The History of the United States' Golden Presidential Dollars

By Nova BarelaLast Updated Jan 12, 2021 1:38:02 PM ET
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Take a look in your car’s cup holders or that jar of loose change lurking in the kitchen cabinet. Do any glints and glimmers of gold catch your eye? If so, you might count yourself among the lucky owners of a Presidential $1 — a relatively rare and decidedly novel type of coinage that features engravings of U.S. presidents’ faces and the Statue of Liberty, all done up in a warm, golden metal blend that we don’t see too often in U.S. currency.

For just a few years in the early 2000s, the U.S. Mint oversaw the Presidential $1 Coin Program, which produced special coins that honored, as you might have guessed, American presidents. But not every U.S. head of state ended up with their likeness boldly born in bas-relief on the faces of our spare change. And that’s just one element of what makes these coins so interesting. Whether you fancy yourself an aspiring numismatist or an armchair historian, you’ll enjoy broadening your understanding of this U.S. Mint program — and maybe even learning what these coins could be worth today.

Where Did the Idea for the Presidential Golden Dollars Come From?

In 2005, Congress passed the Presidential $1 Coin Act, and Section 101 of the act offers an interesting explanation for the reason why. The Sacagawea dollar coins that were introduced into circulation in the United States a few years earlier had not proved very popular — people just simply didn’t like using dollar coins for transactions. But Congress believed that having a widely circulated $1 coin available was important for supporting certain economic sectors and situations, including "public transportation, parking meters, vending machines and low-dollar value transactions." If there were no dollar coins widely used and in circulation, merchants and vendors would incur greater costs, some members of Congress argued, and subsequently would be forced to pass those costs on to consumers.

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Photo Courtesy: American Press Association/Wikimedia Commons

At the same time, Congressional leaders had taken note of how popular the 50 States Commemorative Coin Program had been — especially from an education perspective. Each coin used state-specific imagery to convey an interesting factoid, meaning each state’s coin was unique. That made the act of collecting them appealing, too.

Armed with the results of a survey that showed Americans would actively seek a new coin "if an attractive, educational rotating design were to be struck" on it, the Presidential $1 Coin Program was born. However, it’s important to remember that these state coins were quarters, not dollars, and thus didn’t face the same barriers to widespread use as dollar coins. The presidential golden dollars didn't replace the Sacagawea dollar coin first minted in 2000, either, but were to be produced alongside that coin.

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Big plans grew for the presidential dollars, and Congress went well beyond simply creating the program. It stipulated very specific requirements with the goal of returning to the "Golden Age of Coinage" initiated by President Theodore Roosevelt and spearheading an effort to create coins that didn’t only serve as tools for commercial exchange but that were also artful and beautiful.

How Did Congress Plan to Return to the “Golden Age of Coinage"?

The Presidential $1 Coin Act of 2005 proposed a list of specific requirements for the decorative new denomination to encourage a return to a legendary time in history when coins grew to be regarded as art. Six of the many requirements the U.S. Mint and the coin designers were directed to incorporate include the following:

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Each coin should be "an object of aesthetic beauty in its own right."

"Mint marks" such as mottos, emblems and the inscription of the year should be placed on the edges to allow for "larger and more dramatic artwork" on the obverse and reverse of each coin.

The "tails" side of the coin would display a likeness of the Statue of Liberty large enough to be dramatic, but not so large that the coin would seem two-headed.

The "heads" side of the coin would show the name and likeness of a president, along with basic information about that president, including their term(s) of office and the order of their period of service.

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Each year, $1 coins would be produced to honor four presidents until all presidents were honored.

The project would be limited in scope to deceased presidents, not living current or former presidents. Featured presidents needed to have been deceased for at least two years before appearing on the coins.

So, how were these stipulations meant to hearken back to coinage’s purported "golden age"? A few years after taking office in the early 20th century, President Theodore Roosevelt sent a letter to then-Secretary of the Treasury Leslie Shaw explaining how U.S. coinage was "artistically of atrocious hideousness" — a scathing take on the appearance of American money. Roosevelt also asked Shaw if the Treasury would consider employing Augustus Saint-Gaudens, a Beaux Arts-era sculptor, to create some coin designs that better represented the country via their beauty. As a result, Saint-Gaudens created two coins that have become beloved among collectors: the $10 eagle and the $20 double eagle, both of which featured depictions of Lady Liberty and — yes — eagles.

