On Presidents’ Day this month, the United States Mint released a new dollar coin bearing an image of George Washington. It is the first of a series of forty presidential dollars to be released, four per year, in the order the presidents served. These coins are the result of the Presidential $1 Coin Act of 2005, which seeks to “revitalize the design of United States coinage” in the spirit of the “Golden Age of Coinage,” when Theodore Roosevelt commissioned designs from the nation’s leading artists. Under his impetus, coinage achieved a kind of visual poetry, culminating in the great trio of the Buffalo nickel, the Lincoln penny, and the $20 gold eagle—Augustus Saint-Gaudens’s stirring image of a confident and athletic woman striding forward, an optimistic figure of progress.
The impulse to revive this period is noble; the results, alas, are not. The language of coins is preeminently linear—i.e., engraving with the line—and its strongest tool is the expressive silhouette. For this reason, the great coins of the past have invariably been based on profile. But profiles are evidently now deemed too severe. The new Washington dollar and the next three coins are three-quarter portraits, a pose that is lovelier on the canvas than on a piece of metal. These coins are likely to be collectors’ curios rather than the inspirational and instructive objects that were envisioned. There is something dispiriting about the industrial scale of the enterprise, which seems less suggestive of Saint-Gaudens than of the “commemorative” presidential plates and spoons one sees on home shopping channels.
A far more sweeping overhaul of our currency is inevitable, sooner or later, for no other reason than inflation. As David Margolick recently showed, the Lincoln penny—at the moment our finest item of currency—has become an object of contempt. There will need to be a reordering of the relative hierarchy of the principal coins in circulation. This will be traumatic; perhaps that trauma might be eased if some of the great designs of the Roosevelt era were imaginatively reintroduced—and perhaps assigned to different values and sizes of coins.
In any event, it is disconcerting to hold one of the new and unlovely Washington dollars and to look at the discarded pennies on the sidewalk. One usually thinks of Gresham’s Law as a metaphor, but in the case of American currency it is literally true: the bad coins are driving out the good.