In March of last year, when the Citizens Coinage Advisory Committee released its final design choice for the 2017 American Liberty high-relief gold coin, the numismatic zone of the Internet exploded. The conflict renewed at each step in the process, including the official unveiling this month: fans praised the design’s inclusiveness and beauty, while detractors called it politically correct, unattractive, or both. Charges of racism—some justified, others not—were hurled. Over and over again, the discussion returned to Liberty’s braided hairstyle. Although some complaints focused on the size of the stars in Liberty’s crown, it was her braided hair, by far, that provoked the most outrage. In a nation founded on one of the highest principles imaginable, our national conversation was preoccupied with a hairdo.
For weeks, I’ve tiptoed around the subject of this coin. It’s an major piece of our numismatic history, largely because of the race of the woman representing Liberty—but how do I address the subject without starting a dumpster fire? Race is among the most important issues of our time; it’s in greatest need of discussion, yet is one of the hardest things to discuss. I began to realize that avoiding the subject on Mint News Blog was exactly the wrong thing to do. The more difficult the discussion, the more important it is to have it.
So I began studying the matter in depth, and discovered there’s much more going on here than a decision to give a black woman a turn at being Liberty. The paths leading to this coin come from a world of subjects—not just race but gender, American history, ancient history, biology, banking, immigration, art, economics, and mythology. Even pornography (a word I never imagined using here) makes an appearance in the story.
As it turns out, a blog post is a woefully inadequate medium for the subject, which needs an entire book to give it the treatment it deserves. But a blog is the venue we have here, so in this tight framework, I’ll give it my best.
The End of One Series, and the Beginning of Another
To understand the interpretation of Liberty on the 2017 high-relief gold coin, it helps to start with its predecessor, the 2015 American Liberty HR gold coin—which leads us back to the 2009 edition, which leads us back further still to the historic Saint-Gaudens double eagle of 1907. (As you can see, we haven’t even made it out of the first paragraph and the paths are already forking.)
In July 2014, the CCAC held one of its regular meetings via teleconference. The major topic on the agenda was an ultra-high-relief, 24-karat gold, American Liberty–themed coin, along with a silver medal of the same design, to be recommended for the Mint’s 2015–2016 production calendar. The Mint (which had representatives in the conference call) viewed the coin as a bookend* to the 2009 high-relief gold coin struck during the tenure of Edmund Moy, who was director of the U.S. Mint at the time. Moy’s coin, in the words of Mint representative April Stafford, “fulfilled the original vision of Augustus Saint-Gaudens, closing one chapter of American coin design and beginning a new one.” (Quotations from this meeting have been shortened for use in this article; the complete transcript is available here.)
Stafford was referencing, of course, the original 1907 Ultra High Relief double eagle gold coin, designed by Augustus Saint-Gaudens at the behest of President Theodore Roosevelt. The president wanted to revitalize the designs on American coinage, which he felt was “artistically of atrocious hideousness.” The first, pattern strikes of this coin were a test of how far the Mint could take the concept of extremely high, medallic* relief. The results, although quite beautiful, were of course unsuitable for long-term production. The Mint lowered the relief somewhat and tried again, but even these coins were troublesome, taking three strikes per coin to bring up the design. After producing a little more than 12,300 of these high-relief strikes, the Mint moved to a flatter, more traditional relief that was both beautiful and production-friendly—but was nonetheless a diminished version of Saint-Gaudens’s original.
With the 2009 HR gold coin, Director Moy felt Saint-Gaudens’s original vision could be realized—that, as CCAC chair Gary Marks put it in the teleconference, “a past failure could be corrected.” According to Marks, the Mint director hoped the coin would be the first in a series of ultra-high-relief gold issues with modern designs. That was the CCAC’s hope, as well.
The upshot of the teleconference was that a 2015 renewal of the format would be a worthy complement* to the 2009 coin. Where the 2009 coin had brought to a close an era of classic American coin design, the 2015 coin would open the door on a new one. The committee hoped that, if the Mint followed up on its recommendations, the resulting design candidates would be more than a rehashing of past classics. As Marks put it, “I’d like the artists to try to pull out of their souls some new ideas about what Liberty might look like in the twenty-first century.”
Which brings us to another fork in the path.
Women and People of Color on Money
The late Richard Doty, who was senior curator of numismatics at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, was a close student of artwork on American currency. In Pictures From a Distant Country: Seeing America Through Old Paper Money, he describes the evolution of designs on 19th-century private bank notes. Then, as now, the designs on money depicted the outer world while also revealing the worldviews of the artists and those who commissioned their work.
Doty traces the evolution of the design elements on those now-obsolete bank notes, and includes depictions of people who are especially relevant to our discussion of a modern Liberty. “There were three groups,” he writes, “who frequently appeared on our early currency, but who played little or no role in the money economy that that currency facilitated. They were Native Americans, African-Americans, and women, and their constant visibility on bank notes (in contrast to their virtual invisibility in a number of other areas) says a great deal about the mind-set of those who requested, designed, engraved, and used the bills.” He goes on to demonstrate how “the depiction of the three ‘out’ groups evolved through time, manifesting a visual progression that mirrored the evolution of the country itself.” (Italics are the author’s.)
Across three of the book’s chapters, Doty makes the case that, at the beginning of the private-bank-note era, each of these three groups served merely stage props, standing in for the figures in popular imagination. The Indian was a sneaky enemy, or a remote figure who looked on in denial as the white man’s progress, in the form of trains and factories, rolled onward. The African-American began as a feature of the landscape, indistinguishable as an individual among a group of slaves. As the issue of slavery grew more contentious, the African-American was depicted as a happy worker, beaming a great smile while carrying a bushel of cotton, or singing joyfully while hoeing a row.
