Teddy Roosevelt and the Story of the Impossible Coin

July 09, 2016

Theodore Roosevelt - Saint GaudensTheodore "Teddy" Roosevelt, the 26th President of the United States, was a larger-than-life figure. A weak, sickly child growing up, Teddy transformed himself into an icon of American masculinity as an adult.

Whether he was hunting big game in Africa, cattle ranching in the Wild West, or leading the famous Rough Riders into battle in the Spanish-American War, Teddy set an example of manliness that has lived on in the decades since his death. But beyond his testosterone-filled adventures, Teddy was also an effective president.

Typically ranked by historians as one of the best presidents in U.S. history, Teddy spearheaded a wide range of progressive policies during his two terms in office. He broke up the massive steel and oil trusts that had been monopolizing those industries, pushed Congress to pass consumer protection laws to remove dangerous additives and unhygienic practices from food and drugs, and created five national parks and 50 national forests, singlehandedly conserving over 230 million acres of American land.

One of Teddy's lesser-known acts was revamping the nation's coinage. In 1904, when he first took office, the designs of most U.S. denominations had not changed in years.

Most of the existing designs were the work of Charles Barber, Chief Engraver of the U.S. Mint. Barber's designs valued practicality over artistry. The coins were easy to mint in large quantities, as the low-relief design meant that the metal dies used to produce the coins could be used for a longer amount of time before they had to be replaced. Barber's depiction of Lady Liberty was technically sound, but lacked emotion. Critics of the time deemed Barber's designs boring and uninspiring.  

Teddy went further in his criticism of the coins. In a letter to the Secretary of the Treasury Leslie Shaw, the President complained of the designs' "atrocious hideousness," asked the Secretary if it would be possible, "without asking permission of Congress," to enlist a more talented artist to redesign the nation's coinage.

The man who Teddy had in mind was the acclaimed American sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens. Saint-Gaudens had achieved substantial fame for his beautiful monuments of American heroes. After hearing back from the Secretary that any of the Mint's gold denominations - the gold $2.50 Quarter Eagle, $5 Half Eagle, $10 Eagle, and $20 Double Eagle - could be redesigned without an Act of Congress, the President immediately put Saint-Gaudens to work. 

Ancient Greek silver tetradrachmTeddy decided to play an active role in the design process, and fortunately most of his correspondence with Saint-Gaudens has been saved. In a letter to Saint-Gaudens, Teddy proposed designing the gold coins in the Ancient Greek fashion - a high-relief design, where the features and lettering of the design rise significantly from the flat surfaces of the coin. Saint-Gaudens enthusiastically embraced the idea, proposing this design for the largest of the gold coins, the $20 Double Eagle: 

"some kind of a (possibly winged) figure of Liberty, striding forward as if on a mountaintop, holding aloft on one arm a shield bearing the stars and stripes with the word Liberty marked across the field; in the other hand perhaps a flaming torch, the drapery [of Liberty's gown] would be flowing in the breeze. My idea is to make it a living thing."

Teddy wrote to Secretary Shaw again, as well as the Director of the U.S. Mint, to ask if producing a high-relief coin would be possible - both men responded that it would be ill-advised, as the coins would be near impossible to produce in large quantities.

Despite their warnings, Teddy gave the green light to Saint-Gaudens to proceed with the design, noting that Shaw "thinks I am a crack-brained lunatic on the subject." Later on in the design process, Saint-Gaudens asked Shaw for permission to use Roman numerals on the coins for greater artistic effect. Shaw vehemently rejected that suggestion, replying, 

"While we are making coins for the people of the United States, I think we should confine ourselves to the English language. I have reminded our architects that I will dismiss the first one who puts a V on a public building where a U is intended."

But again, the President overruled the Treasury Secretary, granting Saint-Gaudens approval to proceed with Roman numerals for the coin's year.

At this time, Saint-Gaudens was ill with intestinal cancer. After some delay due to the worsening of his health, Saint-Gaudens delivered the first models of the Double Eagle coin to the White House for inspection.

The modeled design featured Lady Liberty striding forward, holding a torch in one hand and olive branch in the other (symbolizing enlightenment and peace), highlighted by the rays of the setting sun. The reverse side of the coin features an eagle in flight over the rising sun. The President loved the modeled design, exclaiming,

"I suppose I shall be impeached for it by Congress, but I shall regard that as a very cheap payment!"

The next step was to convert the models into coin dies, so that the coins could be produced. Chief Engraver Barber, the creator of the "atrociously hideous" coins we looked at earlier, declared that striking the coins would be an impossible task - the relief of the design was so high that no coin die in the world could deliver the necessary amount of pressure to bring out the full design.

A special die, used for striking high-relief medals, had to be brought in to the Mint to strike the coins. A normal coin takes a single strike of the die to produce. Saint-Gaudens' Double Eagle took nine strikes, and that was with the supercharged die set to maximum pressure.

Ultra High Relief Saint-Gaudens Double Eagle Coin

Only about two dozen coins were produced in that first effort, of which 20 survive today. These coins are known as the Ultra High Relief Saint-Gaudens Double Eagles, and they are among the most highly-coveted coins in the entire hobby of coin collecting - each coin is worth over a million dollars. Examples come into auction infrequently - the last one sold in a January 2015 auction for $2 million.

Saint-Gaudens died of cancer shortly after the first coins were minted, making the Saint-Gaudens double eagle his last major work of art. The Ultra High Relief coins showcase Saint-Gaudens' genius in its purest form, featuring the artist's true vision for the coin.

Unfortunately, it was not very practical to strike a coin nine times with a superpowered die, especially if that coin was intended for mass circulation. The Mint was forced to lower the relief of the design twice.

After the first time, it still require three strikes of the die to produce the coin. But Teddy grew tired of waiting, and ordered the Mint to start producing the coins for general circulation, "even if it takes you all day to strike one piece!" 12,000 of these "High Relief" Double Eagles were produced, each of which now sells for upwards of $20,000.

Eventually Chief Engraver Barber got his hands on the dies and lowered the relief even further, rendering it mintable in mass quantities. This third version was the final one, and was used on millions of Double Eagles from 1907 up until Teddy's cousin Franklin took the U.S. off the gold standard in 1933. 

While the final coin pales in comparison to Saint-Gaudens' intended high relief design, the "low relief" Double Eagle is still considered one of the most beautiful U.S. coins ever made, along with the Walking Liberty Half Dollar, the Buffalo Nickel, and the Saint-Gaudens Eagle - the only other coin that Augustus Saint-Gaudens designed before he succumbed to cancer.

Born out of a president's wild dream and an artists' unrivaled talent, the Saint-Gaudens Double Eagle stands the test of time as a work of art in coin form.