The Lafayette Dollar: A Tribute to America’s Favorite Frenchman
BY ED REITER
America’s ties with France have a history of honor, despite strains of the recent past. One particular Frenchman, in fact, was one of the greatest heroes of the nation’s early days – a man so admired that his image was later placed on a U.S. coin. That man was Marie Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, the Marquis de Lafayette.
Lafayette was among a number of European sympathizers who fought with American patriots in their war for independence from Great Britain, and his valor in that conflict won him a special place in the history of the new nation he helped create.
Appropriately, this man of singular achievements is honored on a coin that likewise is unique – the only silver dollar from the so-called "traditional" period of U.S. commemoratives. And the coin in question, the 1900 Lafayette dollar, ranks among the scarcest, most valuable and most coveted of all U.S. commemoratives from that period, which spanned the years from 1892 through 1954.
As his title suggests, the Marquis de Lafayette had noble roots. He was born in a chateau in Auvergne, France on Sept. 6, 1757, and commissioned as a soldier at the age of 15 by France ’s King Louis XV. Idealistic and freedom-loving, the young man was stirred by the grievances of the American colonists, and he made up his mind to join their revolution. Outfitting a ship at his own expense, he sailed to America with a dozen other officers, reaching Georgetown, S.C., in 1777.
After initial hesitancy, Congress granted him a commission as an officer in the Continental Army. He assumed his command in July 1777 and fought with distinction just two months later in the Battle of Brandywine, Pa., despite being hit in the leg by a musket ball. He returned to France on furlough in 1779, and while there, helped persuade the government of the new king, Louis XVI, to send a 6,000-man expeditionary army to aid the colonists. Back on the battlefield a year later, he became one of George Washington’s most trusted generals, serving with him in the climactic Battle of Yorktown, where the colonists scored a decisive victory in 1781.
At the age of 24, Lafayette was hailed as "The Hero of Two Worlds" and, in a sense, he bestrode both of them. But his fortunes waxed and waned throughout the rest of his life. He returned to France after the American Revolution and just a few years later, in 1789, found himself caught up in the French version. By backing popular causes, he gained great power in the early days of the French Revolution and became a leading advocate of constitutional monarchy. But his popularity and influence both faded as the Revolution gave way to the Reign of Terror, forcing him to flee to Austria, where he was held captive for five years. Freed by Napoleon Bonaparte’s military victories, he returned to France in 1799 – only to find that his personal fortune had been seized. He then became a gentleman farmer and, in later life, served in France’s Chamber of Deputies.
Lafayette revisited America twice after the end of the war with England – in 1784, when he and his descendants were proclaimed citizens of Maryland forever, and in 1824, when he toured all 24 states at the invitation of President James Monroe, receiving a hero’s welcome everywhere he went. He died on May 20, 1834, at the age of 76.
In 1900, France held a World’s Fair in Paris to celebrate the start of the new century. As part of its participation in this Universal Exposition, the United States decided to erect a statue of Lafayette in the "City of Light." Congress authorized the issuance of a commemorative coin – the Lafayette dollar – not only to mark the occasion, but also to help finance the statue.
The obverse of the coin displays conjoined portraits of Lafayette and Washington. The portraits face right, with Washington ’s superimposed over Lafayette’s. This side is undated, bearing only the inscriptions " United States of America" and "Lafayette Dollar." The reverse features a bas-relief rendition of Lafayette ’s statue. It also pays tribute to American schoolchildren, who raised $50,000 to help pay for the monument. An inscription below the statue reads: "Erected by the Youth of the United States in Honor of Gen. Lafayette." Below the statue are the word "Paris" and the date 1900, separated by a star.
Although it was issued in 1900, the Lafayette dollar doesn’t carry a date of issue, strictly speaking, since it’s generally agreed that the "1900" below the statue refers to the date of the exposition, rather than that of the coin. In point of fact, the entire mintage of 50,000 was struck on a single day in December 1899 at the Philadelphia Mint. Not just coincidentally, that day, Dec. 14, was the 100th anniversary of George Washington’s death – for the Lafayette dollar also honors Washington indirectly. The joint portraits underscore the close relationship between the two men, as well as the ties their personal bond helped forge between their countries.
The Lafayette Memorial Commission offered Lafayette dollars for sale at just double face, or $2 each – a modest sum, compared to the issue prices of more recent U.S. commemorative coins. Nonetheless, many went begging: Of the 50,000 struck, 14,000 eventually were melted and many others were spent and grew worn from circulation. As a result, mint-state examples are seldom encountered.
The Lafayette dollar is coveted by collectors for several reasons. It’s historically significant as the first U.S. coin to depict an important American – and the "Father of His Country," at that. It’s genuinely scarce and valuable, worth thousands of dollars in top mint condition and hundreds even in lower collectible grades. And because it’s the only silver dollar in the traditional commemorative series, it’s sought after as a type coin.
The Lafayette dollar reminds us that historically, the countries France and America have been friends from the very beginning.
And in the finest sense, the Marquis de Lafayette was America’s original "French connection."