Many years ago I noticed that the iconography of US coins changed in the early 20th century from images of the allegorical figure of Liberty to profiles of presidents. Like most, I didn’t recognize the significance of the choice in figures. The change in images was reflected in art as well; nymphs and other mythological figures were common in fine art and illustrations up until the 1930’s. H.R. Rookmaaker claimed “Venus was killed in the 18th century;” however, I believe her “death” did not occur till much later. The image of Liberty struck on coins reflected a belief in principles external to man. I am certain that the change in coin iconography which occurred during the early 20th century reflected a significant transition in world-view. The transition from a society with faith in transcendent principles to one with a faith in the rationality of progress.
In 1789, the United States Constitution granted Congress the power “to coin Money, regulate the Value thereof, and of foreign Coin, and fix the Standard of Weights and Measures”. While debating the specifics of a Mint Act in 1791-92, a number of proposed coin types were struck by private individuals bearing the image of President Washington. For many, the notion of an engraving of the president’s image on a coin was too monarchical. Most historians believe that George Washington himself disapproved of seeing his image on coins. Mint Director James Ross Snowden wrote in 1861:
“It is a well-ascertained fact that Washington did not favor the proposition to place his likeness upon the coins of the United States. It is even said, that when several specimens of that description were exhibited to him, for inspection and approbation, he indignantly ordered the dies to be destroyed; and expressed his desire that there should be placed on the coins an ideal head of Liberty.”
Neil Postman, in his significant book Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology makes the case that faith in technology and technical progress has become a religion. Since the benefits of technology are obvious, faith in God has been compromised. In the search for scientific knowledge there was great advancement for the domination of nature. But in this one-sided view of reality, religious faith was lost along with the humanistic values bound to it. Theology once provided people the authorization for how to live but by the mid-20th century the role of technology became so powerful that it determined the direction of society. Postman wrote:
“In a technocracy, tools play a central role in the thought-world of culture. Everything must give way, in some degree, to their development. The social and symbolic worlds become increasingly subject to the requirements of that development. Tools are not integrated into the culture; they attack the culture. They bid to become the culture. As a consequence, tradition, social mores, myth, politics, ritual, and religion have to fight for their lives.”
The transition of coin images coincided with the rapid technological development of the mid-20th century. The figure of Liberty which symbolized liberal democracy with its transcendent narrative was forfeited for images of men. This reflects a confidence in men making rational decisions to suit them in what Francis Schaeffer called the “material-energy chance universe.” If human beings are biochemical machines which evolved by chance, then liberty is a merely an arbitrary social construct. By the mid-20th century this view became influential. Politics which are based in this materialistic view of humanity, will disregard the dignity of individuals as B.F. Skinner did in order to maintain the collective stability of society while conditioning society with illusions of “progressive liberty.” Many women who aspire to advancement in the technocratic system would view allegorical images of Liberty from the subtext of “commodity capitalism.” The figure would not be perceived as reflecting an aspect of the Platonic “Good” but only Marxists goods. Feminist theorists, like Mary Devereaux, would read such a depiction as an”oppressive text.” In the final analysis, Liberty would be deemed “politically incorrect.”
In truth, there are no grounds for values from technocracy; it gives no foundation for action in life. Vaclav Havel, president of Czechoslovakia stated in an address to the U.S. Congress, “We are still incapable of understanding that the only genuine backbone of our actions- if they are to be moral – is responsibility. Responsibility to something higher than my family, my country, my firm, my success.” The United States was not merely an experiment in a new form of government; it was founded on transcendent principles found in the Bible. Scripture provided a base for “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” The great shift came with the commitment to technical progress that has its origin in the Industrial Revolution. This development has disenchanted men from transcendent principles. Most men in positions of authority, only have confidence in their rationalism; they are like C.S. Lewis’ Narnia character Trumpkin, who claims, “I have no use for magic lions which are talking lions and don’t talk, and friendly lions though they don’t do us any good, and whooping big lions though nobody can see them. It’s all bilge and beanstalks as far as I can see.” Today, politics are defined by Trumpkins who hold the “material-energy chance view of final reality.” Schaeffer wrote:
“The result of the original base in the United States gave the possibility of “liberty and justice for all.” And while it was always far from perfect, it did result in liberty. This included liberty to those who hold other views – views which would not give the freedom. The material-energy, chance view has taken advantage of that liberty, supplanted the consensus, and resulted in an intolerance that gives less and less freedoms in courts and schools for the view which originally gave the freedoms.”