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Who Can Be on a Coin?
Who was the first living person to appear on a U.S. coin?
Many people believe that Eunice Kennedy Shriver, founder of the Special Olympics, became the first living person to appear on a U.S. coin when she appeared on the 1995 Special Olympics Silver Dollar. However, the true title as the First Living Person to appear on a U.S. Coin belongs to an Alabama Governor. That’s right, in 1921 a commemorative silver half dollar was issued to mark the centennial of the state of Alabama. The obverse of this coin depicts dual busts: William Wyatt Bibb, the first governor of Alabama, alongside a bust of T.E. Kilby, the current Alabama Governor at the time the coin was issued. This marked the very first appearance of any living person’s portrait on a U.S. coin.
A Legacy of Dead Presidents
The main reason that the U.S. has featured very few living people on their coins stems back to our Revolutionary War Forefathers. One way for a king to proclaim his sovereignty over his subjects was to have his effigy struck into the coins of his realm. For the American colonists, who were predominantly anti-royalists, the image of the king on British coins they were forced to use in everyday transactions was a painful reminder of what they considered his tyranny and oppression.
When the newly-formed United States of America began to mint its own coins, the symbolic image of the “goddess” of Liberty was chosen, usually accompanied by an Eagle - the new national symbol (even though Benjamin Franklin had lobbied hard for the turkey!) When the first U.S. dollar coin was ready to be struck, George Washington actually declined the request to allow his portrait on the coin. Washington did not want any hint of royalty to creep into his fledgling Republic government – and his refusal set a precedent for all future U.S. Presidents.
It was not until 1909 that the first deceased president appeared on any U.S. coin. That year, to honor the 100th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth, the Lincoln Cent was struck and circulated. This coin was originally intended to be a special limited commemorative issue, but it proved so popular that it has continued to be struck every year to this very day! Following Lincoln’s lead, other deceased presidents soon followed on various U.S. coin denominations.
Eventually, the tradition of not featuring living persons on U.S. coins was formalized by federal law. This current law requires a U.S. President to be deceased for at least two years before they are eligible for inclusion in the ongoing Presidential Dollars series.
Who was the first real person to appear on a U.S. Coin?
So, does that mean that Abraham Lincoln was the first real person to be featured on a U.S. coin? Actually, that great honor belongs to two rather unlikely historic figures: Christopher Columbus and Queen Isabella of Spain. That’s right, in 1892, the city of Chicago was preparing for the magnificent World’s Columbian Exposition to honor the 400th Anniversary of Columbus' discovery of the New World. To honor this historic milestone, Congress approved two silver coins to be struck so that sales of these commemoratives could raise funds for the exposition. The Columbian Silver Half Dollar was first struck on Nov. 19th, 1892 - making it the first U.S. Commemorative coin and featuring the portrait of Christopher Columbus. A special commemorative silver quarter featuring Queen Isabella was also authorized, since Isabella was Columbus' sponsor for his epic journey to the New World. The Isabella quarter was first struck on June 13th, 1893, and both coins were available to fairgoers for purchase throughout the Columbian Exhibition.