The double eagle, or twenty-dollar piece, was a late arrival to the family of United States coins. The drafters of the Mint Act of 1792 never imagined the need for such a high value piece, nor could they have imagined that the nation would ever have enough domestic gold to undertake such a coinage.
The double eagle, or twenty-dollar piece, was a late arrival to the family of United
States coins. The drafters of the Mint Act of 1792 never imagined the need for such
a high value piece, nor could they have imagined that the nation would ever have
enough domestic gold to undertake such a coinage. But circumstances change, and
Congress at one point in the 1870s envisioned gold coins valued at fifty and one
In actual practice, however, the double eagle proved to be the highest denomination
ever coined for circulation. Its introduction resulted from the vast quantity of
gold recovered from California beginning in 1848. The supply of gold from California
was so great that it depressed the price of this metal as measured in silver. This
prompted the hoarding of silver coins, a practice that lasted until 1853, when their
weight was reduced just enough to permit them to circulate once again.
In the meantime, Congress determined that more of the California gold had to be
put into coin form so as to reduce its oversupply in the bullion market. Bankers
and customs agents suggested that pieces valued at twenty dollars would be easier
to coin, count and store than their equivalent value in smaller coins, so this denomination
was adopted in 1849. Unlike the gold dollar, authorized at the same time, the double
eagle was not ready for mass production that year, and the first coins for circulation
were dated 1850.
The gold dollar and the double eagle share a common obverse design which features
a classical bust of Liberty wearing a coronet inscribed with her name. She is surrounded
by 13 stars--indicative of the original American states. On the double eagle alone,
the date is below the bust. The reverse of the twenty, however, is more elaborate
than that of its smaller brother. A rather ornate heraldic eagle dominates the reverse.
Clutching the traditional arrows of defense and the olive branch of peace, the eagle
bears upon its breast the Union shield. This shield is flanked by elaborate scrolls
inscribed with the legend E PLURIBUS UNUM. Above the eagle are thirteen stars arranged
in an oval form, surmounted by a glory of rays. Around the periphery are the legends
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA and the value TWENTY D. Mintmarks, if any, appear below
the eagle's tailfeathers.
Both coins are the work of U.S. Mint Chief Engraver James Barton Longacre. His original
obverse model for the double eagle proved to be too high in relief, only patterns
surviving of the 1849 issue. It appears that this problem was solved in a very simple
manner. On the double eagles coined 1850-58, Longacre's initials J.B.L., which were
placed at the truncation of Liberty's neck, typically are cut off at their bottoms.
This suggests that the obverse master die he created in 1849 was simply reduced
in depth by polishing the field down until the cavity formed by Liberty's bust became
shallower. This had the effect of obliterating the bottom of his initials, which
had been positioned on the truncation of the bust with the higher relief portrait
in mind. A new obverse master hub was introduced for this coin type in 1859, and
subsequent issues show the initials placed a bit to the left of their former position
and more or less complete.
Shortly thereafter, at the beginning of 1861's coinage, a modification was made
to the reverse of this coin type by Assistant Engraver Anthony C. Paquet. His modified
reverse is most easily distinguished by its tall, narrow letters. When coining commenced
with the new reverse it was quickly determined that the border was too narrow with
respect to that of the obverse for proper striking and stacking, and production
at Philadelphia was halted immediately. Orders were dispatched to the New Orleans
and San Francisco Mints to cease any use of the Paquet reverse dies, but the order
reached the latter city too late to prevent the issue of more than 19,000 pieces.
The reverse was again modified slightly with the addition of the motto IN GOD WE
TRUST in 1866. Numismatist Tom DeLorey has pointed out that these letters were seemingly
added with hand punches and vary in position a bit from one die to another, at least
on the 1866 coins. This suggests that the work was hurried, the motto being added
to the master matrices only later. Also distinctive from earlier double eagles,
the shield now featured a curved shape that was in keeping with the shields seen
on the new two- and five-cent pieces.
Several coin denominations received makeovers in the years 1875-77, the most obvious
of these changes being those made to the double eagle. Beginning with the coinage
of 1877, the bust of Liberty was titled to the left, making it more centered in
the field, and her hair was rendered in much greater detail than on previous issues.
For the reverse, the denomination was finally spelled in full as TWENTY DOLLARS.
That such a change was made solely to the double eagle indicates this coin's importance
in international commerce. In this form the Coronet Liberty double eagle remained
in production as late as 1907.
David W. Lange's column "USA Coin Album" appears monthly in Numismatist,
the official publication of the American Numismatic Association.