Silver (Dollar) Anniversary

by Unfrozen Caveman Law Writer

UPDATE (12/17/2020): The House bill was passed via unanimous consent in the Senate. Assuming the President signs it, looks like we’ll be getting those new Morgan and Peace Dollars after all.

UPDATE (01/05/2020): The President signed the bill into law.

I attended two coin conventions in 2019, and one thing they both had in common was that there was no shortage of Morgan and Peace Silver Dollars available from the many vendors on the bourse. There was such an abundance that Scrooge McDuck could have bought every single silver dollar with whatever pocket change he happened to have (assuming he wears pants – Donald doesn’t, so why should he?), loaded them into a wading pool and gone for a dip.

By this time next year, there could be even more Morgan and Peace dollars hitting the market — provided that Congress can get its act together.

In late September, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill to commemorate the centennial of the changeover from Morgan dollars to Peace dollars by releasing new versions of the two coins that we’ve all come to know and love. It’s a pretty creative way to release two coins instead of just one – or even coming up with new ones since the 2021 “commemoratives” will bear the same designs as the originals (because of that, they won’t count as commemorative coins and be subject to the two-per-year quota).

One key difference being discussed, according to Coin World, is that uncirculated versions of the 2021 Peace Dollar could be struck in high-relief, like the inaugural coins were before the Mint switched to the more customary low-relief version due to production problems. High-relief Peace dollars can be very expensive, so assuming these coins are at least somewhat affordable, it might be the best chance most collectors will ever get to acquire one.

Coin bills tend not to be very controversial. Nevertheless, it’s striking that, in this day of extreme polarization and hyper-partisanship, this bill managed to pass without any debate. In fact, the House also summarily passed another bill, which authorized yet another new design series for the quarter (focusing on youth sports to be produced between 2027 and 2030), commemorative coins for the 2028 Los Angeles Summer Olympics, and special semiquincentennial designs (similar to the Mint’s Bicentennial series).

Meanwhile, a near-identical bill sponsored by Senators Mike Enzi (R-WY) and Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV) is pending in the Senate. These days, passing anything in the Senate is a monumental struggle — unless it’s a judicial nomination. Nevertheless, there’s good reason to hope that this bill will pass the upper house.

For instance, the Senate can still move quickly when it wants to (witness Amy Coney Barrett’s Supreme Court nomination). Check out this recent clip of Mitch McConnell doing his best traffic cop impression and waving through many important pieces of legislation. Like designating September 25 as National Lobster Day.

Additionally, co-sponsor Enzi is a four-term Senator from Wyoming and chairman of the powerful Budget Committee who will retire in January. One would think that passing this bill would be a fitting farewell gift to a Senator who has long been interested in coinage. In 2017, Enzi and John McCain introduced the Currency Optimization, Innovation, and National Savings (COINS) Act, which sought to replace the $1 bill with a dollar coin, reduce the cost of producing the nickel and suspend the production of the penny for 10 years (the bill was never referred to committee). In June, he and Senator Maggie Hassan (D-NH) introduced the Coin Metal Modification Authorization and Cost Savings Act of 2020 to help address the COVID-related coin shortage. Like the Morgan/Peace Dollar commemoratives bill, Enzi’s and Hassan’s bill is currently pending before the Senate.

Meanwhile, Cortez Masto is a first-term Senator from Nevada who is ranking member of the Banking Subcommittee on Economic Policy, which holds jurisdiction over coinage issues. If Enzi specifically looked for a Democrat to co-sponsor the bill with in order to give it the stamp of bipartisanship, there weren’t many better choices than Cortez Masto.

According to the text of both bills, the 1921 changeover from Morgan Dollars to Peace Dollars symbolizes a pivotal moment in American history:

The Morgan silver dollar represents the country’s westward expansion and industrial development in the late 19th century. The Peace silver dollar symbolizes the country’s coming of age as an international power while recognizing the sacrifices made by her citizens in World War I and celebrating the victory and peace that ensued.

