Vol. XVIII, NO. 1
The Lafayette Silver Dollar
By Edward V. Ficht
When one takes into consideration the subject of United States silver dollars from the turn of the century, the Morgan dollar immediately comes to mind. However, the 1900 Lafayette silver dollar deserves recognition as well. Produced to observe the erection of a monument to General Lafayette in Paris as part of the government’s participation in the Paris Exposition of 1900, this silver dollar is the only United States commemorative dollar struck before 1983.
In 1777, Marie Paul Roch Ives Gilbert Motier Marquis de Lafayette came to American with French troops to aid the colonists in the Revolutionary War. He eventually received the designation major general and served until the end of the conflict with Great Britain. His assistance significantly helped our cause and guided the colonists on the path towards victory. To remember his efforts, the Lafayette Memorial Commission, in 1899, attempted to raise money to erect in Paris an equestrian statue of Lafayette. The monument was to be sculpted by Paul Wayland Bartlett. American school children collected about fifty thousand dollars to contribute towards its creation. The proceeds from the silver dollar were also to be used to defray the cost of the monument.
The Commission at first requested that Congress authorize one hundred thousand silver half dollars to be struck. It was later thought, though, that a silver dollar would make a better souvenir. Thus, Congress authorized on March 3, 1899, that fifty thousand be struck. The Treasury was given permission to purchase on the open market up to twenty-five thousand dollars worth of silver or as much as might be needed. It bought 38,675.875 ounces for $23,032.80 – less than sixty cents per ounce.
Chief Engraver Charles E. Barber undertook the duty of designing the commemorative. The obverse portrays the conjoined heads of George Washington and Lafayette. Washington’s portrait was based on the bust of Jean Antoine Houdon, which was later used by John Flanagan in designing the Washington quarter. Lafayette’s likeness appears behind and slightly forward of Washington’s. His bust was supposedly adopted from Francois Augustin Caunois’ “Defender of American and French Liberty” medal of Lafayette made in France in 1824. On the contrary, Barber most likely plagiarized Peter L. Krider’s 1881 Yorktown Centennial medal, which shows an almost exact depiction of their conjoined heads. The legend “UNITED STATES OF AMERICA” appears above the portrait, while “LAFAYETTE DOLLAR” is below.
The statue of Lafayette on horseback is the main reverse device. The coin shows Lafayette riding left and holding an upraised sword pointing down. “BARTLETT” is engraved on the base, which causes some to falsely believe that it is the name of the designer of the coin. A palm branch appears below and on the base. To memorialize the schoolchildren’s fund-raising efforts, “ERECTED BY THE YOUTH OF THE UNITED STATES IN HONOR OF GEN LAFAYETTE” circumscribes the statue. “PARIS 1900” appears below. Barber used an early sketch of the statue for his design. The actual monument was completed several months later and differs noticeably. For example, the sword is held aloft and the tail of the horse is shorter and bound up.
Controversy over the dating of the coin erupted soon after its authorization. The silver dollars were to be struck in 1899, but the commission wanted the commemorative to bear the date 1900. The Mint Act of 1873 prohibited United States coins from being antedated. Thus, the 1900 on the reverse was officially interpreted to be the year of the exposition and of the erection of the statue, not the actual production date. This means that, technically, the coin bears no date. However, it still violated the act, which also stated that all coins bear a date representing the year of mintage.
All fifty thousand Lafayette dollars were struck on an old coin press at the Philadelphia Mint on December 14, 1899, exactly the one-hundredth anniversary of Washington’s death. Twenty-six assays and ten proofs were also minted. The coins were struck at the rate of eighty per minute. They were mechanically ejected into the hopper; no care was taken to preserve their surface quality for collectors. The first was struck without much fanfare. The commission turned down an offer of five thousand dollars for it, since it had already been decided that President William McKinley would forward it to the French President Loubet. The first strike was placed in a casket costing one thousand dollars and sent via the S.S. Champagne. It was used in a special ceremony in the Elysee Palace on March 3.
The Lafayette Memorial Commission offered the silver dollars for two dollars each. The issue was placed in paper coin envelopes and mailed in a manila envelope imprinted “OFFICE OF COMMISSIONER-GENERAL FOR THE UNITED STATES TO THE PARIS EXPOSITION OF 1900, LAFAYETTE MEMORIAL COMMISSION, CHICAGO.” Sadly, the high sulfur content of the coin envelopes caused toning on many of the dollars.
Demand was poor from the start. In face, George C. Arnold reported in the January 1903 issue of The Numismatist that a collector has purchased four Lafayettes in New York at only $1.10 each. Hard economic times eventually caused many to spend them at face value. Only thirty-six thousand of the dollars were distributed. Fourteen bags of one thousand coins each were returned to the Treasury Building in Washington, D.C., where they were placed in the same vault used to store large bundles of currency. In 1945, while examining government records, Aubrey Bebee, an Omaha coin dealer, became aware of the holding. Wishing to purchase them, he made an inquiry, but the dollars had been melted already.
A few collectors have studied the Lafayette silver dollar for die varieties. In 1925, George H. Clapp discovered one that differed from the piece described by Howland Wood in “The Commemorative Coinage of the United States,” published by the American Numismatic Society in “Numismatic Notes and Monographs No. 16.” After discussion with Clapp, Wood examined several hundred Lafayettes over a period of years and discovered two more types. Frank DuVall found another obverse variety in 1988, bringing the total number to four. Five distinct reverses exist, too, including one discovered by Anthony Swiatek in 1980. There are six known obverse and reverse combinations, five of which are quite scarce. Rarity has not been a value factor, however, since most collectors are content with just one example of the Lafayette dollar.
The Lafayette silver dollar is an important coin in the history of the United States silver dollars. Commemorating the erection of the Lafayette statue in Paris in 1900, it serves as the predecessor for today’s modern commemorative coin program. The Lafayette dollar is certainly a rare and beautiful numismatic treasure!