The Monroe Doctrine Half Dollar
By the early 1920s, the American film industry had concentrated in Hollywood. However, the industry found itself in serious trouble following a number of lurid scandals. Even in this era of silent films, there was also criticism of Hollywood for sexual explicitness. Facing the prospect of a public boycott and government intervention, the industry looked for ways to improve its image.
One proposed initiative was a film festival to be held in Los Angeles in 1923, with the proceeds going towards the production of educational films. Los Angeles was a rapidly growing city, and the organizers of the festival hoped to imitate the Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago and the Panama-Pacific Exposition of 1915 in San Francisco, which had brought international attention to those cities.
As a fundraising measure, the organizers sought Congressional authorization for a commemorative half dollar. However, they recognized that Congress would be unlikely to authorize a film industry-themed coin, and they instead pursued a historical event of more national importance. Initial consideration was given to the Boston Tea Party (1923 marked the 150th anniversary), but there was no possible way to connect this event with Hollywood or even California. Instead, the organizers selected the centennial of the Monroe Doctrine, with the justification that President James Monroe’s 1823 declaration against European interventions in the Americas had kept California from being taken over by another power.
Even before California Congressman Franklin Lineberger introduced the bill authorizing the commemorative half dollar, the fair’s organizers had generated sketches for the design. After consulting with the federal Commission of Fine Arts, New York sculptor Chester Beach was selected to prepare the design. The obverse bears jugate heads of President Monroe and John Quincy Adams; the latter was Monroe’s Secretary of State in 1823 and succeeded him as President in the next election.
The reverse design was more controversial: it shows a stylized map of the Americas, with North and South America each portrayed as a female figure reaching towards the other. Their hands join at the site of the recently-completed Panama Canal. Shortly after the release of the coin in the summer of 1923, an artist named Raphael Beck complained in a letter to the Mint Director that Beck had plagiarized his design for the seal of the 1901 Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo. Both Beck and James Earle Fraser, a member of the Commission of Fine Arts and designer of the Buffalo nickel, denied the accusation, and nothing came of the matter.
The Motion Picture Industry Exposition was a failure, as was the commemorative coin it generated. Only about 10% of the 274,077 coins produced were sold by the fall of 1923. The remaining coins were released into circulation or later spent during the Depression years, and so many surviving coins show signs of wear. High-grade specimens are rare and valuable.