By David Provost for CoinWeek …..
Author’s Note: This installment of the Lafayette dollar story presents how the coin came to be; the conclusion (Part II) will discuss the coin as a collectible.
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United States commemorative coins have always been used as fundraising tools for their sponsors. From the first half dollars struck in 1892-93 for the World’s Columbian Exposition to the new 2021 Christa McAuliffe and National Law Enforcement Memorial commemoratives, revenue generation in support of an event or anniversary to be celebrated has consistently been a primary objective of their issue.
The Lafayette dollar coin was no exception. In its authorizing legislation (Act of March 3, 1899), the purpose of the dollar was stated as “aiding in defraying the cost of a pedestal, and completing in a suitable manner the work of erecting a monument in the city of Paris to General Lafayette, designed by the Lafayette Memorial Commission, as a feature of the participation of the United States in the Paris Exposition.”
The simple and straightforward language that authorized the coin, however, provides little hint to the complex set of circumstances that led to it becoming a part of US numismatic history.
The coin’s story begins with Robert J. Thompson, the man credited with conceiving the idea of creating a memorial to Lafayette and to have it be a gift to the people of France from America’s schoolchildren.
Thompson was born on October 15, 1865, in the small farming town of La Porte City, Iowa. In his youth, Thompson was inspired by his school teacher to reach beyond his humble surroundings and strive for success on a much larger scale. Her interest in historical biography was transferred to Thompson who soon became enamored with the historical figures of France. It was through his readings in this area that he developed a particular fondness for the Marquis de Lafayette and his contributions to American independence.
Thompson followed in his early mentor’s footsteps by beginning his professional career as a school teacher. He later went to work for the US Railway Postal Service, which exposed him to a world outside of Iowa–most importantly, to Chicago. After six years, he left Government employment and accepted a writing position with the Chicago Times. Among his early assignments was coverage of the World’s Columbian Exposition.
His career at the Times was short-lived, however, as he was dismissed over his refusal to write stories about the rumors of internal dissension among the Exposition’s management; he believed such stories had the potential to undermine the Exposition’s success. But his firing proved to be a positive step, as he was able to use the connections he had made with influential business and community leaders to pursue a career far broader than that of a newspaper reporter. In addition to his future involvement with the Lafayette Monument and Memorial Commission, Thompson went on to become a US consul serving in Germany during the years leading up to World War I.
One of the business leaders Thompson met was Ferdinand W. Peck, a founding member of the World’s Columbian Exposition Company; Peck served as the company’s first vice-president as well as chairman of its Committee on Finance. The two developed a lasting friendship that would later be of great benefit to Thompson as he worked to realize his dream of creating a memorial to Lafayette.
On its surface, Thompson’s concept of erecting a statue to Lafayette appears rooted in American patriotism and the celebration of France’s vital role in helping America gain its independence from Great Britain. In 1913, however, while relating the story of his inspiration for the memorial to the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), Thompson wrote that his motivation was “essentially selfish.”
He had early on set his sights on traveling to Europe and was looking for a way to get there:
“While I was still a boy certain moral and family obligations made it appear to me fitting and necessary that I make a trip to Europe. Without either money, profession, or business I had, like thousands of our young men, gotten married when I was little more than a boy, eighteen years of age, and we could not make the trip that I intended without either money or position. So what had to be done?”
He worked hard to support his new family, but remarked that after roughly 10 years he was no “nearer to the realization of my ambition, so far as I could see, than I was at the beginning.” But in 1896, he read an article by William Eleroy Curtis, a Chicago-based traveling correspondent who worked for the city’s Inter-Ocean (1873-1886) and Record Herald (1887 to 1911) newspapers. In the piece, Curtis wrote about the old cemeteries of Paris, among which was the small Cimetiere de Picpus (Picpus Cemetery). Curtis remarked how it was the site of the graves of Lafayette and his wife Adrienne, and noted that it was marked only by a simple granite slab without any notice of appreciation from the United States.
