Few noticed and seemed to care, but as numismatists, we should have been in celebration for the 150th anniversary of the birth of Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt was known as a reformer with a real vision as to how to modernize a nation still recovering from a bloody Civil War and draconian laws from the Victorian Age. Roosevelt was a man of strength and a man of peace. Roosevelt was the first US citizen to win Alfred Nobel’s prize, the first sitting president to be so awarded (the only other sitting president to win the Nobel Peace Prize was Woodrow Wilson for his founding of the League of Nations, the forerunner to the United Nations). He earned this honor for negotiating the 1905 peace treaty ending the Russo-Japanese War.
For us numismatists, Roosevelt initiated the “Golden Age of American Coin Design.” Using his bully pulpit, he held the designs of the US Mint’s Chief Engraver Charles E. Barber in contempt and ordered coinage whose designs were more than 25 years old to be redesigned. Roosevelt was a fan of sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens and asked Saint-Gaudens to redesign the small cent. Rather than use the Liberty design in an Indian Headdress for the small cent, it was used on the 1907 $10 gold coin. Roosevelt also asked Saint-Gaudens to design the $20 gold double eagle coin to rival the beauty of all classic coins.
Unfortunately, Saint-Gaudens died of cancer before he could redesign the small cent. Roosevelt continued to look to revitalize US coinage and seized on Abraham Lincoln’s 100th birthday to redesign the small cent. He was steered to Victor David Brenner, whose bust of Lincoln was used as the model for the new Lincoln Cent first issued in 1909. Not only was Lincoln the first president to appear on a circulating coin, but Brenner’s obverse is still in use today.
Roosevelt called his coinage redesign his “pet crime.”
The impact of Roosevelt’s redesign continues to be felt today. Saint-Gaudens’ image of Liberty from the $20 coin is being used today on the American Eagle Gold Bullion Coins. And don’t forget the 2009 Ultra High Relief Double Eagle Gold Coin, which is based on a reported pattern of the original Saint-Gaudens design.
It is difficult to understand why the youngest inaugurated president and the first to win the Nobel Peace Prize while in office has not had a commemorative coin made for him.
Happy Birthday, President Roosevelt. We numismatists thank you for your “pet crime!”