, 1965.
Upon introduction, the bill was referred to the House Committee on Banking, Finance and Urban Affairs, which, in turn, referred it to its Subcommittee on Consumer Affairs and Coinage. The Chairman of the Subcommittee was Frank Annunzio (D-IL11), who also supported new US commemorative coins.
After committee discussion, refinements to the bill were made and Representatives Barnard and Annunzio jointly introduced an updated version of the bill as H.R.3133 on April 8, 1981. The new bill set the mintage limit at 10 million, empowered the Treasury Department to sell the coins with a surcharge of up to 20% over its total costs, and mandated that all profits realized from the sale of the coins were to be deposited in the general fund of the Treasury. These changes played an important role in enlisting the US Treasury’s support for the coins.
The relationship between Congress and the Treasury Department, in regards to commemorative coinage, had been uncooperative for decades, with a history of opposition dating back to the 1920s. During the classic commemorative era, the Treasury typically cited its position that such pieces diverted US coinage “from its original use in trade,” and issuing such a multiplicity of coin designs would create confusion among the public and foster counterfeits. The Treasury also took the stance that the large number of issues was in general violation of Section 3150 of the Revised Statutes, which stated “no change in the design or die of any coin shall be made oftener than once in twenty-five years.” The Department also took the position that the production of commemorative coins diverted “the activities of the mints, intended to supply the needs of all the people, in order to meet the demands of a few of the people.”
As the Treasury had the ear of the White House, it was the primary driver behind seven presidential vetoes of proposed commemorative coin legislation between 1929 and 1954. Its sustained objections led to the cessation of the US commemorative coinage series.
A hearing before the Subcommittee on Consumer Affairs and Coinage was held for H.R.3133 on May 7, 1981. Chairman Annunzio noted at the hearing’s outset that due to a scheduling conflict with a budget vote in the House, his time was potentially limited and the hearing might need to be shortened before concluding its scheduled agenda. Due to this, the hearing had very little “live” discussion; each witness gave a brief statement with the full text of his or her prepared statement entered into the official record without reading it.
The first witness called before the Subcommittee was Angela “Bay” Buchanan, Treasurer of the United States; she was accompanied by Alan Goldman, Deputy Director, Bureau of the Mint.
Ms. Buchanan wasted little time making her Department’s view clear by quickly announcing that “the Treasury Department supports this proposal.” She did note, however, that the support was subject to certain “comments and recommendations” that she would outline.
Addressing the Treasury’s past objections to similar coinage legislation, she noted that it was rooted in the fact that such coins were to be issued for the benefit of private sponsors and organizations rather than for the benefit of the “Government’s own account.” As this was not the case with the George Washington coins, the Treasury was ready to work with Congress on making the coins a reality.
In her prepared statement, Ms. Buchanan emphasized that the Mint would need additional funding and manpower to produce and market the coins. She outlined how recently mandated federal budget constraints had caused the planned reduction of the Mint’s staff by 179 permanent positions and that it would not have enough staff to complete the estimated 120 work years of effort that would be needed to strike, market, and ship all 10 million coins [Author’s Note: Doing the math, based on a Federal Work Year of 1,645 hours per employee, it appears the Treasury estimated approximately 1.2 minutes of total labor per coin. —David P.]. HR 3133 included language which authorized an appropriation for carrying out the proposed coin program and Ms. Buchanan’s statement before the Hearing left no doubt that the Treasury would request such funding.
The Treasury made two specific recommendations for technical changes to the bill. The first was to add a provision specifying that the Mint uses silver from the nation’s strategic silver stockpile. The 1970 legislation that authorized the striking of silver Eisenhower dollars for collectors specified that the silver to be used for them was to come from the US Strategic and Critical Materials Stockpile; a total transfer to the Treasury of 25.5 million ounces was authorized. At the time the Washington half-dollar was being considered, 14.3 million ounces of the original transfer remained available for use by the Treasury.
The Treasury also recommended that the coins be allowed to be minted until the end of 1983 instead of 1982. Ms. Buchanan indicated that the additional time would be needed to produce and have ready for sale the full 10 million coins; she noted this would ensure the program would cover its costs and be profitable. All coins were to be dated “1982” regardless of whether struck in 1982 or 1983.
Representative Barnard was the next witness called by the Subcommittee. In his statement, Mr. Barnard began by discussing the appropriateness of honoring the nation’s first president and recounted Washington’s strong interest in the establishment of the US Mint. He also touted Washington’s donation of “$100 of his personal silver plate for the minting of the first United States coins, silver 5¢ pieces.”
Though the veracity of this legendary tale of American numismatics is impossible to verify, Washington’s interest in creating a national coinage certainly makes it plausible.
(A popular version of the Washington story has the first president donating Martha Washington’s silver tea service to provide silver to strike the nation’s first coins. This characterization possibly misunderstands the term “silver plate”, which, when used in the 18th century, did not necessarily mean silver tea service or flatware. Scholars note that the term was more commonly used to denote any form of scrap silver.)
Barnard also touted the sound economics of his bill. Providing a marketplace perspective in support of his bill, Barnard referenced the growing worldwide interest in silver commemorative coins and how the US was missing out on its financial benefits. By not issuing silver commemorative coins, the US Government had forced American collectors to look to the mints of foreign nations for their collector coins, Barnard argued, and the resultant outflow of millions of collector dollars was generating profits for foreign governments and widening the US trade deficit. Barnard concluded his comments by noting how the approval of H.R.3133 would provide collectors with an American alternative when purchasing silver coins and how this, in turn, would benefit the US Government through the reduction of the national debt.
