E Pluribus Unum, Part Two

Posted on 8/17/2009

In the second part of a new series, David W. Lange continues to de-mystify a great legend in numismatics.

During the mid-19th century, the only United States coin carrying the legend E Pluribus Unum was the double eagle. Introduced in 1850, it featured this phrase on a pair of baroque banners that seemingly hung in space at either side of the bald eagle. As few Americans had the means to handle a twenty-dollar piece, however, the Latin text was largely unknown.

For the United States trade dollar, which debuted in 1873, William Barber placed the Latin legend onto a banner above the eagle. The newer motto, In God We Trust, was thus displaced to the obverse. George T. Morgan’s fresh design for the standard silver dollar in 1878 incorporated E Pluribus Unum into its obverse in bold letters, and this was a place rarely utilized for this legend before or since.

Charles Barber balanced his reverse design for the new five-cent piece of 1883 quite nicely with this phrase, only to relocate it a few months later. His omission of the word CENTS had prompted felonious individuals to gold plate these coins so that they would pass as five-dollar pieces. Thus, E PLURIBUS UNUM was removed to a small space above the wreath to make way for a declaration of value. When Barber was drafted to create new designs for the fractional silver coinage of 1892, he returned to the Great Seal as a common reverse for the quarter dollar and half dollar. Unlike Robert Scot in 1795, however, Barber got the arrows versus olive branch issue correct this time, placing the latter in the eagle’s right, or dexter, claw.

From this point onward nearly all USA coin types included the Latin phrase, regardless of how awkwardly placed. An example of such ill-conceived placement is James Fraser’s Indian Head or Buffalo nickel. Squeezed into a small space above the bison’s back, the lettering is nearly unreadable, even on proofs. Charles Barber sharpened the letters a bit for the Type 2 reverse, but frequent die-clashings in this part of the design often obscured the phrase, which clearly should have been omitted altogether.

More appealing was Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ placement of this legend to the right of the bald eagle on the ten-dollar piece in 1907. It also provided a nice balance to the motto IN GOD WE TRUST, when this feature was added to the left of the eagle the following year. To avoid clutter on the more complex design of the double eagle, Saint-Gaudens asked that the Latin phrase be placed on the edge of the coin in raised letters. Though it was a bit of a technical challenge that required a segmented, three-piece collar, the Mint complied with this request quite successfully.

Victor D. Brenner’s Lincoln cent debuted in 1909, and the artist was able to fit E PLURIBUS UNUM at the top of the reverse in tiny letters that drew little notice. The design would have benefited from its omission, but this feature evidently satisfied the bureaucracy. The new fractional silver coins of 1916 drew heavily on classical imagery, so the inclusion of a Latin phrase was entirely in keeping with this theme. Adolph Weinman’s dime and Hermon MacNeil’s quarter dollar utilized small letters and discreet placement of the legend to help balance their elements, but Weinman was not so successful with his half dollar. E PLURIBUS UNUM is obviously forced and intrusive, being perhaps the only negative feature of this otherwise magnificent coin.

Awkward, too, is the placement of this phrase on John Flanagan’s Washington quarter dollar of 1932, a design which has been widely criticized for its crowded reverse. Six years later, Felix Schlag repeated Brenner’s solution to fine effect on his new five-cent piece, though his original, Art Moderne lettering was replaced by the Mint with a more conventional, Roman font in the final models.

John R. Sinnock’s attempt to wrangle this legend onto the Roosevelt dime in 1946 resulted in the letters being interrupted by other design elements, further obscuring its purpose in the eyes of casual viewers. Much more successful was the same artist’s half dollar of 1948 in which E PLURIBUS UNUM balances the tiny, statutory eagle added to this design as an afterthought to comply with the law requiring an eagle to appear on all coins of higher value than the dime. Gilroy Roberts actually did most of the sculpting, as Sinnock had died the year before, and this may have been Roberts’ solution.

The use of the Presidential Seal for the reverse of the Kennedy half dollar automatically incorporated this legend, and it has appeared on every United States coin since that time (1964). Now written into the laws specifying all new coin types, including commemoratives, seemingly no one in Congress or at the Mint ever questions the validity of this archaic Latin text.

To show how “what’s past is prologue,” the US Mint placed this legend on the edge of each Presidential dollar when this series debuted in 2007, just at it had with the double eagle one century earlier. This resulted in clean and attractive designs (other statutory text such as IN GOD WE TRUST was moved to the edge, too), but Congress, responding to complaints of “godless” coins which failed to receive their edge lettering, has mandated that both phrases be placed on the face of each new Presidential dollar

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