Presidential Dollar: Mirror of the Times

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The United States Mint recently unveiled the new designs for the Presidential $1 coins that will enter into circulation this year. It has frequently been said that a nation’s coins are a mirror of its values. In the United States we have an incredible mix of people and motivations which shape our culture. As a result our coins reflect both good and embarassing elements. The first coin of 2010 will honor former Presidents Millard Fillmore. The obverse design on the Millard Fillmore dollar is by United States Mint Sculptor, Engraver Don Everhart. The common reverse design of all the Presidential coins is also by Everhart and features a dramatic rendition of the Statue of Liberty. Inscriptions on the reverse are $1, and United States of America, E Pluribus Unum, 2010, and the mint mark with 13 stars appearing on the edge of the coin. Translated from Latin, the motto “E Pluribus Unum” means “Out of Many, One.” This motto first appeared on U.S. coinage in 1795 and became a mandatory inscription in 1873. The motto “In God We Trust” first appeared on US coinage in 1864. Since 1938, all US coins have carried the inscription.

rimIn 2007 the United States Mint debuted the new series of circulating commemorative dollar coins honoring the former presidents. The golden colored dollar coins featured rotating obverse designs with four president coin designs to be released each year. For the first time in Mint history the national motto was moved to the rim of the coin. As a result of this “special incused edge lettering” there was much public discussion concerning God being moved (quite literally) to the margins. The first dollar honoring George Washington, was released into circulation on February 15, 2007. Shortly thereafter a number of coins were discovered missing the national motto altogether. Public controversy broke out after the “accident” of what became dubbed the “godless dollars.” This caused much public outcry and even a call to boycott the new coins. In response to wide spread public indignation President Bush signed into law H.R. 2764, which required that instead of being concealed on the edge, the motto “In God We Trust” should be moved to the obverse or reverse of Presidential Dollars as soon as practicable.

Millard_FillmoreMillard Fillmore (January 7, 1800 – March 8, 1874) was the 13th President of the United States (1850-1853) As a child his father was said to be Scottish Presbyterian. As an adult Fillmore had no formal religious ties, and indeed had showed little interest in religion, until he joined the local Unitarians congregation in 1831. In 1843, Fillmore ran for governor of New York. While it was a close race, Fillmore lost. He blamed the  defeat on recent Catholic immigrants. Being out of a job, Fillmore looked for an opportunity that would keep him in politics. In 1847, he won election as New York’s comptroller, or chief financial overseer. Fillmore’s winning margin over his Democratic rival was so wide that he was instantly seen as a leading Whig candidate for the upcoming 1848 national campaign. In his report from January 1849, he suggested that a national bank, with the stocks of the United States as the sole basis upon which to issue its currency, should be established. This idea led to the essential principle of our present system of national banks.  In June 1848, Millard Fillmore was nominated by the Whig national convention for vice president, with General Zachary Taylor. Both major parties of the time, the Whigs and the Democrats, avoided an official platform statement on the contentious slavery-extension issue in order to preserve their national unity. The men were to be sworn in on Sunday, March 4, 1849, but being a devout Christian, President-elect Zachary Taylor refused to be sworn into office on a Sunday because it was the Sabbath. Instead, Taylor and Fillmore were sworn in on the next day, Monday March 5, 1849. During a hot day in Washington on July 4, 1850, President Zachary Taylor remained out in the sun too long then had a snack of a large bowl of chilled and iced milk. He complained of stomach pain and died shortly thereafter. Millard Fillmore succeeded him as president. Taylor’s Cabinet resigned and President Fillmore at once appointed Daniel Webster to be Secretary of State. In the autumn of 1852 he was an unsuccessful candidate for nomination for the presidency by the Whig National Convention.

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President Franklin Pierce’s 1852 appointment of a Roman Catholic, James Campbell of Pennsylvania, for Postmaster General marked the first Catholic cabinet officer and touched off a political storm that led to the prominence of the nativist American Party (more commonly referred to as the Know-Nothing Party). Millard Fillmore joined the Know Nothing Party and they made him their candidate for president in 1856. The party produced a vast amount of propaganda against the Catholic Church stating that Catholics were not patriotic but owed their allegiance solely to the Pope and therefore could never be true Americans. Frequently anti-Catholicism was voiced as opposition to the Roman papacy, particularly to papal influence in political affairs. Misinformation contributed to ongoing discrimination against Catholics and the popular slogan of the 1884 presidential election, wherein Republicans decried the Democratic Party’s association with “rum, Romanism, and rebellion.” The Know Nothing party sought to exclude from office all Catholics and non-native born citizens while also urging the repeal of naturalization laws. The anti-Catholic movement enjoyed great success in the 1850s, most notably electing governors in Massachusetts and Delaware. In the thirty-fifth Congress, which assembled in December, there were seventy-five Know Nothing members elected. In the election of 1856 Fillmore was pitted against Democrat James Buchanan and the first presidential nominee of the new Republican Party, John C. Fremont. Fillmore carried only Maryland in the election, but won 40 percent of the voted in ten other Southern states. The new presidential dollar reminds us that coins, like national leaders, are a product of their times. The political and theological elements are held in tension should cause us to consider with caution how we as Christians may unwittingly allow national interest or dominant culture to shape our thinking in undesirable ways.

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