Which president is on the nickel? The nickel, with its distinct profile of Thomas Jefferson, is a coin that most Americans recognize and use regularly. But have you ever wondered why Thomas Jefferson was chosen to be on the nickel?
In this article, we’ll take a deep dive into the history of the nickel and how Thomas Jefferson earned his spot there.
The Origins of the Nickel Coin
When the Nickel was First Introduced
The coin we know today as the nickel first entered circulation in 1866. Up until that point, the five-cent coin in use was the half dime, which was made of silver. However, the California Gold Rush and silver mining in the Western United States brought large amounts of gold and silver into the economy, causing inflation.
To combat this, Congress authorized the creation of the nickel in 1865 as a replacement for the silver half dime. The new coin was made of one-fourth copper and three-fourths nickel, hence the name “nickel”.
Why the Coin was Called a “Nickel”
The famous five-cent coin derives its name from the metal it contains. Nickel is a natural element discovered by Swedish scientist Baron Axel Fredrik Cronstedt in 1751. By the mid-1800s, the United States was importing large amounts of nickel ore from the gap mines in Lancaster, Pennsylvania to mint the new five-cent coin authorized in 1865.
With a 25% nickel composition, it was natural that the new coin would come to be called a “nickel”. An interesting bit of trivia is that during World War II, nickels were made without nickel from 1942-1945 due to wartime metal shortages.
Nonetheless, the nickname stuck even when the composition changed.
The Original Nickel Design
The original design for the nickel coin featured a depiction of Liberty wearing a coronet on the obverse side. The reverse side featured the Roman numeral “V” with rays and 13 six-pointed stars symbolizing the original 13 colonies.
This design remained largely the same until 1912 when the iconic Indian Head nickel designed by sculptor James Earle Fraser entered circulation. Fraser’s design, with the depiction of an American Bison on the reverse side, would come to symbolize the nickel coin for decades until Thomas Jefferson’s portrait replaced it in 1938.
Interestingly, no President was featured on a nickel until 1946 when Jefferson claimed his spot there. Prior depictions were of Liberty and symbolic designs rather than actual Presidents.
Why Thomas Jefferson was Chosen
Jefferson’s Role in American History
Thomas Jefferson played a pivotal role in early American history. He was the main author of the Declaration of Independence in 1776, which laid out the reasons for the American Revolution and the founding principles of the new nation.
He also served as the third President of the United States from 1801 to 1809.
During his presidency, Jefferson made the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, which doubled the size of the country. He was also a strong advocate for individual liberties and state’s rights. Many of his ideas about government and democracy profoundly shaped the US Constitution and political system.
Jefferson on Early Coin Designs
Jefferson first appeared on a coin in 1938 on the nickel’s reverse design. Before that, he was depicted in an earlier coin series called the “Jefferson Head Nickel,” minted from 1938 to 2003. So putting his image on the nickel in 2006 was a return to a previous tradition.
According to the US Mint, Jefferson was selected because his face was one of the most recognizable and he was well-suited to appear on a coin to honor his legacy as president and Declaration of Independence writer. He had already graced earlier nickel designs, so the precedent was there.
The Decision to Put Jefferson Back on the Nickel
In 2004, the US Mint began redesigning nickels under the Westward Journey Nickel Series. New designs featured famous Western trail scenes and landscapes, replacing Jefferson on the nickel obverse or “heads side.”
But in 2006, the Mint decided to return his iconic image to the nickel obverse after just two years, pairing it with separate reverse designs.
According to the Mint, “The decision to restore Thomas Jefferson’s likeness to the obverse, or ‘heads’ side, of the nickel in 2006 reflected the preference of American citizens.” The public wanted that classic, familiar image of one of their most famous Founding Fathers back on the five-cent coin where he belonged after 60+ years there previously.
The Jefferson Nickel Over the Years
The Original 1913 Design
The original Jefferson nickel entered circulation in 1913, replacing the Liberty Head nickel. The Obverse featured a left-facing profile bust of Thomas Jefferson along with the words “Liberty” and “In God We Trust”.
The reverse displayed a depiction of Monticello, Jefferson’s estate near Charlottesville, Virginia.
This first version of the nickel was designed by Mint engraver Charles E. Barber. Over 425 million copies of this initial design were produced before changes were made to the coin in 1938.
Changes to the Design Over Time
In 1938, the Jefferson nickel underwent modifications to both the obverse and reverse sides. On the updated obverse, Jefferson’s portrait was made larger and faced forward rather than leftward. The words “Monticello” and “Five Cents” were added along the lower rim.
The reverse featured a new view of Monticello on a hill with flower beds in the foreground. “United States of America” and “E Pluribus Unum” encircled the upper periphery. This new design was conceived by artist Felix Oscar Schlag as part of a public competition.
Additional minor tweaks were implemented in 2003 and 2006, including changes to inscriptions and adjustments to Jefferson’s depiction. However, the essential design featuring Monticello has remained in place since 1938.
Other Presidents Featured During WWII
To preserve nickel supplies during World War II, the United States Mint experimented with alternative coin compositions from 1942 to 1945. In 1943, nickels were minted with a silver-colored copper, silver, and manganese alloy.
These wartime nickels paid tribute to the other Presidents carved into Mount Rushmore alongside Jefferson. The obverse featured Franklin D. Roosevelt and the reverse displayed images related to Theodore Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln, and George Washington.
According to the U.S. Treasury Department, over 800 million wartime Jefferson nickels were produced. These coins are still commonly discovered in circulation and command higher prices among collectors.
Which President Is On The Nickel – Conclusion
Thomas Jefferson earned his spot on the ubiquitous nickel thanks to his towering role in American history and government. Since 1913, over a billion Jefferson nickels have been minted and circulated, cementing Jefferson’s legacy as one of the most widely recognized Founding Fathers.