Abraham Lincoln appears on the penny, Thomas Jefferson is on the nickel, Franklin D. Roosevelt is featured on the dime, George Washington adorns the quarter-dollar, and John F. Kennedy is honored on the half-dollar. Ever wonder how certain presidents ended up being featured on American coins?
Read on to learn about each president’s place in the history of American coinage, and why each leader was chosen.
Abraham Lincoln on the Penny
The profile view of Abraham Lincoln first showed up on the front of the one-cent piece in 1909—nearly 120 years after the first U.S. penny was minted, and 44 years after President Lincoln’s death. Lincoln served as our 16th president during the Civil War. He oversaw Union efforts to defeat the Confederacy, and he subsequently pushed for the abolition of slavery with the Emancipation Proclamation.
Commissioned by President Theodore Roosevelt and sculpted by Victor David Brenner, the first Lincoln penny was released to the public in August 1909 in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of Lincoln’s birth. According to the U.S. Treasury Department, “A strong feeling had prevailed against using portraits on our coins, but public sentiment stemming from the 100th-anniversary celebration of Abraham Lincoln’s birth proved stronger than the long-standing prejudice.”
Thomas Jefferson on the Nickel
The likeness of Thomas Jefferson, America’s third president and co-author of its Declaration of Independence, debuted on our nation’s five-cent coin in 1938 as a replacement for the Buffalo nickel. Unlike the Lincoln cent, which was released to mark an anniversary, the Jefferson nickel first appeared five years before the bicentennial of his birth.
As noted by the Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia, the 1938 coin was not the first depiction of Jefferson on U.S. currency. In 1869, his likeness appeared on the $2 bill.
The Treasury Department chose artist Felix Schlag to design the first Jefferson nickel. According to History.com, Schlag based his left-facing profile of Jefferson, featuring the former president in a period coat and wig, on a marble bust sculpted by France’s Jean-Antoine Houdon.
In 2005, the U.S. nickel featured a special one-year-only depiction of Jefferson designed by Joe Fitzgerald, also based on Houdon’s bust. This design came as part of the U.S. Mint’s Westward Journey nickel series, which featured new back designs honoring the 200th anniversary of the Lewis & Clark Expedition. Interestingly, one of these designs featured an American bison in a tribute to the Buffalo nickel, bringing both versions of the coin together for the first and only time.
In 2006, the current depiction of Jefferson was introduced, designed by Jamie Franki—the same designer who crafted the buffalo design of the previous year—based on an 1800 study by Rembrandt Peale.
Franklin D. Roosevelt on the Dime
The likeness of Franklin D. Roosevelt, our 32nd president, replaced the image of Lady Liberty on the 10-cent coin in 1946, the year after Roosevelt’s death.
FDR served in the Oval Office during two of our toughest periods: the Great Depression and World War II. Accomplishments during his tenure include the New Deal, a series of government reforms designed to help pull the U.S. out of the Great Depression. A key component of the New Deal was the creation of our nation’s Social Security program.
Despite his accomplishments, there were arguments that Roosevelt had not earned his place among the likes of Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln. Others argued that Roosevelt was the logical choice for a new dime design, as he had helped found the March of Dimes organization dedicated to fighting polio—a disease the president himself suffered from.
The artist responsible for the image of FDR on the front of the dime remains a source of controversy. Officially, the design was the world of John Sinnock, the U.S. Mint’s chief engraver from 1925 to 1947. However, a plaque of similar design sculpted by Selma Burke was unveiled in 1945 in the Recorder of Deeds Building in Washington. Until her death in 1994, Burke argued that the dime was based on her work—a position that became shared by numismatists, politicians, and even Roosevelt’s son James.
George Washington on the Quarter-Dollar
A portrait of George Washington, our first president, graces the front of the U.S. 25-cent coin. The U.S. Mint first produced the Washington quarter in 1932 to commemorate the 200th anniversary of his birth.
Originally, the Bicentennial Committee had initially asked for a one-year commemorative Washington half dollar, but production of half dollars was halted between 1930 and 1933 due to a decreased demand for coins during the onset of the Great Depression.
Like the Jefferson Nickel, the design of Washington was based on the work of Jean-Antoine Houdon. In another interesting connection to the nickel, the Washington quarter was designed by Laura Gardin Fraser—wife of James Earle Fraser, designer of the Buffalo nickel.
Washington became president in 1789 after commanding the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War and presiding over the Constitutional Convention. The website for Mount Vernon, which was Washington’s Virginia estate, notes that the two-term president “played an essential part in shaping the role and function” of the presidency.
John F. Kennedy on the Half-Dollar
A coin representing John F. Kennedy, the 35th U.S. president, was conceived the day of his assassination, according to the National Museum of American History. JFK was shot to death on Nov. 22, 1963, while riding in a motorcade in Dallas, Texas.
Within hours of the assassination, Mint Director Eva Adams spoke with Chief Engraver Gilroy Roberts about depicting Kennedy on a coin, the museum reports. First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy chose the half-dollar for the denomination. Roberts designed the front of the coin, and Assistant Engraver Frank Gasparro designed the back.
The design change required Congress’s authorization, since law did not allow coinage designs to be changed more often than 25 years (and the current half-dollar was only 15 years old).
A little over a month after JFK’s death, Congress approved the Kennedy half-dollar to memorialize him with Public Law No, 88-253. The Kennedy coin was minted the following year in 1964.
In 1960, Kennedy became the youngest person ever elected president. He served less than three years. During that relatively short amount of time, JFK launched the Peace Corps, proposed comprehensive civil rights legislation, and challenged the U.S. to put astronauts on the moon.
His 1963 assassination “turned the all-too-human Kennedy into a larger-than-life heroic figure. To this day, historians continue to rank him among the best-loved presidents in American history,” History.com writes.
Dwight D. Eisenhower on the Dollar
The Eisenhower dollar paid tribute to America’s 34th president, Dwight D. Eisenhower. The coin was issued by the United States Mint from 1971 to 1978, and was the first coin of that denomination issued by the Mint for circulation since the Peace dollar series ended in 1935.
The coin, designed by Frank Gasparro, depicts President Dwight D. Eisenhower on the front and a stylized image honoring the 1969 Apollo 11 Moon mission on the back. It is the only large-size U.S. dollar coin struck for circulation containing no silver.
After Eisenhower died in March of 1969, multiple proposals to honor him with a new coin were delayed by a dispute over whether the new dollar coin would be composed of base metal or 40% silver. A compromise was reached to strike the Eisenhower dollar in base metal for circulation with a collectible version struck in 40% silver.
On December 31, 1970, President Richard Nixon, who had served as vice president under Eisenhower, signed legislation authorizing production of the new dollar coin. Although the 40% silver collector’s pieces sold well, the new base-metal dollars were considered bulky and cumbersome, and failed to catch on with the American public. They were discontinued after 1978.
The Presidential Dollar Series
In 2005, President George W. Bush signed the Presidential $1 Coin Act of 2005 into law, authorizing the creation of a new coin series that would see every president depicted in order of their presidency, with four different designs released each year.
The series was the first since 1933 to feature edge lettering, and the first design, featuring George Washington, was released in February of 2007 in honor of Washington’s Birthday.
The series was intended to be a replacement for the unpopular Sacagawea dollar, which failed to gain traction with the American public. Unfortunately, this series would suffer the same fate; it was only struck for circulation until 2011, after which the remaining coins were minted only for collectors.
By law, only deceased presidents may be depicted on American coinage—and so the presidential dollar series came to its first stop in 2016 with the final three releases of Presidents Nixon, Ford, and Reagan. The most recent addition to the series, featuring George H.W. Bush, was released in 2020. Presidents aren’t the only iconic U.S. figures on coins. Call now and request your free Gold Information Kit to discover more American icons struck as government-issued legal tender in pure gold and silver.
Presidents aren’t the only iconic American figures on coins. Call now and request your free Gold Information Kit to discover more American icons struck as government-issued legal tender in pure gold and silver.