All About the Benjamins

by Unfrozen Caveman Law Writer

This was my gateway coin.

I was in middle school when I happened to see it in an old bowl of change in my parents’ room and was immediately intrigued. I had seen half dollars before, but only ones with John F. Kennedy on them. I had never seen one with Benjamin Franklin’s face on it. Yet, here it was, forgotten about and collecting dust in a bowl so dirty that the amount of effort it would take to make it suitable for food consumption again wouldn’t have been worth it.

Nevertheless, I was fascinated (by the coin, not the bowl) and asked my mom if I could have it. “Sure,” she said with a shrug – never imagining that it would lead to a lifetime of coin collecting on my part. Or maybe she was just happy I was interested in something besides baseball cards or Garbage Pail Kids. After all, coin collecting is the hobby of kings. Literally.

The Franklin half dollar is a transitional coin of sorts.

First issued in 1948, the Franklin half was sandwiched between two long-running designs: the Walking Liberty half dollar (1916-1947) and the Kennedy half dollar (1964-present).

Typically, all coins issued by the U.S. Mint must be authorized by an act of Congress and signed into law by the President. One exception is that the Secretary of the Treasury can change a coin’s design unilaterally if more than 25 years have elapsed since that coin’s initial release. So when U.S. Mint Director Nellie Tayloe Ross decided, in 1947, that she wanted to issue a coin honoring Franklin the only designs eligible to be replaced without going through Congress or the President were the penny (which meant dumping Abraham Lincoln – a nonstarter politically) and the half dollar. The incumbent half dollar at the time, the Walking Liberty, seemed old-fashioned and out of step with the trend of using images of ex-Presidents and historical figures. As such, the Mint decided to retire that design (bringing it back in 1986 when the Silver Eagle program began) in favor of the proposed Franklin coin.

Ben Franklin was many things to many men, but he never lost an opportunity to preach the virtues of thrift. His face on the new half dollar will serve as a potent reminder, so the Secretary hopes, that thrifty financial management is as important to individuals and to society today as it was in Franklin’s time. Specifically, the Secretary thinks it will remind everyone that an excellent thing to do with spare half dollars and other spare coins these days is to buy savings bonds and stamps.

U.S. Mint statement, January 7, 1948

Franklin was a logical choice for the Mint. For one, he had already been on the $100 bill since 1928. For another, the multi-talented statesman had played a role in the early coinage of the U.S., designing the 1776 Continental Currency Dollar coin that later became the basis for the 1787 Fugio Cent, the country’s first circulating coin. And, as a non-partisan, non-elected official, Franklin was a good compromise choice bound to appeal to politicians of all stripes. I wasn’t able to find confirmation of this, but I suspect Franklin’s non-partisan reputation was important for maintaining the balance of representation on coinage at the time. Lincoln (penny) was a Republican, Thomas Jefferson (nickel) had been a Democratic-Republican, FDR (dime) was a Democrat and Washington (quarter) had been a Federalist. Using a venerated figure like Franklin would ensure none of those four major parties (Not counting the Whigs, but who were they going to put forth? William Henry Harrison on the half-cent since he was the shortest-reigning President?) got an extra coin. Of course, as we’ll see later, that soon went out the window.

Chief Engraver John R. Sinnock had previously designed a medal honoring Franklin, and he produced a similar-looking bust for the obverse of the new half dollar. On the reverse, Sinnock maintained the Philadelphia connection (and his penchant for recycling) and adapted the Liberty Bell design he produced for the Sesquicentennial Commemorative half dollar. He then added a small bald eagle next to the bell – a delicious bit of irony, considering Franklin had once referred to it as a “bird of bad moral character.” Then, for the pièce de résistance, Sinnock engraved his initials, “J.R.S.,” under his portrait of Franklin.

Of course, since this is numismatics we’re talking about, the initials ended up being controversial. It wasn’t quite as bad as the “V.D.B.” Lincoln cent, but it was close. One common theory amongst the public was that “J.R.S.” stood for Joseph R. Stalin, even though his middle initial wasn’t actually “R” (did people think his middle name was “Russia” or something?). If the coin had come out a few years ago, we’d probably think it stood for J.R. Smith.

The Franklin half lasted until 1963, whereupon Congress hastily authorized its replacement by the Kennedy half as a tribute to the slain President. Jacqueline Kennedy had been given a choice between putting her late husband on the quarter or half dollar, and not wanting to displace the father of our country, chose the latter. The bill easily passed both houses of Congress as the country was still grieving over its loss and almost no one in Congress dared vote against anything memorializing JFK.

2018-S Half Dollar Reverse Proof

One Senator, though, lamented the removal of Franklin’s bust from the half dollar. Then-Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen had a well-deserved reputation for oratory and fiscal conservatism (he’s been widely credited with the famous phrase: “A billion here, a billion there, pretty soon it begins to add up to real money” – something he didn’t actually say)

So, in the decade of deficits perhaps Mr. Franklin’s idea that ‘a penny saved is two pence clear, a pin a day’s a groat a year,’ is considered modern twaddle.

It seems to me, if Franklin must go – and it distresses me – I should shed a tear for Poor Richard. When the federal deficit for fiscal year 1964 and the projected deficits for 1965 and 1966 are announced, let us ponder that it was Mr. Franklin who said: ‘Get what you can, and what you hold; ’tis the stone that will turn all your lead into gold’ …

So, as we make this change, I say ‘Goodby, Benjamin Franklin, apostle of thrift and frugality. Evidently you are not so popular in the age of deficit.’

Senator Everett Dirksen (R-IL), December 18, 1963

Perhaps because it wasn’t around for too long, and came after the acclaimed and beloved Walking Liberty half and before the long-running Kennedy half, the Franklin half has never really received its due. From a collectors’ standpoint, Franklin halves are a good investment since they were all minted before the switch from 90% silver to 40% silver in half dollars starting in 1965 (silver was eliminated from half dollars starting in 1971). There isn’t as much demand for Franklin halves as there is for Walking Liberty halves, so Franklins are relatively affordable.

And hey, Benjamin Franklin still has the $100 bill. It’s much easier (and safer) to make it rain with those.