What the Lincoln Penny can teach us about leadership

What the Lincoln Penny can teach us about leadership

What can the humble Lincoln Penny teach us about leadership? Quite a bit if you know where to look.

If I ask you to conjure the image of a United States penny in your mind, what do you see? I am sure most of you will envision a small bright copper coin, smooth edges, weighing virtually nothing with a monitory value to match. Pressed into one side of the coin is the profile of Abraham Lincoln, and on the other his memorial. First let’s look at the face of the penny.

The Lincoln penny as it is known is the longest-running coin design in the history of the United States Mint. It made its first appearance in 1909. President Roosevelt who idolized Lincoln (and considered himself Lincoln’s political heir) commissioned the redesign. Lincoln is also the first historical figure to appear on any US coin. This is not by chance, the Mint Act of 1792 specifically required coins to have an “impression emblematic of liberty.” One could argue that by the time of the penny’s redesign Lincoln who had freed the slaves and saved the nation was an impression emblematic of liberty as much as the Liberty Bell, Lady Liberty or the Bald Eagle.

Before Lincoln’s portrait, as instructed by law, Lady Liberty dominated the faces of the penny. The first example was a clumsy visage of her designed by Henry Voight in 1793. Voight was not an artist; he was a clockmaker and friend of Thomas Jefferson. He was also most importantly the “Chief Coiner” of the recently formed United States Mint. Voight’s Liberty was carved amateurishly in narrow relief, her hair flowing freely behind her. The Liberty coin was largely panned by the American public who said she looked scared. Even worse the back of the coin continued the tradition of depicting a chain circle with thirteen links (one for each of the original colonies.) The chain was meant to represent strength in unison, but many Americans now felt it connoted feelings coerced servitude, or tyrannical control, topics Americans in the 1700’s were particularly touchy about.

Voight’s Liberty coin might have been a last-minute replacement for what many felt was a far superior coin, one designed by a master coinsmith John Gregory Hancock Sr. (no, not that John Hancock.) Walter Breen describes the turn of events in his encyclopedia of colonial coins.

“John Gregory Hancock, Sr. (1775-1815), was a juvenile engraving prodigy, becoming one of the finest artists in the history of 18th-century British diemaking. While working for Birmingham token manufacturer Obadiah Westwood, Hancock received the honorific assignment for making dies for two types of cents portraying George Washington, as samples for a proposed federal contract coinage… These are the famous Large Eagle and Small Eagle cents. Hancock’s portrait punch derived from an engraved copy of Pierre Eugene DuSimitiere’s drawing.” (Breen, p137)

Washington, acutely aware of the power of symbols, rejected the portrait as “too monarchical.” He would later retire from the presidency after two terms for many of the same worries.

“When news of Washington’s rejection reached Birmingham, John Gregory Hancock (doubtless with Westwood’s gleeful consent, possibly even at his instigation) undertook an extraordinary piece of revenge. As Washington’s spokesman had compared the idea of presidential portraits on coins to the practices of Nero, Caligula, and Cromwell, so Hancock’s (and/or Westwood’s) idea was to portray Washington on a coin as a degenerate, effeminate Roman emperor. Hancock’s satirical masterpieces, the “Roman Head” cents, manage to convey this impression - with a subtle resemblance. … The dozen or so survivors were privately distributed among Hancock’s and Westwood’s friends in Birmingham; their existence was kept secret for over 40 years lest it become an “international incident!” Beginning as tokens of incredible spite, these cents have become among the most highly coveted of Washington items.”

Before getting into the essential insight that Washington had about the implications of minting this coin, can we marvel at the fact that a mere sixteen years after the United States fought a bloody and protracted war for independence from the British, they nearly commissioned a British firm to design the nation’s coinage? Commerce sometimes makes strange bedfellows.

Why did Washington and his advisers reject Hancock’s design? To Hancock Washington was the perfect subject, he was the most powerful, most beloved, and most recognized citizen of the United States. In hearing his rejection Hancock probably wondered to himself if Washington could not be on a coin then who could?

The answer in Washington’s mind was nobody. You can to look no further than those he compared the Hancock’s coin to. Setting aside Cromwell, who were Nero and Caligula? They were emperors of Rome, and part of family dynasty. Emperors were appointed for life through a system called hereditary rule. To become emperor, you merely had to be a male branch on the correct family tree. Empires had no notion of elections, term limits or retirement for their leaders. Once appointed emperor you ruled until you died, (in many cases not from natural causes.) Hereditary rule meant many ill-tempered, unqualified, and downright insane people became rules. Nero for instance in addition to having his mother killed used to wander the streets of ancient Rome and murder people at random. This would be akin to an American president standing in the middle of fifth avenue and shooting somebody.

Thankfully America’s presidency is not based on hereditary rule. Americans do not believe there is a particular bloodline with the divine right to rule. Washington understood that if he were to allow a coin to be minted with his face, others might conflate his personhood with the power of the presidency. Washington believed the power of the presidency lay in the position not the person. This was a radical point of view at that time. He may have worried that a coin with a portrait of living president would inextricably link that person with the metaphorical and actual value of the nation. He of course had just sent several years fighting against that idea.

Now, flip the Lincoln penny over what do you see at the top? E PLURIBUS UNUM, which as any first year Latin student will tell you translates to “Out of many one.” What does that mean? Historically the motto represents the thirteen original colonies coming together in one union. It can also be seen as the ideal of individual citizens united under the banner of one America. You can read it with a sense of egalitarianism where out of many (any) citizens one leader can be chosen from the whole. The United States as a concept is an organizational construct built on a set of shared values, core ideals, with a citizenry who can shape the laws that govern them and agree to be governed under those rules.