Theodore Roosevelt was not just a president, he was a dynamo. He initiated anti-trust legislation to break up the plutocratic monopolies that threatened the nation’s economic life; he set aside vast tracts of western lands as national parks to protect the nation’s natural heritage against plunder by rapacious business interests; he advocated a muscular foreign policy that included direct intervention to build a canal in Panama; he promoted a new concept of nationalism; and he took steps to reform exploitative labor laws. He was no less energetic in his private life. Throwing himself into the thick of the action, he personally led a unit in the Spanish-American War, hunted big game in Africa, boxed, wrestled, hiked, and nearly killed himself in an incredible journey of exploration in Brazil. There never was–and never will be again–anyone like him. He is a man I admire deeply.
One of his lesser-known projects was to reform the coinage of the United States. As a man steeped in the classical tradition of Greece and Rome, Roosevelt believed that the ultra-high relief coinage of the ancient world was the pinnacle of numismatic beauty. Modern coins, in his view, simply did not compare. As TR saw things, America’s gold pieces (the “liberty head” designs by James Longacre) simply did not inspire; they may have been adequate as instruments of weight and measure, but that was all. The new republic deserved a gold coinage that was worthy of its new role as an economic and military titan. Roosevelt would fix this problem in his own unique way.
One of the measures of a great man is the quality of men he attracts around him. Venal, weak leaders surround themselves with yes-men, parasites, flunkies, and mediocrities. Good leaders are not afraid of sharing the light with men of talent and ability. Roosevelt was able to attract and keep men around him of proven worth and exceptional ability; they may not have come from the “right” backgrounds or schools, but they were tenacious, idealistic men of vision and substance. As early as 1904, Roosevelt had decided to do something to improve the coinage. It happened that in the winter of 1905 President Roosevelt met with the sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens at a dinner in Washington, D.C. During the conversation, the topic of ancient Greek coinage came up. Both men found themselves in agreement that modern coins simply did not compare to these predecessors in beauty. In his autobiography, Roosevelt made the following comment:
In addition certain things were done of which the economic bearing was more remote, but which bore directly on our welfare, because they add to the beauty of living and therefore to the joy of life. Securing a great artist, Saint-Gaudens, to give us the most beautiful coinage since the decay of Hellenistic Greece was one such act. In this case I had the power myself to direct the mint to employ Saint-Gaudens. The first and most beautiful of his coins were issued in the thousands before Congress assembled or intervened; and a great and permanent improvement was made in the beauty of the coinage.
In the passage above, note Roosevelt’s insistence that artistic beauty can have a direct impact on one’s quality of life. It takes a man of great sensitivity and vision to appreciate the idea that beauty adds to the joy of life, and to act on this idea in a concrete way. TR had earlier written a note to the Secretary of the Treasury, Leslie M. Shaw, calling attention to the “atrocious hideousness” of the current coinage, and asking whether he could bypass Congress to appoint St. Gaudens himself. He could, and he did. According to the rules of the Mint, the following coin designs could be changed without Congress’s input: the cent, the $2.50 gold piece (“quarter eagle”), the $5 gold piece (“half eagle”), the $10 gold piece (“eagle”), and the $20 gold piece (“double eagle”). Before this, no one outside the U.S. Mint had ever designed a coin.
But producing a modern coin in ultra-high relief was not as easy as it seemed. Mint Engraver Charles Barber was skeptical that the kind of coin Roosevelt wanted could be mass-produced. Ultra-high relief coins take many more strikes to mint; the public can have trouble accepting things that look unusual; and bankers can have problems stacking them. A limited batch of ultra-high relief coins were struck in 1907. I have seen some of these coins, which are now on display in the Smithsonian Institution. They are incredibly beautiful: they are thick, and have lettering around the edge of the coin. About 12,000 of them were struck and released into circulation in 1907 and 1908. One amusing note about the coins is that Roosevelt had not wanted the words “In God We Trust” on the designs; he believed such a sentiment improperly mixed religious and commercial activity. Yet public outrage over this issue forced him to back down, and the words were thereafter stamped on the coin.
Bureaucratic problems intervened to slow down introduction of the new gold coinage. Saint-Gaudens died of cancer; mint officials dragged their feet, concerned that the high-relief design was not suitable for mass production. Compromises had to be made, and the relief of the original design was scaled back. By the time the production of $20 gold pieces ended in 1916, the Saint-Gaudens design had achieved immortality. It is still used in a modified form for US gold bullion coins. Roosevelt’s vision, combined with Saint-Gaudens’s artistic ability, had given the nation a coinage worthy of her vigor and power.
Read more in Lives of the Great Commanders: