For hundreds of years, the United States Mint has produced commemoratives known as national medals—not legal-tender coins, but coin-like items of special significance. These serve as tributes to great Americans, souvenirs of important places, mementos of solemn occasions and events, and celebrations of anniversaries, accomplishments, and milestones.
One category of these commemoratives is a series of Presidential medals. The Mint describes them:
A detailed likeness of America’s Commanders-in-Chief appears on the keepsakes’ obverse, while the reverse design either harkens back to the series’ origin as peace medals during the colonial era or includes a quote from the featured President.
The tradition of Presidential medals started in 1801, with the above-mentioned “Peace medals.” These were large silver medallions bearing a portrait of the president and, on the back, symbols of friendship and accord. They were given as official diplomatic gifts to American Indian leaders on the nation’s frontiers. Meriwether Lewis and William Clark carried a large supply of such silver medals, featuring a bust of Thomas Jefferson, on their 1804–1806 expedition to the Pacific coast.
In the 1860s, the medals shifted away from their diplomatic purpose, and their designs focused on commemorating the presidents rather than promoting peace between the federal and Native governments.
Today Presidential medals are minted in bronze for sale to the public. Since 2018 they’ve also been offered in .999 fine silver.
One of the most popular medals of this grand series is that of a famous son of Kentucky: Abraham Lincoln. The Great Emancipator’s presidential medal was designed by Mint artist George T. Morgan and first struck in 1886. Historian R.W. Julian has called Morgan’s portrait of Lincoln “one of the finest artistic efforts ever struck at the U.S. Mint.” Numismatist Fred Reed, in Abraham Lincoln: The Image of His Greatness, wrote that “the details of Morgan’s efforts are apparent to all.”
The reverse, also originally designed by Morgan, shows a wreath of oak and laurel within a perimeter of pearls. Inside the wreath, a serpent holds its own tail in its mouth—an ancient Egyptian symbol of eternity and immortality. The medal’s inscriptions give Lincoln’s dates of inauguration and APRIL 14, 1865, marking his assassination.
For a flowery description of the reverse design, we can turn to Dr. Cornelius Vermeule, writing in Numismatic Art in America:
For the wreath of the reverse, Morgan went back to the civic crowns of imperial Rome, producing a combination of tightly bound oak and laurel worthy of the golden crowns borne in procession in the small frieze on the Arch of Trajan at Beneventum, a triumphal monument of the early second century A.D.
If you want to add an example of this impressive medal to your Kentucky collection, or display it as a standalone objet d’art, you have many sources. A vintage piece can cost several hundred dollars. A modern version, struck in bronze (90 percent copper and 10 percent nickel) and a hefty three inches in diameter, will cost $160 if ordered directly from the United States Mint. However, you can search eBay and often find older three-inch bronzes (struck within the past 50 years or so) for around $40 (yes, one-quarter of the current Mint price), or even cheaper if you’re lucky. The medals sometimes show up at flea markets and yard sales. And your local coin shop might have one in inventory.
A smaller version, the size of an old-fashioned dollar coin (1.5 inches), can be yours for $20 directly from the Mint.
The bronze medals are visually attractive, but maybe fine silver is more to your liking. The Mint’s modern one-ounce silver version of the Lincoln Presidential medal is scheduled to be released this year. Without doubt, it will rival (or even exceed) the best-selling George Washington silver medal—collectors have purchased more than 32,000 of that issue. Washington and Lincoln are always at the top of lists of the best, greatest, and most beloved American presidents.
To sign up for a reminder and stay up-to-date on the silver Presidential medals, so you don’t miss out when the Abraham Lincoln medal goes on sale, visit the U.S. Mint’s online catalog.
An important note about helping Kentucky after the recent floods: Last week, the Honorable Order of Kentucky Colonels’ Board of Trustees committed $1 million to emergency relief and rebuilding efforts across flood-ravaged eastern Kentucky. General Gary Boschert, Board of Trustees chair, said, “We learned, from our recent experiences with partners in western Kentucky tornado relief, that recovery is a long-term commitment, and we will ensure that one hundred percent of contributions toward flood relief will be given to thoroughly vetted nonprofits providing assistance to the citizens and communities of eastern Kentucky.” If you’d like to help the Honorable Order’s relief efforts, you can contribute securely online or mail your contribution to The Honorable Order of Kentucky Colonels, 943 South First Street, Louisville, KY 40203 (please note “Eastern Kentucky Flood Relief” on your check’s memo line).
Dennis Tucker is the publisher of Whitman Publishing, a leading producer of books, storage and display supplies, and other resources for collectors and hobbyists. He was commissioned a Kentucky Colonel in March 2021 for his career in book publishing and his promotion of the Commonwealth’s status as an important subject in numismatics. His column “From the Colonel’s Desk” explores the Bluegrass State’s rich connections to American coins, tokens, medals, paper money, private currency, and related artifacts. To read more, visit the “From the Colonel’s Desk” archives.