House ousting: Legislating Monticello's return to nickel

Heads or tails? Monticello's future on the flip side of the nickel might be anyone's guess.

The idea of replacing Monticello has been kicked around for a while now by legislators and the U.S. Mint. With the three-year bicentennial celebration of Lewis and Clark's expedition beginning in January, proponents of change have latched onto the idea of putting the two explorers on the back side of a fresher image of Jefferson, who backed their expedition.

In June, Congressman Eric Cantor sponsored a bill that would have kept Monticello's coveted spot on the five-cent piece. His bill didn't pass the House, but a revised bill, which would permit a temporary change lasting only between 2003 to 2006, did pass.

But temporary measures– like water rates and income taxes– have a way of becoming permanent.

Now, after being presented by George Allen, the new bill awaits vote in the Senate. The bill guarantees that come 2007, Monticello will again grace the nickel.

Paula Newcomb, director of development and public affairs at Monticello, says people on Jefferson's "little mountain" are delighted to have Monticello's image give way to the pair of intrepid explorers.

"It's an appropriate way of honoring Lewis and Clark, whose bicentennial we'll be celebrating for two years," Newcomb says, describing the elaborate festivities Monticello has planned for the national kickoff of the bicentennial celebration on January 18.

"Indian tribes from all over the country will be represented," she says. "President Bush has been invited, and all indications are that he hopes to be here," she says.

Newcomb says Thomas Jefferson Foundation officials have been "assured" that Monticello's image will return to the nickel at the conclusion of the bicentennial hoopla.

If there will be any opposition, it probably won't be locally generated. Although the house was a political and scientific lab of the highest 18th century order, it was also a plantation where enslaved humans did the dirty work.

Edna Jakki Miller, director of the local chapter of the NAACP, referred questions about Monticello's place on the nickel to member Rick Klein.

"I've surveyed a few of our members," Klein says, "I don't think any of us have any real concern about that."

 The people operating the house up on the hill have done a lot lately to regain the trust of African-Amercians. Slave houses and workshops now play a key role in tours. In 2001, an archaeological dig recently discovered a slave graveyard on the mountain.

It's appropriate to have the venerable icon on a coin, according to Ed Rochette, executive director of the Colorado Springs-based American Numismatic Association. He believes images on coins should be "allegorical representations of liberty rather than personality."

In fact, he says, in the early days of this country, "They didn't believe a portrait of the president should be on a coin... it was seen as imperial."

And indeed that rule was generally followed until 1932 when the Washington quarter was introduced.

Michael White, spokesperson for the U.S. Mint, says his agency would love to change the look of all the coins much as it did with the 50-States quarter. No decisions regarding such changes will be made by the Mint unilaterally, however.

Rochette believes the strong lobbying from Virginia legislators will secure Monticello's spot for the long haul. "I doubt the design will change," he says, with the exception of the three-year bicentennial. And if there ever is a permanent change, "It won't be in our lifetime," he concludes confidently.

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