Following the ratification of the United States
Constitution, George Washington was elected as president and
inaugurated on April 30, 1789.
While debating the specifics of a Mint Act in
1791-92, a number of proposed coin types were struck by private
bearing the image of President Washington on the obverse. One of these
coins, having a face value of one cent and dated 1791, is shown at
left. Image courtesy of Heritage Coins.
Scene: It is December, 1791, in Philadelphia. Two Treasury Department officials approach President Washington's office. They are carrying an example of a 1791 Washington Cent.
Official 1: (knocking on the door) Mr. President, may we come in?
Washington: Yes, come in, but make it quick. I've got a lot on my plate today. (both men enter the president's office and are seated)
Official 2: Sir, we realize you're busy, but could we have a word with you about the Mint Act currently being debated in Congress?
Washington: Ha! Busy is not the word for it. This new Bank of the United States has been a big headache. Jefferson is upset with me for siding with Hamilton, and now all this bickering is threatening to destabilize our already fragile government.
Official 2: Yes sir, the feud between Secretary Jefferson and Secretary Hamilton has been quite the fodder for all the newspapers.
Washington: As you know, I don't like political parties, but we've got 'em now because of this stupid bank. Some people are even calling me a Federalist! And on top of that, Martha is riding my a** about taking to much work home from the office. Good heavens, what does she expect me to do? (switching gears) What's up, guys?
Official 1: Mr. President, we have something that is gonna cheer you up.
Washington: Oh really, whatcha got? (noticing the coin) Let me see that.
Official 2: (hands the coin to the president). Sir, you are the most revered individual throughout this land. All over the world, your name is mentioned alongside those of the greatest leaders in history.
Washington: Aw, knock it off, will ya?
Official 1: As you know, Congress is drafting legislation to establish coinage in these United States, and many of your countrymen believe it is both fitting and proper that your image adorn our nation's coins. (Washington is stunned and speechless, followed by an awkward silence).
Official 2: The cent you hold in your hands, Mr. President, bearing your image, is also being distributed to members of Congress for their consent likewise. We anticipate a favorable reception, due to your enormous fame.
Washington: Oh, you've got to be kidding (flips the coin back to Official 2, while registering body language disgust). I don't want my image on a coin. Who thought of this moronic idea?
Official 1: But Mr. President, this sort of thing is common practice throughout the nations of the earth. The kings and queens of Europe are exalted thusly. If we ever wish to be on par with...
Washington: (interrupting) This is NOT Europe. Look, gentlemen... I am NOT your king. You elected me to be your PRESIDENT. I am gonna be here for a few years, then after that I'm going home to Mt. Vernon, and you guys are gonna have to find someone else to take my place, cuz I'm outta here!
Official 2: Sir, may I ask why you are so adamantly opposed to this?
Washington: As we sat in that hot, sweaty room day after day back in the summer of 1787, trying to agree on the wording for our new Constitution, the overriding concern was to make sure too much power could NOT be concentrated in the hands of any one person or group of persons, INCLUDING the president. We wanted to ordain a concept called "ordered liberty", where no one can govern without the consent of the governed. I'm not sure if in the end it'll work, but we're giving it a try.
Official 1: I see where you're going with this, Mr. President...
Washington: So if you are thinking about putting my face on government coins, forget about it, because it goes against everything we're trying to establish. I DO NOT want that. There is to be no royalty class in these United States, at least not while I am president.
Official 2: (somewhat sheepishly) Sir, many of your allies in Congress will be saddened by your disapproval. The Mint Act, as is being drafted in the House, calls for a representation of the President of the United States on our coins. What are we to tell them?
Washington: (pauses thoughtfully for a few seconds) Tell them to remove the clause regarding the presidential likeness and substitute it with "an impression emblematic of Liberty", or something to that effect. Now THAT is the image of America we want to convey to the world.
Official 1: (somewhat puzzled) Mr. President, what do we select that is... how did you say it... emblematic of liberty?
Washington: (chuckling) I see your point. The essence of Liberty is kinda hard to capture on a coin, but I have a thought. A few years ago, Ben worked with some Frenchmen on a Libertas Americana medal. That translates to "American Liberty". The medal shows some lady with air flowing freely through her hair, as to symbolize liberty. There is a Freedom Cap from ancient times in the background. I suggest we employ something like that for United States coinage.
Official 2: We will take your suggestion to Congress, Mr. President, and see what happens.
Washington: Well, they had better listen, cuz I'm gonna veto any Mint Act bill coming to my desk insisting on presidential portraits.
Official 2: So your position is non-negotiable? You are certain you don't want your image to appear on any United States coins whatsoever?
Washington: You've got it right. As your president, I am in charge of a representative government, not a monarchy. Someday... (pausing, then lowering his voice) maybe someday, long after I'm gone, and if anyone even cares to remember me... let's say perhaps on the 200th anniversary of my birthday... let's see.... that would be... 1932... if they want my picture on a coin, well... I guess at that point it would be okay with me. A modest 25 cent quarter would suit me just fine.
Official 1: Thank you for your time, Mr. President (the men shake hands)
Washington: (as the officials exit the office, he shouts out to them) And tell them to smash those Washington Cent coin dies!!
Though the vernacular of the 1790's is not the
same as today, it's not at all far fetched to imagine such a reaction
from President Washington, is it?