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History of the Inaugural Medal


By H. Joseph Levine

The inauguration of the American President has, from the beginning, been an occasion of both solemnity and celebration. The formal ceremony traditionally consists of the oath-taking, administered by the Chief Justice of the United States before the assembled Congress, followed by a speech by the new President. This speech is usually inspirational, filled with promises of grand new things to come and exhortations to the citizenry for its support and cooperation. The celebratory period that immediately follows has traditionally included balls, fireworks and an impressive parade.

From a historical perspective, the inaugural event is one of great significance. It is thus not surprising that Americans have always sought to acquire souvenirs of the occasion. Throughout the years, a wide variety of momentoes have commemorated the inaugural. However, since the second inauguration of William McKinley in 1901, one item seems to have had the most significant and recurring appeal - the Official Inaugural Medal.

Non-collectors of inaugural medals are often at a loss to explain their wide popularity. Certainly there are other American medals that are more aesthetically appealing; just as historically significant, and surely rarer than those in the inaugural series. Why, then, has the Official Inaugural Medal captured the fancy of so many collectors?

In my opinion, the foremost reason for its broad appeal is the subject matter. Americans have always been fascinated by the Presidency and the person who holds that office. If the contemporary American still has any public heroes, surely Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and the two Roosevelts are among them. For many, the President is the embodiment of the nation, much as the monarch is in other countries. The President symbolizes our collective hopes and aspirations. When the President is successful, we lift our heads with pride; when the President is exposed as susceptible to the temptations of money, power or the flesh, we feel diminished, both personally and as a nation.

Concurrent with this fascination is our historic captivation with the celebration of the President's inauguration . Thousands of Americans participate directly in these festivities. Through the medium of television, people all over the country feel that they are "on the scene".

When one combines the almost universal appeal of the office, the person, and the event with the American penchant for souvenirs, it is not surprising that the Official Inaugural medal has captured the interest of so many. Its fanciers, unlike those of most American medals, do not come primarily from the numismatic fraternity. Rather, most are ordinary citizens for whom, in historian Neil MacNeil's words, "These medals mark the ritual, repeated every four years, through which this nation refreshes its commitment to free government."

FORERUNNERS

While the first Official Inaugural medal did not make its appearance until 1901, its antecedents go far back into history. The striking of a medal to commemorate a particular event, or person, was a custom started during the period of the Roman Empire. The practice later fell into disuse until the Renaissance, when Italian artists, under the leadership of Pisanello (Ca. 1395-1455) began executing beautiful medallions in a variety of medals. The art then spread to France and Germany and then to England.

In England, in 1603, a small 28mm medalet was struck to commemorate the coronation of King James I. The obverse bore a bust of the King and the reverse, his coat of arms. It was distributed at the coronation ceremony as a form of largesse. This was the first in an unbroken line of official English coronation medals. It is this series that is the closest ancestor of our own Presidential inaugural medal.

In some ways, it is surprising that some kind of an official medal was not issued for the first inauguration of George Washington. Well before this event, the American Congress had authorized a number of medals struck to honor various Revolutionary War generals for their victories over the British. Indeed, the first such medal was for General Washington himself, to honor his victory at Boston on March 7, 1776. Moreover, the young American republic quickly adopted the English practice of awarding silver Indian peace medals to the chiefs of friendly tribes, as tokens of peace and friendship. The earliest of these fine hand engraved medals dates to Washington's first administration.

That is not to say, however, that the first Washington inauguration did not have any momentoes at all. Among the most cherished of American political items is the Washington inauguration button. It is recorded that Washington wore a set of specially made metal buttons inscribed with an eagle on them for his inaugural ceremony. He was not the only one wearing such special buttons. The button manufacturers of New York and Connecticut seized this opportunity to sell to the public sets of buttons with various designs, all intended to commemorate the inauguration. A.A. Albert, the foremost authority on Washington buttons, listed 27 varieties which he believed dated from Washington's first inauguration, or from his first term. Some of these also have an eagle motif, while others are inscribed with Washington's initials, or such legends as, "Long Live the President" and March the Fourth Memorable Era."

In the century that followed, inaugural momentoes were made on a rather haphazard basis. What medals and tokens that were issued were usually published privately and done primarily with commercial motives. The inaugurations of Presidents Adams, Madison and Monroe were without any recorded medallic commemoratives. However, the inauguration of Thomas Jefferson was distinguished by the private issuance of a fine commemorative medal from the skilled hand of John Matthais Reich, a German engraver who emigrated to Philadelphia in 1800. In a newspaper advertisement dated February 17, 1802, this medal was offered to the public, "... to commemorate, at once, the Era of American Independence, and the auspicious day, which raised Mr. Jefferson, to the dignity of President over a free people." Although not "official", this was the first Presidential inaugural medal.

