By Charles Morgan and Hubert Walker for CoinWeek …..
According to some, the secretive fraternity of the Freemasons is elitist and anti-democratic. Still others have questioned the organization’s spiritual views.
For those initiated into the fraternity, Masonry is said to offer a path to self-improvement and lifelong friendships.
Historically, public suspicion of the Freemasons has had its peaks and valleys. Thanks to a certain strain in American cultural life, fueled by the internet but with roots much older, we seem to be climbing towards another peak.
Which is strange, considering how most of the Freemasons organization’s “secrets” are a google search away. Contemporary masons are better known for community service than occult secrecy, and a great number of fraternal orders – from the Ancient Order of Foresters to the Knights of Columbus, and from the Loyal Order of Moose to the Lions Club International – are offshoots of Freemasonry.
Regardless, what most laypeople can agree on is that the Freemasons, a mysterious brotherhood extant for nearly three centuries, count among their ranks the past and present titans of industry, prominent thinkers and scientists, politicians and world leaders, authors of great renown, and a host of other paragons of both worldly and spiritual success.
Yet one “secret” that even masons themselves may be unaware of is that the past century of American coinage has been a veritable golden age of masonic commemoration. Since 1900, 38 Americans represented on a United States coin were also Freemasons.
They represent an era of U.S. coinage filled with history, intrigue, and more than a few surprises.
Masonic Presidents of the United States
Thanks to the Presidential dollar series, it goes without saying that every one of the fourteen confirmed mason presidents will eventually make an appearance on a United States coin. First President George Washington is the runaway winner of the title of most immortalized president on American coin and currency. His first legal tender federal appearance was alongside his best friend and fellow mason the Marquis de La Fayette on the 1900 Lafayette dollar. He appeared seven more times on coins adapted from the works of sculptors (and fellow masons) Gutzon Borglum and Jean-Antoine Houdon, and two additional appearances on coinage were derived from paintings. The 1999 New Jersey State quarter repurposed Emanuel Leutze’s Washington Crossing the Delaware (1851), and the reverse of the 2008 Dolley Madison $10 gold bullion coin makes reference to Gilbert Stuart’s iconic Lansdowne Portrait.
(By the way, Leutze’s lesser-known canvas entitled George Washington as a Master Mason was painted five years later.)
The Mason Presidents
Andrew Jackson was recently depicted on a 2008 Presidential golden dollar. He’s also a long serving figure on United States paper money. The makers of the Anti-Jackson Hard Times Tokens would likely be agog at our modern day reverence for the President that brought down the Bank of the United States and brought on the Hard Times of 1837.
Mason president William McKinley defeated fellow mason William Jennings Bryan in the final battle of the war between the goldbugs and the Silverites. President McKinley’s legacy has faded over the years, but his assassination at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York in 1901 is still notable. McKinley’s killer, a man of Belarusian descent named Leon Czolgosz, shot him because he believed that the president was a puppet of the corporations. He plotted McKinley’s murder after learning of a similarly ideological assassination in Italy that took place in July of 1900. McKinley’s death marked the third time in sixty years that an American president was murdered in a public venue.
It’s fitting that the President who ran on a “sound money” platform (meaning the gold standard as long as that’s what the international community uses) would be commemorated not in the form of a silver dollar – de rigueur during the classic commemorative period – but in a small gold dollar, a denomination that hadn’t seen production since 1889. The first of two McKinley commemoratives served as a memorial to the slain president, while the second served to fund the construction of the McKinley Memorial in Niles, Ohio. McKinley’s most recent (and presumably final) U.S. coin appearance took place this year, as one of four presidents commemorated in 2013 as part of the Presidential dollar program.
(Three of those four presidents were masons, by the way).
Two of James Monroe’s coin issues are interesting in their own right. The founding father (and masonic brother) was first depicted on the 1923 Monroe Doctrine half dollar, appearing alongside President John Quincy Adams. An intriguing pairing, because Adams was an avowed anti-mason and one of several prominent candidates of the short-lived Anti-Masonic party, a regional offshoot of the Federalist Party that rose up in opposition to Andrew Jackson and the alleged civic abuses of non-masons by Freemasons. Viewed in this light, the coin “speaks” on a surprising new level.
If you’re unfamiliar with art history or even just blinked, you probably missed Monroe’s next appearance on a coin. That’s because he’s one of the indistinguishable figures on General Washington’s boat as he’s crossing the Delaware River on the reverse of the 1999 New Jersey quarter. A young Lieutenant James Monroe is holding the flag.
Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt is well known in numismatic circles as the man behind the revitalization of American coinage at the turn of the 20th century. His “Pet Crime” is essential history for students of the hobby. However, it wasn’t until the 2013 Theodore Roosevelt Presidential dollar that the popular and flamboyant Rough Rider was awarded a proper representation on a U.S. coin. Before now, his likeness appeared as part of numismatic interpretations of Mount Rushmore, which is the most represented sculpture on our coinage.
Teddy’s distant cousin Franklin Roosevelt has had the dime locked up since 1946. He also has a lock on numismatic irony: In 1933, he took gold away from private citizens. In 1997, the mint commemorated him on the formerly verboten metal.
Mason Government Officials on U.S. Coins
One of the interesting things about the classic commemorative period was how it allowed the celebration of regional and historical figures whose importance might have been less well known outside of a small local area. How else would we have ended up with coins featuring Thomas E. Kilby, Joseph Robinson, Moses Cleaveland, and Carter Glass? Of all of the non-presidential government officials depicted on our coinage, at least ten were masons.
Benjamin Franklin is the most prominent representative of this group.
His first appearance came on the half dollar in 1948, making the colorful and rotund Founding Father the first historical figure to appear on a circulating United States coin that was not a president.
Few people realize that Daniel Boone was a mason. In fact, mason historians admit that the evidence for his membership is scant. He did have a mason apron at the time of his death, and his son Daniel told the ethnographer Lyman C. Draper that the elder Boone belonged to the group. He can be found on the 1921 Missouri half dollar, as well as the 1934-1938 Boone half dollar series.
Alabama governor Thomas Kilby’s political career isn’t worthy of much note. Numismatically, however, his coin is significant insofar as he’s one of a select handful of individuals depicted on a U.S. coin while still alive.
Two other people who share that distinction are 33rd degree mason, Senator and former Treasury Secretary Carter Glass (the 1936 Lynchburg Centennial half dollar), and Arkansas governor and fellow mason Joseph T. Robinson (1936 Arkansas-Robinson Centennial half dollar).
John Marshall, commemorated in 2005, had a particularly interesting Masonic career. Marshall was a high-ranking mason, who worked with the Richmond City Council to construct a Masonic lodge in Virginia’s capital city. It was from this address that Marshall practiced law and met with delegates to persuade the state government to ratify the Constitution of the United States.
The great state of Texas was commemorated with a half dollar featuring two masons, Sam Houston and Stephen F. Austin. Austin belonged to Louisiana Lodge 111, in Ste. Genevieve, Missouri. He was supposed to be appointed to the position of Worshipful Master of a new lodge in the Texas territory, but the Mexican government had grown fearful that American masons might try to annex the region for the United States. Sam Houston was initiated at Cumberland Lodge No. 8, in Nashville, Tennessee.
Finally, we have the 1927 Vermont half dollar, featuring mason and Revolutionary War fighter Ira Allen. Allen was instrumental in the founding of Vermont, fighting at the Battle of Ticonderoga. And like many other Revolutionary War patriots, he died a pauper, having fled his home state to avoid debtor’s prison.
His coin came housed in a cardboard holder, seated in the center of a glory of rays. It was probably a coincidence, but the glory is often considered a masonic symbol.
Mason Government Officials
|Ambassador; Inventor; Founding Father
|Thomas E. Kilby
|Governor of Alabama
|Founder of Vermont
|Stephen F. Austin
|Governor of Tennessee and Texas
|Governor of Arkansas
|Founder of Cleveland
|Secretary of the Treasury; Senator from Virginia
|Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court
2013 saw the release of eight different coins bearing the likenesses of masons. This total is the most in a single year, narrowly beating out 1936 (which boasted seven).
Three of these men were World War II generals, honored as part of the Five Star Generals Commemorative Coin Program. On the $5 Gold, we have mason brother General Douglas MacArthur (who in 1936, and again in 1947, was depicted on U.S. made pieces for the Philippines), General Henry “Hap” Arnold, a member of Union Lodge No. 7 of Junction City, Kansas, and General Omar Bradley, a member of West Point Lodge No. 877.
Civil War general, Freemason, and 1864 presidential candidate George McClellan got his coin when he appeared alongside Confederate general Robert E. Lee on the Antietam half dollar (1937).
