Why Are Only Dead Presidents Featured on U.S. Coins?

Coins in bowl
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The United States has a long tradition of placing only the portraits of dead people on its money. Why are living people never depicted on U.S. coins? Why does the U.S. always use portraits of dead Presidents rather than living ones on its circulating coins? Why weren't living presidents featured on the Presidential Dollar coins? Has any living person ever appeared on a United States coin? These are common questions often asked by coin collectors and non-coin collectors alike.

The main reason the U.S. features only dead Presidents on the new dollars (or dead people on any other coin) is a tradition. Although this tradition has been legislated into law now, from the very beginning of our nation's founding, patriotic men felt that it was improper to honor any living person by putting their image on the legal tender currency, especially the circulating coins. George Washington declined when our young nation wanted his portrait on the first U.S. silver dollar, which was the start of this long and still unbroken tradition. However, several patterns or test coins were minted with his effigy on the front. These are rare and very valuable coins.

Royal Coin Portraits

The early American Patriots were anti-royalists by definition, and royalty has always, since ancient Greek and Roman times, taking pride in putting their image on their coins. The monarch's portrait guaranteed the coin's value in ancient societies, sort of an assay mark. Additionally, it was also an advertisement to the general population who is in charge. After Brutus killed Caesar, he created his own coin to let people know about his power.

However, the ancient republicans, the pro-democracy philosopher sort who formed the Senate in ancient Greece and pre-Imperial Rome, felt very strongly that a living man's portrait did not belong on the coinage of a Republic. In fact, it was Julius Caesar's audacity in putting his living visage on his silver coins that helped spark the rebellion that resulted in Julius Caesar's Assassination.

First President on a U.S. Coin

When the newly-formed United States of America minted its early coinage, it was Miss Liberty (sometimes referred to as The Goddess of Liberty or Lady Liberty in early numismatic writings) whose portrait appeared on our coins. The American Eagle usually appeared on the reverse. Until 1909, the 100th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln's birth, a (dead) president was first featured on U.S. coinage. The Lincoln Cent was intended to be a special commemorative, but it proved so popular that it endures to this day. Other dead presidents soon followed, and we are all familiar with the Jefferson Nickel, Roosevelt Dime, Washington Quarter, etc.

Only the Dead May Appear on U.S. Coins by Law

Nowadays, it is a federal law that no living man or woman can appear on the U.S. coinage. Presidents must be dead for at least two years before they are eligible for inclusion in the Presidential Dollar series. It is doubtful that Americans will ever find a public figure so revered by the populace that they would allow a living person to grace the circulating coinage. However, Congress can pass a new law to modify the current law or make exceptions.

Real People on U.S. Coins

When the United States first started minting coins in 1793, an allegorical image of Lady Liberty was used as the main portrait on our coins. However, the first actual person to appear on a United States coin was not a president or US citizen at all. Instead, it was Christopher Columbus and Queen Isabella of Spain. In 1892 commemorative coins were issued to commemorate the World's Columbian Exposition in honor of the 400th Anniversary of Columbus' discovery of the New World. 

Now there are many other examples of actual people who were not presidents being featured on United States coins. In 1979, Susan B. Anthony was featured on a new one-dollar coin. In 1999, the United States Mint 50 State Quarters Program began in featured several people, including Caesar Rodney on the Delaware quarter, Helen Keller on the Alabama quarter, and John Muir on the California coin. In 2000, Sacajawea was depicted on the new "Golden Dollar" coin. Additionally, many real people have been depicted on commemorative coins and modern Gold coins of the United States Mint.

Living People on United States Coins

Since the United States Congress dictates the laws regarding our coinage, they can also create exceptions to place living people on United States coinage. Given that, there have been six people that have been alive when their images appeared on United States coins. They are:

  1. Governor T.E. Kilby on the front of the 1921 Alabama Centennial.
  2. President Calvin Coolidge on the front of the 1926 Sesquicentennial of American Independence.
  3. Senator Carter Glass on the front of the 1936 Lynchburg, Virginia, Sesquicentennial coin.
  4. Senator Joseph T. Robinson on the back of the 1936 Robinson-Arkansas Centennial coin.
  5. Eunice Kennedy Shriver on the obverse of the 1995 Special Olympics World Games Commemorative Silver Dollar.
  6. Nancy Reagan on the 2016 First Spouse $10 Gold Coin.
    Note: Nancy Reagan died on March 6, 2016, before the coin was officially released on July 1, 2016. However, the coin was approved and minted by The United States Mint before her death.
Denomination Name of Pres. Term First Appeared
One Cent or Penny Abraham Lincoln 1861-1865 1909
Five Cents or Nickel Thomas Jefferson 1801-1809 1938
Ten Cents or Dime Franklin Roosevelt 1933-1945 1946
Twenty-Five Cents or Quarter George Washington 1789-1797 1932
Fifty Cents or Half Dollar John Kennedy 1961-1963 1964
One Dollar Various * n.a. 2007
Current Presidents on U.S. Coins

*The Presidential Dollar Series of coins began in 2007 and ran through 2016. Each year four different presidents were honored in order of their term in office.