Friday, August 26, 2011

A Dime by Any Other Name...

Recently, I went to a coin show with my husband and heard the most fascinating story that ties into my biographical novel Washington's Lady. It adds another layer to the respect I feel toward our first president and his wife, Martha.

When this country began as thirteen colonies, and even after we gained our independence from England, we continued to use British money. But since we were a free nation, it seemed logical that a new money system had to be created. American money. On April 2, 1792, the “Mint Act” was passed, giving the nation the go-ahead to mint its own coins. There were to be silver half dollars, quarter dollars, and half dismes—half dimes.

At that time George Washington was president and Thomas Jefferson was his secretary of state. As was usually the case with these patriots, they saw a problem and came up with a solution. For isn’t that the American way?

To make coins they needed someone to create a design—a die. So they put an ad in the paper and hired someone. Check. They needed a company to press the coins. So they put an ad in the paper and hired someone—John Harper, who had a press in the cellar of his house on the corner of Cherry & 6th Street in Philadelphia, just down the street from the construction of the new U.S. Mint building. Check check. But then came the biggest problem: you can’t make coins without precious metals. Where would they come up with those?

What follows could simply be legend, or it could be the truth. Knowing George and Martha Washington as I do, I choose truth, as the story fits with their character and continued sacrifice for their country.
Mt. Vernon Plantation
 Needing silver, George stepped forward and said that he would give Jefferson a letter to take to the Washington’s Virginia plantation, Mt. Vernon, authorizing Jefferson to take some silver that Washington had there to use for the coins.

It’s fun to imagine Jefferson riding up to Mt. Vernon, knocking on the door, perhaps being greeted by Martha, home for a visit from the nation’s capital of Philadelphia. “Thomas. How nice to see you. What brings you to Mt. Vernon?”
I’d love to have seen the look on Martha’s face when Jefferson handed her the letter from her husband, indicating she should hand over some of their personal silver. It’s said they gave between $75 and $100 worth of silver to the cause of new coinage. Considering most people earned $1 a day, $100 was a large amount.

In 1792 fewer than 2000 “half-dismes” (pronounced “deems”) were cast, but it’s not known whether they were ever circulated or just given away as souveniers. There’s a notation in Jefferson’s diary for July 13, 1792: “rec’d from the mint 1500 half dimes of the new coinage.” But there’s also some evidence that Washington handed the half-dismes out to friends and dignitaries. So the mintage could have been more than 1500. Perhaps George was given some half-dismes for his own use, as a repayment toward the silver he provided. Whether circulated or not, the half-disme was the first step to the minting process that would follow in the newly formed U.S. Mint being built. The first widely-circulated American coins came out in 1796.

There’s also an unsubstantiated story that Martha’s profile was the inspiration for the woman’s head on the coin. I’m not sure what I feel about that story. Martha did not like being First Lady. She had the heart of a patriot, but she also had the heart of a woman, the heart of a wife. When George agreed to become the head of the Colonial army during the war—and ended up being away from home for eight years, she accepted their separation as a sacrifice for the good of the cause, albeit, not without a few complaints. But when the war was won and George was asked to be its first president, she rebelled and virtually said: Enough. Haven’t we given enough, George? When is it someone else’s turn?

But George was an ambitious man and had trouble saying no. He was president through two terms, and was the the only president to get 100% of the electoral votes. But Martha was a reluctant First Lady (though actually, the term hadn’t been invented yet.) She did not like being in the limelight and just wanted to be home with George in Mt. Vernon, “under our own vine and fig tree.” So for her to agree to have her likeness on a coin? I don’t think so.

Actually, Congress thought about putting George’s portrait on some coins, but he dismissed the idea as “monarchical”.  Only kings did that while they were alive. So the Mint Act specified a "portrait emblematic of liberty."  The woman on the half-dismes—whether Martha’s likeness or not—is representing Lady Liberty.

George Washington was in his second term of president in 1792, when he addressed Congress on November 6 about the new coins: “There has been a small beginning in the coinage of Half Dismes; the want of small coins in circulation calling the first attention to them.” It would seem by his statement that the half-disme was intended to be put in circulation.

Around its circumference the coin has the words: INDUSTRY - LIB - PAR - OF – SCIENCE.  Translated, that means, "Industry and liberty on par with science". There is no mint mark, as there was only one minting place at the time: Philadelphia.

