The friendship and collaboration between sculptor Augustus Saint Gaudens, and President Theodore Roosevelt is one of the more remarkable tales of the early 20th Century. Roosevelt, when once speaking about his friend, stated that Saint Gaudens possessed: “that lofty quality of insight which enables a man to see to the root of things.”
Their friendship dated back to the first days of Roosevelt’s presidency when Saint Gaudens was asked to serve on a commission that would plan public space on the Mall in Washington, D.C. In March 1902 Saint Gaudens helped locate the site of what was to become the Lincoln Memorial. He was there the day a spike was pounded into the landfill near the Potomac River at the end of the Mall. By 1922, the majestic Lincoln Memorial would rise from the spot marked by Saint Gaudens and his fellow commissioners.
Theodore Roosevelt became President in September 1901 upon the assassination of President McKinley. Almost immediately, the nation took notice of this young man of seemingly inexhaustible drive and vision. Roosevelt became the first President to go up in a plane, the first to go under in a submarine, and the first President to travel abroad while in office (Panama). President Roosevelt became a populist President by challenging long held beliefs that laws existed for the exclusive benefit of large companies, but not for the average citizens. He aggressively went after trusts and monopolies. Roosevelt became a champion of the environment by opening up the National Park System. He won the Nobel Peace Prize for his work in mediating the Treaty of Portsmouth that ended the Russo-Japanese War. And he became a champion of the arts, using the “bully pulpit” of the Presidency to get his way on a number of projects.
Augustus Saint Gaudens was, by 1901, the finest sculptor in America and was, in the opinion of many, second to none (or perhaps, Rodin) in worldwide acclaim. A man of humble birth, Saint Gaudens had apprenticed in New York as a cameo cutter, studied in Paris and Rome and eventually, at the age of 33, became a well-known sculptor. His first prominent commission (an overwhelming success) was the statue of Admiral Farragut (1881) in Madison Square Park, New York City. Other public monuments would include: the Shaw Memorial (1897) in Boston, the Gen. John A. Logan Monument (1897) in Chicago, the Adams Memorial (1891) in Rock Creek Cemetery, Washington D.C., the Sherman Monument (1903) in Central Park, New York City and the Standing Lincoln (1887) in Chicago. Saint Gaudens was a master of the portrait relief. His work in bas-relief (low relief) is unsurpassed to this day and compares with the finest work of the 15th Century in Europe. Saint Gaudens was a tireless teacher from 1888 to 1897. An entire new generation of sculptors studied under Saint Gaudens or became his assistants. It is to his credit that the designers of the Buffalo Nickel, Mercury Dime, Standing Liberty and Washington Quarter, Walking Liberty Half Dollar and $2.50 and $5 Gold Indians were his students and/or assistants.
It should be no surprise that these two immensely talented men would form a mutual admiration society between themselves. Saint Gaudens would first become involved with Roosevelt on an artistic level when asked to produce an inaugural medallion for the President’s first full term.
Saint Gaudens and Charles E. Barber (the Chief Engraver of the Mint) had a history of mutual hostility going back to the Chicago World’s Fair of 1892. That year, Saint Gaudens submitted four different designs for award medals, and had them all rejected by Barber. Barber eventually chose a design that incorporated Saint Gaudens’ obverse and his own cluttered reverse. This compromise enraged Saint Gaudens and set the stage for what was to follow in 1905. Barber had designed a serviceable medal for Roosevelt in 1901 upon the death of President McKinley. Barber and the mint wished to simply change the date on the medal and have it struck in a smaller size by a private mint in Philadelphia for Roosevelt’s 1905 inauguration. President Roosevelt was never fond of the original medal and did not want to see it again in a revised version.
On January 18, 1905 at the White House, Saint Gaudens capitulated to Roosevelt’s forceful plea to create an inauguration medal that would be worthy of the event. It was at this meeting that Roosevelt and Secretary of the Treasury Shaw asked Saint Gaudens to consider new designs for United States gold coins.
The medal that resulted from this January day was of supreme artistic merit. Especially notable was the impressive reverse of the medal that featured a heroic eagle on a cliff. This had been a device that Barber rejected back in 1892! Roosevelt said it best in a letter to his friend: “Thank heaven we have at last some artistic work of permanent worth, done for the government.”
Saint Gaudens now turned his attention to Roosevelt’s “pet crime.” The President was displeased with the look of United States coinage. He greatly admired the high relief ancient coinage of Alexander the Great. The “pet crime” reference comes from a letter Roosevelt sent to Saint Gaudens. In the letter, President Roosevelt, referring to his plans to change the designs on U.S. gold coins states: “You know, Saint-Gaudens, this is my pet crime.”
Saint Gaudens made preliminary sketches and turned over much of the work to his trusted assistant, Henry Hering. By the end of 1905, Saint Gaudens was in poor health. He stayed at his estate in Cornish, New Hampshire but kept a watchful eye on many projects. Roosevelt himself suggested the addition of a feathered Indian headdress for the obverse of the $10 gold coin. The reverse featured an eagle similar to that of Roosevelt’s inaugural medal. This coin was minted, with some modifications by Barber, starting in 1907.
The $20 coin was more of a problem. Roosevelt wanted (insisted) for the obverse, a winged figure of Liberty wearing, once again, an Indian headdress. Saint Gaudens appealed to Roosevelt that this figure would crowd out most of the available space on the obverse. The sculptor won this argument. The reverse features an eagle flying across the rays of the sun. Noticeably absent on both coins was the motto: IN GOD WE TRUST. Saint Gaudens checked with Federal law and found that there was nothing on the books that mandated the placement of this motto on U.S. coins. He felt that the addition of this motto would clutter the available surface of these coins. Roosevelt agreed, and the coins were struck without the motto. Congress would later object, so in 1908 the $10 and $20 coins added: IN GOD WE TRUST.
The first strikes of the $20 coin were in extremely high relief on a medal press. This was impractical for “production coins,” so Charles Barber eagerly modified the dies and created a coin in somewhat lower relief. This is the highly coveted coin known today as the “High Relief” $20 Saint Gaudens. In 1908, the coin’s relief and design features were modified again by Barber, so that they would stack evenly in banker’s trays.
Saint Gaudens died on August 3, 1907 without ever seeing the results of his “pet crime” with his good friend, Theodore Roosevelt. Our numismatic heritage has been greatly enriched by their inspired collaboration of art, government, mutual respect and friendship.