How the United States Came to think of Its Presidents as the Makers of Law
The Face of Liberty
(3,880 words; Illustrations removed by Medium)
Lets begin with the matter of the coinage. Long ago, in December, 1978, there was much talk of the coining of a new dollar with the great suffragist leader, Susan B. Anthony on the obverse, replacing President Dwight Eisenhower. Congress had advised the Mint, and the coin had been struck and circulated; but it was not going to please in the end. In December, Representative Margaret M. Heckler, a Reagan Republican from Massachusetts who had favored the Anthony dollar, summed up a strong current of opinion by saying that the likeness of Susan B. Anthony on the new coin had happily replaced that of “a mythical figure, which means nothing to anyone.” [NYTimes, Dec. 14, 1978, p. A18].
That mythical figure meant something to me, though. I wrote to the Times about her. [NYTimes, Dec. 26, 1978, p.18] I’m not sure Representative Heckler knew she was Liberty, but I’m a New Yorker and can see her statue in the harbor every day. She was put there by the French to honor their sister republic and to celebrate having rid themselves of their most recent monarch, the Emperor Napoleon III. Every American in every state could see Liberty every day before the statue was erected in 1883 because the face of Liberty was then still on every circulating coin of the United States, from the copper penny to the $20 gold piece. Liberty is the most enduring symbol (or “meme” as they say now) of a republic, a state without a king.
We have not had a real king or emperor (or dictator or despot) in these United States since we declared our independence of George III in 1776, and became a republic. We need not count “Norton I, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico.” Born in London in 1818 when George III was still king, Joshua Abraham Norton came as a gold-seeking 49er to San Francisco, California, lost everything in the rice business and went nuts. By the time the self-styled Norton I died in 1880, San Francisco, safely republican, had been going along with the gag for 20 years.
But there has been a disturbing trend in our political history going back all the way to the new Constitution of 1789, despite its being continuously amended. Our presidents have reached again and again for greater powers than the Constitution gives them. I do not yet refer to George W. Bush as George III, but I do refer to him occasionally as Bush II, and I do it because he and his father, and even George I (Washington) tried deliberately to increase the powers of the executive branch of a government (the Presidency) despite the fact that the Constitution gives all power to make federal law to the legislative branch (the Congress), including the power to turn treaties with foreign powers into the “supreme law of the land” by Senate ratification.
And this has led me to many meditations on the meaning of the Lady in New York Harbor.
Liberty, say many disdainful feminists, is not a “real” person. Well, she is indeed mythical, but myth has powers that can cost us if we neglect them. Liberty was a goddess and she is one still. (Representative Heckler, a Catholic, may have objected to her for being pagan.) The Founders — we fans of Abigail Adams prefer “Founders” to “Founding Fathers” — decided that once their new 1789 Constitution went into effect with its ban on states coining money, that they would put a portrait of Liberty on the first coins of the new United States of America, and with a law passed in 1792, they did. They knew they had done something new and were in the market for memes. “A New Order of the Ages” and “Out of Many, One,” in ancient Latin, were chosen for the Great Seal. The old imperial eagle seemed a more unifying symbol than the American turkey. The national flag that flies everywhere now was not yet official, the national anthem had yet to be written; but Liberty was even more obvious.
Why? Because Liberty had been a symbol since antiquity of that uncommon and somewhat confusing system of government in which power is distributed over several officeholders instead of just one, and in which the officeholders with the most power are independently elected as opposed to being appointed by another officeholder. Seemingly incompatible with a chain of command, it’s still an idea that’s hard to grasp. We call it by a Roman term, “republic,” res publica, or “the public thing.” Indeed, the Romans had one of those. They got it after they expelled their kings in 509 BCE, and gave the lawmaking power to a hereditary but meritocratic Senate and a much less aristocratic committee of the tribes (Comitia Tributa), and the executive power to two annually elected Consuls who headed the chain of command of the Republic’s armies. This Roman Republic lasted a long time; but like most republics it eventually got trapped in its own contradictions, a “constitutional crisis” brought on by massive imperial expansion, wealth inequality, and civil war. Monarchy was reestablished in Rome some 450 years later under one old title, “dictator,” and several new ones like “victorious general” (Imperator or emperor), “first citizen” (Princeps or prince), “heir of the dynasty” (Caesar), and “highly honored one” (Augustus).
And the Romans had a coinage. Roma, the goddess of the city, was on most coins. They never put the head of a “real person,” least of all a live one, on a coin because that act would have been both unrepublican and sacrilegious. Even Sulla the dictator had not put his face on a coin. But the next dictator Julius Caesar did (and so did Marcus Brutus, his assassin), and after that it was all emperors. (“Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar?” Jesus was asked during the reign of Augustus’s stepson and successor Tiberius, and replied, “Show me a coin.” Indicating Caesar’s head on it, he said, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.”) On other Roman Republic coins was the face of another goddess, Minerva, Rome’s warrior goddess of wisdom. That is interesting because Minerva’s meme was almost identical to that of the Greek goddess Athena, who had graced the coins of king-free Athens since before Rome became a republic.