S. 4326 and H.R. 6192– 1921 Silver Dollar Coin Anniversary Act
1883-CC Morgan Dollar. (Image via me)

Like many coins from that era, the Morgan Dollar came about due to the increased political power of western, silver producing states in the late 1800s. After the Fourth Coinage Act (1873) demonetized silver bullion and established the gold standard, free silver forces began pushing for the resumption of silver coinage. Buoyed by the dropping price of silver thanks to increased mining in the West, free silver forces won a major political victory five years later when Congress enacted the Bland-Allison Act over President Rutherford B. Hayes’s veto, which required the U.S. Treasury Department to purchase a certain amount of silver every year and place it into circulation as coins. The bill also created silver certificates, paper currency redeemable for their face value in silver coins. Similar to gold certificates, some of these silver certificates can be quite distinctive and even expensive.

As a result of Bland-Allison, the Mint began designing a new silver dollar and accepted a design from George Morgan, an assistant engraver with the Mint. Morgan went with the standard design of Lady Liberty on the obverse – however, instead of using classic images of her, he used a Philadelphia woman as a model (Anna Willess Williams – although one historian has disputed this), resulting in a more Americanized version. The reverse is a bald eagle with its wings outstretched – however, the coin’s detractors later criticized the design as resembling that of a buzzard (hence one of the coin’s less flattering nicknames: “The Buzzard Dollar“). Morgan’s original design showed 8 tail feathers on the eagle; this was later changed to seven since prior coins had always depicted an odd number of feathers. Approximately 750,000 coins featuring 8-feathers instead of 7 were minted in 1878, the first year Morgan Dollars were available, and can be quite valuable.

The coin was not a hit when it was released in 1878. Politicians and miners may have wanted the coin, but that didn’t mean the general public did. Indeed, one of the main complaints about the coin was that it was so heavy — leading to the derisive nickname “Cartwheel Dollar.” Instead, millions of unused coins sat in the Mint vaults, and after exhausting its supply of silver bullion in 1904, the Mint decided not to produce any more Morgan Dollars.

That changed in 1918. World War I was still going on and our ally, Great Britain, was experiencing a run on silver in India thanks to German propaganda scaring people into believing that their silver certificates would not be redeemed by their government. Senator Key Pittman (from the silver-producing state of Nevada), authored a bill that authorized the Mint to melt down up to $350 million in existing coins. Some of that would be sold to Great Britain while the rest would be minted into silver dollars. The Pittman Act was quickly passed and enacted, leading to the melting of 270,232,722 silver dollars. Approximately 260,000,000 were sold to Britain in the form of bullion – giving them a much-needed lifeline and preventing a bank failure in India.

Another provision in the Pittman Act was that the Mint had to replace each melted coin with a newly minted one. As such, the 1921 Morgan Dollar is, by far, the most abundant of its kind, with over 86 million coins minted. It’s also, probably, the worst looking of the bunch, since the original dies had been destroyed after 1904 and the Mint hastily recreated them on the cheap, using shallower, lower-relief hubs to mint the 1921 coins.

1921 Morgan Dollar. (Image via me)

True, the silver dollar is not a popular coin except with a fraction of our population; but that fraction, small though it is, covers vast territory and knows how to make a big noise. In addition to this, the silver producer and the “friends of silver,” if any survive outside of Chautauqua, are going to make a considerable protest if there by any tinkering with keeping the provision to restore the “heavy rounds”…

And then-we gave our silver dollars to help win the war, we restore them in commemoration of victory and peace.

Farran Zerbe remarks to ANA Convention on August 25, 1920, reprinted by PCGS.

Despite the indifferent reception Morgan Dollars received upon release, they have become one of the most popular coins for collectors (hence their ubiquity at coin shows). Because of the large supply, 1921 dollars are the most affordable Morgans for collectors to buy today. On the other end of the expense scale are the aforementioned 8-feathered coins, as well as several less common issues struck in San Francisco, New Orleans, and Carson City. In fact, the Carson City dollars tend to be more expensive and in demand than their counterparts.

Then there’s the “King of Morgans”: the ultra-rare 1895 proof dollar (only 880 proof coins were minted in Philadelphia – these coins do not bear a mint mark, so be careful of 1895 coins with the mint mark scraped off). Good luck getting one of those. One of them sold in August for $117,000, while another one went the following month for a bargain $55,200.