The two most-depicted non-presidential figures in the history of U.S. coinage, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, were also masons. Lewis joined first, before the pair’s historic Corps of Discovery. In 1799, he was a member of the Door of Virtue Lodge No. 44 in Albemarle County. Later on, he was a member of the Widow’s Son’s Lodge in Charlottesville, Virginia.
In 1808, Lewis founded St. Louis Lodge #111, where he served as the state’s first Royal Arch Mason and Master of the lodge . It was at this time that Lewis inducted Captain William Clark into the order. Lewis died in 1809. Clark survived his friend by 29 years and remained an active mason for the rest of his life.
Mason Military Leaders
|Commander, Continental Army
|Lewis & Clark
|Corps of Discovery
|George B. McClellan
|Commander, Army of the Potomac
|Henry “Hap” Arnold
|Five Star General
|Five Star General
|Five Star General
Masons and American Culture
The members of our final category of Masonic figures come from various walks of life, but all left a lasting impact on the pageant of American history. The first African-American honored on a United States coin was Booker T. Washington. According to Mason historian William Denslow, he was made a Mason at Sight by the Grand Master of the Prince Hall Grand Lodge of Massachusetts.
There’s an interesting Masonic twist to the 2009 District of Columbia quarter. While we know that the quarter features composer and Jazz musician Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington, many are unaware that the D.C. City Council originally pushed for a dramatically different, much more politically aggressive design. They wanted to appropriate part of Otis James’ famous quote: “Taxation without Representation is tyranny” (the motto “Taxation without Representation” was already on the District’s license plates). The Treasury Department shot the idea down, of course.
Surprise! Both Ellington and James were masons.
Smithsonian founder James Smithson and astronaut Neil Armstrong were masons. Finding Smithson’s coin is obvious – he’s on the 1996 $5 Smithsonian gold commemorative. Armstrong, on the other hand, takes some searching and imagination; he’s inside his spacesuit on the 2002 Ohio State quarter reverse (or so we’re told).
In 2016, Samuel Clemens – otherwise known as Mark Twain – was commemorated with silver and gold commemorative coins. Clemens was an on-again, off-again mason, mostly owing to his predilection for falling behind on his dues.
In 2017, another mason-related coin was released: the Lions Clubs International commemorative. The Lions Clubs, one of America’s leading service organizations, was founded in 1917 by Melvin Jones, a Freemason and successful businessman living in Chicago.
|Booker T. Washington
|Educator; Civil Rights Pioneer
|Founder of the Smithsonian Institution
|Orville and Wilbur Wright
|Composer and Musician
The Secret Story
The story of Numismatics is the interplay between a peoples’ currency and their culture. For the coins referenced in this article, the stand-alone achievements of the individuals are enough to warrant commemoration. But as with most things in life, there’s another side – a flip of the coin – that reveals something else. In this case, the masonic coins of the United States represent history hidden in plain sight.
Incidentally, Freemasons also have a long numismatic tradition outside of the realm of legal tender coinage. Masons have long presented tokens to members at the conference of degrees or as souvenirs. We suspect that the prevalence of masonic representation on our coinage might come as a surprise to even the most active practitioners of the Craft.
The Freemasons have long sought to improve themselves by uncovering forgotten knowledge and hidden truths. The process of learning is meant to enrich the receptive, and building stronger communities follows from this. For numismatists, the study of coins, their context, and their symbols is also a quest to uncover knowledge lost and encoded meaning.
We’d like to thank Todd E. Creason, author, researcher and Master Mason, for his valuable time and insights. He is the founder of the Midnight Freemasons blog, and also maintains his own at toddecreason.blogspot.com
Flip of a Coin:
You might be familiar with the fact that enterprising counterfeiters plated the 1883 No Cents Liberty “V” nickel to pass it off as a $5 gold half eagle. But few realize that most of these nickels in drag also had reeded edges added to lend them that extra whiff of the genuine.
Three United States coins feature foreign leaders. One is the Isabella quarter, depicting Spain’s Queen Isabella (1893), and the second is the Huguenot half dollar, featuring Denmark’s William I (1924). Can you guess the third?
Overseas Duty for the Lincoln Cent: You never know where the penny in your pocket’s been over the course of its work. For several million cents minted in the 1960s and early ‘70s, that work began with a trip to South Viet Nam, where they circulated among soldiers and military vendors. While the primary currency used by our military was the Military Payment Certificate, these notes only broke down so far. When cents weren’t on hand, small sticks of gum were used in their place.