Today, many U.S. coins may represent a presidents face, but prior to the 1900’s, this wasn’t the case.
The U.S. mint has been minting coins since the founding of our country, but it wasn’t until the 1900’s that it became popular to stamp the face of past presidents on them. Almost all coinage today has the bust of a president on the obverse side, and even a few of our founding fathers have found their way onto the reverse side as well. For many years, symbols for liberty were dominant on our coinage which was thought to be because the U.S. didn’t want to have any similarities with the monarchy from which they just separated.
Federal law mandates that no living man or woman may appear on U.S. coinage. There is no absolute reason why this tradition was started, but a lot of people point to George Washington for an explanation. When his loyalists proposed that his face be featured on the first U.S. dollar, he declined in order to separate America from the royalist culture. The only exception to the rule was Calvin Coolidge, the first President to have his portrait appear on a coin struck during his lifetime. He was featured on the obverse of the 1926 Sesquicentennial of American Independence.
George Washington first appeared on a commemorative dollar (not used for circulation), with the Marquis de Lafayette, in 1899. The coin was in memory of the strong bond Marquis de Lafayette and George Washington had after Lafayette left France to support the American Revolutionary cause. The coins were minted in a single day, on the 100 year anniversary of Washington’s death. Despite being minted at the end of 1899, the U.S. mint officially decided the coin would have the year of 1900 on it, celebrating the Paris Exposition of 1900.
The first U.S. circulating coin to have a U.S. president on it was the commemorative 1909 Lincoln Cent. The Lincoln cent proved to be popular, and more presidential coins quickly followed. Our most common coinage today, the Jefferson Nickel, Roosevelt Dime, and Washington Quarter were minted soon after the Lincoln Cent. The Lincoln cent is the only circulating coin currently produced in which the portrait faces to the right. There is no actual evidence of why “Lincoln’s Best Side” was used instead of having him face to the left, but the tradition has continued since 1909.
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was another small exception to the law mandating that only presidents who have been deceased two years can be on U.S. currency. The Roosevelt Dime was created only one year after his death because of the high demand of the public. Similar to Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy also was stamped onto a coin less than one year after his death. Within three months of his assassination, the Kennedy Half-Dollar was minted.
In recent years, a few of the past president’s made an appearance on the reverse side of some state quarters. The 2006 South Dakota state quarter depicts Mount Rushmore, meaning that George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln all got their faces placed on another coin. Washington happens to be on the obverse of the quarter as well, making him the first person to be on both sides of one coin. The 2003 Illinois state quarter depicts a young Abraham Lincoln inside an outline of the state. The 1999 New Jersey state quarter has an image of George Washington as a general leading his men across the Delaware River.
Currently, the U.S. Mint is producing “The Presidential $1 Coins”, honoring our nation’s presidents on dollar coins with a gold appearance. There are four presidential coins releases per year, which started back in 2007. They are in sequential order and will continue being produced until they reach the point where the presidents are still living. Because the coins will be produced in order, Ronald Reagan will not be featured until Jimmy Carter has passed away. Here is a list of the Presidential $1 Coins currently in circulation:
- George Washington: Released February 15
- John Adams: Released May 17
- Thomas Jefferson: Released August 16
- James Madison: Released November 15
- James Monroe: Released February 14
- John Quincy Adams: Released May 15
- Andrew Jackson: Released August 14
- Martin Van Buren: Released November 13
- William Henry Harrison: Released February 19
- John Tyler: Released May 21
- James K. Polk: Released August 20
- Zachary Taylor: Released November 19
- Millard Fillmore: Released February 18
- Franklin Pierce: Released May 20
- James Buchanan: Released August 19
- Abraham Lincoln: Released November 18