Milberg Exhibition Gallery: Capping Liberty

When the founders of the American Republic declared independence from Great Britain on July 4, 1776, one of the major tasks they took on was the cre­ation of a coinage for the new nation. “Cap­ping Lib­erty: The Inven­tion of a Numis­matic Iconog­ra­phy for the New Amer­i­can Repub­lic,” which opens on Saturday, March 3, in the Leonard L. Mil­berg Exhi­bi­tion Gallery, charts the gen­e­sis and evo­lu­tion of the iconog­ra­phy of Amer­i­can coinage by show­cas­ing coins, medals, ban­knotes, and related books, man­u­scripts, and graphic arts from the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections.

1792 “half disme,” the first coin minted by the United States government under the Constitution

On Sunday, May 6, the noted scholar of American colonial coinage, Louis Jordan, of the University of Notre Dame, will give a public lecture entitled “Transformations in Numismatic Iconography during the American Revolution,” in conjunction with the exhibition. The lecture, which is open to the public without charge, will be held at 4 p.m. in 101 McCormick Hall on the Princeton Campus. It will be preceded at 2:30 by a Curatorial Tour of the exhibition in Firestone Library by Alan M. Stahl, Princeton’s Curator of Numismatics, and will be followed by a reception. Additional curatorial tours will be held on Sunday, March 25, and Thursday, May 31, both at 2:30 p.m.

“Capping Liberty” will be on display through July 8, 2012, in the Leonard L. Milberg Gallery of Firestone Library, Princeton University. Hours are Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, noon to 5 p.m., closed holidays. The exhibition website can be found at the following URL:

Further information can be obtained from Alan Stahl, Curator of Numismatics at or (609) 258-9127.

Exhibition Synopsis

Capping Liberty: The Invention of a Numismatic Iconography

For the New American Republic

When the founders of the American Republic declared independence from Great Britain on July 4, 1776, one of the major tasks they took on was the creation of a coinage for the new nation. The republican form of government placed them in the position of choosing specific images to represent their ideals with little in the way of precedent to guide them, as most existing coinage bore the image of a monarch. The leading figures in the process of selecting the numismatic imagery of the American Republic were Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, each of whose contributions was a reflection of his background, personality, and ideals.

With the final decision the result of a rancorous dispute between the Senate and the House of Representatives, the ultimate choice for the main image for the new coinage was “an impression emblematic of Liberty,” which took the form of the head of a beautiful woman sometimes accompanied by a cap derived from classical attributes of the Roman goddess Libertas. Together with the complementary attributes of an eagle and a wreath, this symbol came to exemplify the United States of America. The rich resources of the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections of Princeton University’s Firestone Library serve as the basis of an exhibition entitled “Capping Liberty” that illustrates the process by which America selected and adapted this national image to its coinage.

The star of the show will undoubtedly be the Princeton specimen of the 1792 “half disme,” the first coin minted by the United States government under the Constitution. Delays in passing the Mint Act of 1792 left little time to strike coins that year, so a very small issue of half dismes (the old French spelling was used on the piece) was minted in a temporary facility, reputedly from silver supplied by George Washington for the purpose. Fewer than 2,000 examples are believed to have been struck. The Princeton specimen was purchased by Charles A. Cass, Class of 1904, from an auction in 1917 by Thomas Elder where it was described as “the finest known specimen of this exceedingly rare coin.” It came to Princeton with the impressive Cass numismatic collection by bequest in 1958. The specimen has been characterized by Roger Siboni, President of the American Numismatic Society, as “perhaps the finest, or one of the finest 1792 half dismes in existence” in an article in Coin World (Sept. 1, 2008).

Other important coins from the Princeton University Numismatic Collection in the exhibition are four issues of the seventeenth-century Massachusetts silver shilling coinage, Princeton’s two examples of the tin “Continental Dollar” patterns of 1776, and its 1794 (14 star) silver dollar. The “poster piece” of the exhibition is the gilt bronze striking of Augustin Dupré’s 1783 Libertas Americana medal, a gift of Rodman Wanamaker, Class of 1886, which is believed it have been the basis for the depiction of Liberty on the early United States coinage. It is accompanied by a selection of ancient coins that inspired the depiction, including a Sicilian dekadrachm and a series of denarii of the Roman Republic and sestertii of the Empire with depictions of the goddess Libertas and her distinctive cap. Other important medals in the exhibition are an original bronze striking of Dupré’s Diplomatic Medal of 1791 (one of only three known), a gift of the scholar of ancient and American coinage Cornelius Vermeule III, and a hand-engraved medal believed to have been given to Henry Lee (Princeton Class of 1773), voted for him by the Continental Congress in 1779, but not included among the other Comitia Americana medals struck in Paris. Also on display are three unique plaster moulds made by Jean-Baptiste Nini as preparatory models for his famous terra cotta medallions of Benjamin Franklin.

Many items from Princeton’s Rare Book Collection are on display in the exhibition, including works formerly in the libraries of Benjamin Franklin, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Among the depictions of Liberty from Colonial publications is the portrait of John Hancock engraved by Paul Revere for The Royal American Magazine, 73 (March 1774), flanked by a knight with a copy of the Magna Charta and Liberty with her cap. Among the pieces from the Manuscript Collection on display are a signed autograph letter from George Washington to William Grayson, August 22, 1785, voicing support for Jefferson’s “Propositions Respecting the Coinage of Gold, Silver and Copper,” and a letter from John Adams to Mint Director Benjamin Rush, January 18, 1811, asking for examples of United States Coinage for his son John Quincy Adams to send to Russia. Among the pieces from the Graphic Arts Collection on display are a 1778 print attributed to the painter Jean-Honoré Fragonard depicting Benjamin Franklin crowned by the goddess Liberty, and a large piece of Toile de Jouy fabric printed around 1785 with the image of George Washington in a gold chariot drawn by cheetahs.


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