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The requirement for the Presidential $1 coins to feature the Statue of Liberty is a definite nod to the Saint-Gaudens designs and the "golden era" of coinage, but the level of detail — that need for "larger and more dramatic artwork" — is another. The $20 double eagle coin reportedly needed to undergo 11 separate strikes to bring out the high level of detail of the design; the coins’ faces were so intricate and their relief so high that bankers couldn’t stack them properly. While that wasn’t what Congress had in mind when passing the 2005 coin act, that’s the spirit in which the government wanted the presidential dollars to be designed: ample detail and beauty to appropriately honor the leaders stamped across the coins’ faces.

Does Every President Have a Golden Presidential Dollar?

In total, 40 American presidents have been honored with golden presidential dollars. The excluded presidents are Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump, who haven’t been honored on coins because they’re still living — and who might not be honored on presidential dollar coins anytime soon. Aside from the fact that they’re not deceased, what’s the reason for this exclusion?

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In 2011, Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of the Treasury Timothy Geithner paused the Presidential $1 Coin Program as a cost-cutting measure. At the time, the U.S. Federal Reserve had stockpiled enough of these $1 coins — more than a billion — to meet demand for at least a decade. Biden and Geithner noted that the decision to stop the program would save taxpayer dollars because, according to a document released by the Treasury, "minting $1 coins that ultimately end up sitting in Federal Reserve Bank vaults –— and serve no useful purpose for businesses, financial institutions and consumers— is simply not a prudent use of taxpayer resources." Ending production of these coins was a move that would help the government achieve its goal of creating less waste and would free up taxpayer money in the process.

By the time the program was terminated, the Mint had produced presidential golden dollars for all deceased presidents up to and including Ronald Reagan and would produce no more — save for a four-year special run of coins produced until 2016 for collectors, along with one other exception. In February 2019, Senator John Cornyn introduced a bill for the production of a Presidential $1 coin honoring President George H. W. Bush. The President George H. W. Bush and First Spouse Barbara Bush Coin Act was passed into law in January of 2020, and the design of Bush Sr.’s coin was revealed on December 4, 2020.

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How Many Presidential Golden Dollars Are Out There?

Over 5 billion golden presidential dollars were produced under the Presidential $1 Coin Program, not including the coin honoring President George H. W. Bush. The U.S. Mint produced the coins at its facilities in Denver, Colorado, and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The president honored with the highest total mintage (the number of coins produced) is President George Washington, with over 340,000,000 of these golden coins bearing his likeness having been produced. At the other end of the spectrum, the president with the lowest mintage is Woodrow Wilson at 7,980,000.

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Production numbers dropped significantly midway through the running of the Presidential $1 Coin Program. Of the first 20 presidents from Washington to Garfield, no leader was honored with a mintage of fewer than 72,660,000 coins (President Andrew Johnson). Those who served after President Garfield (presidents Arthur to Reagan, skipping President Carter) were honored with far fewer coins. The highest mintage among those presidents was President Cleveland (with two separate runs of 9,520,000 and 14,600,001) followed closely by President Reagan (13,020,000).

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Are Presidential Dollars Worth Anything?

Today, you can purchase presidential golden dollars from the U.S. Mint at specified times, though the coins are not part of its standard catalog. Until 2011, the coins were distributed by the Mint to banks and financial institutions, but that’s no longer the case. The Mint still releases Presidential $1 coins into the "secondary market," where you can find them available for sale online and from coin dealers. The U.S. Mint also releases 250-coin bags and rolls of the dollar coins, which are typically available through dealers. For a brief time beginning in 2008, buyers could even order them through a program called the $1 Coin Direct Ship Program — but the program didn’t last too long.

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As for their value? Most of them are worth the amount stamped on their faces — $1. At dealers or from collectors, some earlier-mintage coins may be priced higher simply based on the lower number of such coins available. Proof coins, which are samples made to check the dies that cut and stamp the coins, sometimes sell for up to $10 apiece. The most valuable of the golden presidential dollars are those that were produced with errors. One particular 2007 mintage of coins honoring President George Washington had missing edge lettering, which can see those particular coins selling for $5,000 or more.

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Will you get rich off Presidential $1 coins? Not likely, but, like collecting other objects, there's plenty of fun in the chase and in learning the history of these coins and presidents — which, of course, was part of Congress' aim in the first place.