The following is an excerpt from an Inside the Mint article by Stephanie Meredith
Throughout the history of this country, the concept of liberty has been a defining principle. Depictions of liberty appear in the halls of Congress, on a large statue in New York harbor, and on our coins. Representations have evolved over the centuries to reflect a changing America. U.S. coinage echoes more than 230 years of the country’s visions of Liberty, from a mythical goddess to presidents and historical figures.
Liberty, and America itself, have often been represented as an allegorical figure. In the early colonial period, the American colonies were depicted in newspapers, engravings, and other media as the figure of a Native American woman. As calls to break from Great Britain rose in the 18th century, the colonists used the Native American figure as Liberty, a symbol of freedom. During the same time, a neoclassical revival increased interest in ancient Greece and Rome. This caused the image of Liberty to evolve into a Greco-Roman goddess. Her facial features became distinctly Roman and she wore classically styled gowns and sandals.
After the Revolutionary War, the connection to Liberty continued in American culture. The Fugio cent, the first coin commissioned by the U.S. government under the Articles of Confederation, reflects this sentiment.
When creating legislation for a national mint in 1792, Congress decided that coins should continue to represent the concept of liberty on the obverse rather than a real person. Many felt that putting presidents on U.S. coins was too similar to Great Britain’s practice of featuring their monarchs. Instead, they wanted coins to reflect the country’s founding principle of liberty.
The Coinage Act of 1792 stated that all circulating coins have an “impression emblematic of liberty” and the inscription “Liberty.” For more than 100 years of American coinage, that emblem would be the mythical goddess Liberty.
The U.S. Mint’s first coins were portraits of Liberty with free, flowing hair, such as the 1793 Flowing Hair cent. As the Mint refined its process, more detailed versions appeared beyond the simple portrait. Designs featured classical symbols such as the liberty cap and pole, used frequently when representing Liberty during the Revolution. In ancient Rome, the cap was given to freed slaves and the pole was used in the ceremony to free them.
Starting in the mid-19th century, the images of Liberty started to reflect a change in how American culture defined itself. Coin designs incorporated American symbols into the classical style. The Seated Liberty coins feature the Union Shield, adapted from the Great Seal of the United States.
Coins then started to draw on Native American themes for an even more American identity. In 1859, the Indian Head cent depicted Liberty wearing a Native American chief’s headdress. The Buffalo nickel in 1913 went even further, replacing Liberty with the portrait of a Native American man.
Another shift happened in the early 20th century when President Theodore Roosevelt wanted coins with more artistry that reflected a national identity and America’s growth as a global power. The first coin to meet this directive was designed by one of the leading sculptors of the day, Augustus Saint-Gaudens. The 1907 $20 double eagle is regarded as one of the most beautiful coins in Mint’s history. Sculptors Adolph A. Weinman and Hermon A. MacNeil redesigned other circulating coins in 1916.
Saint-Gaudens, Weinman, and MacNeil reflected an America built upon classical, republican ideals from ancient Greece and Rome where liberty is central. In their reflection of America as a global power, Liberty displays military might with shields, but also brings peace and enlightenment to the world with other symbols.
To read the rest of the article by Stephanie Meredith, please click here