Most Americans and others around the world are aware that the United States was founded on the ideal of liberty (or freedom) and typically associate the idea concretely with the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor.
The Statue of Liberty, a gift from France that began welcoming visitors in 1886, not only represents our enduring commitment to those ideals and our friendship with France but also serves as a symbol of the American melting pot.
Millions of people from other countries, mainly in Europe, arrived there by ship in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and their first glimpse of this country was this imposing, majestic, neoclassical statue designed by French artist Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi and built by Gustave Eiffel.
But many people likely have no idea about the historic roots of the idea of Liberty, or why it is usually depicted as a female in classical art and on much of U.S. coinage.
Lady Liberty is an allegorical, or symbolic, representation of the democratic and republican ideal of freedom depicted as a female figure or goddess. The idea dates to ancient Greece and Rome, where she was known, respectively, as goddesses named Eleutheria, who appeared briefly on the coins of Alexandria, and Libertas, who was honored with temples and statues built in her honor as well as on coinage.
Lady Liberty is by far the most frequently used American numismatic motif and “has been an integral part of U.S. numismatic art” since the time of the original 13 colonies, according to Cornelius Vermeule’s Numismatic Art in America. And the classic American Lady Liberty designs remain highly popular with most collectors, especially older ones, which is why the U.S. Mint continues to issue coins that reuse those designs.
British and French influences
Lady Liberty is the best-known numismatic goddess in this country, and many other cultures have their own versions of the concept. Two of the prime examples are France’s Marianne and the United Kingdom’s Britannia, which have appeared for hundreds of years on the coins of those countries and are still used today in clever designs that blend classic and modern artistic styles.
In fact, some of the Lady Liberty designs that have appeared on U.S. coinage were strongly influenced by French and British antecedents—especially Britannia, which dates to Roman times. Colonial coinage, for instance, included many designs that clearly were inspired by Britannia coins on which the goddess Liberty was shown seated.
Moreover, other countries have had success issuing coins with modern interpretations of their own classic designs. But in the United States, the process of moving toward a modern Liberty has been much less smooth, producing sometimes divisive discussions about what it means for Liberty to be represented by different races and ethnicities.
Lady Liberty’s historic roots lie with the American and French revolutions, when Liberty was favored for use on coinage as a conscious alternative to portraits of the monarchies those revolutions were aimed against.
In 1782, Benjamin Franklin proposed the issuance of a medal honoring the American victories at Yorktown and Saratoga, which is known as the Libertas Americana medal. Franklin himself designed the medal, which was executed by sculptor Augustin Dupré. Its obverse features a head of Liberty with locks of hair flowing behind her, an approach seen on many coins issued later.
In the mid-1780s, under the Articles of Confederation, the new nation began the task of creating its own coinage—a task that would not be complete until Congress passed the Coinage Act of 1792. Originally, some of the Founding Fathers proposed that the nation’s coinage should bear the portrait of the president then serving as chief executive. But our first president, George Washington, strongly resisted this idea.
Washington believed that any such portrait on a coin would be monarchical. He was determined that the new republic would be ruled by the people, rather than by a dictator or king, and insisted that our coinage must reflect that.
In 1792, the young American republic established its own mint and Congress passed a law that required coins to carry an image of Liberty on the obverse and a likeness of an American eagle on the reverse of higher denominations. From that time until 1933, the last year that $10 gold coins were produced, most regular-issue U.S. coins carried an image of Lady Liberty.
Exceptions include the Flying Eagle cent of 1856–58; the two-, three- and five-cent pieces of the mid-1800s; presidential portrait coins; and a few others, especially most modern commemoratives.
In addition, there are some U.S. coins on which Liberty is shown as a male figure, including most notably as a Native American chieftain on the Buffalo nickel of James Earle Frasier and the $2-1/2 and $5 Indian gold coins designed by Bela Lyon Pratt.
