How President Roosevelt Changed U.S. Gold Coins
Published on 12/09/2021 by APMEX
On September 6, 1901, nearly one year after being re-elected to a second term, President William McKinley was visiting the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York. Much like his Vice President, Teddy Roosevelt, McKinley fancied himself as a man of the people. He didn’t want his bodyguards to interfere with his meeting the voters of America, so he visited the Exposition with aides rather than security.
McKinley was inside one of the most popular attractions at the Exposition, the Temple of Music. While shaking hands with visitors, he was approached by Leon Czolgosz, an unemployed glassmaker, who felt McKinley was a symbol of oppression. Czolgosz had a .32 caliber revolver hidden in his handkerchief.
As he approached McKinley, Czolgosz fired two quick shots. One bullet grazed McKinley while the other lodged in his abdomen. Despite heroic efforts to save him, he died eight days later, and Vice President Teddy Roosevelt became the 26th President of the United States.
Roosevelt Leaving His Mark
Upon becoming president, Roosevelt sought to leave his imprint on America and had a long list of priorities. One of those priorities was to change America’s Silver and Gold coins.
In a famous letter to U.S. Secretary of the Treasury L.M. Shaw, dated December 27, 1904, Roosevelt stated, “I think the state of our coinage is artistically of atrocious hideousness. Would it be possible, without asking permission of Congress, to employ a man like [Augustus] Saint-Gaudens to give us a coinage which would have some beauty?”
Roosevelt believed the impressive high-relief Gold coins of ancient Greece and Rome were the pinnacle of numismatic beauty and style. He felt the contemporary American Liberty Head Gold Coin series was dull, boring and lacked imagination. Although these coins were the “ commerce of the day,” Roosevelt believed they still should represent America and portray our nation’s beauty and majesty.
Shaw determined there were five coins whose designs could be changed without Congressional approval. These were the one-cent coin and four Gold coins: $2.50 Quarter Eagle, $5 Half Eagle, $10 Eagle and $20 Double Eagle.
Saint-Gaudens New Design
Augustus Saint-Gaudens was the premiere sculptor of his day and a friend of Teddy Roosevelt. He embodied the ideals of the American Renaissance. Saint-Gaudens created the Abraham Lincoln: The Man sculpture in Chicago and the Robert Gould Shaw Memorial in Boston Commons. After his Abraham Lincoln statue, he became more highly sought after and commissioned many Civil War generals and even Classical sculptures.
He agreed with Roosevelt’s wish to design and strike a coin in high relief. High-relief coins were considered ill-suited for commerce because they do not stack properly. But, since this was Roosevelt’s dream, Saint-Gaudens agreed.
The Saint-Gaudens $20 Double Eagle is widely considered to be the “most beautiful American coin ever designed". The high-relief version that was initially produced captures the majesty and beauty of Saint-Gaudens' design and rivals the most beautiful coins of the ancient world.
Although the relief was lowered to make them acceptable in the marketplace of commerce, the design remained essentially unchanged. A more normal relief design was created and minted from 1907 to 1933.
Ironically, Theodore's fifth cousin, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, signed Executive Order 6102 in 1933, which banned Americans from owning Gold bullion. This included Gold coins. Signing this order was in an effort to prevent the economy from worsening during the Great Depression. However, it was met with anger and resistance from some.
Even though thousands of Gold coins were turned into the U.S. government to be melted down, many people secretly refused. Because of them, a number of Saint-Gaudens Gold Double Eagles can still be found today in limited quantities.
The beloved Saint-Gaudens design was reintroduced when American Eagle Gold bullion coins were produced for the first time in 1986. It remains one of the most popular Gold coins today.
Indian Head Eagle Design Release
The renowned Augustus Saint-Gaudens also designed the $10 Gold Eagle that depicted Lady Liberty on the obverse in a feather headdress and a standing bald eagle on the reverse. These Gold coins were, again, too high relief for the government mint to strike it, so it took the designers months to alter the illustrations to be a lower relief.
Unfortunately, Saint-Gaudens passed away in 1907 before the new $10 Eagle was struck. Pres. Roosevelt insisted that the work be finished and the Gold coin struck by the end of the month to honor his friend's memory and legacy with the coin's release.
Notable differences in this Gold coin's design were that Lady Liberty was now adorned with a Native headdress, there were 46 stars in 1907 to mark the newly added state, Oklahoma, to the union, and "In God We Trust' was omitted. Pres. Roosevelt thought that the Native headdress was "picturesque" and wanted it to be included in several designs.
This raised much controversy among numismatists because it seemed ill-fitting, then and now, but was added nonetheless. Additionally, removing "In God We Trust" also caused a stir. Pres. Roosevelt thought it was sacrilegious to display God's name on legal tender and Saint-Gaudens wanted minimal lettering on the coin's design, so he did not mind.
There was so much outcry that the House of Representatives passed a bill requiring the phrase be included on the new eagle and double eagle in 1908, with the Senate following suit months after.
Roosevelt, feeling immense pressure from negative public opinion signed the bill into law and the phrase was added next to the eagle's chest.
The $10 Indian Head Gold Eagle was struck regularly from 1907 to 1916 and was sporadically minted until 1933 when Pres. Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 6102. 1933 was the last year this Gold coin was ever minted, making it a very rare coin to find.
Indian Head Half Eagle Redesign
The $5 Half Eagle was the first Gold coin the U.S. government minted in 1795. It took on the Indian Head design in 1908 as part of Pres. Roosevelt's efforts to make American Gold coins more beautiful. Illustrated by Bela Lyon Pratt who also designed the Indian Head Quarter Eagle that was released in 1908, as well.
Pratt's new design was a striking departure from previous looks. It featured a Native man in a headdress on the obverse with "Liberty" inscribed above him and a perched eagle with "In God We Trust" written next to it on the reverse. Not only was this new design more artistic and inspiring, but it also features the inscribed words stamped at an incuse, instead of being raised from the surface.
The Indian Head Half Eagle and Quarter Eagle were regularly minted from 1908 to 1916 and were minted for the last time in 1929. While they faced ridicule and backlash for the design at the time, age has made numismatists greater admirers of the Gold coin and its design.
Pres. Theodore Roosevelt helped get conversations started around reinventing American coinage's look. He wanted beauty and his exuberant and persistent demands contributed to the American Silver and Gold coin renaissance at the turn of the 20th century.
This era produced some of the most iconic and sought-after Gold and Silver coins today because a president wanted to incorporate more art into their daily lives. Theodore Roosevelt's legacy lives on in the inspired coin artwork found on U.S. Mint bullion, and also in the collectible Gold coins from this time added to collections every day.