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"Posterity! you will never know how much it cost the present generation
to preserve your freedom! I hope you will make a good use of it.
If you do not, I shall repent it in heaven that I ever took half the pains to preserve it."
John Adams, in a letter to Abigail dated April 26, 1777"
Franklin's Libertas Americana Medal
Libertas Americana Medal, 1783 original, struck in copper
The most famous of all American medals is the elegant Libertas Americana ("American Liberty") medal. It celebrates America's Revolutionary War military victories, specifically the British surrenders at Saratoga (1777) and Yorktown (1781). Benjamin Franklin conceived the idea, as a private project to enhance Franco-American goodwill.
Franklin's Libertas Americana Medal, from the Paris Mint
In a letter dated March 4, 1782, Franklin wrote to Robert Livingston, who had served with Franklin on the committee to draft the Declaration of Independence:
"This puts me in mind of a medal I have had a mind to strike, since the late great event you gave me an account of, representing the United States by the figure of an infant Hercules in his cradle, strangling the two serpents; and France by that of Minerva, sitting by as his nurse, with her spear and helmet, and her robe specked with a few fleurs de lys. The extinguishing of two entire armies in one war is what has rarely happened, and it gives a presage of the future force of our growing empire."
Joseph Wright is credited with the obverse portrait of Liberty, and the reverse was sketched by a French artist, painter Esprit-Antoine Giblein. The dies were engraved by Augustin Dupré. The medals were struck at the Paris Mint in April of 1783, with two specimens struck in gold for presentation to the King and Queen of France. A few others were struck in silver, and the rest in copper.
In a letter dated April 15, 1783, Franklin wrote again to Livingston:
"I have caused to be struck here the medal which I formerly mentioned to you, the design of which you seemed to approve. I enclose one of them in silver, for the President of Congress, and one in copper for yourself; the impression in copper is thought to appear best, and you will soon receive a number for the members. I have presented one to the King, and another to the Queen, both in gold, and one in silver to each of the ministers, as a monumental acknowledgment, which may go down to future ages, of the obligations we are under to this nation. It is mighty well received, and gives general pleasure."
Franklin also wrote a letter dated September 13, 1783 to the President of the United States Congress, Elias Boudinot of New Jersey:
"I am happy to hear that both the device and workmanship of the medal are approved with you, as they have the good fortune to be by the best judges on this side of the water. It has been esteemed a well-timed, as well as a well-merited, compliment here, and has its good effects. Since the two first which you mention as received, I have sent by different opportunities so many, as that every member of Congress might have one. I hope they are come safe to hand by this time."
The obverse portrait of Liberty, with her hair flowing freely in the wind, is superimposed on a pole topped by a pileus, the helmet-like emblem of freedom. The design symbolized both freedom from slavery, and America's freedom from George III of England. The obverse die was also engraved by Augustin Dupré.
The assistance of France was invaluable in the triumph over England during the Revolutionary War, and the allegorical reverse design commemorates the struggle. America is depicted as an infant Hercules, strangling two serpents representing the armies of Burgoyne and Cornwallis. He is defended by France, represented as the warrior-goddess Minerva, clad in breastplate and plumed helmet, holding a shield bearing the fleurs de lys of France. She fends off the British lion, which stands with its forepaws upon her shield, its tail between its rear legs, a heraldic symbol of defeat. The dates in the exergue refer to the surrenders of Burgoyne at Saratoga and Cornwallis at Yorktown. The Latin inscription (from Horace, as suggested to Franklin by Sir William Jones) NON SINE DIIS ANIMOSUS INFANS translates as "the courageous child was aided by the gods."
FRANCE, 1776-1976 Libertas Americana Medal, by the Paris Mint, silver
FRANCE, Libertas Americana Medal, Paris Mint, gold
Franklin's medals, distributed by him in 1783, are quite rare today, and original specimens (like the one shown at the top of this page), bring many thousands of dollars at auction (a silver specimen sold for $115,000). Fortunately for collectors, his design was used for medals (known as "store cards") that advertised business firms, and for the 1876 U.S. Centennial Exhibition. The Paris Mint used Franklin's design for medals issued for the 1976 U.S. Bicentennial, such as the silver copy shown above (235.9 grams, measuring 78mm in diameter). The gold piece (.920 fine) shown below that is one of only 500 restruck from the original dies in 2000, (64 grams, measuring 45.86mm in diameter).
Europe's Libertas Americana Medal
GERMANY, 1783 Libertas Americana
Obverse: Louis XVI of France, seated, symbolically points to a shield with thirteen bars, as it is hung by Liberty on a pillar, topped by a Liberty Cap. LIBERTAS AMERICANA appears above, likely inspired by the popular Libertas Americana medal designed by Franklin, engraved by Dupre, and struck at the Paris mint. In the exergue the date 1783 is represented by the Roman numerals MDCCLXXXIII.
Libertas Americana on the U.S. Half Cent?
Reverse: Pallas Athene, goddess of wisdom, stands with an olive tree symbolizing peace, sprouting from her spear, while holding a ribbon with shields bearing the arms of Britain, and America's creditors, France, Spain, and Holland, all signatories to the Treaties of Versailles (ending the Revolutionary War), in September, 1783. With the War over, Athene's shield, bearing the head of Medusa, lies unneeded on the ground. COMMVNI CONSENSV, (Independence recognized) by Common Consent appears above.
Struck in white metal, with a copper plug inserted in the planchet before striking, designed to absorb corrosive agents. Though considered a French medal, this Libertas Americana was struck (some in silver) in Germany. Its engraver, Johann Leonhard Oexlein (1715-87), was mint master at Regensburg, Bavaria and was once appointed by Poland’s King to outfit a new mint. His monogram appears near Liberty’s feet on the obverse.
UNITED STATES, 1793 Half Cent
The dramatic appearance of the image of Liberty on the obverse of the 1793 Half Cent has long been a numismatic mystery. The issuance of America's first coins must have been viewed at that time as an important event. In that context, even though history is silent on the matter, the coin's design cannot be viewed as random, or accidental. Moreover, the similarity of its depiction of Liberty to that on the obverse of Franklin's medal is obvious. Numismatists disagree on whether the dies used to produce the coins were prepared by coiner Adam Eckfeldt, or by engravers Joseph Wright or Robert Birch. But their workmanship aside, in this author's opinion, the inspiration to adapt the Libertas Americana image from Franklin's medal came from the first Director of the United States Mint, David Rittenhouse. There can be no doubt that he would have received a copy of the medal in 1783 from his friend and fellow scientist, Benjamin Franklin, and the design could even have been a tribute to Franklin, who died in 1790.
Libertas Americana on a doomed U.S. Dollar
UNITED STATES, (proposed) 1977 Dollar
In 1977, the U.S. Mint's Chief Engraver, Frank Gasparro, produced a version of the Libertas Americana's Liberty that was considered for use on a proposed new dollar coin. The photograph above shows Mr. Gasparro working on the design. Unfortunately, the Mint used the "politically correct" but less attractive Susan B. Anthony design instead.
CURRENCY: Continental Congress
UNITED STATES, overstruck dollars
Although no official examples of Gasparro's coin exist in any private collection, the Royal Oak Mint (Michigan, USA) used dies engraved by Heidi Wastweet to strike his Libertas design over officially US-minted dollars of different dates. Note the visible traces remaining of the struck over coins.
350 struck over copper-nickel Anthony dollars
100 struck over so-called "golden" Sacajawea dollars
CURRENCY: Printed by Paul Revere
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