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The Girl on the Draped Bust Coins: Anne Willing Bingham of Philadelphia

NSDR Journal

Vol. XVIII, NO. 1

March 2001



The Girl on the Draped Bust Coins:

Anne Willing Bingham of Philadelphia

By Red Henry



On the way back from a local coin show a few months ago, I stopped in a West Virginia junk store to look for old books and other entertaining items.  I was browsing along a shelf of books when my eye lit on a book title, gilt on gray cloth binding:  “The Golden Voyage:  The Life and Times of William Bingham, 1762-1804.”  I was going on past when something said, Stop.  Look at this book.

“William Bingham…William Bingham…” I said to myself.  How did I remember this name?  From history?  Books?  Maps?  Family history?  Coins?  I took the book off the shelf and began examining it trying to think of where that name came from.  After twenty or thirty second, an echo finally ran through my mind of some words written years ago by Walter Breen in his Encyclopedia of U.S. and Colonial Coins:  “The portrait of Ms. Liberty is after a drawing by Gilbert Stuart, modeled by Mrs. William Bingham (nee Ann Willing).”  Was the William Bingham in this book the same as Anne Willing’s husband?  The dates (1762-1804) seemed right.  I turned to the index and quickly looked up a couple of items.  The William Bingham of this book did indeed have a wife named Anne Willing.  He was from Philadelphia, and he knew Gilbert Stuart.  The pieces were fitting together already.  I had an important book here for coin collecting.

A very common obverse type on our surviving early American coinage is the Draped Bust design, introduced on dollars dated 1795 and continued (with some changes) through half cents dated 1809.  This design was used on U.S. coins of several denominations, and collectors have known for years the identity of the person whose portrait was chosen to portray Ms. Liberty.  However, little has been known about her besides her name and the fact that she was from Philadelphia.  The biography of her husband enables us to fill in many facts about her family, and about how Mr. Stuart came to draw her portrait.

Anne Willing came from a successful Philadelphia family well known for its prosperity and the politics (patriotic and otherwise) of its members.  Anne’s great-great grandfather, Edward Shippen, b.1639, became Mayor of Philadelphia, Speaker of the Assembly, and Chief Justice of the Colony, and was reported to possess “the biggest person, the biggest house, and the biggest coach in the city.”  His son Joseph, b. 1679, produced a famous family including grandson Edward Shippen, Chief Justice of Pennsylvania, and Edward’s daughter, Peggy, who in 1779 married a popular young American general named Benedict Arnold.  One of Peggy’s sisters, the widowed Mrs. Theodisa Prevost, later married a dashing former military hero and lawyer named Aaron Burr.

We find interesting facts closer to our story if we follow the family of Joseph Shippen’s daughter Anne.  She married Charles Willing, of another prosperous Philadelphia family.  Among their offspring were William Willing and his son, also named William, pioneering American surgeons.  Another child of Anne and Charles was Mary (or Molly) Willing, wife of William Byrd III, who inherited and dissipated one of the largest fortunes in Virginia.  Following her husband’s suicide on New Year’s Day 1771, Molly Willing entertained officers commanding a British invasion of Virginia with such hospitality that she earned the salacious sobriquet “Willing Molly” from disapproving local patriots.  But we find a more direct connection to our story if we consider the family of Molly’s brother Judge Thomas Willing, b. 1731, who served as Mayor of Philadelphia and as Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the Province.  His business and shipping operations extended from Philadelphia to Europe and the West Indies.  Thomas was partner in business and politics with Robert Morris.  These two were local leaders of resistance to the Stamp Act, as well as in passing the Philadelphia resolution to convene the Second Continental Congress, to which Thomas was a delegate.

At age 32, Thomas married 18-year-old Ann McCall, a young lady known for her “amiable features” and good manners.  The oldest of their many children, born about 1764, was named Anne.  Her parents’ house and large grounds had been established by her grandfather Charles Willing in Philadelphia, located between Third, Fourth and Spruce Streets ad Willing’s Alley.  Anne, nicknamed Nancy, grew up in an opulent household, and was given a thorough education in English, foreign languages, music, and other accomplishments considered suitable for young ladies of her day.  She naturally became acquainted with many of the most remarkable people in town (many of whom were her relatives), and during the Revolution, George Washington made his headquarters for some time in the house next door, in which young Anne was a familiar visitor.  By age 16, when she met William Bingham, she was “the most beautiful young woman in Philadelphia.”

