The Liberty Head Half Eagle

The Liberty Head Half Eagle

The $5 Coronet, or what is more commonly known as the Liberty Head Half
Eagle, enjoyed one of the longest runs in the history of U.S. Coinage.  The
$5 Liberty Head Gold pieces were in circulation from 1839 to 1908.  That is
a 69 year run!  Up until its time of production, the only gold coin
produced by the U.S. Mint was the $10 gold piece.  The $5 Liberty Head gold
became the "Work Horse" of the United States economy, and was the
U.S. Coin produced at all seven of the branch mints that were in
operation during the time of its reign.  Those branch mints were:
Philadelphia (no mintmark), Charlotte ("C" mintmark), Dahlonega ("D" mintmark,
only until 1861), Carson City ("CC" mintmark), New Orleans ("O" mintmark), San
Francisco ("S" mintmark) and Denver ("D" mintmark, beginning in 1906).

In order to examine the history behind the Liberty Head Half Eagle, we need
to begin with the $10 Liberty Head (Eagle).  For those readers who are
wondering, what are these designations of Eagle and Half Eagle all about? 
When the first gold coins were issued by the U.S. Mint, they were the $10 gold
pieces.  The Mint did not put a denomination on these coins, and the
general public did not know what to call the coins.  Because there was an
"eagle" on the reverse of these coins, it became know as the "Eagle." 
Consequently, the $5 gold piece is a "Half Eagle," the $2 1/2 gold piece became
known as a "Quarter Eagle" and the $20 was called the "Double Eagle."  In
1804, President Thomas Jefferson ordered a halt in production of the $10 gold
piece.  By July of 1838, the coin was needed once again.  Congress
passed two laws which provided for the reinstatement of the coin, and
reconfigured the weight and composition of the coin to the then current world
standards.  Mint Director Robert Patterson was directed to place the coin
into circulation immediately.  The U.S. Mint's Engraver, William Kneass,
was incapacitated due to a stroke, and the Assistant Engraver, Christian
Gobrecht, was assigned with the duty of creating the new coin.  This was
not a promotion for Gobrecht, nor did it involve a salary increase for him. 
He was just asked to fill-in.  By mid-December of the same year, the $10
Liberty Eagles were in production.

Gobrecht's design was simple.  For the main device on the coin, he
almost directly copied the head of Venus which appeared in a painting of
Benjamin West called Omnia Vincit Amor.  The only real change he
made was to the coronet crown upon which Gobrecht added the word LIBERTY. 
The other features which appeared on the obverse of the coin along with the new
Liberty design were 13 stars surrounding the Liberty image, from the 7 o'clock
to the 5 o'clock positions, and the date centered at the 6 o'clock position. 
The reverse of the coin features a bald eagle with its rather scrawny looking
wings spread, and a shield on its chest.  The eagle holds an olive branch
and arrows in its talons.  The design is a rather unusual adaptation of the
design from the "Great Seal of the United States of America."  Surrounding
the eagle, from the 7 o'clock to the 5 o'clock positions, it reads
·UNITED STATES OF AMERICA·, and centered on the 6
o'clock position is the denomination, TEN D.

Mint Director Patterson, it seems, had visions
of the United States' coins becoming established as an internationally accepted
currency, much like the Spanish coins were.  He saw it was important to
establish the U.S. coinage with a common, recognizable image.  When the $5
gold piece was authorized for production in 1839, Gobrecht was given the duty of
creating the smaller coin in the image of the $10 gold piece he created a year
earlier.  Gobrecht designed these coins in a manner that the complete
design was placed on the hub (the negative image from which the coin's striking
dies were produced) with the exception of the date and mintmark which had to be
punched into the dies by hand.

By the time the Act of 1865 was enacted as law
by Congress, Gobrecht had died, and James Longacre became the Mint's engraver. 
This new Congressional Act provided for the coining of the shield nickel, a
class of interest-bearing Treasury Notes and the addition of the motto In God
We Trust
on all U.S. coinage large enough to carry it.  The Mint took
this to mean all coins larger then a dime.  Longacre was assigned with this
duty, and he added a scrolling banner with the new motto onto the reverse of the
$5 Liberty Head gold, centered just above the eagles head, and between its
spread wings.

Prior to 1878, specie payments were suspended by
the U.S. government therefore; much of the gold coinage placed into circulation
by the Mint was hoarded by the general public.  Once that changed, vast
quantities of U.S. gold coins were released by the Mint into circulation. 

States enjoy collecting the $5 Liberty Head gold pieces.  In the later
years, from 1878 to 1908, they are still relatively affordable.  There is a
number of subsets to be collected within the series, e.g. the no motto and with
motto set, the mintmark set, and the southern mintmark set.  Those
collectors who are a bit ambitious are collecting all the major varieties within
the $5 Liberty Head gold series, and those who are attempting to collect the
entire series have found that many of the issues prior to 1878, have been
compared to the search for the "Holy Grail." 

 The actual study of all the varieties to be found within the $5 Liberty
Head gold series is still in its infancy.  There have been many found, but
with a series that has a 69 year history, there are many more yet to be
discovered.  That is what makes this series of U.S. coins so popular among
collectors today.

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This content was written by Raymond F. Hanisco. If you wish to use this content in any manner, you need written permission. Contact Gary Eggleston for details.