Libertas Americana Medals From
The Sydney F. Martin Collection Part I
The Libertas Americana medal is the most recognizable early American medal, the unanimous choice as #1 in the 100 Greatest Medals and Tokens book, and the inspiration for many of the United States coinage designs of the 18th century. It is legendary beyond its rarity, historic beyond its celebrated creation narrative, and important far beyond the world of numismatics.
While not properly a part of the Comitia Americana series — it was a medal authorized by Benjamin Franklin as an individual, not the Continental Congress — the Libertas Americana medal has been adopted into that group ever since Thomas Jefferson saw fit to place one in George Washington’s set of Comitia Americana medals in the summer of 1789. By that time, the medal was several years old, as it had been completed and distributed by Franklin in the spring of 1783. Franklin sent his medal far and wide, in France, in the United States, and beyond. His postal accounts show that in April 1783 he twice hired a carriage to special deliver his medal to its recipient. Jefferson had one on display at Monticello, inventoried as “a medal by Dr. Franklin.” The Dutch artist Johann-Georg Holtzhey had a friend write to John Adams to ask how he and his friends could obtain one. As the medals found their homes in April and May 1783, Franklin’s mailbox filled up with thank you notes from across the continent.
On April 15 of that year, Franklin sent a bundle of them to Philadelphia to hand out to the members of Congress, including a silver one for Congress’ president, future Mint Director Elias Boudinot.
In September 1783, Franklin wrote to Boudinot “I am happy that both the Device and Workmanship of the Medal are approv’d with you, as they have the good Fortune to be by the best Judges on this side the Water. It has been esteem’d a well-timed as well as a well-merited Compliment here, and has had good Effects. Since the two first which you mention as received, I have sent by different Opportunities so many as that every Member of Congress might have One. I hope they are come safe to hand by this time.” Boudinot confirmed their arrival and described how he parceled them out: “I have received the additional number of Medals, which, not having any particular directions from you, I distributed among the Members of Congress, presented one to the Governor of each State, and the Ministers round Congress.”
Every Libertas Americana medal was once handled by Franklin, every great American and Frenchman of the era knew about the medal and associated it with Franklin, and every Libertas Americana medal surviving today has a remarkably historic provenance, whether it is fully documented or not.