The inauguration of John Quincy Adams was commemorated by another fine medal, this one from the hands of Moritz Furst, the medalist who executed many of the U.S. Mint's early medals. Struck in late 1826, a number of these medals were sold directly to President Adams, while at least 100 were sent to the War Department for an unknown use.

The inaugurations of Martin Van Buren, John Tyler, James K. Polk and Zachary Taylor are represented by a curious series of four similar medals, all struck by the U.S. Mint. All used for the obverse, the medium size Indian peace medal die for the respective President. The reverses bore a wreath enclosing the date of each respective inauguration. These four medals, all struck by order of the Chief Coiner, Adam Eckfeldt, are extremely rare and their use has never been known. Perhaps they were ordered by Eckfeldt to be given as personal medals to the President and other VIPs. The absence of such a medal from William Henry Harrison, whose short-lived presidency fell between those of Van Buren and Tyler lends credence to this theory.

Subsequent inaugurations through that of Rutherford B. Hayes in 1877 are represented by a variety of private medallic commemoratives struck in different sizes and metals. While historically important, most are, artistically undistinguished.

The Garfield inauguration of 1881 is important in that it was the occasion for the issuance of the first official souvenir; a colorful silk ribbon on which was gilt stamped a handsome eagle seal, an inaugural inscription and the name of the committee on which the wearer served. Past committees had used plain colored ribbons as a means of identification, but this was the first time that the ribbon was also suitable as a souvenir of the occasion. A similar ribbon badge was used for the 1885 Cleveland inauguration.

The inauguration of Benjamin Harrison in 1889 had added significance because it was also the 100th anniversary of the inauguration of George Washington. For this special occasion, the committee not only ordered a ribbon badge identifying the wearer's committee assignment, but it also attached a medal to that badge. The obverse of the medal portrayed the busts of President Harrison and Vice President Morton and the date 1889, while the reverse bore a bust of Washington and the date, 1789. This was the first inaugural medal issued with the official sanction of the Official Inaugural Committee. In both 1893 and 1897, even more elaborate and high quality committee badges with suspended medals were authorized. The medals, in fact, were so large and heavy that their suspension ribbons are seldom found intact.

THE OFFICIAL INAUGURAL MEDALS

In 1901, for the first time, The Inaugural Committee appointed a Committee on Medals and Badges to replace the old Committee on Badges. This new committee decided that they would separate the identification ribbons from the medal and issue them individually; each being intended as a souvenir for committee members. The Inaugural Committee designated the medal as the "official medal" of the inauguration. This was the first Official Inaugural Medal! An example was struck in gold and presented to President McKinley. Thus began the tradition, followed ever since, of presenting the new President with his own gold inaugural medal.

The designation of the chosen medal as "official" was a significant act in the history of the inaugural medal. It set this medal apart from all others and conferred upon it a new-found status which made it one of the most desirable momentoes of the occasion. Moreover, it created an atmosphere where talented sculptors and the most capable of our mints wished to compete for the honor of being associated with the official medal.

The interplay of these factors is evident when considering the two inaugural medals for Theodore Roosevelt in 1905. The inaugural committee chose to let a contract for 3,000 medals to the Philadelphia firm of Joseph Davison Sons. The medal produced by this firm was little more than a direct copy of a pre-existing medal - the Presidential Series medal issued by the U.S. Mint in 1901 when Roosevelt succeeded to the Presidency upon the death of William McKinley. President Roosevelt was displeased. He asked Augustus Saint Gaudens, the great American sculptor, to prepare another medal. This medal, designed by Saint Gaudens and executed by Adolph A. Weinman, was cast by Tiffany & Company and was proclaimed an artistic triumph. One hundred twenty five were cast and distributed to President Roosevelt, members of the Inaugural Executive Committee and others. Gold medals were presented to President Roosevelt and Vice President Fairbanks.

The medals for William Howard Taft in 1909 and Woodrow Wilson in 1913, while not executed by world-class artists, were of commendable merit and 3,000 each were distributed to members of the various committees. In 1917, because of financial difficulties, the committee was unable to finance the usual 3,000 medals. They authorized only three gold presentation medals. The manufacturing company, on its own, made several hundred bronze copies and distributed them to a favored few. Similar constraints prevented mass distribution of bronze medals for the Harding and Coolidge inaugurations, although gold medals were struck for each President and a very limited number of bronze specimens went to select individuals.

The financial problems preventing wide distribution of the official medal were solved in 1929 when the decision was made to sell the medals to the public instead of giving them away to committee members. The announced mintage of 1,000 medals was oversubscribed and the committee actually made a small profit on their sale.

