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Ten Most Significant U.S. Commemorative Coins

By Thomas K. DeLorey – Copyright – Reprinted with Permission from Harlan J Berk ……
When asked to write an article on the 10 most significant U.S. commemorative coins, I chortled and thought to myself: What an easy assignment this was going to be!

I had just that day finished reading galleys for the commemorative coin section of the Coin World “Comprehensive Catalogue and Encyclopedia of U.S. Coins” edited by David T. Alexander and myself, and all of the material was fresh in my mind.

However, when I went back over the listings with a consideration in mind of their national importance rather than a straightforward documentation of them, I suddenly realized how hard it was going to be to find ten pieces that were truly significant! After weeding out the 14 state commemoratives and most of the town, county, island, mountain, trail, bridge and music center commemoratives, there were scarcely ten pieces left that were both national and significant. Here’s what I came up with, though you might disagree.

Number one on my list is the Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition half dollar of 1892 and 1893, in part because the fact that Columbus landed in what we now call “the Americas” in 1492 was one of the major historical events of the last millennium, and in part because it was the first U.S. commemorative and set the stage for all that followed, good or bad.

The design of the coin is not the greatest, but it is ruggedly handsome after its own fashion, adequate to the task and not an embarrassment to the nation as some of its modern successors have been. Though some have complained that the portrait of Columbus is not accurate, there is no known portrait of Columbus taken from life, so nobody can prove that it is not accurate. The designs of the 1992 Columbus commemoratives are perhaps more imaginative, but as they repeat a theme already covered I have chosen not to include them in my top 10 listing.

The 1892 and 1893 coins also became America’s first circulating commemorative, however inadvertently, when the World’s Fair committee defaulted on its local bank loans and the banks released millions of the coins held as collateral into circulation. There they did indeed circulate without confusing the public, despite their “different” design, as evidenced by the dozens of well-worn pieces we buy over the counter here in Chicago every year.

I would love to see the U.S. Mint release a nationally significant commemorative half dollar into circulation every year at face value for the tremendous publicity it would bring to collecting, but the nay-sayers in Congress would never be so bold (unless, perhaps, it was one of their aunts or sisters!)

My next choice would be the Battle of Gettysburg 75th Anniversary half dollar of 1938, even if it did bear the confusing authorization date of 1936 as well. The teaching of unrevised history being a dying art, few people today under the age of 35 realize that, as some believe, this was the single most important battle fought in the Western hemisphere.

The Battle of Lexington-Concord in 1775 was psychologically important to the American independence movement, but America would have won its independence eventually even if that battle had never been fought. A bold advance by Union General McClellan before or after the Battle of Antietam might have shortened the Civil War by several years, but as it was fought the battle accomplished little more than the slaughter of tens of thousands.

The Battle of Gettysburg teetered on a sword point. Had Confederate forces moved to seize Little Round Top at the southern end of the Union line but a few hours earlier, they would not have found it freshly occupied by northern troops and their flanking move might have rolled the bluecoats off of Cemetery ridge, out of Gettysburg and back towards Washington D.C. in a rout. The South might have forced a treaty of peace, and America as we know it today would never have existed.

My third choice would be the 1925 half dollar honoring the 150th anniversary, or sesquicentennial, of the Battle of Lexington and Concord, because that event did indeed give the cause of American independence a powerful shot heard ’round the world. Revolt had been building since the Boston Massacre of 1770, and the battle opened the Revolutionary War that many Americans naively assume began on July 4, 1776. Oddly enough, the Revolutionary War itself has never been the subject of an American commemorative coin, although the 1777 Battle of Bennington, Vermont, was.

My joint fourth choice would be the 1926 half dollar and $2-1/2 gold piece honoring the sesquicentennial of the Declaration of Independence, for the obvious historical significance of that document approved on July 2, 1776, and publicly signed two days later. The commemorative quarter, half dollar and dollar of 1976 repeat the observance of this event, but again I choose to list only the first coinage for it. It is unfortunate that neither the 1926 nor the 1976 designs come anywhere near the power of the Lexington-Concord design, but that’s the way the plaster model crumbles.

