Ich Bin Ein Half Dollar

by Unfrozen Caveman Law Writer

The federal government can move quickly when it wants to.

In the days following John F. Kennedy’s assassination, officials at the U.S. Mint and the Treasury Department began talking with his widow about memorializing the slain president on a coin.

Deciding against replacing another ex-president, Jacqueline Kennedy asked for the half dollar, which was then occupied by Benjamin Franklin.

Wanting to start minting these coins as quickly as possible, Mint and Treasury officials decided against coming up with a design from scratch or soliciting options from engravers and artists. Instead, they adapted a design that had already been approved by Kennedy himself for the Mint’s U.S. Presidential medals series. The medal’s obverse, a profile of Kennedy facing left, had been created by Mint Chief Engraver Gilroy Roberts, while the reverse image, featuring the seal of the president, had been designed by Frank Gasparro.

The Franklin Half Dollars had only started circulating in 1948 — well short of the 25-year window after which the Mint could redesign a coin without Congressional authorization. Therefore, if the Mint and Kennedy Family wished to make the new half dollar a reality, they’d need both Houses to pass a law to that effect and new President Lyndon Johnson would need to sign it.

Luckily for them, all three were on board. Johnson, who had an often contentious relationship with his predecessor (and a far nastier and more personal one with Robert Kennedy), understood that the country was in mourning and wanted to honor the slain President. The savvy new President also knew he stood to gain, politically, by lionizing and tying himself to his former running mate — especially now that he would be the one at the top of the ticket in 1964.

The greatest leader of our time has been struck down by the foulest deed of our time. Today John Fitzgerald Kennedy lives on in the immortal words and works that he left behind. He lives on in the mind and memories of mankind. He lives on in the hearts of his countrymen.

On the 20th day of January, in 1961, John F. Kennedy told his countrymen that our national work would not be finished “in the first thousand days, nor in the life of this administration, nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet. But,” he said, “let us begin.” Today, in this moment of new resolve, I would say to all my fellow Americans, let us continue. This is our challenge–not to hesitate, not to pause, not to turn about and linger over this evil moment, but to continue on our course so that we may fulfill the destiny that history has set for us.

Lyndon Johnson, Address Before Joint Session of Congress, November 27, 1963

By December 10, less than three weeks after Kennedy’s death, President Lyndon Johnson sent a statement to both Houses of Congress encouraging them to pass legislation authorizing the new half dollar. Johnson’s statement noted that the Mint had already done the heavy lifting by using a previously approved design. Assuming there was no opposition, the coin should be able to go into circulation by early 1964.

And if anyone dared to oppose anything memorializing the tragically departed Kennedy, then they would have merited a chapter in his Profiles in Courage book. The bill unanimously passed both the House and Senate on December 30, 1963 and was signed into law by Johnson that same day.

Meanwhile the Mint had long been operating under the assumption that passing this bill would be a bigger fair accompli than Johnson running for re-election in 1964. In fact, three days after the President sent his statement to Congress, the Mint struck a few trial pieces for evaluation purposes.

Four days after that, Mint officials met with Jacqueline Kennedy and Bobby Kennedy to get their feedback. They both approved, although Jacqueline asked that the detail on JFK’s hair be slightly de-emphasized. The Mint acceded and came up with the design we’ve grown accustomed to over the years. A few 1964 coins did go out with the accented hair design, making them slightly more valuable than subsequent half dollars.

1964 Kennedy Half Dollar with Accented Hair. (Image via me)

Another thing that made the 1964 coins more valuable was the fact they consisted of 90% silver. Starting the next year, silver was eliminated from quarters and dimes and reduced from 90% to 40% in half dollars per the Coinage Act of 1965.

A big reason why that law passed was because of the Kennedy Half Dollar. When it was released to the general public on March 24, 1964, there was so much demand for it that it might as well have been a new iPhone or Taylor Swift tickets. There were long lines at banks in several major cities, and the initial supply of 70,000 Kennedy half dollars sold out by noon on the first day they were available. Several cities even had to ration their supplies and limit purchases. The demand was such that the Mint, which had originally planned on manufacturing approximately 90 million coins, had to increase it twice, first to about 140 million and then 160 million. Eventually, the Mint struck over 400 million 1964 and 1964-D halves.

Despite that bloated figure, the 1964 half was rarely found in commerce, which meant people were hoarding and collecting them. As a result, the country’s silver supply had become vastly depleted, leading to the 1965 Act — much to the chagrin of silver-producing state politicians including Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield of Montana.

1969-S Proof Kennedy Half Dollar. (Image via me)

From 1965 to 1969, the Kennedy half dollar boasted a silver content of 40% silver and 60% copper and other base metals. Starting in 1969, the Mint switched to a cupro-nickel alloy consistent with the ones used for quarters and dimes. Since then, the Kennedy Half Dollar’s composition has remained the same — outside of special issues or collector’s sets.

Like the quarter and dollar, the half was re-designed for the nation’s bicentennial. In this case, the reverse was switched from the Presidential seal to an image of Independence Hall in Philadelphia.

