The E-Sylum:  Volume 8, Number 9, February 27, 2005, Article 6


Last week I wrote: "We have some former Assay
commissioners on our subscriber list. Can anyone tell us
what it was like to serve on the commission?"

David Ganz (of the 1974 Commission) writes: "Let me set
the stage. A quarter century ago this past February, Richard
Nixon was in the final throes of his star-crossed Presidency,
though no one yet suspected that Watergate was about to
become his ultimate downfall and lead to probable impeachment.
American coinage of 1974 was devoid of silver, and private
gold ownership had been illegal since 1933, except for rare and
unusual gold coin of that era or earlier, unless the Office of
Domestic Gold & Silver Operations gave a rarely sought,
seldom-granted license to acquire the particular specimen.
As Washington hunkered down for a difficult winter storm,
the White House press office was readying a press release
that would surprise many for the number of Democrats and
other non-supporters of President Nixon that were to be
listed – not the so-called Enemy’s List, but actually a
designation to public service.

The weeks before had been trying for the applicants, many of
whom had written letters, sent resumes, asked political contacts
for a personal boost, responded to background checks that
were initiated by government staff, followed up by security
agencies interested in potential skeletons that could prove
embarrassing to the White House if found in a presidential

First inklings of what was to transpire probably came to most
individuals in the form of a telephone call on Friday, Feb. 8
from Washington, asking if the prospect could be available for
official travel the following week on Tuesday. Arrangements
were strictly on your own, as were virtually all of the associated
expenses in traveling to Philadelphia.

What this preparation was for was the Trial of the Pyx, the
annual Assay Commission, a tradition stretching back to 1792,
and at that time, the oldest continually operating commission in
the United States government. First of the commissions, which
were mandated by the original Coinage Act of April 2, 1792
were deemed so essential to the confidence of the public in the
national money that section 18 of the legislation directed that
the original inspectors were to include the Chief Justice of the
United States, the Secretary and Comptroller of the Currency,
the Secretary of the Department of State, and the Attorney
General of the United States.

This was neither a casual request nor one that was considered
so unimportant an aide could attend. The statute is explicit:
this who’s who “are hereby required to attend for that purpose”,
meaning that in July of 1795, chief justice John Jay, Secretary
of State Edmund Randolph, Treasury Secretary Alexander
Hamilton, Attorney General William Bradford may have gathered.

In the Jefferson Administration, consider this remarkable group:
Chief Justice John Marshall; Secretary of State (and future
president) James Madison; Secretary of the Treasury Albert
Gallatin, Attorney General Caesar Rodney might all have been

By 1801, the statute had been amended to add the United
States District Judge for Pennsylvania as an officer at the
Annual Assay, and by the time that the Act of January 18,
1837 was approved, the cabinet officials and the Chief Justice
were omitted in favor of the U.S. District Court Judge from
the Eastern District of Pennsylvania (the state having been
divided in half for judicial purposes), other governmental
officials, and “such other persons as the President shall, from
time to time, designate for that purpose, who shall meet as
commissioners, for the performance of this duty, on the
second Monday in February, annually....”

Flash forward to 1974. The call comes from Washington.
A trek begins to Philadelphia, where it has begun to snow.
Dozens of people from all across the country come to serve
on the Assay Commission, all traveling at their own expense.
Starting in the midst of the Truman Administration, a serious
numismatist or two had begun to be appointed. Some who
assisted the government in some numismatic or related matter
were similarly given the honor. Among the early appointees:
Max Schwartz (1945), the New York attorney who later
became ANA’s legal counsel; Ted Hammer (1947), John Jay
Pittman (1947), Adm. Oscar Dodson (1948), and Hans M.F.
Schulman (1952).

Some came by air (from California); others drove. I came
by train, on Amtrak’s metroliner, leaving from New York’s
Penn Station and arriving an hour and a half later at Philadelphia’s
station by the same name.

Those who came in February, 1974, gathered on Tuesday
evening, Feb. 12, at the Holiday Inn off Independence Mall,
and unlike years when there were only one or two hobbyists,
this was a banner year. (I almost did not attend; having started
law school just three or four weeks before, I had to petition
the Dean of the School to permit the attendance lapse and
honor the presidential appointment).

My classmates, as we have referred to ourselves over the
succeeding quarter century, included some then and future
hobby luminaries: Don Bailey (former officer of Arizona
Numismatic Association), John Barrett (member of several
local clubs), Dr. Harold Bushey, Sam Butland (Washington
Numismatic Society V.P. ), Charles Colver (CSNA
Secretary), David Cooper (CSNS v.p.), George Crocker
(S.C.N.A. president), Joe Frantz (OIN Secretary), Maurice
Gould (ANA governor), Ken Hallenbeck (past president,
Indiana State Numismatic Assn.).