Franklin D. Roosevelt's four inaugurations gave birth to a series of fine official medals by world-class sculptors. The best of these was an extremely high relief portrait medal executed by the distinguished sculptor, Paul Manship. The imposing obverse required twelve strikes from the great hydraulic presses at the United States Mint. The mintage figure for these four medals ranged from around 1,000 to 3,500 bronze medals as they were sold only in Washington, D.C., and little effort was made to reach a national market. This practice changed in 1949 with the decision to issue the medal as a major vehicle to help finance the entire inaugural celebration. A national marketing effort was launched resulting in the sale of 7,500 bronze copies of Paul Jennewein's fine Truman medal which was struck at the U.S. Mint.

From 1929 through 1945, the official medal was struck by the U.S. Mint. This changed in 1953 when the Medallic Art Company was chosen to strike Walker Hancock's portrait of President Eisenhower. The official medals have been struck by private mints ever since. 1953 also saw a silver medal offered for sale for the first time, beginning a tradition which has continued to this day. In 1961, Paul Manship was again requested to execute the official medal and his youthful bust of President Kennedy proved so popular that the medal sold over 53,000 copies in bronze and 7,500 in silver. Lyndon Johnson's medal in 1965 was executed by sculptor Felix de Weldon, best known for his statue depicting the flag raising at Iwo Jima. Sales, however, were less than half that of the Kennedy medal, reflecting the more somber time in which LBJ was inaugurated.

Sales of the official medal reached its zenith during the two Nixon inaugurations. The 1969 medal by master portrait sculptor, Ralph J. Menconi, sold over 78,000 copies in bronze and 15,000 in silver. The 1973 medal by Gilroy Roberts, aided by the marketing expertise of the Franklin Mint, sold more than 106,000 copies in bronze and 20,000 in silver.

When Richard Nixon resigned the presidency in 1974 and Gerald Ford succeeded him, the new President authorized Senator Mark Hatfield to form a committee to commission an inaugural medal. The Senator from Oregon had served in a similar capacity in overseeing the striking of a Vice Presidential medal for Ford when he was appointed to that office in 1973 and was to do the same when Vice President Rockefeller was installed later in 1974. The medal, with Mico Kaufman's obverse and Frank Eliscu's reverse, was struck by the Medallic Art Company. It received a low key marketing effort which resulted in sales, far less than the Nixon medals. The Ford medal was notable in that, for the first time, it was available for sale to the public in a small size gold offering.

The 1977 medal of Jimmy Carter is generally considered to be one of the less distinguished inaugural medal efforts. However, aided by the marketing talents of the Franklin Mint, the medal proved to be a commercial success. The Carter medal also began a commercially motivated trend toward proliferation of sizes, metals and finishes. The Reagan medals in 1981 and 1985 continued this trend as did the 1989 George Bush medal which was available in two sizes in bronze, two in silver, one in gold and in a matched sets of five medals.

The 1993 medal for President William Jefferson Clinton, struck by the Hoffman & Hoffman Mint and Medallic Art Company's 1997 medal for Clinton reversed the trend toward a multiplicity of medals: they were available to the public in only three sizes - one each for bronze, silver and gold. The 1997 medals program was notable in that the marketing effort included the use of QVC, the television shopping network.

THE OFFICIAL PRESIDENTIAL INAUGURAL MEDAL FOR GEORGE W. BUSH

The more things change, the more they remain the same. The first English coronation medal for King James I in 1603 bore a bust of the king on the obverse and his coat of arms on the reverse. The George W. Bush medal is in this same tradition.

The obverse of the medal bears a finely executed portrait of our new President while the reverse shows his seal of office with an appropriate inaugural legend.

The Official Medal is the work of the well-known sculptor, Charles L. Vickers. The Texas-born Vickers moved to the New York area where he undertook an extensive art education. He studied at the Art Students League, Frank Reily School of Art, Pratt Institute and the School of Visual Arts. In 1976, he relocated to Pennsylvania to join the staff of the Franklin Mint where he rose to the position of Senior Sculptor. In 1986, he resigned this position and opened his own studio.

In preparing for his portrait of Mr. Bush for the Official Medal, Mr. Vickers combed through over one thousand different images seeking to find just the right one. He hit paydirt when he discovered an Associated Press news photo of Mr. Bush at the Republican National Convention waving to the crowd. This image caught the "sincerity, honesty and integrity of the man" which Vickers saw in his face. Using this image as a reference point, the artist sculpted his medal. The result is an amazingly true portrait of Mr. Bush which clearly conveys those elements of character which Vickers meant to communicate. This medal will stand proudly with the other distinguished medals in the Official Inaugural Medal series.

The 2001 Official Inaugural medal was struck by the Medalcraft Mint of Green Bay, Wisconsin. This venerable 51 year old firm has only recently expanded into the area of fine commemorative art medals. Their successful competition for the Official Inaugural Medal against more established firms marks their coming of age in this new field and firmly establishes them as one of the leading private mints in the country.

Mr. Levine is a noted authority on Presidential Inaugural Medals. He is the owner of Presidential Coint & Antique Company, Box 277, Clifton, Va 20124

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