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Capping Liberty The Invention of a Numismatic Iconography for the New American Republic

on display in the Firestone Library

March 3, 2012 to July 8, 2014

When the founders of the American Republic declared independence from Great Britain on July 4, 1776, one of the major tasks they took on was the creation of a coinage for the new nation. Finding suitable bullion, setting a monetary system, and establishing sufficient minting capability were daunting issues, to be sure, but ones that governments had dealt with for millennia. On the other hand, the republican form of government chosen for the new nation placed the founders in the position of choosing specific images to represent their ideals with little in the way of precedent to guide them.

The leading figures in the process of selecting the numismatic imagery of the American Republic were Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and George Washington, and each man’s contributions reflected his background, personality, and ideals. Following a rancorous dispute between the Senate and the House of Representatives, the ultimate choice for the main image for the new coinage was “an impression emblematic of Liberty,” which took the form of the head of a beautiful woman adorned with a cap derived from classical attributes of the Roman goddess Libertas. Together with the complementary attributes of an eagle and a wreath, this symbol came to exemplify the United States of America.