The first “real persons” to appear on most Greek coins were the Kings of Macedon. After King Alexander the Great, the Greek city-republics never really recovered their independent republican government. As for the first “real person” to appear on the coins of Rome, that was Julius Caesar, and there, too, republican government ended. Republics ever afterward have usually been careful to keep real people off their coinage, especially real people who are still alive, and to re‐acquaint each succeeding generation with the maxim that in a state ruled by more than one person nothing — least of all its coins, perhaps the nation’s most powerful and pervasive advertising medium — should promote the idea of monarchy.
The United States was founded as a federated republic of republics. State laws were made for each state by its collective legislature and executed by executives that, even when single, were well-trammeled by checks and term limits. The United States itself fought the six years of Revolution and spent the first four years of peace under a legislature called The United States in Congress Assembled, composed of a delegation sent by each state, with each delegation having only one vote. The chairman elected by this super-legislature to preside over its debates was titled “President of the United States in Congress Assembled.” That and a bunch of standing Congressional Committees was the nearest thing the nation had to a chief executive.
In 1776, this assembled Congress adopted the resolution of a delegate from Virginia, Richard Henry Lee, elaborated by a Congressional Committee of that Congress and written by one of its Committeemen, Thomas Jefferson, which blamed the King of England for all the grievances of the American colonies in a single Declaration of Independence. Republicans in New York, where the Declaration was first read out to Congress’s Army by its Congressionally appointed commander, George Washington, replied to it by pulling down the statue of King George III at the Battery in Manhattan and melting it into bullets. (In 1793, the French republicans would take the American example considerably further, having identified their actual King trying to escape to an enemy country, by looking at a coin, they severed his actual head from his body.)
Congress’s army unexpectedly won the war with the King of England — with aid from the King of France, from the United States of the Netherlands and from loans the states took out. But Congress could tax the whole country only by a unanimous vote, its paper money was inflated to worthlessness, and interstate commerce was a maze of state tariffs and customs. A convention of Founders who wanted stronger national government assembled in Philadelphia to produce one, the Constitution. After the states voted one by one to ratify it between 1787 and 1788, it went into effect in 1789, and soon the United States had both national taxes and a national bank and was ready with a law to put Liberty on a national coinage.
The new government began minting in 1793 with a copper penny, the “Large cent.” There was nothing on its obverse but a profile bust of Liberty with her face set, her neck bare and her unbound hair flying back as if she was facing to the right into a gale. There was no place to put her name on her clothing, because no clothing was evident. In the absence of even a tattoo, her title “Liberty,” was engraved in relief on the rim of the coin above her head.
To make her more unmistakable in 1794 they accompanied her bust with a staff topped with a “Phrygian bonnet,” the Liberty cap of the freed Roman slave.
French revolutionaries had executed their king in January, 1793, and there as in America Liberty was portrayed with a Roman freedman’s Liberty cap as a republican revolutionary.
Liberty, the rebel woman with her bare neck and gloriously windblown hair on the first U.S. cent and half-cent (1793–97) was slowly made more modest and decorous on later cents, and by degrees less revolutionary. In 1800 her bust was draped (1800–1808); from 1809 to 1836 her windblown hair was bound by a fillet; in 1840, no longer flowing, it was braided and bound by a coronet (1840–57). Much the same progression toward Order was made by Liberty on the large cent, but her coronet came earlier (1816–1839); and the same progression could be seen on the larger denominations.
In 1797 Liberty on the high denomination gold coins began wearing her hair wound into a cone-shaped topknot. Other symbols, shields and eagles, were used on circulating coins, but rarely without Liberty. “In God We Trust” first appeared in the middle of the Civil War, and stayed on the nickel until 1883. (It was required on all coins by law in 1908, and went on paper money during the Eisenhower administration, when the dollar was the only circulating coin left with Liberty on it.)
It was 1909, when Liberty was first removed from a U.S. circulating coin, and the coin was the mass-circulation penny. Liberty had been on the one-cent piece since 1793, but the version of Liberty used on the penny since 1859 (and on the $10 gold piece since 1907) had been “American Liberty,” Liberty with a feathered headdress.
