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This and That

Meet Lafayette on a Famous Coin

In 1824 and 1825 Marquis de Lafayette, French hero of the American Revolution, revisited the United States and was declared by Congress to be “The Nation’s Guest”. Celebrations were held in many eastern cities, and his daily activities were closely covered in the press. Niles’ Weekly Register, published in Baltimore, an early-day equivalent to today’s Wall Street Journal, devoted a column to him in each issue.

Counterstamps featuring the portraits of Lafayette and Washington on a copper cent dated 1822, a prize from the recent sale of the John J. Ford, Jr., Collection Part 2, Lot 196.

There was a great interest in buying medals, ribbons, and other souvenirs. Perhaps the most famous and also one of the most elusive from a numismatic viewpoint is shown above—dies counterstamped on the obverse and reverse of a large copper cent of 1822. Hundreds of large copper cents of various dates were counterstamped with Lafayette’s image on one side and that of George Washington. Some Capped Bust half dollars were also counterstamped, as were a few other coins.

Portrait of Lafayette

Lafayette arriving at the Castle Garden, New York City harbor, in August 1825. This famous gathering spot, long used as an immigration processing facility and, at other times, a center for public entertainment (Jenny Lind was there in 1850s), was later demolished and surrounding land filled in—about where the World Trade Center was once located.

For many years it was thought that the maker of the two dies used to make this counterstamp was Charles Cushing Wright, who went on to be America’s most acclaimed engraver in the 1840s until his death in the 1850s. In October 1867, W. Elliot Woodward brought to auction the collection of United States coins formed by Joseph J. Mickley, one of the great figures in early American numismatics. A particular item sold on October 28 was accompanied by this description:

“Lot 3041. 1820 cent stamped with bust of Washington, reverse of head of Lafayette. Dies by Wright. Fine and scarce.”

Here we have the Wright attribution. The cent brought $3.75. In his 1885 book, Medallic Portraits of Washington, W.S. Baker attributed the dies to Charles Cushing Wright, probably drawing from Woodward. Thus, “conventional wisdom” was brought into full authority. The Baker text endured for generations, and in the 20th century when George J. Fuld and, later, Fuld in collaboration with Russell Rulau, updated and vastly expanded Medallic Portraits of Washington, Baker’s numbers were preserved.

However, Wright was not the engraver. In November 1999 Dr. John Kleeberg, at the Coinage of the Americas Conference, American Numismatic Society, November 1999, provided revelatory information that the maker of this counterstamp was an engraver named Joseph Lewis, of New York City, not C.C. Wright!

Dr. Kleeberg reported that his research in newspaper and other accounts of 1824 seemed to eliminate Wright and focus upon Robert Lovett (Senior), J.D. Stout, and Joseph Lewis. Each had made medallions for Lafayette’s visit. However, the matter was sealed by this:

“On September 20, 1824, Joseph Lewis advertised in the Philadelphia National Gazette saying that he had sold over 2,000 gold and silver medallions with a portrait of Lafayette on one side and Washington on the other. This description fits our counterstamp. Furthermore, Lewis’s medallion was the most successful one in New York. Lovett advertised once, Stout twice, but Lewis advertised his medallion at least five times. His medallion was adopted by the Castle Garden ball committee as the official one. It was specifically mentioned in the papers. The evidence before me now indicates that Joseph Lewis was the engraver who made the Washington/Lafayette medallion. He prepared his dies in two weeks: the medallions were ready by September 2nd, and Lafayette had arrived only on August 15th.”

Dr. Kleeberg went on to describe some portraits that had been made by C.C. Wright for the same occasion, and showed that they were entirely different in appearance. Exit one long-held theory!

Popular for a Long Time

Perusal of 19th century auction catalogues and periodicals yields a number of other citations of this interest counterstamps besides Woodward’s sale of the Mickley coin. At the February 22 (Washington’s birthday) meeting of the Rhode Island Numismatic Association, an account noted:

“Mr. C.T. Metcalf exhibited a find set of U.S. cents, and a collection of colonials and Washington pieces, were greatly admired; especially an Uncirculated 1820 cent, stamped on the obverse with the head of Washington and the reverse with that of Lafayette.…”

The January 21, 1870, sale of the numismatic effects of the late engraver James B. Longacre included this: “Lot 515: Half dollar of 1824, with bust of Washington on obverse and Lafayette on reverse.” The coin sold for $11, which was about the amount that three or four Proof 1856 Flying Eagle cents would have been worth at the time!

Close to the coin depicted here from the Ford Collection, and perhaps even the same one, is this description of a specimen in Thomas L. Elder’s sale of July 18, 1913, Lot 884:

“1822 cent. Counterstamped with portraits of George Washington and General Lafayette in 1824(?). Struck in commemoration of the latter’s visit to America. Extremely Fine; light brown; very rare.”

Some years later, in Hobbies magazine, August 1939, Elder wrote of the counterstamps:

 “During Lafayette’s visit to America in 1824, one of the cars in the reception procession in Philadelphia contained a stamp or die from which cents were impressed with Lafayette’s head and the date 1824 and thrown gratuitously to the crowds around. One of these turns up occasionally. The writer has been Lafayette’s head impressed on other coins such as dimes and even half cents.”

Although in America we remember the counterstamp honoree simply as Lafayette or Marquis de Lafayette, his full name was Marie Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, or Marquis de Lafayette. Born in France in 1757, he was a soldier, statesman, and liberally minded leader in the land of his birth, at one time honored, at another time jailed. His name can be found in accounts of the French revolutions of 1789 and 1830.

In America’s time of greatest need, in the Revolution when Gen. Washington was short of funds, manpower, and just about everything else except patriotic enthusiasm, Lafayette, a man of wealth, came to America and spend money and laid his own life on the line for the American cause.

When he returned as “the Nation’s Guest” the red carpet was rolled out as never before and never since. He returned to France in 1835, and died there in 1834, widely mourned.

Although counterstamped coins of Lafayette are exceeding rare today, his portrait is readily available on the first American commemorative silver dollar, the Lafayette dollar of 1900, where he shares the obverse with Washington.