Teddy Roosevelt Strikes Again

$10 Indian Gold Eagles

In 1904, President Theodore Roosevelt had a well-known series of discussions with his friend, famed sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, regarding the “fate of U.S. Gold coin designs.” Discussions centered on how to “improve the design of America’s coinage.”

Roosevelt wanted American coinage to rival that of the Greeks and Romans for artistic style and symbolism. He was tired of the exact same representations of Lady Liberty on one side and an American eagle or a wreath on the reverse. Although those were the design elements he ended up with, Saint-Gaudens’ eye for style and character ensured the designs would be different, unusual and strikingly attractive.

The original plan called for Saint-Gaudens to design all four Gold coins (the $2.50 Quarter Eagle, the $5 Half Eagle, the $10 Eagle and the $20 Double Eagle) as well as the One Cent coin. But Saint-Gaudens was in failing health and time was not on his side. He first tackled the $20 Gold Double Eagle, which bears his name today, but it took much longer than he had planned due to the relief being so high. Multiple revisions with lowered relief were required and that took much time – something Saint-Gaudens had in short supply.

Then Saint-Gaudens incorrectly assumed that, like the prior Gold Liberty coin designs, all four Gold denominations would share the same obverse and reverse with only size and inscriptions changing between coins. So he turned his attention to the One Cent coin.

This was an important design to Saint-Gaudens. He realized that, unlike a $20 Gold coin, every man, woman and child in America would see his new design on the One Cent coins.  His design was Lady Liberty on the obverse facing left wearing an olive wreath in her hair. There were also olive branches around inscriptions on the reverse.

But Roosevelt had other ideas. He wanted new and separate designs for all of his re-created Gold coins. He liked Saint-Gaudens’ basic design and wanted it for the $10 Gold coin, not for the lowly One Cent piece, but he did have some design changes. Most prominently, Roosevelt wanted a male Indian warrior’s feathered headdress on Lady Liberty. While modern-day critics have scoffed at “Roosevelt’s addition,” he was adamant about it, stating “I feel very strongly that on at least one coin we ought to have the Indian feather headdress. It is distinctly American and very picturesque.”

With that, the headdress was added and the stars would remain, but the headband would bear the word “LIBERTY” and the date would be placed where LIBERTY was. But the reverse was too complicated and not inspiring enough for Teddy Roosevelt.

In 1905, Saint-Gaudens designed the Presidential Inauguration Medal for Roosevelt’s inauguration. Roosevelt liked the bust  but was extremely enamored with the American eagle on the reverse. To him, it demonstrated the American spirit, just as he liked to think he himself did.

So instead, a version of that standing eagle was utilized for the new $10 Gold coin as well. The dies were prepared and, after initial review, revisions were requested, and then requested again. The relief of the coins was too high and the Mint Director reached out to Saint-Gaudens one final time. But there was no response coming from Cornish, New Hampshire. Augustus Saint-Gaudens had died of cancer on August 3, 1907. Roosevelt wrote to his wife and, while mourning the loss of his friend, stated, “I count it as one of the privileges of my administration to have had him make two of our [nation’s] coins.”

The modifications were completed and the coins were struck from 1907 until 1916 and then on an irregular schedule until 1933 when the United States ceased the minting of all U.S. Gold coins. The sculptor never got to see the fruits of his labor but President Roosevelt was always reminded of his good friend as he collected, owned and spent the beautiful Gold coins he had designed.

There are a few great rarities in this series of coins but a striking example is the 1907 “Wire Edge” variety. With a scant mintage of only 500 coins, these coins have been considered patterns by some numismatists. Further, there is no documentary evidence to determine whether these coins were actually produced as Proof strikes or as regular business strikes. Regardless, the high relief and extremely sharp edge make even the casual observer aware of the beauty of the coin that Augustus Saint-Gaudens created.  

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