Jimmy Carter has greatly enhanced his legacy since leaving office after a single term as the nation’s 39th president. Along with Herbert Hoover, he ranks at or near the top of the list as former chief executives with the most noteworthy post-presidential achievements.
Many hobbyists, however, still feel aggrieved by an action Carter took at the outset of his presidency in January 1977. As part of a crackdown on what he deemed to be government waste, the former Georgia governor halted public appointments to the annual Assay Commission, a panel that had met since George Washington was president to examine random samples of U.S. coinage, check their purity and weight and determine if they conformed to legal standards.
The 1977 Assay Commission was scheduled to meet in early February, just days after Carter took office. It met as scheduled, but only with statutory members – those who served because they held designated federal offices. Members of the public were specifically excluded – and prior to that, many of those members had come from the ranks of numismatists.
The Assay Commission continued to meet at the Philadelphia Mint on the second Wednesday of February throughout Carter’s presidency, but only with statutory members – and the panel was abolished after its 1980 meeting.
There have been recurrent calls to reinstate the commission and resume the appointment of public members, and those calls make considerable sense, now that Uncle Sam is issuing more and more precious-metal coins with high intrinsic value, which makes adherence to strict government standards more essential.
Cutting back on the Assay Commission made a modicum of sense back in 1977, since the U.S. Mint was producing only base-metal coins and short-weight cents, nickels and cupro-nickel coins weren’t big concerns. Since then, however, the Mint has produced hundreds of coins containing gold, silver and platinum – and with metal prices now sharply higher, even cents and nickels bear an annual checkup.
Then, too, there’s the not insignificant element of tradition. The Assay Commission’s roots went back to the nation’s infancy – and all that tradition was tossed aside for a measly mess of pottage.
Carter’s initial cutback saved money, to be sure – but in keeping with one of his non-political sidelines, it was peanuts. Prior to the new president’s ax-wielding, the Mint had estimated the cost of public participation in the Assay Commission at just $2,500 a year. That represented the cost of a luncheon and dinner for the commissioners plus a special medal given to each member to mark the occasion.
Public members – typically about two dozen – paid all other expenses arising from their attendance, including transportation and lodging. To many hobbyists, that was a small price to pay for the privilege of serving on one of the oldest federal bodies – one that was established in 1792, the year Congress authorized the Mint and the U.S. coinage system.
The Assay Commission medal given to each member was another strong inducement to serve. Since so few are made, assay medals have become prized collectibles, and early ones often command substantial premiums.
For nearly half a century after it was established, the commission consisted exclusively of statutory members. Public participation was authorized in 1837 – and from then through 1976, distinguished Americans from the private sector served on a regular basis. Prospective public members were nominated by the Mint director and appointed by the president.
Beginning in the 1940s, those members included increasing numbers of prominent hobbyists, and their participation helped strengthen the growing bonds between the Mint and organized numismatics.
Given the Mint’s intensive cultivation of coin collectors to buy its vast array of premium products today, it would seem only logical for that agency to endorse the Assay Commission’s revival. Receiving the panel’s seal of approval also would appear to be an asset for the Mint in its promotion of precious-metal coins, an area where it faces global competition.
Mint officials have shown no inclination to support any such restoration. Perhaps it’s time for a hobby organization to take up the cause.
Tradition is a terrible thing to waste.