Thinkin' of Lincoln

Posted on 5/21/2008

2009 is the bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth, and a silver dollar is already scheduled to mark the occasion. David W. Lange discusses both past and future coin commemorations of the Great Emancipator, as well as the likely fate of the penny.

With the bicentennial of Abraham Lincoln’s birth approaching in 2009, there will certainly be numerous medallic tributes. Already legislated for that year is a non-circulating commemorative silver dollar, as well as a program of circulating commemorative U.S. cents of the current brass-clad zinc composition. These cents will feature four different reverses, depicting various stages in Lincoln’s life.

There is nothing newsworthy in the silver dollar. Despite flagging interest in recent commemoratives, this issue is likely to sell out, or at least come close. The cents, however, pose a number of challenges. First, will these coins circulate as intended? Though billions will be coined, it’s likely that a sizable percentage of these cents will be hoarded by collectors, speculators, and the general public. To a lesser extent, this was also true of the first Lincoln cents, which debuted in 1909. The difference between then and now is that the cent was still a viable medium of exchange a century ago. Once the coin’s novelty had passed, many of the sequestered cents ultimately were spent.

Despite claims to the contrary — by a lobbying group for the zinc industry that poses as a consumer organization — cents are no longer circulating coins, in the traditional sense. Yes, they are still given out as change by some businesses, but they are seldom recirculated by their recipients, who are more likely to simply toss them into a jar.

Already in the news is the issue of the cent’s cost. It has been many years since the Treasury was able to manufacture, count, and ship these coins for one cent or less per unit. This loss had been hidden within the seigniorage on the more profitable, high-value coins, but that cat is now quite publicly out of the bag. The new law requiring special bicentennial Lincoln cents has postponed what should have been the death of the one-cent piece, as no one in Congress wants to deprive the Great Emancipator (and the Illinois congressional delegation) of their place in the sun.

Ideally, once this celebrated anniversary is over, so too should be the cent. My own opinion is that the coin may be included within the Mint’s proof and uncirculated sets, perhaps in its former bronze composition, but its role as a circulating coin has already ceased. It would thus join the dollar and the half dollar as coins whose only purpose now is to fill collectors’ albums and registry sets.

The U.S. Mint toyed with the idea of portraying Abraham Lincoln on the nation’s coins decades before the debut of the current Lincoln cent. Pattern five-cent pieces dated 1866 were struck in a number of metals and feature a bust of the recently deceased president similar to that seen on many tokens of the period. Compared to photographs of the man, this portrait is not a good likeness, and the desire to reunite the northern and southern states after four years of war doomed any such proposal at the time. Indeed, there was still some lingering resentment among southerners in 1909, when Old Abe finally did make it to a circulating coin.

The story of how Victor D. Brenner came to design the Lincoln cent of 1909 may be found in books on this series, so it won’t be repeated here. What is worth noting, however, is that his bust of the president, while quite appealing as art, is not particularly accurate. Brenner captured Lincoln’s profile, but he gave Abe tightly curled hair that the man simply did not have. Instead, Lincoln had wavy hair of broad curls, as seen on our current five-dollar notes. While both Brenner and Charles Burt (who engraved the note’s portrait) worked from well known photos of Lincoln, Brenner alone opted to interpret the image in his own fashion.

There were those within the Treasury Department who did not think much of the new cent, and artist James Earle Fraser (of Buffalo nickel fame) actually created a proposed replacement portrait in 1911. This was intended for the five-cent piece, and although his model was also reduced to cent size, neither version went beyond the concept stage. This was a superior work to the Brenner bust, but the notion of changing the cent or replicating its subject matter on the nickel was simply too controversial to proceed.

Better than Brenner’s cent was the bust of Lincoln that appeared on the Illinois Centennial half dollar, issued as a non-circulating commemorative in 1918. George T. Morgan copied his work from the statue of Abraham Lincoln by Andrew O’Connor, which stands in Illinois’s capital, Springfield. This depicts Abe as a young man, sans whiskers. A similar pose to that in O’Connor’s statue appears on the Illinois Statehood quarter dollar of 2003. Of course, reproducing nearly a full-length figure on such a small coin makes it all but impossible to determine the merits of this artwork, and the man’s facial features are nearly unrecognizable.

It would be desirable for the 2009 commemorative cents to have a new portrait of Abraham Lincoln, one of greater artistic merit than the current entry. Unfortunately, this coin is now so mired in political and economic considerations that its value as a piece of art and as a circulating medium have both been rendered irrelevant to Congress.

David W. Lange's column, “USA Coin Album,” appears monthly in The Numismatist, the official publication of American Numismatic Association.