Bits & Pieces... by David Sundman

Voltaire's George Washington Medal

[photo: Oval central image of one dollar bill]

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?

In 1778, the very first George Washington commemorative medal issued was struck by the French writer, philosopher and playwright François-Marie d'Arouet (1694-1778) known by his pen name "Voltaire." In France, at that time, there were no images of George Washington around to use as a model. But that did not stop Voltaire, who was 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." In that same year of 1778, Voltaire designed and struck this medal honoring Washington 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."

Translation in English: "Washington joins together, by a rare assembly, talents of the warrior and virtues of the wise." The medal by Voltaire, who was to die in May 1778 at the age of 83, depicts a Washington who looks most like a Roman emperor.

[photo: Obverse and reverse of Voltaire Washington silver medal from my collection.]

Obverse and reverse of Voltaire Washington silver medal from my collection

[photo: Typical Roman portrait coin from my collection.]

Typical Roman portrait coin from my collection

This is understandable, as Voltaire wanted to honor him in a classical way. The fact that no one in Paris knew what George Washington looked like was not going to stop him from issuing this medal – the first "Washington commemorative." The French 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).