Presidents And Pocket Change

Today is President’s Day. I celebrated by looking at the the change in my pocket — and wondering about the history of placement of Presidents on our nation’s coinage.

Of course, now there are Presidents on every coin we use regularly. (I’m not counting the Sacajawea dollar, the Susan B. Anthony dollar, or some of the other oddball coins that have come into being recently.) Abraham Lincoln is on the penny, Thomas Jefferson on the nickel, Franklin Roosevelt on the dime, George Washington on the quarter, and John F. Kennedy on the half dollar. That’s been the roster on U.S. coins since the 1960s, when President Kennedy replaced Ben Franklin on the 50-cent piece.

Although Presidents have been on all of the American coins in common circulation for most of my adult lifetime, it wasn’t always that way. In fact, no American President appeared on a circulating coin for the first 140 years of our history. Most American coins featured depictions of Liberty, or native Americans, or native animals, or a combination of the same.

The first President to appear on a coin was Lincoln, who knocked a native American off the penny in 1909. He was joined by the Father of our Country in 1932, when George Washington replaced a Liberty figure on the quarter, by Thomas Jefferson in 1938, when the Sage of Monticello took his place on the five-cent piece and the classic buffalo nickel was discontinued, and then by Franklin Roosevelt, whose visage replaced the Mercury dime in 1945.

I’m not opposed to honoring Presidents, but I’d like to see American coins go back to recognizing themes rather than individuals. Coins like the liberty penny, the buffalo nickel, and the walking Liberty half dollar were beautiful, and aspirational. Our current coins are pretty boring by comparison.

It’s Time To Get Rid Of “Presidents’ Day”

Today — February 22 — is the birthday of George Washington.  Abraham Lincoln’s birthday is February 12.  Do we have a federal holiday on the actual birth date of either of those two colossal historical figures, who generally rank as the two greatest Presidents in American history?  No, we don’t.

James Buchanan doesn't deserve a holiday!

Instead, we have a holiday called “Presidents’ Day” that is easily the lamest holiday of the year.  There apparently were two steps in its creation.  First, Congress — no doubt after heavy lobbying by the travel industry — decided to give people as many three-day weekends as possible.  So, in the Uniform Monday Holiday Act of 1971, Congress dictated that Washington’s Birthday would be celebrated on the third Monday in February, and not on Washington’s actual birthday.  Then, the holiday somehow got broadened to include not just Washington, or even just Washington and Lincoln, but all Presidents through “Presidents’ Day.”  It is such a phony, meaningless holiday that it isn’t even recognized by most businesses.  What does it say about a holiday if most people don’t even get the day off?

George Washington deserves a holiday, and so does Lincoln.  In reality, however, most Presidents don’t.  There have been far more crappy Presidents than good Presidents.  James Buchanan and Millard Fillmore were disastrous Presidents.  They don’t deserve a holiday, they deserve to be forgotten.  The same goes for Andrew Johnson, Herbert Hoover, and Richard Nixon, among many others.

“Presidents’ Day” is like the modern practice of giving a trophy to every kid on a sports team, no matter whether his team wins or loses or whether the kid is talented or the most uncoordinated soccer player ever to stumble onto a field.  (My God, James Buchanan even looks like the kind of hapless kid whose domineering mother insists that he get some kind of recognition regardless of his complete ineptitude.)  It’s like we are trying to not hurt the self-esteem of the crummy Presidents, so we give them an embarrassing holiday that most of the country ignores.  It’s time to get rid of Presidents’ Day.  Let’s go back to recognizing a President who did make a difference, and actually celebrate his birthday on his real birth date.