The First George Washington Medal
Oval central image of one dollar bill
Most of us are familiar with the image of George Washington, and his image on the ONE DOLLAR bill is probably the most familiar of all. George Washington has been celebrated by artists including Charles Wilson Peale, John Trumbull, Rembrandt Peale, Gilbert Stuart, Emanuel Leutze, Jean-Antoine Houdon and many others for over 200 years. Reflecting this artistic output, Washington has long been a favorite subject for American tokens, medals, currency notes and postage stamps. He has appeared on quarters since 1932 and was the subject of the first Presidential dollar coin in 2007. But did you know the first instance was not even struck in America and didn't really look anything like George at all?
The very first George Washington commemorative medal was struck in Europe in 1778. It was long referred to as the "Voltaire Medal" because it was believed to have been created by the French writer, philosopher and playwright Francois-Marie d'Arouet (1694-1778) known by his pen name "Voltaire." A great admirer of America and of George Washington, Voltaire told Benjamin Franklin, the new American ambassador to the French court of Louis XIV, that the U.S. Constitution and the Articles of Confederation were so excellent that "...if I were only forty years old, I would immediately go and settle in your happy country."
Long known as the Voltaire Medal
Voltaire's involvement with the first George Washington medal has now been called into question by medallic art experts and its precise origin remains somewhat mysterious. When the medal was created in 1778, there were no images of George Washington available to use as a model. Nevertheless, it was struck in bronze (with an estimated 200-250 issued) and in silver (6 or 7 known). The medal bears this couplet in French on the reverse:
"Washington réunit, par un rare assemblage,
Des talens du guerrier et des vertus du sage."
"Washington joins together, by a rare assembly,
talents of the warrior and virtues of the wise."
The medal depicts a Washington who looks most like a Roman emperor. This is understandable, as whoever designed it wanted to honor him in a classical way. The fact that no one in Europe really knew what George Washington looked like was not going to stop the production of this medal – the first "Washington commemorative." The designers of 1778 can be forgiven their lack of accuracy. Today, the medal is recognized as a classic American rarity, and is honored as No. 59 in 100 Greatest American Medals and Tokens (Whitman Publishing 2007) by Katherine Jaeger and Q. David Bowers. This rarity in silver, one of the finest of the estimated 6 or 7 known and one of only four in private collections, is valued in excess of $25,000 (actual price available on request).
Obverse and reverse of the Washington "Warrior & Sage" silver medal from my collection
Typical Roman portrait coin from my collection