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'My experience in public concerns and the observation of a life somewhat advanced confirm the opinions long since imbibed by me, that the destruction of our State governments or the annihilation of their control over the local concerns of the people would lead directly to revolution and anarchy, and finally to despotism and military domination. In proportion, therefore, as the General Government encroaches upon the rights of the States, in the same proportion does it impair its own power and detract from its ability to fulfill the purposes of its creation. Solemnly impressed with these considerations, my countrymen will ever find me ready to exercise my constitutional powers in arresting measures which may directly or indirectly encroach upon the rights of the States or tend to consolidate all political power in the General Government.'
Such was the promise proffered by President Andrew Jackson during his second inaugural address in 1833. Unlike many presidents before and after him, Old Hickory was a man of his word who honored his promises. Accordingly, during his first term the focus of his political objectives was the principle economic institution of his day: The Second Bank of the United States. The brain-child of Alexander Hamilton, the bank, although technically a private venture, had grown into a dangerous federal monopoly that controlled well over half of the nation's monetary assets. Recognizing the threat that such an institution proved to American freedom, Jackson simply vetoed its recharter bill in 1832. Without a substitute for the bank, however, the President's plan proved too simple for its own good and the United States plunged into the economic doldrums of the Hard Times.
By August 1839, however, the storm seemed to have subsided. The Bank of the United States had received a charter from the state of Pennsylvania and continued operations as before. With the economy returning to normal, Americans found calm and stability for the first time in five years. This newfound comfort is amply represented in the design of Christian Gobrecht's new half dollar of that summer. For the first time in coinage history, Liberty took her coveted seat on the obverse of this denomination. Like most Americans at the time, her existence was a curiously care-free one. The lack of unnecessary drapery below her arm and the delicate date below the rock allowed her to spread out within the wide fields on the obverse. She was even kind enough to share some of her space with the reverse eagle, whose small encircling legends hardly encroached upon his open stance. Unknown to Americans at the time, however, the balmy days of the summer of 1839, as well as the delicate beauty of their new half dollar, would not last long.
In October 1839, the Bank of the United States of Pennsylvania, without proper federal support, suspended specie payments in the aftermath of the cotton bust that swept through the South. The Hard Times returned once again to usher in a period of continuous political and economic trials that would plague the coming decades. Gobrecht's Seated Liberty and perched eagle, the faithful ambassadors throughout, also saw their lives upset over the coming decades with seemingly endless tinkering by the Mint's staff. Starting in the latter months of 1839 and continuing through the design's eclipse in 1891, enlarged lettering, arrows about the date, cumbersome rays, and a seemingly misplaced scroll over the eagle's head would all take their turn and chip away at the beauty of the initial design. The unencumbered appearance of the No Drapery half dollars proved to be just as fleeting as the lull in the Hard Times during which they made their debut.
Besides their deserved rarity, high grade survivors of the 1839 No Drapery issue are eagerly sought by numismatists as examples of a brief, half-year type and unadulterated representations of Christian Gobrecht's original half dollar motif. Like Jackson's war with the Bank, the major weakness of this design was its simplicity. As numismatists in the 1990s know all too well, the open-aired design of this issue made it prone to heavy bagmarks and rapid wear. The vast majority of survivors grade below AU 50 and, provided that one were even lucky enough to locate an unimpaired Mint State specimen, it would most likely grade no higher than MS 63.
Description and Analysis courtesy of Heritage Auctions and may not be republished without written permission.
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