It is fitting that President William McKinley is honored on a gold coin. McKinley highlighted his successful 1896 bid for the Presidency with his support of “sound money” – the gold standard, in other words. This stood in contrast to his opponent in that year’s election, William Jennings Bryan, who campaigned fiercely for a “bimetallic” standard of silver and gold. Economic issues largely dominated the 1896 campaign, as the economy was still mired in depression after the Panic of 1893.
The discovery of vast quantities of silver in the Western United States over the preceding two decades had driven down the price of silver relative to gold, as it was suddenly more plentiful. The populist Bryan and other “Silverites” argued that the restoration of silver would restore economic prosperity. Bryan’s support base was concentrated in the poorer areas of the South and West, while McKinley was successful in the more populous North and Midwest. Ultimately, McKinley won a close election, and the Gold Standard Act was passed in 1900. He was assassinated in 1901.
A 1911 Act of Congress provided funds for a memorial to the slain President at his birthplace in Niles, Ohio and established an association to carry out the task. The law was signed by President William Howard Taft, a fellow Ohio native. In 1915, the National McKinley Birthplace Memorial Association sought authorization for a commemorative coin to defray construction costs for the memorial building.
The bill for a commemorative coin originally called for 100,000 silver dollars to be struck. However, at a January 1916 Congressional hearing, the Association’s head Joseph G. Butler, Jr., noted McKinley’s history with the gold standard and suggested a gold dollar be struck instead. No gold dollars had been struck since 1889, and it was speculated that a small gold coin would be easy to market.
The designs were prepared by the aged US Mint Chief Engraver, Charles Barber, and his assistant, George T. Morgan. Barber designed the obverse, and Morgan the reverse. This was Barber’s last official design; his long tenure as Chief Engraver ended with his death the following year. McKinley became the first person to appear on two different US coin issues: he also appeared on one of the two varieties of the Louisiana Purchase commemorative half dollar, issued in 1903. Barber had also designed the 1903 half dollar featuring McKinley, so he made a concerted effort to make this new illustration of the fallen President on the Birthplace Memorial coin discernably different.
Though 100,000 coins were authorized, only about 30,000 were struck, all at the Philadelphia Mint in 1916 and 1917. The public did not take a widespread interest and the coins did not sell well. Many were sold at a presumed discount to a Texas-based coin dealer, B. Max Mehl. More than 10,000 were returned to the Mint to be melted.
The McKinley Birthplace Memorial opened in October 1917, and at present remains open to the public.