Stupid Question ™
March 18, 1999
By John Ruch
Q: Who the hell is Caesar Rodney and what’s he doing on my quarter?
A: For the next decade, quarter-dollar coins will feature a reverse-side design commemorating each of the 50 states, issued in the sequence the states joined the union. (The front design is also slightly different, with a smaller Washington head and more of the coin slogans to make room for the reverse design.)
Canada had a similar program honoring its provinces. It was a huge success, creating great collecting demand and making the government a bundle. The US Mint likewise hopes to make, well, a mint—somewhere in the neighborhood of $2 billion to $5 billion.
Five new state quarters will be issued each year. A proposal to include US territories in the program may extend it by another year.
Delaware was the first state—and thus the first coin, beginning circulation on Jan. 4.
Delaware citizens voted on design proposals last year, rejecting such ideas as a quill pen, an outline of the state and a blue hen.
Instead, they chose Caesar Rodney, who is well known in Delaware but mistaken everywhere else for Paul Revere and/or some weird Canadian-coin icon.
Rodney was a Declaration of Independence signer, a Revolutionary War general and a Delaware überpolitician. A farmer, he owned slaves and kept domesticated deer.
The coin image is copied from a statue in Wilmington, Delaware, which is based on Rodney’s semi-famous ride.
In 1776, Rodney was one of three Delaware delegates to the Constitutional Congress. During debate over adoption of the Declaration, he was called away to put down a Tory uprising.
He was still away when the final vote came up. The other two Delaware delegates disagreed over independence; it seemed their votes would cancel each other, and Delaware wouldn’t join the Declaration, thus making it non-unanimous.
Rodney was alerted, and in one night rode 80 miles from Delaware to Philadelphia through terrible heat and thunderstorms, arriving just in time to cast his pro-independence, tie-breaker vote.
Folk tradition is that he rode alone on horseback, though he probably really took a carriage.
But he certainly cut a dramatic figure. Fellow Declaration signer Benjamin Rush described Rodney as “the oddest looking man in the world,” with a face “not much bigger than an apple.” Furthermore, Rodney swathed his face with a green silk veil to hide a facial tumor that eventually killed him.
Designs for 1999’s next four quarters—Pennsylvania (in circulation March 8), New Jersey, Georgia and Connecticut—are already drawn up. Most opted for the bland state-outline idea.
Ohio’s quarter won’t come out until early 2002, and the Mint hasn’t yet asked the governor’s office to set up a design process.
Tip for early birds: Try to find a local myth about a green-silk-veiled slave owner.