Why is Lincoln on the penny? Abraham Lincoln’s face has graced the US penny coin since 1909, making it a familiar sight to Americans for over a century. But have you ever wondered why it was Lincoln who was chosen for this honor?

If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer: Lincoln’s image was selected for the penny due to his status as a beloved president who preserved the Union during the country’s greatest crisis, the Civil War.

In this comprehensive article, we’ll explore the history behind Lincoln’s placement on the humble penny. We’ll learn about the origins of the Lincoln cent, why he was chosen over other prominent Americans, and the meaning behind his enduring presence on our smallest denomination of US currency.

The Origins of the Lincoln Cent

The Indian Head Penny (1859-1909)

The first one-cent coin produced by the U.S. Mint was the large copper penny designed by Benjamin Franklin in 1787. For over seven decades, the coin’s obverse featured Lady Liberty surrounded by a wreath.

However, by the mid-19th century, this design was becoming dated and worn out from mass production.

Seeking a fresh new look, the Mint held a public design competition in 1859. The winning entry, submitted by Mint Chief Engraver James B. Longacre, depicted an Indian princess wearing a feathered headdress on the obverse.

This would come to be known as the “Indian Head penny” and remained in production for half a century.

Transition to the Lincoln Cent

By 1909, the Indian Head design was ready for another refresh. To commemorate the 100th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth that year, famed sculptor Victor D. Brenner was commissioned to create a new penny design featuring America’s beloved 16th president.

Mintage began with the new “Lincoln Cent” in August 1909.

The timing aligned well with Lincoln’s surging popularity in the early 20th century and his status as a revered figure following his assassination in 1865. Brenner chose a portrait adapted from a statue he had sculpted of Lincoln in 1906, depicting Lincoln from the shoulder up with his recognizable beard and stoic expression.

On the reverse of Brenner’s iconic design is a simple bundled wheat stalks motif, symbolizing America’s agricultural prowess. This wheat ears design remained for 95 years until it was replaced with a representation of the Lincoln Memorial in 1959 on the sesquicentennial of Lincoln’s birth.

Now well into its second century of production, Lincoln remains a mainstay on the U.S. penny, immortalized in circulation along with countless other Lincolnian symbols and monuments. Despite periodic calls for a design update or transition to cheaper metals, the enduring penny seems likely to bear Lincoln’s profile for the foreseeable future.

Why Lincoln Was Chosen

His Reputation as Savior of the Union

As the president who led the country through the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln earned a reputation as the great preserver of the Union. By defeating the Confederate rebellion and abolishing slavery through the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment, Lincoln was seen as keeping the United States united during its greatest crisis up to that point in history.

In the years following Lincoln’s assassination in 1865, his heroic status only grew. As the country moved past Reconstruction, Americans increasingly looked back on Lincoln as the courageous, principled leader who steered the Union to victory and paved the way toward realizing the Founding Fathers’ vision of liberty and equality.

Parallels to Washington and Fame at the Time of His Death

As early as his death, commentators drew comparisons between Lincoln and George Washington as iconic Father figures of the country. Both served as presidents during wars that determined the very fate of the nation they helped establish.

However, Lincoln’s humble origins made his life story seem even more remarkable.

While Washington hailed from Virginia planter aristocracy, Lincoln was born in a log cabin in Kentucky. This only added to Lincoln’s appeal as a truly self-made American hero. As Secretary of War Edwin Stanton famously said as Lincoln took his final breaths: “Now he belongs to the ages.”

It was evident Lincoln’s fame would live on for generations.

Key Supporters Pushing for Lincoln

In the early 20th century, Lincoln’s memory still loomed large in the minds of Americans. As the Lincoln cent coin was proposed, key figures such as President Theodore Roosevelt, Senator George Norris of Nebraska, and former Lincoln Secretary John Hay gave enthusiastic support for placing the Great Emancipator on the coin.

Their advocacy went a long way with the American public as well as members of Congress. Polls showed Americans overwhelmingly favored Lincoln on the penny instead of more obscure historical figures. Soon, the Lincoln penny was approved by the Senate with just six dissenting votes.

