We Hardly Knew Ye…

by Unfrozen Caveman Law Writer

When you become leader of a country, state, republic, kingdom, empire or territory whose legal status is in dispute, one thing is for sure: your face will appear on coins — both official and unofficial ones.

That’s the case even if your reign lasts about as long as Chevy Chase’s career as a late night talk show. Or Mötley Crüe’s retirement. Or Richard Nixon‘s forced exit from politics after his infamous “Last Press Conference.”

Napoleon II — Emperor of France (in name only):

1816 Napoleon II 3 Centimes Pattern Coin. (Image via me)

The King is dead! Long live the King!”

The same holds true for emperors. When one dies or abdicates, then whoever’s next in line automatically becomes the new emperor.

At least that’s what Napoleon thought. When the emperor of France was defeated by the Sixth Grand Coalition (a/k/a everyone in Europe who hated him, so it was a pretty large group) in 1814, he abdicated and tried to pass the crown to his then-three year-old son, naming him as Napoleon II.

Predictably, the Grand Coalition had a problem with this, and two days after he named his son as France’s new emperor, Napoleon renounced it and abdicated unconditionally. The deposed emperor was then exiled to the island of Elba, never to be seen or heard from again.

Or at least that’s what everyone else thought. After less than a year in captivity, Napoleon escaped and reclaimed the French throne. Ruling for about 100 days, Napoleon spent most of his time preparing for an inevitable war with the coalition folks who were none too happy to see him again.

One thing he didn’t do was prepare his son to assume the throne if he were killed or forced to abdicate again. Napoleon II and his mother, Empress Marie Louise, had been exiled to her ancestral home of Austria and neither of them ever saw Napoleon again.

That became relevant after the Battle of Waterloo, which Napoleon lost. Once again, the emperor tried to abdicate in favor of his son. This time, the French refused to accept it, choosing to restore Louis XVIII, the Bourbon king who had been deposed by Napoleon for the Hundred Days.

As such, the legitimacy of Napoleon II’s reign has been disputed. If you take the view that he became emperor automatically after his father abdicated and only lost that title after subsequent events, then he “reigned” from approximately June 22 to July 2, 1815 — a period of about 20 days.

But he was never formally crowned — indeed, he never even set foot in France again for the rest of his life. Instead he stayed in Austria, where he embarked on a military career like his father, but showed little ambition to try and seek vengeance against his would-be predecessor’s enemies. Or maybe he pretended not to have the same drive and lust for power as his father because he was being carefully watched by Napoleon’s old opponents to make sure there would be no restoration.

Either way, it became a moot point when Napoleon II died at the age of 21 of tuberculosis. As he lay, dying, he seemed to understand that he was really only famous because of his name and what he represented to people who loved the old French Empire and wanted to see it come back. “My story is my birth and death,” he said on his deathbed. “Between my cradle and my grave, there is a big zero.”

But that wasn’t the case after his death. In the years after his premature passing, Napoleon II became a romantic figure of sorts. Operas, novels and plays have been written about him, most notably L’Aiglon (the French word for “eaglet” — which was Napoleon II’s nickname).

And, as journalist Henry Rochefort pointed out (with tongue firmly in cheek), Napoleon II wasn’t so bad, at least not compared to the alternatives:

I shall even add that, to my mind, he represents the ideal sovereign. No one will deny that he occupied the throne, since his successor calls himself Napoleon III. What a reign my friends, what a reign! Not one tax, no useless wars with their ensuing levies; none of these distant expeditions through which we expend six hundred million in order to recover fifteen francs; no consuming civil list, no pluralistic ministers at one hundred thousand francs apiece for five or six functions. There, indeed, is a monarch such as I can understand. Oh! Yes, Napoleon II, I like you and I admire you without reservation!”

Henri Rochefort, May 31, 1868.

He also became a rallying figure for Bonapartists who were hoping for an opportunity to return to power. According to The Numismatist, there was at least one Napoleon II coin (a 5 Francs coin) minted as early as 1816 — one year after the would-be emperor’s dispute reign and one year into his father’s exile in St. Helena. The coin appears to be private propaganda, circulated amongst Bonapartists as a means of protest against the monarchy.

In the ensuing decades, additional coins bearing the boy emperor’s bust were minted — often by Bonapartists to continue promoting their cause. According to The Numismatist, when Napoleon III became emperor, he had several pattern coins of his predecessor struck, presumably to strengthen his link to the original Bonaparte dynasty.

I don’t know if the coin I have is one of the ones minted by Napoleon III or a restrike from a private mint. If it is a restrike, it’s in relatively good condition — later strikes have shown a dramatic amount of wear and deterioration due to the dies being overused. Either way, this is one of the more interesting coins in my collection and unlike some other French coins in my collection, didn’t cost me a tremendous amount of money.

Yuan Shi-Kai — China’s True Last Emperor (1915-16)

China’s true last emperor. (Image via me)

The story of Puyi, the renowned “last emperor of China” has been written about and told on screen multiple times — most notably, in Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1987 film The Last Emperor, which won a whopping nine Oscars, including Best Picture.

Technically, he wasn’t the actual last emperor of China. But I guess “The Second to Last Emperor” doesn’t have the same ring to it, does it?

China had been ruled by emperors for centuries until 1911, when revolutionaries deposed the aforementioned Puyi and established a provisional republic under the leadership of Sun Yat-sen. Sun, however, lacked military muscle and negotiated with Yuan Shikai, a popular and powerful member of the imperial court who had the support of the army. In exchange for Puyi’s abdication, the Republic of China would be established with Yuan as its first president.

