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Why Only Dead Presidents on Coins?

You may wonder, why are only dead presidents featured on United States coins?

The main reason is simply tradition. From our nation’s founding, patriotic men felt it was improper to honor any living person by putting their image on the legal tender currency, especially circulating coins. George Washington was alive when people first wanted his portrait on the first United States dollar, and declined the offer. Thus began the tradition.

Royal Coin Portraits

Since ancient Greek and Roman times, royalty have always taken pride in putting their image on coins. A coin’s value in ancient societies was guaranteed by featuring a monarch’s portrait. However, ancient republicans, who in Greece were pro-democracy, felt that a living man’s portrait did not belong on the coinage of a Republic. Julius Caesar’s boldness in putting his own image on silver coins contributed to the rebellion that eventually resulted in his assassination.

First President on a U.S. Coin

When the United States of America minted its early coinage, it was the portrait of Miss Liberty, or the goddess of liberty, which appeared on coins, while the American Eagle appeared on the reverse side. Then, in 1909, the 100th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth, the 16th president was featured on a United States coin. The Lincoln Cent was created as a special commemorative, but it proved so popular that it is still the cent we use today! Other deceased presidents followed, such as the Jefferson Nickel, Roosevelt Dime, Washington Quarter, and so on.

Only the Dead May Appear by Law

It is now a federal law that no living man or woman can appear on U.S. coinage. Presidents must be dead for at least two years before being eligible for inclusion in the Presidential Dollar series.

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