It struck Thompson that Lafayette’s under-appreciated grave could be his ticket to Europe. He conceived the idea of creating a more significant and worthy memorial to General Lafayette that would be given to the people of France by America as a symbol of its appreciation and enduring friendship. He began developing his plan for the memorial and enlisting the support of those who could help him achieve his vision; included among these were Peck and President William McKinley.
At the same time Thompson was working out the details of his monument plan, the United States Congress was considering the invitation of France to participate in the Paris Exposition of 1900; the US had been formally invited on October 8, 1895. President Grover Cleveland wrote to Congress in December 1895 and heartily recommended the invitation be accepted and that Congress make available adequate funds “for a due representation of this Government and its people.”
It took more than 18 months for the invitation to work its way through Congress and the Department of State, but on July 19, 1897, recently-elected President McKinley approved a general appropriations bill that included the US’ formal acceptance of France’s invitation along with a $25,000 appropriation to cover the expenses of an appointed special commissioner who would represent the US in discussions with the Exposition’s organizers. Congress would make several additional appropriations to fund the US’ participation as the event drew nearer.
The Paris Exposition of 1900 presented Thompson with an ideal opportunity. If he could convince Congress to support his vision of a monument to Lafayette, he might also be able to arrange to be part of the delegation sent to France for its presentation and dedication. His long-standing ambition to travel to Europe would be realized!
Thompson, with Peck’s assistance, was able to secure the backing of Senator John Mellen Thurston (R-NE) and Representative Thomas Joseph Bradley (D-NY9) who introduced joint resolutions in their respective chambers to create a Lafayette Memorial Commission (LMC) on February 17, 1898. The companion bills called for the creation of “a commission to supervise the collection of a fund among all the schools and colleges of the United States for the purpose of erecting a monument to General Lafayette in the city of Paris.” Each bill stated the monument should be a “spontaneous offering, coming direct from the children and schools of America” and that it should be financed without the support of the government. It was believed that such an approach would direct “the thoughts of American youth to the most patriotic and inspiring period of our history, to broaden their views to international points, and to arouse their interest in the great events of the dawning century.”
The Senate version of the resolution was passed on February 26, 1898, and sent to the House for consideration. While not opposed by the House, the resolution was never passed due to the “press of legislation in connection with the Spanish-American War.” The USS Maine had exploded in the harbor of Havana, Cuba on February 15th and discussions of war with Spain would soon thereafter occupy Congress (The US formally declared war on Spain on April 25, 1898).
All was not lost, however, as the Spanish-American War did not derail US plans for participation in France’s international fair. On July 22, 1898, President McKinley appointed Ferdinand Peck to serve as the US Commissioner-General to the Paris Exposition. The appointment gave Peck overall responsibility for the US Government’s programs and events at the Exposition and enabled him to resurrect Thompson’s Lafayette monument proposal.
On September 1, 1898, Peck formed the Lafayette Memorial Commission (LMC) and assigned it the same scope of responsibilities as outlined in the original resolutions presented to Congress. Peck also included Thompson among those appointed to the LMC. In doing so, the Lafayette monument instantly became an official element of the US program for Paris.
There was much to be done. Design concepts needed to be developed, artist proposals needed to be solicited and reviewed, and discussions were needed with the French Government to ensure their acceptance of the gift along with the selection of a proper location for it. Of immediate urgency was the need to organize the fundraising drive to be conducted in America’s schools.
The LMC did not know exactly how much money needed to be raised but did estimate at least $125,000; additional estimates, one as high as $220,000, were also reported. As it began the process, the Commission continued to believe that it could generate whatever funds were needed for the statue, its pedestal, and all associated ancillary expenses through its school-based fundraising drive.
