COIN WORLD: On Dec. 27, 1904, President Theodore Roosevelt wrote a personal letter to his secretary of the Treasury, Leslie Mortier Shaw:“My dear Secretary Shaw: I think our coinage is artistically of atrocious hideousness. Would it be possible, without asking permission of Congress, to employ a man like Saint-Gaudens to give us a coinage that would have some beauty?”
This brief letter explained the president’s opinion about the art on current U.S. coinage, and asked if he could have someone like Augustus Saint-Gaudens redesign the coins. It was the “genesis” — the beginning — of the renaissance of American coinage design that produced new, modern, creative designs on U.S. circulating coins over the next generation.The letter to Secretary Shaw has been often quoted, but the references have all been from a copy held by the Library of Congress. The original, delivered as personal mail and not official correspondence, has been hidden — until now.
After more than a century, the original letter signed by President Roosevelt has been discovered. Few documents of American numismatics come close to the importance of this letter. Dated Dec. 27, 1904, the letter was written on White House stationery, marked “Personal,” and is addressed to “Hon. L. M. Shaw, Secretary of the Treasury.” Following this personal letter, a flurry of official correspondence and personal letters show how the medal and coin design project developed over the next two-and-a-half years.
Discovery of letter
Heritage contacted John Reznikoff, a leading manuscript authenticator, appraiser and dealer, for his opinion on the letter. Reznikoff had the following to say about the “genesis” letter: “It’s not uncommon to see Presidential relics of this nature hit the open market. I’ve recently brokered a John Adams letter related to early coinage, a chunk of James Garfield’s personal library, the papers of Superintendent of the Mint James Kimball and even the majority of Truman’s Secretary of the Treasury John Snyder, which was purchased at Sotheby’s.
“This letter is obviously and overtly authentic and my personal inspection under great scrutiny confirms this. I’ve handled many Theodore Roosevelt letters but none has captured the bravado of his language more than this one; it invokes the word most associated with him: ‘Bully!’ ” Reznikoff said. “If hypothetically limited to the manuscript market, this letter would command a significant premium. Only a coin aficionado, however, could properly place its import in the numismatics world. I suspect, on a bad day, it would transcend an autograph collector’s wildest dreams and, for a true coin guy, it’s one of the hobby’s Holy Grails.”
I was also asked to examine the letter, and I compared it to original materials in the Theodore Roosevelt Center at Dickinson State University; Theodore Roosevelt Collection, Harvard College Library; Elting Morison, John M. Blum, et al., editors of The Letters of Theodore Roosevelt. eight volumes. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1951-1954; Papers of Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Dartmouth College; and the Theodore Roosevelt papers in the Library of Congress.
The genesis letter to Secretary Shaw is the original as signed by President Theodore Roosevelt. It was the personal property of Secretary Shaw until it passed to others by unknown means. It is not only a vibrant part of American history, but it is the point of origin for the collaboration of Roosevelt and Saint-Gaudens that led to the complete redesign of America’s coinage. A large part of U.S. numismatic heritage would be missing if this letter had never been written.