The Meaning of Having Lincoln on the Penny

Symbolic of Democratic Ideals

Abraham Lincoln, the 16th president of the United States, is featured on the US penny because he symbolizes the nation’s democratic ideals and values. As the president who led the country through the Civil War and pushed for the abolition of slavery, Lincoln embodied the principles of liberty, equality, and justice.

Lincoln was a self-made man who rose from humble beginnings to the highest office through hard work and determination. This rags-to-riches story represents the possibility of social mobility, which is a core aspect of the American Dream.

His presidency marked a turning point for democracy as he fought to preserve the Union and free millions of enslaved people.

Keeping Lincoln on the penny since 1909 pays homage to perhaps the most revered president for holding the nation together during its greatest crisis. The coin serves as a daily symbol of Lincoln’s vision for the democratic experiment known as the United States of America.

Representation of Honesty and Humility

In addition to democratic ideals, Abraham Lincoln also represents core moral values like honesty and humility, which is why he has stayed on the US penny for over a century. Some of Lincoln’s famous nicknames include “Honest Abe” and “The Great Emancipator,” emphasizing his upright character.

Despite being born in a poor family in frontier Kentucky, Lincoln educated himself and worked as a store clerk before deciding to become a lawyer. He was known for his honesty in legal dealings, once walking several miles to return an overpayment of a few cents.

Such accounts of integrity solidified his reputation.

As president, Lincoln demonstrated humility in surrounding himself with experts and critics who challenged him. This included appointing some political rivals to his Cabinet because he valued competence and objectivity over loyalty and flattery.

He learned from failures and willingly changed his policies, putting country over ego.

Both during his life and long after his tragic assassination, Abraham Lincoln came to personify civic virtues like honesty and humility. Keeping his visage on the penny for over a hundred years commemorates these moral values vital for leadership and democracy.

Later Design Changes to the Lincoln Cent

Lincoln Wheat Penny (1909-1958)

The original Lincoln penny first minted in 1909 featured a portrait of Abraham Lincoln on the Obverse and two wheat stalks on the reverse, giving rise to the nickname “wheat penny.” This classic design remained unchanged for nearly 50 years until 1958.

Over 3 billion wheat pennies were produced during this time, making them plentiful and inexpensive for coin collectors today.

Lincoln Memorial Penny (1959-2008)

In 1959, the reverse design was changed to feature the Lincoln Memorial to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s birth. This “Lincoln Memorial penny” design proved extremely durable, remaining unchanged for half a century.

Over 300 billion coins were minted with this classic design that is still fondly collected today. Fun fact – a few rare Lincoln cents were minted in 1943 from copper planchets instead of steel due to wartime shortages.

Union Shield Penny (2010-present)

In 2010, the penny got its first major redesign in over 50 years. The new “Union Shield” reverse design replaced the Lincoln Memorial with a shield representing the states with 13 vertical stripes. The obverse retained the classic Victor David Brenner portrait of Lincoln from 1909.

This updated penny aims to symbolize Lincoln’s preservation of the United States as a single unified country.

While legends like wheat stalks and memorials have come and gone, Abraham Lincoln’s steadfast visage has graced the US 1-cent coin for over 100 years, honoring the president who preserved the Union. It seems likely that Lincoln will remain on the penny for generations to come as a symbol of unity, democracy, and determination.

Why Is Lincoln On The Penny – Conclusion

Having graced the penny for over 100 years, Lincoln’s legacy remains literally in the hands of millions of Americans to this day. His endurance connects 21st-century citizens back to the country’s most tragic and formative era, the Civil War.

The modest penny bearing the Great Emancipator’s image reminds us of Lincoln’s fight to preserve the Union and his belief in freedom, equality, and democracy for all people.

So next time you get a penny in change, take a moment to appreciate the rich history bound up in that small coin. Let Abraham Lincoln’s familiar visage remind you of his profound impact in guiding America through its greatest trial to become a more just nation where ‘government of the people, by the people, for the people’ endures.

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