Alexander H. Revell, vice president of the Commission, immediately wrote to President McKinley to enlist his support for the monument project. McKinley responded enthusiastically on September 17, 1898:
“Your letter written in behalf of the Lafayette Memorial Committee has greatly interested me, and I have read with much satisfaction the plans already outlined for the proposed monument to the memory of a great soldier and patriot.
“The undertaking is one in which I am sure it will be considered a privilege to participate, and the idea that the students in the schools, colleges, and universities shall take a prominent part in this tribute will not only be of vast educational value as to one of the most important epochs in history, but will keep prominently before them the inspiration of a high ideal, of devotion to great principles, and of the public recognition paid to lofty purposes.
“Gen, Lafayette was but a young man when he espoused the cause of liberty and independence, overcoming well-nigh insurmountable obstacles to do so. It is altogether fitting therefore that the youth of America should have a part in this testimonial to his goodness and greatness.
“I am glad to note that our committee has fixed a date when our people in every part of the country may testify their interest in the proposed monument, and their determination that the movement already begun shall achieve the greatest success.”
The date McKinley referred to in his letter was October 19, 1898. It was the 117th anniversary of the surrender of British Lieutenant-General Lord Charles Cornwallis to General George Washington at Yorktown, Virginia – the effective end to the American Revolution. The Commission used McKinley’s support to engage governors across the country, requesting that they designate October 19 as “Lafayette Day” in their schools and to call for time to be devoted on that day to “exercises appropriate to the occasion, and the story of our struggle for liberty be told anew to our children.” Time was also to be set aside for the collection of donations from the school children to support the monument.
Endorsements were received from either the governor or superintendent of education from 42 states (there were 45 states in the Union at the time). To support the local efforts, the Commission sent out “upward of a million circulars, pamphlets, specimen programmes for school exercises, autograph letters, bulletins, etc … reaching every State superintendent of schools, every county superintendent in the United States, every mayor, every newspaper, school board, postmaster, etc.”
In the weeks following the drive, enthusiastic reports of its success appeared in newspapers across the country.
The Los Angeles Herald reported that the Commission had received “thousands of letters” from schools with an average contribution of $5.00. An article in the Trenton Times (Trenton, New Jersey) touted donations in excess of $20,000 coming individually from Pennsylvania and Ohio; $10,000 from Illinois and “goodly sums” expected from Wisconsin, Iowa, Indiana, Massachusetts, and Minnesota. It also reported expectations for the national total to exceed $100,000. The True Republican (De Kalb County, Illinois) reported that the children of Toledo, Ohio had contributed $3,000 toward the fund.
When the final tallies were completed, however, it was clear that the initial reports had overstated the drive’s success – a total of just $45,858.30 was raised (Thompson could be proud of his home state of Iowa, as it contributed $1,865.68 or roughly 4% of the total).
The Commission reported that between four and five million schoolchildren contributed to the monument fund, a very wide range that suggests more accurate data was unavailable. As such, it is quite possible that these numbers were “generous” estimates made by the LMC in an effort to maintain the appearance that America’s schoolchildren had enthusiastically supported the monument project. Using the low end of the reported range, an average donation of approximately 1.15 cents per child is derived. In contrast, Illinois reported an average donation of approximately four cents per student. If this average were applied to the total raised, it equates to approximately 1.15 million individual donations. Were the national average assumed to be half that of Illinois – two cents per student – the number of individual contributions rises to just 2.3 million.
In either case, the derived numbers are much lower than the LMC reported.
New York schools did not participate in the fundraiser. Charles Skinner, the state’s Superintendent of Public Instruction, did not support the Commission’s approach to raising funds via donations from school children and so did not allow the initiative. He was not against honoring Lafayette or having New York contribute to the monument fund, however. He authorized the last hour of the school day on October 19 to be devoted to educational programs about Lafayette and endorsed a plan that ultimately led to the New York legislature authorizing a $10,000 contribution to the Commission on behalf of its school children.