Also: Dr. Robert Harris, Jerry Hildebrand (organizer World
Coin Club of Missouri), Richard Heer, Barbara Hyde (TAMS
Board member, sculptor), Philip Keller (past president of the
American Society for the Study of French Numismatics),
Reva Kline (member of several upstate New York coin clubs),
Stewart Koppel (past president, Aurora, Ill. Coin Club),
Charles M. Leusner (Delaware Co. Coin Club).

Rounding out the Commission: Capt. Gary Lewis (past
president of Colorado-Wyoming Numismatic Association),
Fred Mantei (past president Flushing Coin Club), Lt. Col.
Melvin Mueller (member of many local and regional clubs),
James L. Miller (COINage Magazine publisher), John
Muroff (Philadelphia Coin Club member), and Harris
Rusitzsky (Rochester Numismatic Association member).
I was also a member (law student and former assistant
editor, Numismatic news).

This rather remarkable group of men and women, the White
House and Mint joint announcement announced, were
appointed by the President “from across the nation... The 25
Commissioners, working in such varied fields as medicine,
dentistry, law, engineering, forestry research and the military,
share a common interest in coins and the science of numismatics.”

Early in its history, and indeed, into the first half of the 20th
century, the appointees were either political themselves, or
politically connected. Ellen (Mrs. Irving) Berlin,
Commissioner 1941, was one example; Mrs. Norweb
(1955) was another. So was Sen. H. Willis Robertson
(1962), chairman of the Senate Banking Committee and
father of television evangelist and presidential hopeful Pat

William Ashbrook, a member of Congress from Ohio who
sponsored the legislation chartering the ANA in Congress,
served six times between 1908 and 1920. Albert Vestal,
a member of Congress from Indiana, served consecutively
from 1920-1925. There were many other Congressmen
and Senators through the years, as well.

I recall meeting in the lounge of the Holiday Inn and suggesting
my old friend Maury Gould to be the chairman of the commission.
The fix was already in: the California delegation had already
agreed, and lobbied other members, to elect Barbara Hyde
to that honor.

The work that we did was largely honorific, but there was a
brief moment when some of us thought that the actual results
of an assay were under-weight – which mint officials regarded
as calamitous, and of sufficient importance to re-weigh the
parcel in question. (It passed the test, and as was the case in
most years, pro forma resolutions prepared by mint staff were
signed by all of the commissioners).

But that does not say that the description of the work done
by the Assay Commission remains irrelevant. To the contrary,
unlike 1974 which examined the non-precious metal coinage
of 1973, today there are silver, gold and platinum bullion coins,
and numerous commemorative coins, and related items that
circulate the world-over.

There is accountability within the Mint, but at present, the
Mint’s primary accountability is to Congress, and to the
coinage subcommittee in the House, and the larger Senate
Banking Committee on the other side of Capitol Hill. If
there is a problem, it remains largely unknown to the public
at large, except in case of acute embarrassment.

In April, 1987 for example, the U.S. mint was accused of
having grossly underweight fractional gold coins – a move
that nearly scuttled the entire effort of the program to market
into the Far East. The Assay Commission having been
abolished in 1980, there was no voice of authoritative
reassurance, for the Mint denied that there was even a
problem – when it was clear that the fractionals had not
been properly assayed and were lightweight in their gold

Abolition of the Assay Commission came in two stages. In
1977, President Jimmy Carter declined to name any public
members to the Commission, ending a practice of more than
117 years duration. Then, F.T. Davis, director of the
General Government Division of the President’s Reorganization
Project, got into the act. “We are conducting an organizational
study of the Annual Assay Commission,” he wrote me on Sept.
6, 1977. “The study will focus on possible alternative methods
of carrying out the functions of the Commission.”

I prepared a memorandum for Davis at his request, answering
several specific questions, careful to take no position on its
continued validity. Earlier in the year, in a major law review
article proposing a “Revision of the Minting & Coinage Laws
of the United States” which was published in the Cleveland
Law Review, I had essentially concluded that it was a political
choice to decide whether or not to continue the two-century
old commission.

Davis asked if the mission of the Assay Commission was
essential. I replied “More aptly, the question is whether or
not assaying of coins is essential. The answer is an unqualified
yes to that.” Indeed, the Mint regularly conducts assays of its
coin product as a means of assuring quality. (The 1987 foul-up
was an administrative problem; the gold coins were assayed
and came up short, but a decision was made to circulate them,

Davis also asked what the function of the Commission should
be in the succeeding two years if it was continued. I suggested
that the law be “rewritten to provide for compositional analysis
of all subsidiary coinage plus the dollar coin”.

The die was already cast, however, and the Carter
Administration (having already declined to name public members)
simply let the Assay Commission whither away until, in 1980, it
expired with the passage of Public Law 96-209 (March 14, 1980).
The irony is that only a short time later, the Mint was once again
producing precious metal coinage."

[Another E-Sylum Marshall McLuhan moment, Thanks, David!

  Wayne Homren, Editor

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