Fresh off American victory in World War I (as well as the fact that the new Morgan dies were really just a cheaper version of the original ones), the Mint decided to come up with a new dollar for release later in 1921. According to Coin World, the idea for a coin celebrating our triumph dates back to an article published in the November 1918 issue of The Numismatist — the same month the Armistice of 11 November 1918 was signed. However, when it came to designing such a coin, the Mint decided not to glorify the violence of the just-concluded war and, instead, sought to promote the country’s role in bringing about world peace (because there was no way there would be another world war after the last one, right?).

When it came time to design what would become the Peace dollar, several prominent artists vied for the contract, including Victor David Brenner, Hermon MacNeil and Adolph Weinman. Ultimately, a young, somewhat inexperienced coin artist named Anthony de Francisci was chosen. De Francisci’s wife, Theresa, had immigrated to the U.S. as a child and had always been struck by seeing the Statue of Liberty upon her arrival at Ellis Island. Using his wife as a model, de Francisci’s obverse design contained a Lady Liberty wearing a radiate crown that strongly resembled the statue. On the reverse, de Francisci submitted two designs: a warlike eagle breaking a sword and a stationary eagle extending an olive branch.

In the end, it was the reverse image that generated the most controversy. The Mint approved the olive branch design, but de Francisci then added the word “peace” at the bottom and a broken sword in the eagle’s talons next to the olive branch. The “peace” part wasn’t a big deal. “There’s no discussion in official documents about why ‘PEACE’ was there,” said historian Roger Burdette and author of A Guide Book of Peace Dollars. “I think because the name of the coin originated long before the coin ever existed, there’s a good chance everybody just assumed it was going to be there.”

Instead, it was the broken sword that raised a stink. To some, it didn’t represent peace as much it did defeat or surrender. The New York Herald led the parade of outrage:

A sword is broken when its owner has disgraced himself. It is broken when a battle is lost and breaking is the alternative to surrendering. A sword is broken when the man who wears it can no longer render allegiance to his sovereign. But America has not broken its sword. It has not been cashiered or beaten; it has not lost allegiance to itself. The blade is bright and keen and wholly dependable. It is regrettable that the artist should have made such an error in symbolism.

NY Herald, Dec. 21, 1921. Reprinted in The Numismatist.

As a result of the ensuing outcry, the Mint removed the broken sword from the reverse. Perhaps it was all for naught, as the Peace Dollar ended up having limited circulation outside the western U.S. In 1928, after all of the melted coins from the Pittman Act had been replaced, the Mint stopped producing the Peace Dollar. That lasted for six years, whereupon the western states, once again, got an act passed by Congress for Treasury to buy up cheap silver and mint coins. So, we got more Peace Dollars in 1934 and 1935. There were plans for a 1936 coin, but lack of demand caused the Mint to scrap it.

Unlike the Morgan Dollars, Peace Dollars are relatively affordable. The high-relief ones are a bit more expensive, but otherwise Peace Dollars are a relative bargain. There aren’t any extremely rare dates like there are with Morgans — the 1928-P Peace Dollar is probably the most valuable of the low-relief bunch due to the fact that only 360,649 were minted.

1922-S Peace Dollar (Low Relief). (Image via me)

Then there’s the mythical 1964 Peace Dollar. Once again, an effort led by western politicians (in this case, Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield of Montana) pushed through a bill requiring Treasury to purchase silver bullion and make them into silver dollars. To meet its statutory burden, the Mint decided to simply strike a bunch of new Peace Dollars and circulate those. However, after the Mint announced the new/old coin and produced approximately 316,000, Congress canceled the 1964 Peace Dollar amidst concerns that the coin would be hoarded. The Mint then deemed the 1964 dollars produced as “trial strikes” and not official coins, and immediately melted them down. Despite that, rumors persist that a few escaped destruction — although owning one is illegal since it was never officially released to the public (much like the famed 1974 aluminum penny) and PCGS has a long-standing bounty of $10,000 just to see an authentic one (hopefully, they won’t make the obligatory call to Treasury, ratting you out).

In any event, it could all be for naught if the Senate fails to act before January 3, 2021. Considering COVID relief still hasn’t passed and with the 2020 elections looming, it’s possible that this falls through the cracks. Then again, McConnell could always wave through a bunch of bills through unanimous consent the way he did for National Lobster Day.