5 Jan

Paul Harvey, in his morning news, talked about a 1792 copper penny selling for $472,000. A bit later, I saw in the local café a bowl near it’s register, a comment on the country’s penny shortage. It’s sign read, “Give one.” “Take one” was scratched out. I thought about the penny lying heads up on the floor near the register line at the downtown DC department store’s President’s Day sale, the day before. No one picked it up. I know a pile of pennies can buy what one dime buys. I think I counted eleven pennies abandoned on the ground, that morning.

People used to salt away pennies in piggy banks for years before cashing them in to the bank. A Californian, the news reported, had difficulty cashing in the one million pennies he saved. Watching customer after customer walk by without stooping to pick the penny up, I sensed the coin had devalued.   The debate over eliminating the penny may be an argument over Presidents, their value. Six former presidents decorate US coins. Thomas Jefferson is on the nickel; Roosevelt, the dime; Washington, the quarter; Kennedy and Sacagawea, the half-dollar and dollar. Lincoln is on the penny.


The President, First Lady and select guests, celebrated Afro-American history month, weeks earlier in the White House. Sam Waterston, entertaining with his “Lincoln” duo-logue, honored the president who abolished slavery. Lying there on the floor, heads up, near the register line at the department store’s President’s Day sale, people walking over and around him, Lincoln seems to have lost respect. The “eliminating the penny” debate may be a signal America is losing history, after all, once upon a nation, the copper coin was worth more than a “penny for one’s thoughts.” Lincoln’s penny was the first coin upon which appeared the words “In God We Trust.” These days, a bumper sticker sports that motto, with added words “all others pay cash.”


Times and faith have changed since pocket change was first started, 1787.

Boats arriving to the New World, brought believers with a resolution to build faith in the Commandments, all ten of them including the 5th, respect for Founding Fathers.  April 21, 1787, the Continental Congress of the Confederation contracted Benjamin Franklin to design the nationa’s copper cent. It was called the Fugio or ring cent. The private Mint striking the first one-cent coin was short on copper. The Mint solicited copper utensils, nails and scrap from the people for melting down. Franklin’s coin, equal in size to the English halfpence, bore on its obverse, a sun and sundial with the words “Fugio, (I fly)” and “MIND YOUR BUSINESS.” Thirteen linked circles with the legends “WE ARE ONE” and “UNITED STATES” were on the reverse. Paul Revere supplied the 100% copper early pennies were made from, 50% larger and five times heavier than our contemporary coin. The Fugio weighed 157.5 grains.

The penny has undergone eleven different designs, since 1787. Over 300 billion penny coins have been minted. Pure copper pennies were minted until 1837. No pennies were minted in 1815. The War of 1812 caused a copper shortage. In 1856, the coin’s composition became 88% copper and 12% nickel.  Three years later, the new Flying Eagle, the Indian one-cent, was used to pay Union soldiers fighting the Civil War, replacing the earlier coin. It bore the image of an Indian princess, on its obverse. The designer’s daughter posed for him wearing a headdress a visiting chief loaned her father. In 1864, the same year the Coinage Act made the penny legal tender, the one-cent coin’s composition evolved as did America’s foundation in faith. The coin was now 95% copper and 5% zinc.   1901, the Lincoln one-cent coin, appeared. It was the 100th anniversary of Lincoln’s birthday. The coin, the first to show a historical figure’s portrait, was the first coin to include words popular to the country, “In God We Trust.”

During World War II, there was a copper shortage. Zinc-coated steel cents were struck. The ‘greatest generation,’ returned from war. The allies won, but lost. Life was hard. Faith in God was eroding on home shores.

1959, Lincoln’s 150th birthday, mint engraver Frank Gasparro added the Lincoln Memorial to the reverse of the one-cent coin. The penny was the only coin with the same President on both sides. The statue of Lincoln inside the Memorial was on one; the portrait of Lincoln on the other facing right. All other presidential profiles have faced left.

By 1982, composition of the 19 millimeters in diameter penny, weighing 2.5 grams, was altered to 97.5% zinc and 2.5 % copper.  Britain was fighting in the Falklands. Tension was building towards Operation Desert Storm. America had limped through the Vietnam War. Free love dominated the country. Activists opposed faith and presidential values. American overseas military bases no longer trusted in God, on coins that is, dismissing the penny without a protest, a “dollars and cents” decision. Pennies cost more than face value to produce.

Over two-thirds of all coins produced by the U.S. Mint are pennies. 288.7 billion pennies have been minted to date; 1,040 pennies every second, 30 million a day, 13 billion pennies annually. 130 billion one-cent coins are in circulation, lasting on average, 25 years. The singular penny is profitable for government. It costs seven-tenths of a cent to make. The 2.5%, called seignorage, is zinc. Seignorage, the difference between the face value of coins and the cost of their mintage, reduces funds the government must borrow to finance the Deficit. Penny profits have earned the Treasury over $500 million in the last 15 years. Penny seignorage windfall is more than $25 million, alone.

Bills to remove the penny from circulation, come and go. The public favors keeping the one-cent coin in circulation. Americans for Common Cents, a coalition of coin and numanist related businesses including metal mining companies, penny manufacturers, and charitable organizations, formed to preserve America’s penny.  Bill Jenkins, presented bipartisan House Resolution 433 honoring the 20th anniversary of the cent coin. Jenkins said the penny was invaluable to the country’s economy. The copper clad zinc coin, saving over $800 million for the government, embodied “the spirit of the nation from its liberty to Lincoln,” from freedom to trusting, in theory, in God. But Arizona’s Republican Representative Jim Kolbe once said, “Pennies have no value.” The penny does have value. To the country, it’s value is the coin the national debt is calculated to, daily. 11/22/2004, the national debt was $7,498,451,166,280.89. To many American consumers, the penny’s value is in keeping retailers from rounding up to the nearest nickel. Yet, the consumer does not value the penny enough to stop throwing President Lincoln and “In God We Trust,” on the floor or other public walkways.

Soon after, President Reagan’s death, Americans For Tax Reform, on reaganlegacy.org, proposed placing the late president’s portrait on $10 bills or dimes, one of the last requests of the late Sen. Paul Coverdell (R-GA). Ronald Reagan Legacy Project’s stated mission is to honor President Reagan’s achievements “by naming at least one notable public landmark in each state and all 3067 counties after the 40th president.” Scripting a letter writing campaign, they dictate, “President Reagan carried our state overwhelmingly in his 1984 bid for re-election. His legacy is one of defeating the evil empire of Soviet Communism, restoring national pride and ending the economic malaise by cutting taxes which resulted in the longest economic expansion in history; an economy that we still enjoy today,”  “Currently, there are only 50 dedications to Reagan; 47 in the United States and three internationally.” With the exception of quarters, coins have remained unchanged for 25 years.

Looking at the penny lying on the floor, I thought, why not grace the penny with the Gipper, a 1932 economics graduate from EurekaCollege. Beloved worldwide, he might save the one-cent coin from being tossed on to floors, thrown at people or used in hate-speech equating specific ethnicities with miserliness and money lending.

Within the hour, I was at the White House, pulling out my credentials, for access verification. A penny fell from my pouch. Embarrassed to look cheap, I left it there, on the ground. An officer called to me, a smile on his face, something bright in his hand. “You dropped something, ma’am.” It was my penny. Eyes wide, I looked at him, deeply. It was fitting a man, in service, willing to die for his country respected the tiny words chiseled on to the copper, most of us forget or are ashamed to publicly admit, as I did that moment, the foundation America is built upon- “In God We Trust.” 


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