Members of the third group, women, were often depicted as grand allegories, which often was an excuse to render them naked. The precedent of nudity in fine art served as an excuse for partial or total nudity on banknotes; there was little danger that the “fairer sex” would be exposed to the images, as women (especially gentlewomen) rarely handled money. “One is rather hard put,” Doty writes, “to come away with anything but a lingering impression that the bathing nude on a $20 bill from Macon, Georgia, was there as the 1840 equivalent of a pinup.”
In an opposing trend, women were depicted as soft-cheeked ideals of virtue. Of this tendency to romanticize female figures, Doty writes, “Nowhere was this need more indelibly expressed than in the profession most commonly associated with them, that of the milkmaid. From the simple testimony of the currency, milking cows must have been the growth industry of the 19th century.”
As time passed and American culture progressed, Native Americans and women came to be depicted in a more realistic fashion, as features of the world that is rather than the world as others want it to be. Women, who were beginning to earn and spend money of their own, began to be depicted as workers in stores, mills, and factories. Native Americans, as their physically threatening status diminished, were depicted living ordinary lives, canoeing, fishing, and hunting “without moral commentary.” As for African-Americans, the happy-slaves trend came to an end, but not because of cultural progress. In the midst of the Civil War, the National Bank Act of 1863 made the U.S. government the sole issuer of paper money. The era of private bank notes was over, and soon afterward, the era of slavery was, as well.
Thoroughly Modern Liberty
In its 2014 instructions to the members of its Artistic Infusion Program (AIP), the Mint’s instructions—like the CCAC’s recommendations—were intentionally vague (especially in comparison to the lengthy, rigid requirements often required by Congress for circulating coinage, with the Apollo 11 commemorative being a recent example). As the CCAC had hoped, the goal of devising a modern Liberty representative of the nation’s diversity gave the artists a much-needed dose of creative freedom.
Justin Kunz, the AIP artist who produced the winning 2015 design, said, “The problem we were tasked with solving, to portray Lady Liberty as a modern figure (rather than a traditional one), proved a bit more difficult in practice than it sounded in theory. It required a lot of studying, sketching and meditating about what Lady Liberty represents, what it is that defines our time from past eras, and how these ideas might be distilled down to a simple visual statement that could be expressed in an elegant way.”
Kunz’s Lady Liberty on the 2015 high-relief gold coin is clearly a modern figure, particularly in two aspects. The first is her stance. Liberties of the past, when depicted in full or three-quarter length, have been grand allegories. They are untouchable; they stride from an exalted world into our own, bearing a shield of war or a sheaf of grain, carrying a torch of freedom, extending an olive branch or merely a beckoning hand. They tend to have dawn trailing from the skirts of their Greek-inspired, billowing robes. These Liberties were handed down to America from a time when human beings seemed to be utterly at the whim of the gods.
The 2015 Liberty is strong and dignified, but she is very human. She lives in a world where people, including women-people, control their own destinies, to the degree that it’s possible within the bounds of nature. Her Greek-inspired gown hangs straight, obeying gravity rather than a divine wind. The breeze that ripples the flag catches her sleeve and gives it a flutter, but the effect is entirely realistic. Her arms are strong, with a hint of muscle. Rather than holding the torch of freedom above her head as if leading a vast army, she grips it at a practical height, as if she’s leading her neighbors on a long trek to safety. Her hair is not a flowing fire hazard. It’s either done up or worn short, with a few strands escaping to one side. She stands perfectly still, but the rippling flag, the dancing torch flames, and the flame-like shapes of the laurel wreath on her head suggest motion. (In fact, one CCAC member, Michael Bugeja, had emphasized that “liberty” means not only freedom of will but unrestrained motion, an aspect the design captures.)
The second modern aspect of Liberty was not a complete surprise, as the design instructions had called for a sense of diversity—that said, “diversity” was left open to interpretation, and an other-than-white Liberty had not been a strict requirement. Whatever they had expected, the committee members were pleased to see that, for the first time, Liberty could be interpreted as being from a race other than white.
This may or may not have been intentional on Kunz’s part. Given his youth and gender, he’d be forgiven if he didn’t realize modern American beauty standards are quite different from what they were even 20 years ago. However, as an artist, he’s probably aware that in the not-too-distant past, “beauty” meant white skin, a small nose, and medium-to-thin lips. As more and more African-American, Latina, and mixed-raced women became celebrities, that ideal evolved. American preferences in skin tone, bone structure, lip fullness, hairstyles, and so on have changed greatly, and many “ideal” beauties today are of mixed or even indeterminate race.
From the outset, the CCAC was keenly aware that, whatever design was chosen, the coin must be an across-the-board success, or there would be no further high-relief coins from the Mint. The effort needed to work not only artistically but from the manufacturing (i.e., strike-ability) and marketing standpoints. Thanks to careful attention at each step of the process, the work was an unqualified success. Both the high-end 2015 gold coin and its companion piece, the more cost-conscious 2016 silver medal, were sell-outs, which meant that a new, high-relief gold coin was a possibility for 2017. ❑
* This posted was edited for accuracy at 5:45 on January 30. At the suggestion of CCAC member Michael Moran, I changed the description of the relief on the 1907 UHR coin from “almost sculptural” to the more correct “medallic.” In addition, the original text said that the CCAC saw the 2015 coin as a bookend to the 2009 coin, but that was actually the view of the Mint, not the CCAC. Mr. Moran points out that “bookend” has a ring of finality to it, and that the CCAC wanted the coin to be the start of something rather than the end of it. I’ve adjusted the text accordingly.