Why are Only Dead Presidents Featured on U.S. Coins?

Presidents on Currently Circulating United States Coinage
Presidents on Currently Circulating United States Coinage. Images Courtesy of: Heritage Auction Galleries, www.ha.com

Question: Why are Only Dead Presidents Featured on U.S. Coins?

The United States has a long tradition of placing only the portraits of dead people on its money. Learn why living people are never depicted on U.S. coins, and why the U.S. always uses portraits of dead Presidents rather than living ones on its circulating coins, such as the upcoming new Presidential Dollar.

Answer:

The main reason the U.S. is putting only dead Presidents on the new dollars (or dead people on any other coin) is tradition.

Although this tradition has been legislated into law now, from the very beginning of our nation's founding, patriotic men felt that it was improper to honor any living person by putting their image on the legal tender currency, especially the circulating coins. George Washington declined when our young nation wanted his portrait on the first U.S. silver dollar, which was the start of this long and still unbroken tradition.

Royal Coin Portraits

The early American Patriots were anti-royalists by definition, and royalty have always, since ancient Greek and Roman times, taken pride in putting their image on their coins. The monarch's portrait was a guarantee of the coin's value in ancient societies, sort of an assay mark. However, the ancient republicans, the pro-democracy philosopher sort who formed the Senate in ancient Greece and pre-Imperial Rome, felt very strongly that a living man's portrait did not belong on the coinage of a Republic.

In fact, it was Julius Caesar's audacity in putting his living visage on his silver coins that helped spark the rebellion that resulted in Julius Caesar's Assassination.

First President on a U.S. Coin

When the newly-formed United States of America minted its early coinage, it was Miss Liberty (sometimes referred to as a goddess of liberty or Lady Liberty in early numismatic writings) whose portrait appeared on our coins.

The American Eagle usually appeared on the reverse. It wasn't until 1909, the 100th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln's birth, that a (dead) president was first featured on U.S. coinage. The Lincoln Cent was intended to be a special commemorative, but it proved so popular that it endures to this day. Other dead presidents soon followed, and we are all familiar with the Jefferson Nickel, Roosevelt Dime, Washington Quarter, etc.

Only the Dead May Appear on U.S. Coins by Law

Nowadays, it is federal law that no living man or woman can appear on the U.S. coinage. Presidents must be dead for at least two years before they are eligible for inclusion in the Presidential Dollar series. I wonder if Americans will ever find a public figure who is so revered by the populace that they would allow a living person to grace the circulating coinage. I wouldn't bet on it!

Real People on U.S. Coins

When the United States first started minting coins in 1793 an allegorical image of Lady Liberty was used as the main portrait on our coins. The first actual person to appear on and United States coin was not a president or US citizen at all, it was Christopher Columbus and Queen Isabella of Spain. In 1892 commemorative coins were issued to commemorate the World’s Columbian Exposition in honor of the 400th Anniversary of Columbus' discovery of the New World.

 

Living People on United States Coins

Since the United States Congress dictates the laws regarding our coinage, they can also create exceptions to place living people on United States coinage. Given that, there has been six people that have been alive when their images appeared on United States coins. They are:

  1. Governor T.E. Kilby on the front of the 1921 Alabama Centennial.
  2. President Calvin Coolidge on the front of the 1926 Sesquicentennial of American Independence.
  3. Senator Carter Glass on the front of the 1936 Lynchburg, Virginia, Sesquicentennial coin.
  4. Senator Joseph T. Robinson on the back of the 1936 Robinson-Arkansas Centennial coin.
  5. Eunice Kennedy Shriver  on the obverse of the 1995 Special Olympics World Games commemorative Silver Dollar.
  6. Nancy Reagan on the 2016 First Spouse $10 Gold Coin. 
    Note: Nancy Reagan died on March 6, 2016 before the coin was officially released on July 1, 2016. However, the coin was approved and minted by The United States Mint before her death.

     

    Current Presidents on U.S. Coins
    DenominationName of Pres.TermFirst Appeared
    One Cent or PennyAbraham Lincoln1861-18651909
    Five Cents or NickelThomas Jefferson1801-18091938
    Ten Cents or DimeFranklin Roosevelt1933-19451946
    Twenty-Five Cents or QuarterGeorge Washington1789-17971932
    Fifty Cents or Half DollarJohn Kennedy1961-19631964
    One DollarVarious *n.a.2007

    * - The Presidential Dollar Series of coins began in 2007. Each year for different presidents  were honored in order of their term in office.

    Edited by: James Bucki