The Washington commemorative was proposed at a time when the unsuccessful launch and acceptance of the Susan B. Anthony dollar coin was fresh on the minds of those in Congress.
Barnard sought to distance the new commemorative from the Anthony dollar debacle by stating: “[T]his is no Susan B. Anthony dollar, but rather a profitable venture into a proven market utilizing the Mint’s almost 200 years of expertise.”
The Hearing also invited two numismatists: George Hatie, president of the American Numismatic Association (ANA) at the time, and Anthony Swiatek, a coin dealer and numismatic author specializing in US commemoratives.
Hatie discussed the abuses seen with many of the commemorative coins of the classic series, making particular note of three key issues: a) the large number of issues that featured themes of only local importance vs. true national significance, b) the issuing of coins for the benefit of private organizations rather than the US Government, and c) the burden placed on the Mint by multi-year coin programs and the frequent need to strike several different commemorative issues in a single year.
He noted how the provisions of H.R.3133 eliminated each of these issues and described several potential benefits of the coin’s approval. As the president of the world’s largest organization of coin collectors, it was not surprising to find Hatie including several collector-focused benefits in his statement. He remarked that the coin would give US collectors an inexpensive way to own silver, that it would give US-based collectors the opportunity to purchase a US commemorative coin rather than the coins of foreign governments, and that it would be a way of encouraging young people to learn about American history.
Addressing potential concerns regarding Mint production capacity, Hatie stated:
“The issuance of the proposed commemorative half dollars in 1982 is more important than the issuance of the regular mint issue half dollars. Our citizens seldom receive, do not miss, and do not need, half dollars. There is a more handy substitute in two quarters.”
His simple solution? If production issues arise, replace the production of the regular issue half dollar coin with a commemorative version.
Hatie also recommended that the production of US commemorative coins take priority over the minting of coins for foreign governments. Coincidentally, the US Mint did end its regular production of foreign coins in 1984, shortly after the modern US commemorative series began.
The Mint did strike a coin for Iceland in 2000, a silver 1,000 Kronur piece that was included in a joint issue as part of its Leif Ericsson Millennium coin program.
Anthony Swiatek was the final witness at the hearing. In addition to offering his enthusiastic support for the Washington coin, he urged Congress to learn from the negatives associated with the earlier US commemorative coins. He recommended that Congress: a) limit the number of new commemoratives that could be issued each year, b) establish a commission of noted historians to propose themes for new commemoratives that ensure their national significance, and c) require by statute that all new commemoratives be sold for the benefit of the Government account and not private sponsors and organizations.
The Hearing resulted in the introduction of H.R.3484, which included the technical recommendations made by the Treasury Department but did not specifically include the suggestions made by either of the numismatists invited to speak. As a result, the bill did not place limits on the number of different commemorative coins that could be struck each year, no commission was formed to recommend worthy subjects for future coins, and no future requirement that commemorative coins only benefit “Government accounts” was stipulated.
By not including such “program” requirements in H.R.3484, Congress missed an opportunity to establish a commemorative coinage framework that would likely have prevented many of the “volume” issues faced by the modern series in the years that followed.
Following the subcommittee hearing, the House took up the discussion of the bill; it faced essentially no resistance on either side of the aisle. Representative Annunzio stressed the economic benefits of the coin during his comments stating:
“I am today declaring war on the national debt because it has reached a point where interest on the national debt is rapidly approaching 10 percent of our annual budget … While I realize that the $10 to $15 million that will be realized from the sale of the Washington silver half dollars is a small amount compared to the size of the national debt, it is nevertheless a beginning.”
At the time, the U.S. National Debt was reported at a quaint $914.3 billion.
The House easily passed the bill on May 19, 1981, and sent it to the Senate for consideration. It was immediately referred to the Senate Committee on Banking, which requested additional information from the Bureau of the Mint and the Congressional Budget Office. In contrast to the hearing discussions that projected sales of seven to 10 million coins, the Mint updated its sales estimate to just three million coins. The Budget Office used this lower figure to prepare its cost estimate for the program and found that the program would generate approximately $4.8 million to be used to reduce the national debt.
The coin program would ultimately have sales of over 7.104 million coins and generate over $36 million in profit.
Upon receiving the Budget Office report in November, the Committee reported the bill favorably and it was quickly passed by the Senate on December 9, 1981. President Ronald W. Reagan signed the bill into law (Public Law 97-104) on December 23, 1981, officially authorizing the US’ modern non-circulating legal tender (NCLT) commemorative coin series.
Sales of the coins began in July 1982 and were continued by the Mint until December 31, 1985, after which the remaining unsold coins were melted. In terms of coins sold, the hugely successful George Washington half dollar ranks third among modern US commemoratives, eclipsed only by the 1986 Statue of Liberty half dollar (7.854 million) and silver dollar (7.128 million).
© Copyright D. Provost 2022. All rights reserved. Used with permission.
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 Congressional Record, April 22, 1930, p 7455.
 The George Washington Commemorative Coin Act, Hearing before the Subcommittee on Consumer Affairs and Coinage of the Committee on Banking, Finance and Urban Affairs, House of Representatives, 97th 1981, p. 7.
 ibid, p. 18.
 ibid, p. 21.
 ibid, p. 31.
 Congressional Record, May 19, 1981, p 10236.
 Senate Report 97-277, 97th