On October 26th, 1780, Anne married the 28-year-old Mr. Bingham, an energetic businessman whose dealings in America and the West Indies guaranteed the couple a life of plenty and ease.  Anne’s beauty was remarked on by men and women alike.  A lady in Philadelphia wrote:  “Nobody here will be able to make the figure they do; equipage, house, clothes, are all the newest taste – and yet some people wonder at the match.  She but sixteen and such a perfect form.  His appearance is less amiable.”

Following their marriage, William Bingham continued his pursuit of wealth and influence.  He and Anne made an extended trip to Europe for business and personal reasons, enjoying a social life in both Paris and London.  While visiting the latter city in April of 1785, they made the acquaintance of portraitist Gilbert Stuart.

Stuart, an artistic genius noted alike for talent and improvidence, was engaged in painting portraits at the price of 30 guineas a head (about $160.00, a lot of money in the 1700’s).  He reportedly did not like to paint either children or groups, but somehow – probably by offering plenty of money – Bingham arranged to have a family portrait made of himself, Anne, and their two children.  The family portrait was begun but never completed.  The temperamental Stuart apparently gave up the project, possible due to suggestions or requests concerning the work, or other “interference” by the Binghams.  Along with the unfinished portrait, Stuart’s preparatory sketch of Ann has survived.  This which was later copied by other painters, is the only original view of Anne which I have found except for the Draped Bust coin types themselves.

When comparing this view of Anne with the coin designs, we should consider that she was 21 when the sketch was made, and about ten years older when her portrait was taken for the Mint in 1795.  In addition, according to descriptions printed by Alberts, she gradually gained a little weight as she grew older.  The possibility that her portrait may have suffered at the hands of the mint engraver is discussed below.  To my eye, Anne as seen in the sketch, resembles the original “first hair style” cent design more than the revised “second hair style” design introduced during 1798.  The design for the larger silver denominations may have been made with more care, and the larger planchets of the halves and dollars permitted a more detailed presentation, so a typical Draped Bust dollar obverse is presented.

The Binghams’ association with Gilbert Stuart did not end with the abortive family portrait.  By the spring of 1796, Bingham was a very wealthy United States Senator, and extremely influential in the government.  In April of that year, while Stuart was residing in America, the Binghams arranged with him and President Washington that the painter should make a full-length portrait of Washington at Bingham’s expense.  In November, the majestic eight-foot-tall canvas was finished.  Bingham had Stuart make him a replica of the painting before shipping the original to England as a present to his friend Lord Lansdowne, a great admirer of Washington.  This full-length portrait has been extensively reproduced and is now one of the most familiar views of President Washington.

Before Stuart began Washington’s portrait in August 1795 or earlier, he executed a mint commission to make a profile sketch of Anne to be used in new U.S. coin designs.  Why was Anne chosen as the subject of the sketch?  I believe that several factors were at work.  First, she and her husband knew Gilbert Stuart and (in spite of the 1785 family portrait debacle) were on reasonably good terms with him.  Second, Anne’s remarkable personal attractiveness was still widely regarded in Philadelphia, the city of the government and of the mint.  Third, and most important of all, William Bingham had for his whole life pursued power and money – and what better combination of these achievements could be imagined, than for his own wife to be portrayed on United States coins?   She would personify the combination of money and governmental power – his goals and dreams.

The new Draped Bust type was used at first on silver coins, and the cents had to wait until mid-1796 for their new design.  Mint Engraver Robert Scot and Assistant Coiner Adam Eckfeldt collaborated to produce the new master die.  The accuracy with which Scot reproduced the Stuart sketch has been called into question.  Gilbert Stuart may have been a most celebrated portraitist, and Anne Bingham may have been the most beautiful woman in the city, but Breen sardonically wrote, “Not that this or the Gilbert Stuart connection could be proved by Scot’s device punch.”

My judgment of the design is more forgiving than Walter’s.  I believe that the Draped Bust cents are some of the nicest coins produced during the mint’s early years and I will always enjoy the examples in my collection.  In fact, now I may have to start concentrating on the Draped Bust coins.  In the unexpected way in which historical connections frequently reveal themselves, I have found more interest than I expected to find in Anne and her family.  You see, Anne’s grandfather Charles Willing had a granddaughter, b. 1766, named Evelyn Taylor Byrd, a Virginia lady well known to regional genealogists.  She had a great-grandson, b. 1842, named William E. Cameron, who also lived in Virginia, and he had a great-great-grandson, b. 1948, name…Red Henry.

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