By the time 1981 rolled around, the following things were dead:
And so were commemorative coins. In fact, compared to those aforementioned deceased things, commemorative coins had been in the ground the longest, thanks to a glut of offerings with limited appeal that killed the market for much of the preceding three decades.
Everything changed when it came time to honor the 250th anniversary of the birth of the father of our country.
If any American was made for memorialization on coins, it was George Washington. Even before the United States had official coinage, private minters were putting him on proposed coins in the hopes that they would be adopted by the government.
Those coins didn’t catch on – in no small part because Washington refused to be on U.S. currency, deeming it too monarchal. It wasn’t until 1900 when Washington finally appeared on a coin issued by the U.S. Mint: a commemorative silver dollar honoring the Marquis de Lafayette.
Given the glut of commemorative coins that followed said Lafayette Dollar, it would seem like a fait accompli that Washington would get his own sooner rather than later. After all, from the late 1800s to the mid 1900s, commemorative coins had been a popular means of attempting to raise money for celebrating important anniversaries, putting on major events, or erecting monuments.
Of course, the key phrase in that last sentence was “attempting to.” As the U.S. Mint discovered, many of these coins ended up not selling and a large number ended up back at the Mint for melting.
The first indication that the halcyon days were over came in 1930, when President Herbert Hoover vetoed a proposed coin commemorating the Gadsden Purchase. In his veto statement, Hoover cited counterfeiting, lack of interest and general wastefulness – the first time a commemorative coin bill had ever been rejected by the White House.
When the George Washington Bicentennial Committee proposed a commemorative half dollar to honor the capital’s namesake to be released in 1932, they received a frosty reception. With Hoover still in the White House, Congress, with Treasury’s blessing, rejected the committee’s proposal and opted to permanently replace the existing Standing Liberty quarters with new ones featuring Washington’s bust on the obverse. Then-Treasury Secretary Andrew W. Mellon justified the plan by stating that the Standing Liberty quarter “wears very badly and is a difficult coin to manufacture; the design is too elaborate for the small surface, and it is almost impossible to bring the details into proper relief.” Additionally, Mellon stated that replacing the quarter with a new design honoring Washington would be consistent with Hoover’s views.
The next nail in the coffin came in 1954, when President Dwight D. Eisenhower vetoed a proposed coin to commemorate New York City’s tercentennial, stating:
I am further advised by the Treasury Department that in the past in many instances the public interest in these special coins has been so short-lived that their sales for the purposes intended have lagged with the result that large quantities have remained unsold and have been returned to the mints for melting.
I fully recognize the importance to the country of the event which this coin would commemorate. I recognize, too, that the authorization of 1 or 2 or 3 of such issues of coins would not do major harm. However, experience has demonstrated that the authorization of even a single commemorative issue brings forth a flood of other authorizations to commemorate events or anniversaries of local or national importance.Dwight D. Eisenhower veto statement, February 3, 1954
That led to a moratorium on minting commemorative coins lasting from 1954 to 1981. If Congress or the Mint wanted to issue a commemorative coin, they would follow the Washington quarter precedent. When John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, Congress immediately chose to honor him by putting him on the half dollar – replacing Benjamin Franklin. In 1973, Congress authorized new designs for the quarter, half-dollar and dollar coins to celebrate the country’s bicentennial.
By 1981, things had changed considerably. For one, Washington was such a towering and important figure that something was needed to commemorate his semiquincentennial. Since they had already honored him by putting him on regular coinage, that meant Congress had to consider resurrecting commemorative coins. In March 1981, U.S. Representative Druie Douglas Barnard, Jr. (D-GA) did just that, proposing the George Washington Commemorative Coin Act that provided for a 90% silver half dollar paying tribute to our first President.
The ongoing prohibition on commemoratives wasn’t the only thing working against Barnard. The failure of the Susan B. Anthony dollar was still fresh in everyone’s minds. As such, Barnard made it clear that the proposed Washington coin was “no Susan B. Anthony dollar, but rather a profitable venture into a proven market utilizing the Mint’s almost 200 years of expertise.”
Luckily for Barnard, he had a powerful ally. Rep. Frank Annunzio (D-IL), chairman of the House Subcommittee on Consumer Affairs and Coinage supported the bill and rushed it through a hearing with a minimum of debate, testimony or questioning. “I believe that it is appropriate for this great nation to honor significant Americans and events in American life through commemorative coinage,” said Rep. Frank Annunzio (D-IL), chairman of the House Subcommittee on Consumer Affairs and Coinage, during his opening statement at the hearing to consider the Washington commemorative half dollar in May 1981. “It is fitting that the first coin we consider will commemorate the man described in his own lifetime as being ‘first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.'”
Additionally, the Mint hadn’t issued a commemorative coin in nearly 30 years, and collectors and numismatists were hungry for one. “I thank God for you [Chairman Annunzio] and Congressman Barnard for attempting to set free commemorative coinage by breaking the 26 year old chains of bondage,” said Anthony Swiatek, author of the Encyclopedia of United States Silver and Gold Commemorative Coins 1892-1954, during his testimony before the House Subcommittee on Consumer Affairs and Coinage in 1981.
Another stated goal of Barnard’s bill was that the proposed coin would allow American investors and individuals to own silver at an inexpensive price. As Swiatek pointed out, France was the only other country in the world not to produce a commemorative coin since 1954, and the ones that had issued silver and gold coins had made hefty profits. This argument, in particular, resonated with U.S. Senator Jim McClure (R-ID), who was trying to pass a bill authorizing the issuance of silver coins in what would eventually become the successful American Silver Eagle program. McClure would sponsor the Senate version of the bill authorizing the George Washington coin.
Meanwhile, legislators, Treasury officials and numismatists were saying the right things about learning from their mistakes. The bill ended the old practice of selling the coins to a private entity or organization at face value, allowing them to keep the profits. Instead, Treasury would sell the coins to the public directly, allowing any profits to go right into the government’s coffers – pleasing the deficit hawks and tax cutters in Washington. George Hatie, president of the American Numismatic Association, went even further, proposing during his testimony before the subcommittee that a panel of nonpartisan professors and experts recommend subjects of national importance and interest for future commemorative coins. Swiatek, meanwhile, suggested limiting, by statute, the number of commemorative coins that could be issued in a calendar year, while echoing Hatie’s call for a panel of experts to oversee the selection process.
The proposals by the numismatists were not adopted by Congress, but it was clear that a new precedent was in place whereby commemoratives would be limited to celebrating major events of national importance. Like the bicentennial of the Capitol Visitor Center. Or the 177th anniversary of the U.S. Botanic Garden. Or a Lions Club coin that, as of last February, had only sold 85,554 coins – nearly 60 times less than the Washington coin (which did 5,045,474). I guess rules are made to be broken.
The coin was historic in another sense. Designed by the first female Chief Engraver of the United States, Elizabeth Jones, the obverse features a handsome portrait of Washington on horseback. The reverse is a view of Washington’s home in Mount Vernon with a heraldic eagle beneath it. Due to its classic design, as well as its silver content, the Washington half dollar serves as an appropriate bridge between the early commemoratives and the ones that would come later.
Most importantly, these coins are relatively cheap and inexpensive – most likely owing to the fact that the Mint produced way too many (10 million). However, enough of them sold so that demand for the coin decades later remains relatively low. You can get them for under $20 on Amazon, while eBay has them for even less. Cheap silver for everyone, indeed.