I saw one of the few remaining half-dismes at the coin show (it's said that fewer than 200 remain.) It was smaller than a modern dime, and weighed less. It could have been mine for $175,000. One half-dismes, in mint condition sold a few years ago for over $1 million. Yet to think that George and Martha and Thomas might have held that particular coin in their hands…or Benjamin, or John or Abigail… I get heady thinking of it./Nancy

Friday, August 12, 2011

Dead and Buried

Sometimes when visiting Europe’s cathedrals and churches, they begin to blur together. St. Peter’s in Rome is one that always stands out, and another is Santa Croce in Florence, Italy. And in this last case, it’s not as much due to the architecture (which is lovely) as much as for the graves and tombs it holds.

For one thing, there are some pretty important people-of-history buried inside: Michelangelo, Galileo, Rossini are buried there (to name but three.) An artist, a scientist, and a composer. The years of their deaths span centuries, Michelangelo in 1564, Galileo in 1642 & 1737 (more on this later), and Rossini in 1868. Because so many famous Italians are buried here, the church has been known as the Temple of the Italian Glories, for these men certainly brought glory to their country.  We still celebrate and marvel at their achievements.

Michelangelo's tomb
Michelangelo was the brilliant sculptor (the David), painter (the Sistine Chapel), and architect (the dome of St. Peter’s in Rome.) Irascible and driven—and pushed beyond his limit by various Popes—when Michelangelo died in Rome, his body was taken to his beloved Tuscany, to Florence, to Santa Croce for burial. Michelangelo was the Renaissance, so being buried in Florence, the birthplace of Renaissance, was very appropriate. The three figures on his tomb represent his talents: artist, sculptor, and architect.

Galileo's tomb
 Galileo, a talented mathematician and astronomer, pursued the notion that the earth rotated around the sun, but he added a layer.  He insisted that such an idea did not contradict the Bible.  The scientific idea was not new, but the church objected to him stepping out of bounds--acting as theologian in addition to scientist.  It's said he was excommunicated for heresy, but others say it was more of a censure, a cease-and-desist to stop him talking as if what he said was a solid truth. A few years later (1632) Galileo wrote a book that caused his real trouble.  For in it he told both sides, but in doing so, made the pope look like a fool.  Not a wise thing to do.  People were executed for less.  He was allowed to live, yet was under house arrest until he died in 1642. This earth/sun issue was such a hot button, that Galileo was not allowed a Christian burial until 1737.  It’s interesting to note that his tomb has a relief of the solar system—with the sun in the center. It wasn’t until 1992 that the pope apologized for the church's treatment of Galileo.

The last tomb to mention... even if you don’t know Gioacchino Rossini by name, I bet you’d recognize his music. He wrote 39 operas. The "William Tell Overture" is the theme music to the 1950’s TV show, “The Lone Ranger”, and there was a Bugs Bunny cartoon featuring Rossini’s "Barber of Seville". Surely the composer would turn over in his grave. He was originally buried in Paris, but at the request of the Italian government, his remains were moved to Santa Croce in 1887—nineteen years after his death. Florence wanted to lay claim to this “Italian Mozart.”

Beyond these grand tombs (and there are many more), I was most moved by the gravestones on the floor, grave after grave that we walked upon. Most were worn from the tens of thousands who have visited the church over the centuries. I mentioned to our guide that it felt wrong walking on them, but she said that being walked on, having their graves worn by the masses, was considered part of their penance. Don’t tread on me!

But the most intriguing graves held the outline of a person, etched in stone. These graves told an enormous story. For some of the graves had the head at the altar end, with the feet pointing toward the front door. And some were placed in the opposite way. There was an explanation for that. People who were godly had their feet at the altar end, so when Jesus Christ comes to earth again in glory (apparently through the front door) and the godly rise from their graves (as the Bible says), they will be standing with Him, as his children. People who weren’t on good terms with the church had their head near the altar so when they rise at the Second Coming, they will face Jesus for judgment. Whoa. It appears they’ve already been judged by man! My question is, if they were so bad, or not “in” the church, why were they allowed to be buried there in the first place?

One other tidbit I found interesting. The walls of the Santa Croce used to be vividly painted with depictions of Bible stories so the priests could teach the illiterate poor the stories. But in Renaissance times, the priests didn’t like that old style of painting so white-washed it over. Sigh. Every age thinks newer is better.

The point is, the dead do tell tales.  Very interesting ones./Nancy