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Quite the World, Isn't It?

On Lincoln, and the touchstones of history

I found a bit of history in my pocket the other day.

We have a couple of receptacles in the house to hold loose change for an eventual run to the credit union. One gets the silver (these are colors, not content) and the other gets the copper pennies. I pulled a small handful of coins from my pocket and, as I began separating them, noticed that one penny had a couple of wheat stalks on the back, curled around the inside edge of the coin. That meant the coin was at least as old as I am (the current Lincoln Memorial design was adopted in 1959). Flipping it over, I found the date – 1940, with the tell-tale “s” below the year meaning it was minted in San Francisco.

You don’t stumble across many coins that old in circulation these days. As coins go, this one’s not worth much to collectors (maybe a dime). The U.S. mint in San Francisco cranked out nearly 113 million pennies that year, so they aren't rare, and the one that cropped up in my change is far from mint-condition. The edges are slightly worn, and the front has a thin layer of shellac over it, as though it had been part of a display at some point.

Yet the coin represents more than a single cent. It is a touchstone to the past. The year this particular coin was minted, Hitler’s Nazi Germany – with Paris already in its control – began a nine-month bombing blitz of British cities. Americans, with vivid memories of the last European war just two decades earlier, wanted to remain neutral. President Roosevelt, fearing what the fall of England would mean for Europe, and the world, hatched his “lend-lease” program to aid the British without committing U.S. troops. That came just a few months after the U.S. Congress, fearful of fascist and communist infiltrators, enacted the 1940 Smith Act, the law that lies at the heart of my second book, The Fear Within: Spies, Commies, and American Democracy in Trial.

So this coin came into the world near the onset of a nearly all-encompassing global convulsion of violence. The world has changed since then. It's become more crowded, more polluted, more complicated in many ways. But it’s unchanged in that we as a species can’t seem to find a way to avoid killing each other in encounters personal, national, and tribal (be the bonds faith or blood).

Maybe that’s our curse, as a species, and as a nation. Over more than 235 years, we have rarely been at peace, from the "pacification" of the native tribes to fights with Mexico, to skirmishes in the Pacific to that massive war among ourselves. And that's just the first century. It's a staggering list to contemplate.

Of our most common four coins, three feature war presidents - the Lincoln penny, the Roosevelt dime, and the Washington quarter. Washington obviously was a general before the nation was founded, and even though he was the first president, it is as the hero of the revolution that we remember him. Jefferson, on the nickel, was part of the Revolution but is remembered mostly for his role in writing the Constitution and expanding the nation. But the bulk of the national medals - our coins - that we carry around are physical reminders of wars past.

And Lincoln, of course, came to a violent end, which means the most common coin in American currency bears the likeness of a murder victim.

It’s funny the kind of history you can find in the change in your pocket.
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