Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Commentary on the New Shield Reverse of the United States Lincoln Cent

The new reverse design for the United States Lincoln Cent is being minted to commemorate the bicentennial of the birth of President Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln was born in 1809. His centennial was commemorated with the issuance of the Lincoln Cent in 1909, the 150th anniversary of his birth in 1950 by the Lincoln Memorial reverse replacing the original Wheat Ear reverse, and his bicentennial in 2009 with a series of four reverse designs depicting stages of Lincoln’s life. The new reverse is expected to continue at least until the 250th anniversary.

The new reverse of the Lincoln Cent features a shield with thirteen stripes, representing the Thirteen Original States (See the new design on the website of the U.S. Mint: under the Coins and Medals link). The shield is a symbol of the Union that has appeared on United States coinage since the earliest days of the Republic. Because of the thirteen stripes, the symbol evokes the original unity of the thirteen states under the Federal Union formed by the U.S. Constitution, instead of the Northern triumphalism associated with the Lincoln Memorial design that appeared from 1959-2008.

Together with the recent commemorative series for Dollar Coins and for the reverses of the Sacajawea Dollar Coin (now known as the “Native American” Dollar), Washington Quarter, and Jefferson Nickel (which also includes new obverse designs), the commemorative series for the Lincoln Cent leaves the Roosevelt Dime as the only remaining circulating coin that has remained mostly unchanged for decades. The Roosevelt Dime has changed little since it was first issued in 1946.

As I noted in my post, Commentary on Current U.S. Coins in April of 2009, U.S. coin designs used to be changed every generation, but have become more frozen in recent decades, especially since the inception of the practice eschewed by the Founding Fathers of portraying individuals on U.S. coins. Placing the images of individuals on coins politicizes coinage and makes coins more divisive than unitive. The practice has contributed to the stagnancy of coin designs, particularly on the obverses, because any replacement of one favored political figure with another is perceived as a slight to the one proposed to be replaced (e.g. proposals to replace Democratic Presidents Franklin Roosevelt or John F. Kennedy with President Ronald Reagan), although this concern did not stop the Congress from passing a bill signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson to replace Founding Father Benjamin Franklin with fellow Democrat Kennedy on the Half Dollar or President Jimmy Carter to replace Republican President Dwight Eisenhower with Susan B. Anthony on the Dollar Coin.

I again call for a return to the custom of placing images of the allegorical figure of Liberty on the obverses of American coins. The images of less divisive figures, such as those that are currently on U.S. Coins like Founding Fathers George Washington and Thomas Jefferson or other significant figures like Sacajawea, are not as objectionable as those of later politicians, even revered ones. However, if politicians are going to continue the practice of honoring their favorite political heroes on U.S. coinage, then at least more equal partisan treatment should be expected. At least the new Shield Reverse Lincoln Cent is a more appropriate symbol of unity, like the eagle, that has traditionally appeared on the reverses of American coins.

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