Thursday, August 20, 2009

Thoughts on the William Henry Harrison Dollar Coin

This morning I was pleased to receive in change at Eastman Music in Faribault a 2009 William Henry Harrison dollar coin. Harrison was the 9th President of the United States, and served from March 4 (Inauguration Day) until April 4, 1841—when he died of the pneumonia he contracted while delivering his Inaugural Address. I happen to have a copy of that address here on my laptop; it fills fourteen single-spaced pages. The speech was edited by Daniel Webster, who found it swimming with classical allusions. Webster deleted many of them, and later joked that he had killed "seventeen Roman proconsuls as dead as smelts, every one of them." Much of the speech is devoted to a discussion of the Presidential veto and the limits of Presidential power, which had expanded dramatically under Jackson and Van Buren. Before Jackson, there had only been six Presidential vetoes in forty years, and Presidents had only used it to stop legislation which they found unconstitutional; Jackson was the first to use it to kill legislation with which he disagreed. Jackson used the Presidential veto to claim legislative power for the Executive branch. But in his Inaugural Address, Harrison states: "To assist or control Congress, then, in its ordinary legislation could not, I conceive, have been the motive for conferring the veto power on the President."

I love the idea of dollar coins, and I miss the pound and two pound coins used in England, where there are no banknotes in denominations less than £5 (£1 notes were withdrawn from circulation in 1988). But I wonder what William Henry Harrison would have thought of his portrait on a dollar coin. In his Inaugural Address, he said this about American currency:
The idea of making it exclusively metallic, however well intended, appears to me to be fraught with more fatal consequences than any other scheme having no relation to the personal rights of the citizens that has ever been devised. If any single scheme could produce the effect of arresting at once that mutation of condition by which thousands of our most indigent fellow-citizens by their industry and enterprise are raised to the possession of wealth, that is the one. If there is one measure better calculated than another to produce that state of things so much deprecated by all true republicans, by which the rich are daily adding to their hoards and the poor sinking deeper into penury, it is an exclusive metallic currency. Or if there is a process by which the character of the country for generosity and nobleness of feeling may be destroyed by the great increase and neck toleration of usury, it is an exclusive metallic currency.
As the first (and, as it would turn out, only) Whig President, Harrison was signaling his opposition to the monetary policy of the Jacksonian Democrats, who had killed the national bank and opposed bank-issued paper money (banknotes) as a means of extending credit. Harrison evidently believed that an exclusively metallic currency would destroy credit and increase the gap between rich and poor as the wealthy hoarded their gold.


Jim H. said...

I have read and re-read the passage you quoted. I don't understand it, probabably because I don't know the historical context. Why did Harrison have such strong objections (unfounded, as we have since learned) to the metallic currency?

He would probably appreciate the irony.

And isn't it a myth that he contracted pnuemonia during his inaugural address? Maybe it was the day before or the day after or at breakfast the morning of.

Rob Hardy said...

Jim: I've edited the post to try to answer your question.

Mary S. said...

We lived in Canada for a few months in 2002 and I loved the Loonies ($1) and Twoonies ($2), which you often got for change. (As I recall, there was no $1 bill in Canada.) The coins had a nice heft to them and were very convenient for vending machines and small purchases. I think the U.S. would have to get rid of the $1 bill before dollar coins would catch on here, though.

New Poem: "Phrasebook"

My poem " Phrasebook " has been published online in Ergon: Greek/American Arts and Letters .