Her title, “Liberty,” had been engraved on the penny’s headdress band but it was very small and in such low relief that it wore off quickly and by 1909 Americans had all agreed to call it the “Indian Head” penny. The replacing of American Liberty with the first Republican president, Abraham Lincoln, was a project for Republican President Theodore Roosevelt, partly as a way of cementing the victory of the Republican Party, the Union, and reunification in the Civil War, and partly to evade responsibility for what had been done to the American Indians in his lifetime. In 1886 Roosevelt had given a speech in South Dakota, amending the opinion of the Indian fighter General Sheridan: “I don’t go so far as to think that the only good Indian is the dead Indian, but I believe nine out of every ten are, and I shouldn’t like to inquire too closely into the case of the tenth. The most vicious cowboy has more moral principle than the average Indian.” Thus, by 1909, not only had Liberty been confused with a native American, the Republican Party had begun to forget what a “republic” was.
Lincoln’s was the first portrait of a dead, white male CEO to appear on a circulating U.S. coin. As we all know, it was not the last. Real men have been pushing the Republic’s representative woman off our coinage ever since. The next Liberty to go was the one on the nickel, a modest matronly woman with draped bust and coronet-bound braids who had been there since 1883.
In 1913, the first year of Woodrow Wilson’s new Democratic administration, a genuine American Indian replaced her, accompanied on the reverse with an American bison. The designer, James Earle Fraser, rejected any identification of that Native American’s tribe or people, insisting he had conflated at least three male models from the Kiowa, Cheyenne and Sioux. (The model for the buffalo turned out to be in captivity in the Bronx Zoo.) It seems not to have been noticed by journalists of the time, but the new head on the nickel represented very well the vexed relationship of the first Americans with the later immigrants who had so recently dispossessed them of the West. It was something of an apology in the form of an honor, an anemic effort to make up both for that dispossession and for the recent removal of what so many thought was the Indian on the penny. Probably the word “Liberty” embossed on the coin’s edge suggested that the Native American, though clearly male, was another version of the classical goddess. But he lasted only until 1938 when the coin’s 25-year legal term was up. He was replaced ironically by no less a dead white CEO than Thomas Jefferson, the same Liberty-loving republican who had written the charge-sheet against King George in 1776, who had, as Secretary of State in the 1790s, approved the design of the first flowing-hair Liberty coins and turned his Department to favor king-executing revolutionary France, and who had become the first President of the party he founded and named “Republican.” Jefferson is still on the nickel, a tenure any monarch would envy, though an antipathy to single executives lies behind much of his career.
Next to go was Liberty on the quarter dollar. The first quarters’ Liberty was a draped bust in 1796. The bust’s hair was capped in 1815. Liberty was seated in 1838 (with her name, “Liberty,” in very small letters across her shield), but returned in 1892 by the designer Charles Barber to a stern-faced profile bust wearing a Phrygian Liberty cap wound round with a laurel victory wreath. On the front of the cap the title, “Liberty,” appeared in tiny letters which wore off quickly, but no one seems to have wondered who she was. In 1916, she was represented for the first time standing, with her title relegated to the coin’s rim with “In God We Trust” visible on her pedestal. Standing Liberty was dressed décolleté holding a simple shield until 1917 when modesty and the Great War seemed to demand the addition of an armored breastplate. This Liberty lasted until 1932, when George Washington himself replaced her in celebration of his 200th birthday. Washington, too, is still there.
Next to go after the quarter was Liberty on the dime, but not exactly. On the first U.S. ten-cent piece in 1796, her hair had been unbound but her bust draped. In 1809 her hair was capped. She was seated in 1837, but was returned by designer Barber to the profile bust with the Liberty cap and laurel wreath. This Barber Liberty head, like the one on the quarter, wore her title, “Liberty,” in even tinier letters on her headband, but again, no one seems to have doubted her identity. In 1916, when her 25-year term was up, the coin designers of the Wilson administration produced a new design, again a profile bust wearing the Liberty cap. But this cap had wings — wings like those of Hermes or Roman Mercury, the icon of the new electricity. And “Liberty” was on the coin rather than on the cap. Within a few years this Liberty was universally transgendered to Mercury, and everyone still calls this coin the Mercury dime. When he/she was replaced in 1946 with a profile bust of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, just deceased, looking at the word “Liberty,” it seems to have occurred to no one but Roosevelt-haters that something might be amiss.
The first U.S. half-dollar (1794) featured a flowing-hair Liberty. In 1796, her bust was draped, and from 1807 to 1839 her hair was bound. From 1839 to 1891 Liberty was robed and seated. Charles Barber designed the new bust with a wreathed Liberty cap that ran from 1892 to 1916; but it was Adolph Weinman who designed the stunning replacement, Liberty in profile, striding toward the sunrise, robed and wearing a Liberty cap that had no wings. Perhaps that widely admired 1916 design is one reason why, when the Mint replaced her with another dead male CEO, it was Benjamin Franklin, a man who had never been President of the United States. Franklin’s highest executive offices had been membership in various executive Committees of the old Continental Congress, and President of the executive council of Pennsylvania. Franklin, the most democratic of the Founders, remains beloved; but after President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, officials felt obliged to put him on a circulating coin, and in 1964 Kennedy replaced Franklin on the fifty-cent piece.
