The George Washington Dollar

Jay Turner examines the new George Washington Dollar in the context of American coinage and speculates on its potential.

The George Washington Dollar coin marks the third time in ten years that the United States has released a circulating commemorative series. It is also the third time in ten years that the United States has redesigned the dollar coin.

George Washington was the first president of the United States and it is unfortunate that many Americans know little more about him. What makes him so great and "the founder of our country" is not so much what he did, but what he didn’t do. George Washington, Commander of the Continental Army that won American independence from British rule, was already an icon and hero to many, and could easily have assumed the position of king in America. Instead, he rejected this notion and returned to life as a private citizen for a time. In years to follow, America’s freedom would continue to be at risk and as a result, he would again be called to duty.

George Washington was unanimously elected the first President of the United States in 1789 and again in 1792. He would be the only person to be unanimously elected by the Electoral College. With his new role, he sacrificed many powers that his position would have made available to him in favor of a more republican governmental structure.

During his term as president, George Washington did many things to shape the nation in ways that still resonate today. In the area of numismatics, he signed into law the Coinage Act of 1792 that founded the United States Mint in Philadelphia, where denominations, standards, and weights were established for coinage. Such standards included an emblem of liberty that appeared on the obverse side of gold and silver coinage, and an eagle that appeared on the reverse. This made a bold statement about the United States of America as a liberated, free society. Including images of the president at the time would have been too reminiscent of the English coinage system, as well as a form of government that the founders of this country had purposely discarded. Of course, times would change and the images of US presidents would later appear on coinage and in 2007, the first President of the United States now makes another appearance on American money.

The Presidential Dollar series is an interesting series because of many factors. First is that the United States mint has had two very successful recent series of circulating commemorative coinage — the State Quarter program that started in 1999 and the Westward Journey Nickel series that commemorated the Louis and Clark voyage across America. The "purpose" of these two series was to "promote the diffusion of knowledge among the youth of the United States about the individual states." However, under the same program, estimates for earnings were "$110,000,000 from the sale of silver proof coins and sets over the 10-year period… and would produce indirect earnings of an estimated $2,600,000,000 to $5,100,000,000 to the United States Treasury… commemorative circulating coin program that encourages young people and their families to collect."

Another interesting facet of the program is that there has never been a truly successful circulating dollar coin. After the end of the production of silver coinage for circulation, silver dollars started drying up; Eisenhower Dollars were made to satisfy the demand for a circulating dollar coin, mostly for casinos. In 1979, the Susan B. Anthony Dollar was introduced and failed in less than three years. Production of a dollar coin began again in 1999 and 2000 with the Sacagawea Dollar, but it too was a failure despite a multi-million dollar advertisement campaign sponsored by tax-payer money. Regardless of this history, the United States decided to produce a "circulating" commemorative dollar coin.

Many factors created anticipation for the Presidential Dollar coin. The revenue generated by the State Quarter and Westward Journey Nickel program hinted at the potential profit of a commemorative dollar coin. Also, it was an opportunity to honor presidents whose images had not yet appeared on America’s coinage. An interesting note is that this program was also a compromise after the death of President Ronald Reagan.

In recent times, after the death of a very popular president, the American public would be quick to demand a coin for that president. It started in 1946 after Roosevelt died. It continued in 1964 when John F. Kennedy died in 1963. It happened again in 1971 after Eisenhower died. When Ronald Reagan died in 2004, many republicans wanted to honor the president with a circulating commemorative coin. Some wished to place him on the dime. Others wanted a Ronald Reagan dollar coin. Yet due to rejection by many democrats in office (as well as Nancy Reagan), the storm passed and in its calm was a compromise for all presidents to be featured on "circulating" dollar coins.

The series will be different from all previous series. Four coins a year will be issued starting with George Washington. The coins would be gold in color, using the same planchets as the Sacagawea Dollar. The coins would have the Statue of Liberty on the reverse and have the Date, Mint, E PLURIBUS UNUM, and IN GOD WE TRUST on the edge, a side almost never utilized for coin design or wording in recent times. Because the Untied States Mint utilizes new coining technology, the edge must be applied after striking, so no tolerance is given on where the lettering or date would end in relation to the design of the coin.

The coin was officially released on February 15, 2007. Some were able to obtain the coins early from banks that didn’t abide by the official release date. The coins were released with very little publicity unlike the Sacagawea Dollar, for which there were commercials and distributors such as Wal-Mart giving it out in change. However, considering the lack of publicity, the general public seemed quite aware of this new coin.

Many were unhappy with the design they chose for Washington. It was one where he looked heavier and less recognizable than the iconic images on the dollar bill, quarter, and other popular Americana. The biggest problem for most was the dated and mintmarked edge. Many didn’t release or care that the edge was applied in a random fashion with no tolerance. Soon, people were calling errors where no error had been made. Still others found no edge lettering at all.

The no-edge-lettering Washington Dollars can be caused three ways. First, they are never put through the final step of adding the edge lettering. Second, they are put through, but the machine misses the coin. And third, they had edge lettering and it was removed in an alteration to deceive people. Even before the coins were released, there was anticipation that some may not have edge lettering. Not only did this become a reality, but the errors quickly turned up in abundance. As news spread, local media picked up on the story and the coins became known as the "Godless Dollars" since IN GOD WE TRUST is missing from the edge. To date, it is believed that thousands — if not tens of thousands — may have escaped the mint without edge lettering.

The Presidential Dollars, especially the Washington Dollar, may become a very popular coin and remain as such in the future. The series could also abruptly end if production of these coins greatly exceeds demand in the future, owing to both the Sacagawea Dollar and less popular presidents having to be produced by law. Yet because so many are buying Washington Dollars in the hope of finding errors, the coins may actually circulate as people start spending them to dispose of them. Only time will tell.

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