1976-S Kennedy Half Dollar (Deep Cameo). (Image via me)

Following that special issue, the Kennedy Half Dollar reverted back to its original design. However, the Mint then drastically cut production of the coin, going from over 530 million in 1976 to approximately 77 million in 1977. In the ensuing years, the figures would be reduced even more, as the Mint realized the coin was really only popular with collectors.

“We really don’t think many half dollars are being used in commerce,” Mint Director Stella B. Hackel told the New York Times in 1979. “They do go somewhere, though, so someone must want them.”

In the ensuing decades, the mintage figures would steadily decline, and starting in 2002, only a limited number of half dollars were made — mainly to satisfy collectors. This has possibly led to a chicken-and-egg scenario where, because most people rarely see Kennedy Half Dollars in circulation, they think the coin is scarce and more valuable it otherwise is. Lots of Americans probably have a jar or box full of them sitting at home somewhere. I know I do.

For more beginning or budget collectors, JFK half dollars are an appealing option because they’re relatively inexpensive and plentiful. As such, it’s possible to amass a complete set of Kennedys by year and mint mark without a lot of effort or investment.

Of course, there are some valuable specimens out there. Due to the quickness of the approval process, there aren’t many known patterns out there. However, the Mint created a small number of “Special Mint Sets” in 1964, which were similar to the usual proof sets except the coins had matte finishes and sharper details. Only a dozen SMS Kennedy Half Dollars are known to exist and all of them are worth a fortune. In other words, you probably have to be a Kennedy in order to afford one.

And that might be another explanation for this coin’s popularity. Many historians and commentators have said that the Kennedy family is the closest thing this country has ever had to royalty, and it’s hard to dispute that. Between their wealth, glamour and political power, the Kennedy family has felt like a dynasty in many ways.

After all, until recently, Kennedys have been a fixture in federal and state governments. From 1953 to 2010, the U.S. Senate Class I seat in Massachusetts belonged to either JFK, Ted Kennedy or family-approved placeholders. Until Patrick Kennedy left the House of Representatives in 2010, there had been a Kennedy serving in elected office in Washington D.C. since JFK was first elected to the House in 1947. When Joe Kennedy III was defeated in the 2020 U.S. Senate primary in Massachusetts, he became the first member of his family to ever lose an election in the Bay State. Even people who have married into the Kennedy family have seen their political fortunes rise, including Arnold Schwarzenegger, Andrew Cuomo and Sargent Shriver.

Beyond politics, the family has always captured the imagination of the general public. Kennedy weddings, scandals, and funerals are covered the way royal weddings, scandals and funerals are in the UK and elsewhere in the world. Whenever a new generation of Kennedys made their way into the public eye, they were inevitably described as heirs or heiresses to the throne. More recently, JFK Jr. and RFK Jr. have become objects of fascination with certain groups on the fringes of American society.

As such, it’s no surprise that the Kennedy Half Dollar’s appeal endures — even after all of these years. For many, JFK was more than a handsome, charismatic man who was great on TV and tossed out pithy, inspirational quotes with ease. Between the aspirational mythology of Camelot, the generational possibilities of New Frontier and the unfinished nature of his life, John F. Kennedy lives on as a symbol of what is possible and what could be. Man going to the moon? Of course — Kennedy dared us to do it and we did it. Civil rights? Kennedy got the ball rolling by submitting the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to Congress (Johnson was ultimately the one who saw it through). A young man getting elected to the highest office in the land? Barack Obama, Bill Clinton and many others were certainly inspired by that.

Obviously, Kennedy’s actual record is far more complicated, but for many, the mythology is more important. Was Kennedy really going to end the Vietnam War only for Johnson to mess it up? There’s no evidence for that, but many people are convinced of it. Did he really stare down the Soviet Union and expose Nikita Khrushchev as a bloviating bully during the Cuban Missile Crisis? Kind of — but it’s not as clear cut as it seemed. Was he really a champion of civil rights? His record has always been mixed, despite his support for the 1964 bill.

2018-S Half Dollar Reverse Proof. (Image via me)

It also helps that the Kennedy half dollar has always been a great looking coin. “I strongly advocated the simplicity and directness of a profile portrait as being the best possible arrangement for a handsome, outstanding coin whose beauty would endure and there could be no doubt as to the identity of the subject,” Roberts recalled. That’s no small feat. As we’ve seen, just because the subject is appealing, that doesn’t mean he or she will look good on a coin. Heck, look no further than the Kennedy Presidential Dollar Coin for evidence of that.

Plus, the Mint is always finding ways to jazz things up. In 2014, to commemorate the Kennedy Half Dollar’s 50th anniversary, the Mint started issuing reverse proof Kennedy halves, as well as a limited edition gold version. Much like the scene in 1964, the demand for the gold coin was through the roof and the Mint had to suspend its sales within 3 days of its release. Meanwhile, plans are underway to redesign the Kennedy Half Dollar for the nation’s semiquincentennial in 2026 and then from 2027-2030 to commemorate the Paralympics. However, the Circulating Collectible Coin Redesign Act of 2020 explicitly says that “the obverse of the half dollar shall bear a design containing a likeness of John Kennedy.”

Whether that means keeping the same design or going with a new image of JFK is up to the Mint. If they go the latter route, it’s clear that they’ll have a lot to live up to.

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