As president, Yuan worked diligently to consolidate his power. He feuded with Sun and his Kuomintang Party, eventually forcing the latter go into exile in Japan. Yuan also put loyalists in charge of each province, giving them their own armies. Most notably, he also issued the famed Yuan silver dollar, a popular coin that continued to be minted and used for decades after his death.

With those accomplishments under his belt, Yuan believed that he deserved to be emperor. In 1915, he called a special legislative assembly of representatives that were bought and paid for by him and his monarchist allies.

They did their job, voting 1,993-0 to offer him the crown — an offer Yuan rejected only for them to beg him to accept for the good of the country. After this, he reluctantly accepted and immediately made plans for a lavish coronation ceremony, which included commissioning expensive robes, jade pieces and imperial porcelain pieces. Hey, if you’re going to be emperor, you have to look the part, right?

The Empire of China officially began on January 1, 1916 with Yuan establishing the Hongxian Dynasty. He was going to be formally crowned then, but kept delaying it due to widespread opposition and lack of international support for his new empire.

That delay became permanent on March 22, 1916 when he abdicated after only 83 days as emperor. The republic was restored with him as president, but Yuan died a few months later of uremia.

China then plunged into a period of instability and chaos that had long-ranging implications. Yuan’s decision to give each provincial governor an army allowed these new warlords resist the rule of the resurgent KMT. Sun’s successor, Chiang Kai-shek, spent the next couple of decades waging military campaigns against them, leaving the country ripe for the picking for the invading Japanese. World War II then weakened the KMT even more, causing them to lose control of mainland China to the communists and flee to Taiwan.

The above coin is almost certainly fake — I bought it for next to nothing on eBay because I just wanted it. It is a replica of a pattern coin that was supposed to be issued for the new emperor, although whether it was meant to replace the existing Yuan dollar or was a commemorative coin issued for collectors is not clear since it was never officially issued. Authentic “flying dragon” dollars are worth quite a bit of money — a beautiful gem of one sold for $840,000 in 2022.

Fake or not, this coin is really cool and has a great story behind it. I don’t think will lead to any sequels to The Last Emperor, though.

William Henry Harrison — President of the United States for One Month (1841)

He won a big victory but didn’t get to do much with it. (Image via me)

Since he only lasted for a month in the White House, it’s arguable that William Henry Harrison’s lasting legacy was his election as President of the United States in 1840.

Between his innovative “log cabin”-style of campaigning, the way he outmaneuvered Whig Party heavyweight Henry Clay for the nomination, and the creation of the most memorable campaign slogans of all time (“Tippecanoe and Tyler, too“), Harrison gave hope to many Americans that, if he could run the country as well as he ran his election effort, then everything would be just fine.

Unfortunately for him, soon after his inauguration, Harrison caught a nasty cold. The newly elected president was known for walking around town without a winter coat, as if to prove his bona fides as a war hero, man of the people and all-around tough guy. Indeed, a major reason why he even won the nomination in 1840 was because the Whigs thought they needed their own version of Andrew Jackson, a war hero, man of the people and all-around tough guy whose party had waxed the Whigs in three consecutive Presidential elections.

Things took a turn for the worse and Harrison died on April 4, 1841 after only one month in office. The long-running hypothesis has been that he caught his cold during his inauguration and never shook it. However, in 2014, Jane McHugh and Philip A. Mackowiak published a journal article in Clinical Infectious Diseases that argued Harrison died of septic shock due to water contamination in the White House.

As such, we never found out what kind of President Harrison would have been. Would he have stuck to the themes in his inauguration speech, which lasted 1 hour 45 minutes and remains the longest in history? In that speech, Harrison promised to defer to Congress on legislative matters and to maintain the status quo on slavery.

But he also vowed to re-charter the National Bank and support Henry Clay’s ambitious American system of national infrastructure projects, protective tariffs and other proposals designed to strengthen the country as a whole. He also promised to “drain the swamp,” so to speak, reforming the government and ending Jackson’s spoils system.

Instead, his lasting legacy (besides spawning trivia questions like “who was the first President to die in office?” and “who are the only grandfather and grandson to be elected President?”) is that he helped resolve a constitutional ambiguity — namely, what happens when a president dies in office and the vice president takes over? Does the VP become the actual, legitimate President? Or do they act as sort of an acting or interim President? Or are they mere caretakers who are only there to keep things running until the next election? (The 25th Amendment eventually made things clear.)

John Tyler believed in no uncertain terms that he was the actual, legitimate qPresident. And that meant he could do as he pleased, staying faithful to Harrison’s plans when they augured with his but then going his own way when they didn’t, much to the eventual chagrin of Clay and the other Whigs in Washington. After a long period of hostility, they used their influence to make sure Tyler would become the first president to be denied renomination by his own party. Tyler, though, had the last laugh, using his office and influence to help James Knox Polk of the Democrats defeat Clay in the 1844 election.

Despite the brevity of his tenure in office, Harrison appears on quite a few tokens and coins. One reason for this is that his rise to power took place during the Hard Times Token era, when private minters made all sorts of politically-themed coins. As such, there are tons of tokens of politicians from that era, particularly Jackson, Clay and Martin Van Buren.

And Harrison. The above token, which features Harrison in military regalia on the obverse and a log cabin on the reverse, was issued for Harrison’s 1840 campaign. There were similar variants issued that had slightly different military-themed busts and log cabins.

Additionally, modern day coins and medals of Harrison are easily obtainable, as a result of the U.S. Mint’s Presidential $1 Series and Silver Presidential Medals program (the Millard Fillmore one dropped this week!).

If you go on the U.S. Mint’s website, each Presidential silver medal costs $75. You’d think the one for William Henry Harrison would have cost a little bit less since he was barely in office, but I guess that’s equality under the law for you…