The George Washington Cent?

Following the ratification of the United States Constitution, George Washington was elected as president and inaugurated on April 30, 1789.

Many challenges faced the infant republic and its first president. Among them was passage of a Mint Act and the establishment of United States coinage.

1791 George Washington small eagle cent

While debating the specifics of a Mint Act in 1791-92, a number of proposed coin types were struck by private individuals 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.

They were distributed to members of Congress and other government officials for review, stirring up a storm of controversy. For some, the effigy of a sitting president's image on a coin was too monarchical.

In spite of these objections, legislation was moving forward to require the president's likeness on United States coinage, and owing to Washington's immense popularity, appeared destined to become law.

It is believed by most historians that George Washington himself disapproved of seeing his image on U.S. coinage.

Mint Director James Ross Snowden wrote in 1861: "It is a well-ascertained fact that Washington did not favor the proposition to place his likeness upon the coins of the United States. It is even said, that when several specimens of that description were exhibited to him, for inspection and approbation, he indignantly ordered the dies to be destroyed; and expressed his desire that there should be placed on the coins an ideal head of Liberty."

However, the precise details surrounding such a declaration by Washington are not recorded in any known documents. In the absence of known facts, I have an opportunity to imagine how Washington might have stated his disapproval, outlined in the make believe skit below. [Insert voice of Rod Serling here and cue the Twilight Zone music]... Imagine, if you will, a journey back into time, to witness an unrecorded event from history ...

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?

Throughout the spring of 1792, the Mint Act was vigorously debated in Congress. In the end, both the House and Senate agreed upon a version requiring that one side of the coins show, rather than a presidential portrait, "an impression emblematic of liberty, with an inscription of the word Liberty...". On April 2, 1792, the Mint Act, sometimes called the Coinage Act, was passed into law.

Some of the key provisions of the 1792 Mint Act were to create the United States Mint in Philadelphia, provide for its chief officers and operations, and specify coinage metals and denominations. The ground breaking for the new mint occurred on July 31, 1792, the first federal building erected under the auspices of the United States Constitution.

Often I wonder how the development of United States coinage might have differed from what we know today had Washington reacted with: "A Washington Cent? That's cool, guys, go for it!"

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