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A Penny for His Thoughts

John K. Alexander, professor of history, worked on a committee that brought a facelift to the Lincoln penny.

Date: 2/16/2009 12:00:00 AM
By: Kim Burdett
Phone: (513) 556-8577
Photos By: Micah Ovadia

UC ingot  

In celebration of the 200th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth and just in time for President’s Day, the U.S. Mint has introduced four new designs for the penny, each one depicting a different aspect of the president’s life.

The first of the rotating pennies, put into circulation on Feb. 13, has a depiction of a tiny log cabin on the coin’s back to represent the one-room dwelling where Lincoln was born near Hodgenville, Ky. The front of the 1-cent coin will remain unchanged.

But how did the U.S. Mint go about deciding this design, or the other three that will be released later this year?

History Professor John K. Alexander.
Professor John K. Alexander was sought out by the Citizens Coinage Advisory Committee for his expertise in U.S. history.

The decision was in part due to the input by University of Cincinnati history professor John K. Alexander. Since 2005, Alexander has been serving as the U.S. historian for the Citizens Coinage Advisory Committee, a group established by the Secretary of Treasury, pursuant to a 2003 act of Congress, that advises the Cabinet member on theme and design proposals relating to circulating coinage, Congressional Gold Medals and other medals produced by the U.S. Mint.

“I was part of a process that lives forever in the coins,” he said. “It’s an opportunity for public service, to help make the decisions about these coins that last forever.”

By law, an American historian must reside on the committee. Alexander procured the position when an employee at the U.S. Mint—a former UC student—approached him about applying for the post. Once interviewed, he acquired the job and will remain in his position until October of this year.

While the CCAC doesn’t make the final decisions about what designs will be used on the coins, the members do discuss the pros and cons of different artist renderings and report those ideas to the director of the U.S. Mint. Those recommendations, along with the suggestions of other agencies, are analyzed by the director then his or her recommendations are forwarded along to the Secretary of Treasury, who makes the final decision.

Alexander participated in a number of vigorous debates about what depictions of Lincoln should be portrayed throughout the president’s life. The first depiction of a log cabin didn’t receive much argument, nor did the second and third coins, showing Lincoln reading on a log during his years in Indiana, and speaking in front of the Illinois capitol as a state legislator. The final coin, meant to depict Lincoln as a wartime president, is represented by a half-constructed Capitol building, symbolizing the perseverance of the Union during the Civil War.

Alexander, alongside others in the CCAC, disagreed with the last depiction, arguing for a more palpable illustration that more Americans would understand, he said.

“If you think of Lincoln as a great president, and worthy enough to be honored in this way, why are we left with an unfinished Capitol dome representing him saving the Union?” he asked. “It makes the penny less powerful than Lincoln deserves.”

Yet he knows the committee’s role is only to evaluate design ideas, not implement them—a role, he said, he is eager to fulfill.

“I’m a historian. I love U.S. history,” he said. “The reason I was willing to serve was because I could bring a historian’s passion about U.S. history to the discussion when it’s necessary.”

Alexander has the opportunity to continue that discussion for more than just the 2009 Lincoln Bicentennial One Cent Observe; he’s working with the committee on a coin that will honor Lincoln in the presidential dollar series as well.

He continued, “I consider it to be an honor to be involved in the process.”


Read more about Alexander’s work:

UC History Professor Offers Expertise as U.S. Mint Makes Change in Lincoln Penny

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