The U.S. Mint is officially the P.T. Barnum of currency. It's addicted to showmanship. Yesterday, in a heartwarmingly goofy ceremony at Washington DC's Lincoln Memorial, an actor dressed as Abe unveiled its four new designs for the penny, all of which will be released in 2009 to commemorate the 200th birthday of the put-upon Civil War president. They're just the latest pocket party favors for our ongoing patriotic fervor.
While Lincoln will appear as usual on one side (facing right, the only president to do so on our circulating coins), the flip side will depict four Abe-ish icons issued in rotation: a log cabin inscribed with his birth year, an image of Lincoln the rail splitter studying on a log, a portrait of the young legislator in front of Illinois' state capitol, and a shot of the U.S. Capitol under construction as it was when he was our troubled country's leader.
But as historian James W. Leowen investigated in his 1999 book Lies Across America, the log cabin is a fake. That right. The cabin pawned off on the public as the one Lincoln was born in, and the one that will be engraved on our money, was built in 1895, 30 years after Abe's death, as a tourist draw.
The National Park Service, which maintains the cabin near Hodgenvile, Kentucky, is perfectly aware that it's a fake. It officially calls the cabin merely "symbolic," which is not the same thing as authentic. That's not to say the cabin isn't without some provenance, although none of it has to do with Lincoln: the wood it was built with was at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, where President McKinley was assassinated in 1901, and Teddy Roosevelt (Lincoln's future roomie on Mount Rushmore) laid the cornerstone of the grand temple that now enshrines it. Lincoln's own son hated the bogus cabin, saying it made his dad look poor when in fact he owned two farms.
The U.S. Mint also seems to be aware that the cabin on its penny is a fraud. Its official press information on the new cent describes the little building, which has been altered several times to suit its surroundings, as "a log cabin that represents Lincoln's humble beginnings in Kentucky." Which is true enough, I suppose. The building was indeed fabricated to make people think of Lincoln. Trouble is, ever since then, the government has been encouraging the masses to link the hut with Lincoln's life. Engraving it on the national currency isn't exactly a step toward truthfulness. But our national passion for convenient deceptions prevails, and the U.S. Mint is just the latest government organ to let mythology stand in for reality. Hey, in a campaign year, we should be used to that.
Ironically, the one cabin with an actual connection with Lincoln, the so-called Lincoln Log Cabin in Lerna, Illinois, will close on Oct. 1 because of Illinois state budget cuts. Lincoln's family lived there while he was working as a lawyer elsewhere. So while the fake cabin is engraved on money, the "real" one shutters for lack of it.
The Mint hit a grand slam with its 50 State Quarters Program that winds up its decade-long run this year. By the time countless collectors and kids stash the last quarter, Hawaii, they'll have hoarded $12.50 in coins. These days, that's more than many Americans would have saved otherwise. These pennies, though, will pull in a combined 4¢.
I love these coin redesigns. It's fun to check your change for new pictures, and they keep our money from getting too stodgy. But when it comes to something official like coinage, I don't think it's too much to ask to stick to authentic American history instead of the deceptive, idealized version we were force fed in grade school. The life of Abraham Lincoln is one of the most intensely studied of any of our national icons. Surely there was an emblem that speaks more truthfully of his legacy than this bogus tourist trap. Surely there's a more honest way to commemorate Honest Abe.
Government-manufactured mythology perpetuates ignorance, and Americans are smarter than that. But that's just my two cents.