AOL News Surge Desk (Aug. 19) -- Today, the U.S. Treasury released a $1 coin commemorating former President James Buchanan. And people aren't happy about it.
To understand why, some background is helpful. In 2007, thanks to a bill promoted by then-Senator John Sununu of New Hampshire, the Treasury began minting $1 coins with the likenesses of former Presidents, starting with George Washington.
The coins -- which have been appearing ever since, featuring a new President every three months -- are meant to improve use and circulation of America's dollar coins, which are often seen as an awkward misfit among currency, neither fish nor fowl.
Senator John Sununu's presidential coin program was supposed to save printing costs on dollar bills and educate Americans about history. But critics say the new James Buchanan edition shows how it's gone wrong.
Sununu's initiative drew inspiration from the 50 State Quarters Program, which launched in 1999. The runaway success of that effort, according to his legislation, "shows that a design on a U.S. circulating coin that is regularly changed... radically increases demand for the coin, rapidly pulling it through the economy."
The bill also suggested that a program wherein Presidents are featured on a succession of $1 coins, and First Spouses commemorated on gold $10 coins, could help correct a state of affairs where "many people cannot name all of the Presidents, and fewer can name the spouses, nor can many people accurately place each President in the proper time period of American history."
So the bill passed, and the Washington dollar coin appeared not long after. It was followed by Adams, Jefferson, et al., with the First Spouse coins minted alongside.
Now we're up to Buchanan, the fifteenth President, who took office in 1857 and turned things over to Abraham Lincoln in 1861, and whose coin (produced at the Philadelphia and Denver Mints and purchasable through the U.S. Mint website) has occasioned the aforementioned grousing. Here's where some feel the coin program is falling short:
1. The coins aren't circulating.
Many Americans have never gotten into the habit of using $1 coins, and as a result, over a billion commemorative Presidential coins are sitting around in a stockpile at the Federal Reserve. As BBC News reports, if these coins were stacked up and laid on their side, they'd stretch for 1,367 miles, or the distance from Chicago to New Mexico.
2. They don't seem to be educating people, either.
In February 2008, a year after the first presidential coins were minted, The New York Times reported that a survey had found large numbers of American teens to be woefully ignorant of their country's history. It was far from the first time Americans had gotten a dismal grade in history, suggesting that Sununu's commemorative-coin campaign isn't having much of an effect in that arena, either.
3. James Buchanan was kind of a crappy president.
In fairness, this is a grievance with a specific president, not the presidential coins program as a whole. Still, it seems to come up in all the coverage of the new coin: Buchanan wasn't very good at his job.
That's the consensus of historians, anyway, who have traditionally censured Buchanan for his failure to prevent the Civil War. Last year, a C-SPAN survey of historians granted Buchanan the dubious distinction of worst president ever.
Still, all of this isn't reason enough to declare the commemorative-coins program a total failure. If more coin collectors start avidly pursuing the presidential coins, it could have the effect of pushing down the national debt, thanks to the way the value of the coins fluctuates with their availability. And if the dollar coins were to catch on and replace paper $1 bills entirely, it could save the country between $500 and $700 million each year in printing costs.
Plus, if things stay on track, 2012 will see the release of the Chester A. Arthur dollar coin -- marking the first time that long non-commemorated president's face has ever appeared on any nation's currency. And who are we to deprive him of that?