New York’s appropriation raised the total received from the Commission’s school-based efforts to just under $56,000 – a far cry from even its low-end estimate of the $125,000 it would need to fully fund the planned monument. It was clear that additional funding sources were necessary.
As a result, the Commission reached out to several of the nation’s patriotic organizations but found measurable success only within the National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR). The group already had a Franco-American Memorial Committee in place to solicit contributions from local chapters for a statue of George Washington to be placed in Paris, so it was well-positioned to also seek contributions for the Lafayette monument. DAR ultimately raised $1,875.49 for the Lafayette memorial and its efforts were recognized by the LMC through the incorporation of a DAR tablet on the monument’s pedestal. The tablet reads:
This Tablet is a Tribute of the National Society of
The Daughters of
The American Revolution
To the Illustrious Memory of Lafayette,
The Friend of America, the Fellow Soldier
The Patriot of Two Countries.
While the contributions of DAR helped, the Commission remained far short of the total funds it needed to construct the Lafayette monument. It would soon abandon its original intent of funding the monument without financial support from the government and would turn to the US Congress for an appropriation in the form of a commemorative coin.
The LMC first asked Congress for an appropriation in the form of 100,000 souvenir half dollars, no doubt inspired by the Columbian Exposition souvenir coins from a few years before. The request was later changed to a silver dollar at the urging of Thompson, who believed the larger coin would offer enhanced design opportunities.
Rather than through separate legislation, the coin was proposed via an amendment to a general appropriations bill for sundry civil expenses of the Federal Government for fiscal year 1900. The amendment was introduced on February 23, 1899, during a hearing of the Senate Subcommittee of the Committee on Appropriations and was reported back favorably to the full Senate two days later. It faced essentially no opposition and was quickly incorporated into the appropriations bill that was passed by the House and presented to the president for approval. McKinley signed it into law on March 3, 1899.
With McKinley’s signature, the Lafayette silver dollar was born.
In the conclusion to the Lafayette dollar story, I’ll review the origins of the Lafayette dollar’s design, discuss the coin’s largely unsuccessful promotion and review the ways today’s collectors pursue the coin.
© Copyright D. Provost 2021. All rights reserved. Used with permission.
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 Act of March 3, 1899, Chapter 424. 55th Congress, 3rd Session, 1899.
 Thompson, Robert J. England and Germany in the War – Letters to the State Department. Boston: Chapple Publishing Company, Ltd, 1915. p. 8-9.
 Chapple, Joe Mitchell. “Affairs at Washington”, The National Magazine, September 1913; 933.
 ibid. p. 933.
 ibid. p. 934.
 Report of the Commissioner-General for the United States to the International Universal Exposition, Paris, 1900. Senate, 56th Congress, 2nd Session, February 28, 1901. p 13.
 House Resolution 147, 55th Congress, 2nd Session, 1898. / Senate Resolution 106, 55th Congress, 2nd Session, 1898.
 Report of the Commissioner-General, p. 169.
 “The Lafayette Monument”, The Record-Union (Sacramento, CA) 20 February 1899: 1.
 Report of the Commissioner-General, p. 170.
 “Money Flowing in With Which to Build the Lafayette Monument”, Los Angeles Herald 27 October 1898: 3.
 “Gifts from Schoolchildren”, Trenton Times (Trenton, NJ) 12 November 1898: 4.
 “School Children Honor the Memory of the Patriot – Funds Raised to Erect a Monument”, True Republican (DeKalb County, IL) 22 October 1898: 6.
 “School Lafayette Donations”, The Chicago Tribune 16 October 1898: 14.
 “Report of the Treasurer General”, The American Monthly Magazine (National Society – Daughters of the American Revolution) February 1901: 449.
 “Report of Mrs. Robt. Stockwell Hatcher of Indiana, on the Franco-American Memorial”, The Spirit of ’76 March 1900: 118.
 “With the Editor”, The Numismatist March 1899: 73.