The Peace Dollar

The Peace Dollar

The Peace dollar is a United States dollar coin minted from 1921 to 1928, and again in 1934 and 1935. Designed by Anthony de Francisci, the coin resulted from a competition seeking designs emblematic of peace, and its reverse depicts an eagle at rest clutching an olive branch, with the legend “PEACE”. It was the last United States silver dollar to be struck for circulation.

With the passage of the Pittman Act in 1918, the United States Mint was required to strike millions of silver dollars, and began doing so in 1921 using the Morgan dollar design. Numismatists began urging the Mint to issue a coin evoking peace; although they failed to get Congress to pass a bill requiring the redesign, they were able to persuade government officials to take action. The Peace dollar was approved in December 1921, completing the redesign of United States coinage which had begun in 1907.

The public believed the announced design, which included a broken sword, was illustrative of defeat, and the Mint hastily acted to remove the sword from the design. The Peace dollar was first struck on December 28, 1921; just over a million were coined bearing a 1921 date. When the Pittman Act requirements were met in 1928, the Mint ceased to strike the dollars, but more were struck in 1934 and 1935 pursuant to other legislation. In 1965, the Mint struck over 300,000 Peace dollars bearing a 1964 date; these were never issued and are believed to have been melted.

The Bland-Allison Act, passed by Congress on February 28, 1878, required the Treasury to purchase a minimum of $2 million in domestically-mined silver per month and coin it into silver dollars. The Mint utilized a new design by engraver George T. Morgan, striking what became known as the Morgan dollar. Many of the pieces quickly vanished into bank vaults, used as backing for paper currency redeemable in silver coin, known as silver certificates. In 1890, the purchases required under the Bland-Allison Act were greatly increased under the terms of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act. Though the Sherman Act was repealed in 1893, it was not until 1904 that the government struck the last of the purchased silver into silver dollars. Once it did, production of the silver dollar ceased.

During World War I, the German government hoped to destabilize British rule over India by spreading rumors that the British were unable to redeem for silver all of the paper currency they had printed. These rumors, and hoarding of silver, caused the price of silver to rise and risked damaging the British war effort. The British turned to their war ally, the United States, asking to purchase silver to increase the supply and lower the price. In response, Congress passed the Pittman Act of April 23, 1918. This statute gave the United States authority to sell to the British government the metal from up to 350,000,000 silver dollars at $1 per ounce of silver plus the value of the copper in the coins, and handling and transportation fees. Only 270,232,722 were melted for sale to the British, but this represented 47% of all Morgan dollars struck to that point. The Treasury was required by the terms of the Act to strike new silver dollars to replace the coins that were melted, and to strike them from silver purchased from American mining companies.

It is uncertain who first originated the idea for a US coin to commemorate the peace following World War I; the genesis is usually traced to an article by Frank Duffield published in the November 1918 issue of The Numismatist. In the article, Duffield suggested that a victory coin should be “issued in such quantities it will never become rare”. In August 1920, a paper by numismatist Farran Zerbe was read to that year’s American Numismatic Association (ANA) convention in Chicago. In the paper, entitled Commemorate the Peace with a Coin for Circulation, Zerbe called for the issuance of a coin to celebrate peace, stating,

I do not want to be misunderstood as favoring the silver dollar for the Peace Coin, but if coinage of silver dollars is to be resumed in the immediate future, a new design is probable and desirable, bullion for the purpose is being provided, law for the coinage exists and limitation of the quantity is fixed—all factors that help pave the way for Peace Coin advocates. And then—we gave our silver dollars to help win the war, we restore them in commemoration of victory and peace.

Zerbe’s proposal led to the appointment of a committee to transmit the proposal to Congress and urge its adoption. According to numismatic historian Walter Breen, “[a]pparently, this was the first time that a coin collector ever wielded enough political clout to influence not only the Bureau of the Mint, but Congress as well”. The committee included noted coin collector and Congressman William A. Ashbrook (Democrat-Ohio), who had chaired the House Committee on Coinage, Weights, and Measures until the Republicans gained control following the 1918 elections.

Ashbrook was defeated for re-election in the 1920 elections; at that time congressional terms did not end until March 4 of the following year. He was friendly with the new committee chairman, Albert Henry Vestal (Republican-Indiana), and persuaded him to schedule a hearing on the peace coin proposal for December 14, 1920. Though no bill was put before it, the committee heard from the ANA delegates, discussed the matter, and favored the use of the silver dollar, as that coin had the most room for an artistic design. The committee took no immediate action; in March 1921, after the Harding administration took office, Vestal met with the new Secretary of the Treasury, Andrew W. Mellon and Mint Director Raymond T. Baker about the matter, finding them supportive, so long as the redesign involved no expense.

On May 9, 1921, striking of the Morgan dollar resumed at the Philadelphia Mint under the recoinage called for by the Pittman Act. The same day, Congressman Vestal introduced the Peace dollar authorization bill as a joint resolution. Vestal placed his bill on the Unanimous Consent Calendar, but Congress adjourned for a lengthy recess without taking any action. When Congress returned, Vestal asked for unanimous consent that the bill pass on August 1, 1921. However, one representative, former Republican leader James R. Mann (Illinois), objected, and numismatic historian Roger Burdette suggests that Mann’s stature in the House ensured that the bill would not pass. Nevertheless, Vestal met with the ANA and told them that he hoped Congress would reconsider when it met again in December 1921.

