Lady Liberty & U.S. Coinage: Continuity and Change

Every American knows the U.S. is founded on the ideals of liberty and freedom and most have heard of Lady Liberty, usually because they know about the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor. 

Every American knows the U.S. is founded on the ideals of liberty and freedom and most have heard of Lady Liberty, usually because they know about the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor. 

The Statue of Liberty (“Liberty enlightening the world”), which was a gift from France and opened in 1886, represents not only our enduring commitment to freedom. It has also emerged over the years as a symbol of the American melting pot and the prospect of a better life. Millions of people from other countries, mainly in Europe, arrived here by ship in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and applied for citizenship at nearby Ellis Island.   

But not everyone knows where the idea comes from, and why Liberty is always depicted as a woman in classic art and on most American coinage, where she is the most frequently seen symbol of our country’s ideals. 

Lady Liberty is an allegorical, or symbolic, representation of the essential republican ideal of freedom depicted as a female figure, and it dates back to ancient Greece and Rome, where she was known respectively as Eleutheria and Libertas.

Although American Lady Liberty is the best-known, many other countries have their own versions of the concept, most notably France’s Marianne and the United Kingdom’s Britannia. These other icons have been used for hundreds of years on the coins of those countries and are still used today.

During the American and French revolutions, Liberty was favored for use on coinage as an alternative to portraits of the monarchies those revolutions were aimed against. In 1782, Benjamin Franklin proposed the issuance of a medal honoring the American victories at Yorktown and Saratoga, which is known as the Libertas Americana medal. The obverse of this medal features a head of Liberty with locks of hair flowing behind her.

In 1792, the young American republic that started its own Mint that year passed a law that said all U.S. coins were required to carry an image of Liberty on their obverse and one of an American eagle on their reverse. From that time until 1946, the last year that Walking Liberty halves were issued, most American coins carried an image of Lady Liberty.*

Over the years, the way she has been depicted has changed substantially in terms of dress, hairstyle, and pose, among other attributes. These differences are more than simply a matter of style or appearance since different versions each have their own symbolic meaning.

On some coins, she appears as a woman whose hair was not brushed, such as on the wreath cents of 1793, or wearing a bonnet or cap of some kind.  While on others she is portrayed as a grown woman and in a more fashionable manner in the style of the era. 

Perhaps the single most common element of the way Liberty appears on classic U.S. coins other than being dressed in a gown is that she is often shown wearing a Phrygian cap, which represents Liberty. These caps were first used in ancient Greece and were later worn by freed slaves to represent their emancipation.  

Sometimes only Liberty’s head is shown on coins such as on the Peace dollar, where she has rays in her head similar to those of the Statue of Liberty, while other times she is depicted standing such as on the Standing Liberty quarter, where she is dressed in a gown and holds both olive branches symbolizing peace and a shield to show she is ready to defend the nation. On other coins, she is seated such as on the extensive range of Seated Liberty half dimes, dimes, quarters, half dollars, dollars, and the Trade dollar, or striding confidently toward the viewer as on the Saint-Gaudens $20 Gold Double Eagle and Adolph Weinman’s Walking Liberty Half Dollar. 

The Saint-Gaudens Double Eagle and Walking Liberty Half Dollar obverses also appear on hundreds of millions of American Gold and Silver Eagle bullion coins struck since 1986, and those versions of Liberty are likely the way many collectors today think of her.

Except for coins that show her as a Native American with a full headdress on the Indian $2.50, $5, and $10 gold coins designed by Bela Pratt Lyon and issued until 1932, until very recently Lady Liberty was always a Caucasian woman of European-American heritage, or a more allegorical figure inspired by Greco-Roman styles.

However, it is believed that the model that Augustus Saint-Gaudens used for his amazing double eagle was a young African-American woman named Hettie Anderson. But on the gold coin, she looks more like a Roman goddess.

In addition, apart from coins, Liberty has also appeared in various other forms, especially on sculptures and other works of art.  And the Freedom Statue of Thomas Crowford, which rests at the top of the U.S. Capitol dome, depicts Liberty as an African-American woman wearing a crested helmet and a crown of stars. She also is shown carrying a sword in one hand and a shield and laurel wreath in the other. Unlike many classic Liberty depictions that show her with a knitted Phrygian cap, the Liberty of this statue is shown in a manner that suggests she is ready to protect the nation.     

MCM carries silver rounds and bars of different sizes that depict the face of the Freedom Statue.

But in terms of modern coinage when Lady Liberty has appeared, such as on the 2012 Star-Spangled Banner commemorative silver dollar, she is usually a white woman who would have lived in the 18th or 19th centuries unless one considers the Sacagawea and Native American dollar obverses to be images of Liberty.

In 2015, this approach finally changed due to an initiative that came from the Citizens Coinage Advisory Committee and the U.S. Mint to produce high-relief gold coins and silver medals that depict specifically modern images of Liberty that embrace the ethnic diversity of 21st century America.

The first truly modern Lady Liberty appears on the 2015 American Liberty $100 high-relief gold coin and silver medal, where she is depicted not as having a specific ethnicity, or as multi-racial. Some collectors initially said they would have preferred her to remain the way she has always been, but those coins and medals sold out from the Mint.

Then the Mint decided to make this an ongoing series in which Liberty would be represented with different ethnicities on each design, starting with the first coin where she is an African-American woman, which is the 2017 $100 High Relief Gold coin that will be released on April 6, and the accompanying silver medals coming after that. In future years she will appear as a Native American and Asian American, among other ethnicities.

When the 2017 coin’s design was unveiled in January, the U.S. Mint’s Chief of Staff, Elisa Basnight, said: “As we as a nation, continue to evolve, so does Liberty’s representation.” 

Coin World’s editor, Bill Gibbs, in correspondence with the Washington Post about this issue, said that he sees the move as long overdue. He added: “The U.S. is a truly diverse nation, united in our love of Liberty, so it is only fitting that Liberty be portrayed in many guises that are representative of all Americans and not just in the classic forms used in the past.”

Finally, outgoing Principal Deputy Director of the Mint, Rhett Jeppson, explained before he left the Mint in January that the idea “wasn’t just to put an African-American woman on a coin.  The idea was to talk about Liberty and where we see it today as an American people.”

2019 American Liberty High Relief Coin In 2019, the United States Mint revealed their next vision of a modern Lady Liberty on a 1 oz. .9999 fine gold coin and the first 2.5 oz. medal to ever be released by the Mint! This depiction of Lady Liberty shows her in an elaborate headdress, her hair flowing in the wind as she faces towards the future. 13 rays, symbolizing the original 13 colonies emanate from her head, which represents the creative spirit of the American people.

Who knows what modern representation of Lady Liberty the United States Mint will unveil next? One can be sure that Lady Liberty will continue to evolve in the future as our country evolves and that she will continue to be a key symbol on our coinage.

*Adolph Weinman’s Walking Liberty obverse design of a striding Liberty is believed to have been inspired by French designer Oscar Roty’s classic French sower design, which uses an image of a French farm woman.

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