In 1964, there was only one circulating coin of the United States that did not have a dead President on it — the dollar. Struck in silver since 1795 and also in gold between 1849 and 1889, with Liberty always on the obverse, her aspect also grew more modest and less radical over time; but draped, bound, and diademed, Liberty persisted. On the so-called “Peace” dollar she looked more youthful, freer of the usual restraints, but when the Peace replaced the “Morgan” dollar in 1921, the name “Liberty” was relegated to the rim of the coin as it had been on the first cent, rather than written on the ever more constraining headdress of the goddess. Then in 1971, President Nixon, in the third year of his first term, replaced her with President Eisenhower, recently deceased, with whom Nixon had served as Vice-President. Sometimes called the Bicentennial dollar, its issue dates of 1971–1978 overlapped the 1976 bicentennial of the American revolution, making 1976 a year when every single circulating coin of the United States had the name “Liberty” on it, but not the goddess herself. “Liberty” had become a motto, like “In God We Trust,” or possibly the invocation of a ghost. Instead of Liberty, the obverse of every U.S. coin featured a dead, white, male President.
There followed, in 1978, the effort to issue a new dollar, a smaller one with no silver so as to reflect inflation and the demands of vending-machine makers. Feminists organized and pulled for suffragist Susan B. Anthony, later for the Indian (Lemhi Shoshone) guide Sacajawea. Dollars were struck for both these notable women; but inflation had severely limited the uses for a dollar coin, and it was rarely seen or used. Dollars struck after 2006 with portraits of past Presidents on the obverse and the Statue of Liberty on the reverse have not improved the situation. For the moment at least living Presidents like Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush are denied the presidential dollar and a statutory waiting period has prevented Nixon, Ford, Reagan and Bush 41 from appearing on one. Liberty does go on official Mint-issued coins, but these are gold and silver collector’s items; the general public does not see or use them. A more serious issue is that now no coin users and very few coin fanciers seem to understand that Liberty cannot be represented by any chief executive, male or female. Liberty, one of the iconographic sisterhood that begins with Athena and Roma, was — and is — a woman fully as remarkable as Susan B. Anthony, having the added advantages of having a longer history and of being perhaps the most compelling of all republican symbols, or, as we now call them, “memes.”
Chief executives, especially live ones, are memes of monarchy. Except in England, Sweden, and some other tamed and trammeled monarchies, they can also be memes of elective dictatorship, lawless despotism, unapologetic tyranny, and impotent or nonexistent legislatures. Switzerland has never had a chief executive, and puts the mythical William Tell on its coins. In France, Liberty was called up by the new République to replace Louis XVI on its coins in 1792, and a resurgent 2e République to replace Louis-Philippe I after 1848, a 3e République to replace Napoleon III in 1870, and a 4e République to replace Marshal Pétain in 1945. In Italy, Liberty replaced Mussolini’s king, Victor Emmanuel III, in 1946. In Spain, Generalissimo Francisco Franco no longer dictates and is no longer on Spain’s coins. All now leave Liberty off their euros.
Germany, fearful of rule by many and still calling itself a “Reich” (realm, in English, or royal dominion) deposed Kaiser Wilhelm in 1918 to become a republic, but risked only less radical republican memes like sheaves of wheat, eagles, Goethe and Luther. After fifteen years of those, it got President Hindenburg and Führer Hitler. Hindenburg had just died, but Hitler was alive. Indeed Hindenburg’s appointed Prime Minister had seized the occasion of his death to make himself dictator of Germany.
As I wrote at the end of The End of Kings in 1983, “The first job for republicans may be just to make Liberty visible.” The United States of America, founded as a constitutional republic and becoming, since that founding, an increasingly democratic republic, has much to do to understand the complexity of its constitutional system. It needs explanations as repetitive and simple as television commercials, and it needs its memes to be both constantly visible and regularly explained. John Adams defined a “republic” as a state ruled by law and not persons, and whose law is made by more than one person at a time. He would not have been pleased to see his face on a Presidential Dollar.
Members of today’s Republican Party, who no longer have any idea what a republic is, seem to be willing to put Donald Trump on the dollar without even waiting until he’s dead. Leading up to Trump has been a long and largely steady expansion of the powers and privileges of American Presidents, a trend toward increasing administrative superiority, lawmaking authority, constitutional primacy, and immunity from checks and scrutiny. The meme both hidden and potent for this expansion, I think, is the eclipse of Liberty on American coinage.