A Tribute to America’s Best — and Ugliest — President

San Francisco to mint Great Emancipator’s homely coins.

By Joe Eskenazi

Image | courtesy of U.S. Mint

The news that the U.S. Mint is planning a 2009 tribute to President Abraham Lincoln on the event of his 200th birthday is bittersweet.

On the one hand, any example of competence in the office of Commander in Chief is a welcome development, even if we have to wait until 2009 for it (in more ways than one, perhaps). And, locally, a U.S. Mint official told me the high-end “proofs” scrounged after by collectors will be produced right here at the San Francisco Mint (the “circulating” coins that end up rattling around in clothes dryers, piggy banks and mariachi street musicians’ cups will be minted in Denver and Philadelphia).

On the other hand...

a glimpse at the designs for the commemorative pennies slams home an unwelcome realization: There’s just no way a man as awkwardly built and downright homely as Abraham Lincoln would ever be elected to high office today.

And while the design featuring a shiny-faced Lincoln in the Illinois statehouse could be considered something of a work of revisionist history, the image of our 16th president as a unattractive young boy scrawling away his homework displays a level of honesty rarely seen in official portraiture; it was not for no reason that 11-year-old Grace Bedell implored Lincoln to grow a beard to cover up his “thin” face.

And yet the inherent Lincoln unwieldiness is far from the most troublesome aspect of the prospective pennies. I have every reason to believe that Associated Press economics writer Martin Crutsinger is fine at his job (and I’m a little mystified why this sort of article required an “economics writer”; unveiling the schematic for a new penny is not exactly in the same category as interpreting the machinations of Ben Bernanke). So perhaps it’s the “just the facts ma’am” and “amazing scenes were witnessed today” ethos of the AP that didn’t lead him to comment critically on the most head-scratching element of this story.

With four designs commissioned to represent Lincoln’s somewhat eventful 56 years, not one but two — two — feature almost identical representations of a shabby log cabin that looks as if it ought to have Navin Johnson’s family waving from the front door.

Granted, the process hasn’t been finalized yet — but isn’t it a bit odd that virtually indistinguishable coins both lauding an element of Lincoln’s life he had utterly no control over have been passed on to the next stage?

Or, to put it another way, have fun explaining to the black community why the United States has never featured a black person on its currency — and, when depicting the man who freed the slaves, opted to go with a rickety shack. Twice.

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