History Through Coins: Before They Were Coins

Posted on 10/13/2020

The stories behind the men and women featured on coins.

John Calvin Coolidge, Jr. was born, appropriately, on the Fourth of July, 1872. He was inaugurated as the nation’s 29th vice president on March 4, 1921, ultimately becoming the 30th president of the United States upon the sudden death of Warren G. Harding, August 2, 1923. Coolidge was a native of Vermont, but he built his career in neighboring Massachusetts.

As a lawyer, he held a succession of political offices at the city and state levels, being elected governor in 1918. His handling of the Boston police strike the following year brought him to national prominence and nomination as Harding’s running mate in 1920.

Shortly after being sworn in as the late president’s successor, Coolidge became the first American president to make a radio broadcast. Known for his conservatism and personal reticence, particularly after the death of his son during the 1924 campaign for election to a full term, Coolidge was perhaps the perfect figure for a nation that then wanted little to do with world events.

Eligible to run again in 1928, he instead opted to retire: “If I take another term, I will be in the White House till 1933… Ten years in Washington is longer than any other man has had it—too long!” He would not quite have completed that additional term, as he died January 5, 1933.

United States of America, 2014-S Presidential Dollar, NGC PF 69 Ultra Cameo
Click images to enlarge.

The yuan, or silver dollar, of 1934 bears a portrait of Sun Yat-sen, hailed as the “Father of the Nation” in the Republic of China. He was born Sun Wen on November 12, 1866 in Cuiheng, Guangdong, but he received much of his education in the Kingdom of Hawaii, graduating from high school there in 1882. He returned to China the following year, earning his M.D. in Hong Kong.

Sun converted to Christianity at an early age, and he also acquired associates who were pushing to modernize China, even to the extent of overthrowing the conservative Qing Dynasty. The failure of the First Guangzhou Uprising in 1895 drove Sun into exile in Japan, and he later sought support for the revolution through travels in Europe, Canada, the USA, Thailand and Malaya.

After many failures, finally in 1911 Emperor Puyi was deposed, and a republic was declared with Sun Yat-sen as provisional president. Rival factions and reactionary imperialists, however, led to years of conflict, and China remained in a state of semi-civil war when Sun died on March 12, 1925. The nation was never entirely unified, with the final split occurring in 1949, when the People’s Republic of China was established on the mainland, while exiled forces withdrew to Taiwan.

Republic of China, Year 23 (1934) Dollar, L&M-110, NGC MS 62

One of two coins struck to commemorate the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, this quarter dollar was sponsored by the exposition’s Board of Lady Managers. Its obverse features a fanciful bust of Queen Isabella I of Castile, who is famous for having financed the first voyage of Christopher Columbus in 1492 (though the money wasn’t forthcoming until his successful return!). Born April 22, 1451 in Madrigal de las Torres, Avila, Isabella was subsequently declared heir to her older brother, King Henry IV of Castile.

After years of bickering over who she should marry to best suit political gains, she bolted and secretly married her cousin, Ferdinand of Navarre, in 1469. When her brother died five years later, she was proclaimed Queen of Castile and León. Acceptance of this was not universal, and it led to war with Portugal’s King Alfonso, who had married Henry IV’s daughter Joanna la Beltraneja and declared her the rightful heir.

Isabella emerged victorious from this conflict, but rivalry with Portugal would be a recurring theme during her reign. She ultimately soured on Columbus over the issue of slavery in the New World, ordering him to release his captives. The most infamous episode of her reign was the expulsion of Spain’s Jews under the Alhambra Decree of 1492. She died on November 26, 1504 at the Medina del Campo Royal Palace.

United States of America, 1893 Isabella Quarter Dollar, NGC MS 64
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The gold pond coin of South Africa depicts Stephanus Johannes Paulus “Paul” Kruger, third president of the South African Republic from 1883 to 1902. His portrait appeared on all denominations of that nation’s coins during 1892-1900. Despite his association with the now outlawed apartheid policy, he survives today on the Krugerrand series of gold bullion coins.

Kruger was born October 10, 1825 and as a child participated in the Great Trek of the 1830s that established the Boers in the interior of South Africa. Appointed vice-president in 1877, he witnessed the annexation of his homeland by the British and struggled to overturn London’s rule. After victory in the first Boer War (1880-81), he was elected president and helped achieve South Africa’s return to independence in 1884.

A mass influx of British settlers, however, served to increase tensions between the two cultures, leading to the Second Boer War of 1899-1902. This time on the losing side, Kruger fled to exile in Europe. Wife Gezina was unable to leave South Africa, and she died in 1901 along with a daughter and several grandchildren. A broken man, Kruger himself died in Clarens, Switzerland on July 14, 1904.

South African Republic, 1894 Pond, NGC MS 62
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United States Mint Director Nellie Tayloe Ross had sought to place Benjamin Franklin on a coin since 1938, but World War II postponed this. At war’s end, only the cent and half dollar were eligible by law, and displacing Abraham Lincoln was unthinkable. Thus, it was that Ben Franklin debuted on the half dollar in 1948.

Franklin is best known to Americans as the man on the C note, but he achieved many things in his lifetime. Born in Boston on January 17, 1706, Benjamin was one of 17 children by father Josiah and his two succeeding wives. He was apprenticed to a printer and practiced that trade successfully in Philadelphia, particularly with his publication of Poor Richard’s Almanac.

Franklin was a great advocate of civic duty and associations, and he was postmaster in Philadelphia. While living in England, he became a correspondent to America for the cause of liberty and, ultimately, independence. Returning to America, he represented Pennsylvania at the Second Continental Congress in 1776.

His greatest achievement was as United States ambassador to France from 1776 to 1785, securing both financial and military support from King Louis XVI in America’s struggle against King George III of England. He was one of Pennsylvania’s delegates to the Constitutional Convention of 1787, but declining health prompted a withdrawal from public life shortly thereafter, and he died on April 17, 1790.

United States of America, 1948(P) Half Dollar, NGC MS 64+ FBL
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Jose Rizal was a hero of the Philippine Independence movement. Not a fighter, but instead a brilliant intellect and polymath, Rizal’s writings inspired both his own people and influential figures throughout the western world, gaining support for the Filipino people. He was born José Protasio Rizal Mercado y Alonso Realonda in Calamba, Laguna on June 19, 1861.

A gifted student, he first studied to be a lawyer but ultimately became an ophthalmologist. In the 1880s he was a member of the Propaganda Movement that sought reform to Spain’s rule of the Philippine Archipelago. As such, he came under close scrutiny as a threat to the Spanish authority which had existed for 350 years, aided in great part by an oppressive hierarchy of Spanish religious orders.

For such sentiments, Rizal was deported to the remote island of Mindanao. Later associated with the revolutionary group Katipunan, he was arrested while en route to Cuba where he planned to provide medical services. Convicted of sedition, conspiracy and rebellion, Rizal was sentenced to death and executed December 30, 1896. Spain ceded The Philippines to the United States in 1899 following the Spanish American War, and it would not be until 1946 that Rizal’s dream was fully realized.

Republic of The Philippines, 1999 Piso, NGC MS 66
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