Last Thursday, the James K Polk Home celebrated the most recent addition to the Presidential Dollars Series. James Polk was the 11th president of the United States, a member of the “Jacksonian” group of politicians who opposed a strong national bank and preferred specie, or precious metals, rather than paper currency. Jackson had eliminated the National Bank in the early 19th century, and a series of recessions, depressions, and panics followed. Later presidents tried to introduce new nationalized banking systems to help control the value of the dollar, but saw little success. Polk, despite only being in office for four years, set our modern National Treasury system into motion with the Independent Treasury Act of 1846.
The Treasury Act of 1946 didn’t establish a bank directly, but a means for the government to handle money without controlling the money directly; Jackson would have been proud, though – while the proponents of a national bank got what they wanted, the Bill still required debts to the government, taxes, and even postage stamps to be paid for in gold or silver, satisfying the Jacksonians who wanted precious metals to be the national monetary standard. The specie requirement wasn’t strictly held to in practice, but Polk’s presidency, combined with a unexpected discovery out West, still contributed significantly to the coinage of the United States.
Gold was discovered in California in 1848, resulting in an influx of ’49ers, prospectors looking for a gold vein of their very own, and eventually resulted in the creation of the San Francisco Mint. Polk did not run for a second term, ending his in early 1849, but he did sign one last bill, resulting in the creation of the $20 Double Eagle. Interested in turning California gold into currency to fulfill the Independent Treasury’s specie requirements, the bill specified a new gold dollar coin and the “double eagle” – or twice the value of the $10 “eagle” coin. These were the only two gold coins to result directly from the California Gold Rush, despite other attempts to mint gold coins in increments up to $100, but you’ll remember that those coins didn’t fare so well. Polk’s Double Eagle was one of the longest lasting gold coins, remaining in circulation until the 1930s, and continuing in the same format until Saint-Gaudin redesigned the coin in 1907 at Teddy Roosevelt’s behest.
You can be sure that any of the Double Eagles authorized by Polk are far, far too valuable to carry around in your pocket, as it contains much more than $20 worth of gold. The same goes for the forthcoming $10 Presidential Spouse coin honoring Sarah Polk, the First Lady of the Polk administration. Unlike many other First Ladies, Sarah actually held a position in her husband’s business affairs: she was the President’s personal secretary, the only First Spouse to take on such a role. At this time, no release date has been announced for her coin, but the two Mrs. Tylers have shifted the usual release schedule a bit. The James Polk dollars, however, are ready to be traded at your local bank or directly from the Mint.