Then there is the Barber coinage of 1892 to 1916, designed by U.S. Mint chief sculptor-engraver Charles Barber, whose Liberty Head portrait has been called androgynous.
While the Barber coins have never been especially admired for their artwork, coins with Native American designs, including the latter-day Sacagawea and Native American $1 coins, are among the most admired U.S. coins. The Buffalo nickel is so cherished that its design continues to be used on American Buffalo gold bullion coins issued since 2006.
There is an interesting historical irony: At the very time American Indians were being decimated and driven from their land, they were representing Liberty on the Indian Head cent.
Over the years, the way Lady Liberty was depicted has changed substantially in terms of dress, hairstyle and pose—and, since 2015, in terms of ethnicity or race. These differences are more than simply a matter of style or appearance, since each different version has its own symbolic meaning.
On some coins, Liberty appears as a young woman whose hair is unbrushed, such as on the Wreath cents of 1793, or wearing a bonnet or cap of some kind—while on others, she is portrayed as a more mature woman and in a more fashionable manner in the style of the era.
The Phrygian Cap
Perhaps the single most common element of Miss Liberty’s portrayal on classic U.S. coins is that she is often shown wearing a Phrygian cap, which represents Liberty. Such caps were first used in ancient Greece and were later worn by freed slaves to signify their emancipation—while on early U.S. coinage, they represented freedom from the oppressive British monarchy. They also appear on France’s Marianne.
Sometimes only Liberty’s head is shown, as on the Peace dollar, in which rays surround her. Other times, she is depicted full-length, as on the Standing Liberty quarter, where she is dressed in a gown and holds both olive branches (symbolizing peace) and a shield (to show she is ready to defend the nation).
On other coins, she is seated, as on the extensive range of Seated Liberty half dimes, dimes, quarters, half dollars, silver dollars (which were inspired by the ancient Greek silver tetradrachms and by Britannia coinage), and the Trade dollar. On still others she is shown striding confidently, as on the Saint-Gaudens double eagle and Adolph Weinman’s Walking Liberty half dollar, arguably the two most popular and influential classic designs.
Weinman’s half dollar, one of three Liberty-themed coins introduced in 1916 (along with the “Mercury” dime and Standing Liberty quarter), was released just months before the United States joined its allies, Britain, France, and Russia, to fight Imperial Germany and Austria-Hungary in World War I.
A July 1916 article in The Numismatist noted: “The goddess [Lady Liberty] is striding toward the dawn of a new day, carrying laurel and oak branches, symbolic of civic and military glory. The reverse shows an eagle perched high up on a mountain crag, wings unfolded. The pine growing out of the rock symbolizes America.”
It is also worth noting that Weinman’s half-dollar design has long been considered to have been inspired by French medallic artist Oscar Roty’s La Semeuse (The Sower), his celebrated portrait of a French farm girl walking barefoot as she sows seeds. Roty’s design has been featured on many French coins from the 19th century through the present time.
There are, however, differences in style, since Weinman’s classic design is “20th-century Art Deco, while Roty’s is 19th-century French Realism,” according to an article by Eric Brothers in the January 2017 issue of The Numismatist.
Weinman’s son Robert was asked about the similarities by COINage senior editor Ed Reiter for an article in 1974. He replied that they seem to be “cousins,” but that he could not say whether his father was specifically inspired by Roty’s design and that “the Walking Liberty is distinctly American in appearance.”
The Saint-Gaudens double eagle and Walking Liberty half obverse designs also appear on hundreds of millions of American Eagle gold and silver bullion coins struck since 1986, and, since American Eagle coins are so widely traded and collected, these coins have had an enormous impact on collectors in this country and around the world.
Except for Native American and Barber Liberty designs, until very recently Lady Liberty was always depicted as a Caucasian woman of European heritage, or a more allegorical figure inspired by Greco-Roman styles.
However, the model that Augustus Saint-Gaudens used for his amazing gold double eagle was reportedly a young African-American woman named Hettie Anderson. On the finished gold coin, she looks much more like a Greco-Roman goddess—which is not surprising, since Saint-Gaudens studied art in France, where he was influenced by the Hellenistic traditions of ancient Greece.