My fifth and sixth choices would be the 1932 commemorative quarter dollar marking George Washington’s 200th birthday and the 1982 half dollar for the 250th anniversary of the same. Though Washington had appeared with General Lafayette on the Lafayette dollar of 1900 and with President Calvin Coolidge on the Sesquicentennial half dollar of 1926, the 1932 quarter put history in our pockets when it became the first commemorative coin intentionally issued for circulation.

As the impact of this commemoration was considerably diminished when the design was adopted as the regular issue in 1934, so much so that most people no longer recognize the 1932 issue as a commemorative coin, the well-designed 1982 commemorative must serve as our primary recognition of the “Father of our Country.” It also served to launch the modern era of commemoratives, for which we must forgive it as an innocent bystander.

At this point the selection process begins to blur a bit. The 1937 half dollar for the 350th anniversary of the 1587 Roanoke colony, which failed, is arguably more significant than the 1920 half dollar for the 300th anniversary of the Johnny-come-lately Pilgrims. However, it was the New Englanders who survived and went on to write the history books long taught in out schools, which implied that American history began in 1620, and so most Americans are unaware of the Roanoke story. Never mind the successful 1607 Jamestown colony, unrecognized on the coin of our realm, or the flourishing Spanish civilization in Florida and the West.

From a historical point of view, the 1987 Constitution half dollar, dollar and $5 gold piece are probably of greater national significance than any other remaining commemorative, and so I would choose the trio as number seven on my list. However, I see the Bill of Rights as an addition to the Constitution, and so I am reluctant to add the 1993 Bill of Rights coins on their own merit.

Another “battle coin” issue worthy of inclusion as number eight on my list would be the 1991-1995 dated World War II commemorative set issued in 1993. The global significance of the War, and the implications if the Allies had lost it, mandate its inclusion on this or any other list.

I only regret that the commemoration was limited to one each half dollar, dollar and $5 gold piece, and did not include at least one coin for each year’s main events from 1941 to 1945 just as the U.S. Postal Service has issued souvenir sheets for the same. Apparently our government felt that we the American people were not mature enough to experience the emotional impact of a Pearl Harbor commemorative, or that the Japanese people could not handle the memories a Hiroshima and/or a V-J issue would evoke.

In 1995, President Clinton ordered the USPS to remove a picture of the Hiroshima blast from the 1995 WW2 commemorative sheet, solely because it would offend the Japanese people. As the baby boom son of a M.P. scheduled for beachhead duty in the invasion of mainland Japan in September of 1945, where the casualty rate was expected to be 90% or greater, I naturally have a personal feeling that the Hiroshima bomb was significant for the lives that it saved by ending the war when it did. As things stand, however, our coins and our stamps completely ignore V-J Day and the stamps merely note that the “War in the Pacific” ended in 1945.

My ninth choice would be the 1986 Statue of Liberty set, issued upon the centennial of its dedication, for its inspiring renditions of this beloved national symbol. No one who has ever stood at the feet of this colossus of New York, or climbed that damnable double-helix staircase inside the statue, can ever forget the feeling of awe and sore legs that it inspires. The sale of these commemoratives helped to finance the restoration of the statue, a perfect example of the correct use of commemorative generated funds.

My tenth and final choices are the 1915 Panama-Pacific $50 round and octagonal slugs, not because they are nationally significant, which they are not, but just because they are so exquisitely beautiful. They serve as a reminder of what we as a people can produce if challenged to produce art and not politically correct lapel buttons. Ten thousand years from now, a historian (or an archaeologist?) might look upon one of these coins and say “Now that was a great people!”, and be right.

Tom DeLorey
Tom DeLorey
Tom DeLorey's career began at Coin World in the early 1970s where he became editor of the "Collector's Clearinghouse" before joining the staff of the American Numismatic Association (ANA), holding the position of senior authenticator for its certification service from 1981-1984. A prolific writer, Mr. DeLorey is the co-author and technical editor of several books and contributing editor to many numismatic periodicals. His efforts have earned him the ANA's Heath Literary Award on three occasions, the Wayte and Olga Raymond Memorial Award twice, and two Numismatic Literary Guild awards. He is a contributor to both the Guide Book and the Handbook of United States Coins, as well as other standard references. He also remains a consultant to the ANA Authentication Bureau.

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