The Peace Dollars of 1926
Posted on 8/1/2003
While not as popular as Morgan dollars, the Peace dollars series is still widely studied and collected, and previously unnoticed minor varieties are turning up all the time. In fact, when searching for doubled dies, re-punched mintmarks and the like, collectors often fail to notice far more prominent features that distinguish one coin from another. Therein lies our tale for this month.
Take any unworn Peace dollar dated 1926, regardless of mint, and hold its obverse up to a light. As you lower the angle of the light to the coin so that shadows are just starting to form on its relief elements, you should see something amazing. The motto IN GOD WE TRUST typically is in very shallow relief on coins of this type, and the dollars dated 1926 are true to form, the letters barely catching the light that skirts across them. Surprisingly, however, the single word GOD stands out prominently. It is in distinctly higher relief than all the other words of the motto, and the difference is too great for it to be a matter of mere chance. Someone at the Philadelphia Mint clearly and deliberately reinforced the three letters of that one word on the obverse master die for 1926. But why?
(At this point let me interject that what follows is not intended to be a sermon. I’m approaching this subject from a purely numismatic standpoint, though I suspect that the person responsible for this phenomenon likely did act on some religious conviction.)
The raised word GOD on 1926 silver dollars is unique to that date and denomination. By virtue of its being on the master die for that year, it appears on the dollars on all three mints. The low-relief Peace dollars coined from 1922 through 1928 typically have very shallow legends and mottoes (the 1934-35 coins utilized a new and sharper obverse hub). The sole exceptions are the 1924 silver dollars, the master die for this date having been strengthened in the motto IN GOD WE TRUST. While this is clearly observable on the coins, the fact that all of the words were reinforced suggests that it was done simply as an attempt to improve the coin’s striking quality and is quite a different story from the 1926 dollars. In that latter year, only the word GOD has been touched up by hand in an evident attempt to send a subtle message to the viewer. The question remains, why?
During the previous summer the nation followed closely a criminal trial that took place in the small town of Dayton, Tennessee. John T. Scopes, a public high school teacher, had volunteered to challenge that state’s recently enacted law that forbade the teaching of Darwinian evolution. Acting on behalf of civil liberties advocates, he deliberately began teaching his students Darwin’s theories to prompt the authorities into arresting him. At that he was successful, and the press converged on the town of Dayton to follow his historic trial.
While Scopes ultimately was convicted, receiving a moderate fine, the real drama of the trial centered on a heated debate between William Jennings Bryan, testifying for the prosecution, and Clarence Darrow, serving as Scopes’ attorney. Their conflict, in which most journalists concluded that Darrow humiliated Bryan, was later turned into a book, a play and a movie titled “Inherit the Wind.”
I suggest that someone in the Engraving Department at the Philadelphia Mint, where all dies were prepared, voted with his graver by emphasizing the word GOD on the coin where this motto appears in the largest letters, the silver dollar. The master dies for the 1926 coinage would have been under preparation during the last quarter of 1925, at which time the Scopes Trial was still very much in the news. Since all 1926 dollars have this curious feature, there is no rarity attached to it, but it does make for some interesting speculation.
David W. Lange's column USA Coin Album appears monthly in Numismatist, the official publication of the American Numismatic Association.