To Coin a Prez
Reagan was ahead of his dime.

The Wall Street Journal, Friday, December 12, 2003

"It was hard to suppress a chuckle last Friday, when Hillary Clinton accused President Bush of aspiring "to undo the New Deal." Three days later Mr. Bush signed the Medicare Prescription Drug Modernization Act, establishing a vast new entitlement. But some Republicans would like to do away with a symbol of the New Deal: the Roosevelt dime.

Last month Rep. Mark Souder of Indiana--along with 77 co-sponsors, all Republicans--introduced the Ronald Reagan Dime Act, which would put Mr. Reagan's face on dimes struck "after such date as the [Treasury] Secretary deems to be appropriate"--presumably after Mr. Reagan dies, since traditionally U.S. money does not depict people who are still alive.

Actually, until the early 20th century, American coins didn't carry images of historical figures either. For almost six decades after 1793, the year that the first half-cent and one-cent coins were minted, all U.S. coins carried on their obverse an image of Lady Liberty.

The U.S. Mint first departed from this tradition in 1851, when it introduced the trime, a silver three-cent piece whose obverse depicted a shield over a six-pointed star. In 1854 an Indian princess appeared on the gold dollar, and images of generic Indians later graced other coins, including the Indian-head penny (1859-1909) and the buffalo nickel (1913-38).

Christopher Columbus showed up on a commemorative half-dollar in 1893, but it wasn't until 1909 that a historical figure appeared on a coin in circulation. Four years earlier, President Theodore Roosevelt had commissioned sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens to design a new penny, and he came up with a head of Victory wearing an Indian headdress. "Saint-Gaudens and Roosevelt liked this design so much that they used it on the 1907 $10 [gold coin] instead," according to So it was back to the drawing board for the penny--and eventually to Victor David Brenner's bust of Lincoln, which made its debut in 1909, the centenary of the 16th president's birth.

Washington and Jefferson joined Lincoln in Americans' change purses, appearing, respectively, on the quarter in 1932 and the nickel in 1938. In 1948 the transition in American coinage from generic symbols to historic figures was completed, as Ben Franklin came to the half-dollar and Walking Liberty walked into the sunset.

The FDR dime, first minted in 1946, was the first U.S. coin to bear the image of a contemporary leader. "The American public in 1945 was clamoring for some memorial to their fallen leader," explains "This humble coin was symbolic of the struggle to end polio through the 'March of Dimes' fundraising campaign," which Roosevelt, himself a polio sufferer, had championed.

Since FDR's death, six other presidents have breathed their last, and two of them quickly ended up on coins. John F. Kennedy replaced Franklin on the half-dollar in 1964, just weeks after his assassination, and the Eisenhower dollar appeared in 1971, two years after Ike--the man Barry Goldwater accused of favoring a "dime-store New Deal"--died.

It's understandable that Mr. Reagan's admirers would be eager for their man to join the numismatic pantheon. At the same time, one can't blame Democrats for resisting the effort to get their man off the dime. Last week they won an endorsement from an unlikely quarter. "I do not support this proposal and I am certain Ronnie would not," Nancy Reagan said in a statement. "When our country chooses to honor a great President such as Franklin Roosevelt by placing his likeness on our currency, it would be wrong to remove him and replace him with another."

But maybe both sides can have their way. Grover Norquist, the conservative activist who came up with the idea of a bill or coin honoring Mr. Reagan, proposes putting each man's face on half the dimes minted.

That seems a fitting symmetry, for Mr. Reagan has a lot in common with FDR, whom he esteemed. Both revived the nation's spirit at times of crisis, although their economic policies remain controversial to this day. Both set the stage for American victory over totalitarian enemies, though the ends of World War II and the Cold War had to await their successors' administrations. Both won landslide re-elections, yet both inspired bitter opposition from their partisan foes.

You might even say they were two sides of the same coin.

Next article: Why Do Dems Lose in the South? (3/8/04)

Previous article: Left Behind (12/8/03)

Go to main list