Apart from coins, Liberty has, of course, also appeared in various other forms, especially on sculptures and other works of art. For instance, Thomas Crawford’s famous Freedom Statue, which rests at the top of the U.S. Capitol dome, depicts Liberty as an African-American woman wearing a crested helmet and a crown of stars.
But in terms of modern coinage, when Lady Liberty has appeared, such as on the 2012 “Star-Spangled Banner” commemorative silver dollar, once again with a Phrygian cap, she is usually shown as a Caucasian woman who would have lived in the 18th or 19th century.
More than anything else, the choice to depict her that way reflected the ongoing influence of neoclassicism, a revival of classic art forms between 1750 and 1850 that stressed the importance of antiquity (meaning Greco-Roman culture), which continued to exert an impact even in the 20th century.
It should also be noted that the Liberty designs of some of the American Eagle platinum $100 Proof coins, such as the popular 2016 issue, are also clearly influenced by neoclassic artistic traditions.
In 2015, this approach of reproducing classic Liberty designs finally began to change due to an initiative from the Citizens Coinage Advisory Committee (CCAC), which suggested producing gold coins and silver medals that depict modern images of Liberty that embrace the ethnic diversity of contemporary America.
As current CCAC member Donald Scarinci is fond of saying, “Weinman and Saint-Gaudens are dead; let’s get over it. We need to find Liberty in a new and modern way for the 21st century.”
The first truly modern Lady Liberty appeared on the 2015 American Liberty $100 high-relief gold coin and silver medals, where she is depicted not as having a specific ethnicity, or as multi-racial. Some collectors initially said they would have preferred her to remain the way she was in the past, but those coins and medals nonetheless sold out of their entire mintages.
Then, this year, the U.S. Mint decided to make this an ongoing biennial series in which Liberty would be represented with different ethnicities on each design, starting with a 2017 coin on which she is an African-American woman wearing a crown of stars (clearly a tribute to the Statue of Freedom on the U.S. Capitol).
The 2017 high-relief $100 gold coin was released in April, and accompanying silver medals are to be released later in the year. [Editor’s note: The first was released on June 14.] In future years, she will appear as a Native American, Asian-American, etc., provided the series is successful enough to justify its continuation.
When the 2017 coin’s design was unveiled in January, the Mint’s chief of staff, Elisa Basnight, said: “As we as a nation continue to evolve, so does Liberty’s representation.”
The Mint’s former principal deputy director, Rhett Jeppson, explained before he left the Mint in January that the idea “wasn’t just to put an African-American woman on a coin. The idea was to talk about Liberty and where we see it today as an American people.”
When the 2017 American Liberty gold coin was launched on April 6, first-day sales were only 14,285, and they slowed after that. The first-day figure was much lower than that for the 2015 coin, which sold about 70 percent of its maximum mintage of 50,000 coins its first day.
The 2017 piece has an authorized maximum of 100,000 coins, which most modern coin-watchers believe is much higher than the likely demand for the coin. In addition, though priced only slightly higher than other 1-ounce Proof gold coins from the Mint, the Liberty issue’s initial price of $1,690 is considered too expensive by many people.
Those who like the design but could not afford the gold coin have a chance to purchase a single Proof silver medal from the Philadelphia Mint and a special four-medal set, which will include medals struck at four different mints in four different finishes.
Lady Liberty is clearly not going away as a key symbol and theme of our coinage. The form she takes and the artistic styles with which she is represented will continue to evolve as our country, society, and culture change. But the ideals she represents will remain enduring symbols of our nation. ❑
Louis Golino is an award-winning numismatic journalist and writer specializing on modern U.S. and world coins. His work has appeared in Coin World, Coin Week, The Numismatist, Numismatic News, and COINage, among other publications. His first coin-writing position was with Coin Update.