Design

De Francisci was the youngest of the competitors at age 34; he was also among the least experienced in the realm of coin design. While most of the others had designed regular or commemorative coins for the Mint, de Francisci’s sole effort had been the conversion of drawings for the 1920 Maine commemorative half dollar to the finished design. De Francisci had had little discretion in that project, and later said of the work, “I do not consider it very favorably.”

The sculptor based the design for the obverse design of the bust of Liberty on the features of his wife, Teresa de Francisci. Due to the short length of the competition, he lacked the time to hire a model with the features he envisioned for Liberty, and instead used his wife as model. De Francisci was born Teresa Cafarelli in Naples, Italy. In interviews, she related that when she was five years old and the steamer on which she and her family were immigrating passed the Statue of Liberty, she was fascinated by the statue, called her family over, and struck a pose in imitation. She later wrote to her brother Rocco,

You remember how I was always posing as Liberty, and how brokenhearted I was when some other little girl was selected to play the role in the patriotic exercises in school? I thought of those days often while sitting as a model for Tony’s design, and now seeing myself as Miss Liberty on the new coin, it seems like the realization of my fondest childhood dream.

Breen wrote that the radiate crown which the Liberty head bears is not dissimilar to those on certain Roman coins, but is “more explicitly intended to recall that on the Statue of Liberty”. De Francisci recalled that he opened the window of the studio and let the wind blow on his wife’s hair while modeling the design. Though he had employed Teresa as his model, he did not feel as though the design depicted her exclusively. He notes that “the nose, the fullness of the mouth are much like my wife’s, although the whole face has been elongated”. De Francisci submitted two reverse designs; one showed a warlike eagle, aggressively breaking a sword; the other an eagle at rest, holding an olive branch. The latter design, which would form the basis for the reverse of the Peace dollar, recalled De Francisci’s failed entry for the Verdun City medal. The submitted obverse is almost identical to the coin as struck, excepting certain details of the face, and that the submitted design used Roman, rather than Arabic numerals for the date.

Baker, de Francisci, and Moore met in Washington on December 15. At that time, Baker, who hoped to start Peace dollar production in 1921, outlined the tight schedule for this to be accomplished, and requested certain design changes. Among these was the inclusion of the broken sword from the sculptor’s alternate reverse design, to be placed under the eagle, on the mountaintop on which it stands, in addition to the olive branch. Baker approved the designs, subject to these changes The revised designs were presented to President Harding on December 19. Harding insisted on the removal of a small feature of Liberty’s face, which seemed to him to suggest a dimple, something he did not consider suggestive of peace. The sculptor removed the feature at the President’s request.

Controversy

The Treasury announced the new design on December 19, 1921. Photographs of Baker and de Francisci examining the final plaster model appeared in newspapers, though the actual designs were not photographed; written descriptions of their content sufficed. At that time, the Treasury took the position that it was illegal for photographs of a United States coin to be printed in newspapers. Secretary Mellon gave formal approval to the design on December 20. As it would take the Mint several days to produce working dies, first strike of the new coins was scheduled for December 29.

The new design was widely reported in newspapers, and was the source of intense public attention. As the press was not permitted to see the actual designs, they were forced to rely on the description in the press release, which described the reverse as “a large figure of an eagle perched on a broken sword, and clutching an olive branch bearing the word, ‘peace'”. On December 21, the New York Herald ran a scathing editorial against the new design,

If the artist had sheathed the blade or blunted it there could be no objection. Sheathing is symbolic of peace, of course; the blunted sword implies mercy. But a broken sword carries with it only unpleasant associations. A sword is broken when its owner has disgraced himself. It is broken when a battle is lost and breaking is the alternative to surrendering. A sword is broken when the man who wears it can no longer render allegiance to his sovereign. But America has not broken its sword. It has not been cashiered or beaten; it has not lost allegiance to itself. The blade is bright and keen and wholly dependable. It is regrettable that the artist should have made such an error in symbolism. The sword is emblematic of Justice as well as of Strength. Let not the world be deceived by this new dollar. The American effort to limit armament and to prevent war or at least reduce its horror does not mean that our sword is broken.

At the time, according to Burdette, given the traumas of the Great War, Americans were highly sensitive about their national symbols, and unwilling to allow artists any leeway in interpretation. The Mint, the Treasury, and the Fine Arts Commission began to receive large numbers of letters from the public objecting to the design. De Francisci attempted to defend his design, stating, “with the sword there is the olive branch of peace and the combination of the two renders it impossible to conceive of the sword as a symbolization of defeat”. Baker had left to visit the San Francisco Mint; the transcontinental journey took three days. Acting Mint Director Mary O’Reilly sent him a telegram on December 23, urgently seeking his approval to remove the sword from the reverse, which had been recommended by Moore and Fraser at a meeting the previous afternoon. Due to the tight timeline for 1921 strikings of the dollar, it was not possible to await Baker’s response, but on the authority of Treasury Undersecretary Seymour Parker Gilbert, who was approached by O’Reilly, the Mint proceeded with the redesign. To satisfy Harding’s executive order, the Fine Arts Commission quickly approved the change, and by the time Baker wired his approval on December 24, without being able to see the revisions, Gilbert had already approved the revised design in Secretary Mellon’s absence. A press release was issued late on December 24; it mentioned no removal, but simply stated that the broken sword which had appeared on de Francisci’s alternate reverse would not appear on the issued coin. De Francisci’s defense, combined with the press release caused Farran Zerbe, whose paper to the ANA convention helped launch the dollar proposal, to suggest that the sculptor had mistakenly thought his alternate design had been approved.

– Wikipedia

 

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