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Why are Only Dead Presidents Featured on U.S. Coins?


Dead president on a penny.

1909 was the first year that the U.S. began putting dead presidents on the coins.

Photo courtesy of Harlan J. Berk, Ltd.
Question: Why are Only Dead Presidents Featured on U.S. Coins?
The United States has a long tradition of placing only the portraits of dead people on its money. Learn why living people are never depicted on U.S. coins, and why the U.S. always uses portraits of dead Presidents rather than living ones on its circulating coins, such as the upcoming new Presidential Dollar.
Answer: The main reason the U.S. is putting only dead Presidents on the new dollars (or dead people on any other coin) is tradition. Although this tradition has been legislated into law now, from the very beginning of our nation's founding, patriotic men felt that it was improper to honor any living person by putting their image on the legal tender currency, especially the circulating coins. George Washington declined when our young nation wanted his portrait on the first U.S. Dollar, which was the start of this long and still unbroken tradition.

Royal Coin Portraits

The early Amercian Patriots were anti-royalists by definition, and royalty have always, since ancient Greek and Roman times, taken pride in putting their image on their coins. The monarch's portrait was a guarantee of the coin's value in ancient societies, sort of an assay mark. However, the ancient republicans, the pro-democracy philosopher sort who formed the Senate in ancient Greece and pre-Imperial Rome, felt very strongly that a living man's portrait did not belong on the coinage of a Republic. In fact, it was Julius Caesar's audacity in putting his living visage on his silver coins that helped spark the rebellion that resulted in Julius Caesar's Assassination.

First President on a U.S. Coin

When the newly-formed United States of America minted its early coinage, it was Miss Liberty (sometimes referred to as a goddess of liberty in early numismatic writings) whose portrait appeared on our coins. The American Eagle usually appeared on the reverse. It wasn't until 1909, the 100th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln's birth, that a (dead) president was first featured on U.S. coinage. The Lincoln Cent was intended to be a special commemorative, but it proved so popular that it endures to this day! Other dead presidents soon followed, and we are all familiar with the Jefferson Nickel, Roosevelt Dime, Washington Quarter, etc.

Only the Dead May Appear on U.S. Coins by Law

Nowadays, it is federal law that no living man or woman can appear on the U.S. coinage. Presidents must be dead for at least two years before they are eligible for inclusion in the Presidential Dollar series. I wonder if Americans will ever find a public figure who is so revered by the populace that they would allow a living person to grace the circulating coinage. I wouldn't bet on it!
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