Judging from his smile, it's obvious that Thomas Jefferson is amused by all the excitement that still surrounds him nearly 200 years after his death.
The second-most important celebrity to have come out of Charlottesville, Jefferson was rewarded for his leadership during the formative years of the United States with an honorary seat at the table of capitalist excess. The five-cent piece has borne his likeness since 1938, when the Buffalo Nickel was replaced by a new version bearing Jefferson's influence on both faces– his portrait on one, his crib on the other.
Now – much to the chagrin of local tourism honchos– the U.S. Mint has backtracked a bit. Hot on the heels of the wildly popular "state quarter" series, the Mint has announced plans to swap out the image of Monticello in favor of one of two new alternatives. The first, to be engraved on coins minted in early 2005, will feature an image of a bison in honor of the Buffalo Nickel. The second, slated for release later that year, will boast a picturesque Pacific coast, bringing to a close the theme of westward expansion that began with the 2004 nickels picturing Lewis and Clark's keelboat.
Both sides of the coin will change. Jefferson's likeness will undergo a makeover, if not a complete overhaul, the revised version showing a larger, cropped picture of TJ looking right instead of left, and adding the engraved word "Liberty" in his handwriting. Overall, the image clearly focuses more on Jefferson's sly smile than on his powdered wig, and it's likely that the new portrait will remain after the Mint reverts to the Monticello design a few years hence.
Though these changes might be fun for numismatists, they are not without their critics. A few people have voiced concern over the likelihood of Monticello's eventual return to the coin, which is currently slated for 2006. In 2002, concerned about his constituents' tourism industry, Virginia Republican Congressman Eric Cantor helped defeat a motion to drop Monticello from the coin, and it's likely that these most recent alterations will evoke similar protests.
History buffs have also joined the fray, accusing the Mint of attempting to rewrite history somewhat by abandoning the archaic spellings used in the passage in William Clark's diary from which the accompanying inscription was pulled. The original passage reads "Ocian in view! O! The joy!" but the Mint's new version renders it with the spelling corrected.
"I think change is good," says Mayor David Brown. "Even though it may take Monticello off the nickel, I think more people will talk about Monticello and think about Monticello by virtue of there having been a change. [It] will probably be beneficial for Monticello."
Supposedly there's no such thing as bad publicity. Thousands upon thousands of tiny silver portraits certainly won't hurt.
COURTESY THE HOOK SCANNER
COURTESY THE US MINT
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