The Numismatic Bibliomania Society



The E-Sylum: Volume 15, Number 44, October 21, 2012, Article 12


Greg Brunk writes:

I have been trying to contact Robert Merchant concerning VOTE THE LAND FREE. Bob spotted the Kansas Historical site illustration of the punch shortly before me. But I've found more information about the issuer. His name was misspelled in earlier documents, but I found him by searching National Reform Association using Google "Books".

Vote the Land Free 4 Vote the Land Free 5

I put Dr. Brunk in touch with Bob. Brunk provided the following article for us. Thanks! This is great numismatic research. He and Bob Merchant have settled the longstanding numismatic mystery over who counterstamped coins with the VOTE THE LAND FREE slogan. You can't find better proof than the original punch! -Editor

More about the Vote the Land Free Countermark
Gregory G. Brunk

The best known American political countermark is VOTE THE LAND FREE, and it illustrates the problems that are involved in identifying the issuer and reason for such pieces. Ever since a short note appeared in the 1919 Numismatist, it was assumed by coin collectors that the countermark was an Abolitionist issue of the Free Soil Party for the 1848 election.

Before the Civil War the United States had before it a problem... (regarding) the extension of slavery into the new States and Territories. The slogan "Vote the Land Free" was the campaign cry of the anti-slavery extension or Free Soil party in the election of 1848, in which General Taylor was successful, and as a campaign medallet the supporters of the party had the slogan stamped upon a number of large copper cents, some of which were holed and worn as buttonhole badges. Most of them, however, were not holed, and as they passed from hand to hand they served a two-fold purpose -- a medium of exchange and as anti-slavery extension propaganda.

Frank Duffield repeated the explanation these pieces were issued for the 1848 presidential campaign in "A Trial List of the Countermarked Modern of the World." The explanation also was accepted by John DeWitt in his 1948 Numismatist article, "Election Medals of the Campaign of 1848," and a decade later in A Century of Campaign Buttons (1959). The incorrect identification can be traced to Gustav Kobbe’s “Presidential Campaign Medals.” It appeared in Scribner’s Magazine (1888: 332-343), which is now available on the Internet. He illustrated one of these coins, which was a highly unusual thing to do in the 19th century! He also provided readers with an interesting – and totally imaginary -- story about its origin. Kobbe linked the coin to the North-South dispute over slavery, rather than the never-ending dispute in American politics between the very wealthy and the common man (1888: 348-349).

Vote the Land Free 1 When the Whig and Democratic conventions met in 1848, the Mexican War had been fought and the question of whether or not slavery should be prohibited in the newly acquired territory had assumed prominence; but, as heretofore, those parties dodged the issue. As a result there was a defection from both, the seceders united as the Free Soil Party and nominating Van Buren. His action in running and drawing enough votes from Cass, the regular Democratic nominee, to elect General Taylor, the Whig candidate, has of late years, and especially by those who inaugurated the Butler movement in the last campaign, been referred to as the first important “bolt” in our political history. The most interesting medal of this campaign is a battered cent, upon the obverse of which (the Liberty head) some one struck with a roughly cut die: “Vote the Land Free!” A hole punched through the coin and its battered condition prove that is was actually “worn in battle.”

The Free Soil Party explanation seemed reasonable, and was particularly appealing to the writer since some of my ancestors had been Free Soil Party politicians in Kansas, but the explanation was quite wrong. Bowers (2001) noted that while the Free Soil Party's slogan was "Free Soil, Free Speech, Free Labor, and Free Men," no one has discovered a Free Soil Party advertisement or political ribbon with the slogan "Vote the Land Free." He also noted that all verified coins with this stamp were minted in 1844 or earlier. (An 1846 large cent is a modern fake made from individual letter punches). This suggested the coins were used during the 1844 election or had a purpose not tied to a particular election. Robert Merchant came to the same conclusion independently of Bowers. Both of them were right, but it took years to track down the source of the countermark.

VOTE THE LAND FREE would have been an appropriate slogan for the National Reform Association, and much more reasonable for its use than by Abolitionists. The genesis of the NRA was a series of meetings in New York City in 1841 among members of the Locofocos, National Trades Union, and Workingmen’s Party. Its platform included free federal homesteads, exemption of farms from seizure for failure to pay debts, and “land limitation” to restrict the amount of land that could be owned by the wealthy, and one of the NRA’s slogans was “Vote Yourself a Farm.”

While the correct identification had been published five years before Kobbe’s article, it was in a place no numismatist would ever have thought to look. The Third Biennial Report of the Board of Directors of the Kansas State Historical Society recently appeared on the Internet. It recorded a donation by Ellis Smalley of Council Grove (1883: 62). “Iron stamp containing the monogram of the Old National Reform Party, bearing the words ‘Vote the Land Free.”

Vote the Land Free7

After Robert Merchant discovered the Society had the stamp in its collection, he paid them to photograph it so it could be illustrated in his 2009 article. The Society then put the photos on its website, and they jumped out at me when I searched “Vote the Land Free” using the Google “Images” option. (See Brunk 2007 for hints on how to use the Internet to identify coins, tokens and medals). I contacted Laurel Fritzsch of the Kansas Historical Society, who told me that little was known about Smalley, except he had been a “blacksmith, political activist, and former probate Judge near Council Grove, KS.”

It is the only known example of a 19th century American political countermark punch. By prorating the size of the photos on the Internet, the stamp appears to be about 4 1/2 inches long and is roughly the same diameter as a large cent. The end with the letters has been cut down slightly at its edges so the stamp would fit within the rims of a large cent. The other end of the stamp shows the effects of being hit many times with a large hammer as coins were countermarked. Both VOTE THE LAND FREE and LAND LIMITATION were countermarks of the National Reform Association, and since the NRA was organized officially in February of 1844, the coins might have been stamped in the first year of its existence. A further investigation of Smalley using Google “Books” suggests that was the case.

A warning is in order for researchers. This turned out to be a tricky. Google has digitally scanned millions of pages of books, directories, newspapers, etc., but not always correctly! At least one piece of crucial evidence regarding Smalley had been scanned incorrectly or his name was misspelled as having only one “l” in the original document. That resulted in a “typo” in the Internet text. These sorts of “typos” are common enough to be an annoyance! The way around them is to do a number of searches using different terms, such as reversing a person’s name order (last name first), trying variations of a name as people often changed the spelling of their names in the 19th century, and searching on other terms, such as “National Reform Association,” along with the last name. Finding the additional information took about two hours of Googling, and information sometimes did not appear unless one hit the proper combination of search terms.

The National Reform Association collaborated with the Fourierist movement and others to sponsor an annual National Industrial Congress. Ellis Smalley was a delegate from Plainfield, New Jersey, at the first congress held in October of 1845 and he was elected its secretary. That explains why Smalley ended-up with the VOTE THE LAND FREE stamp, and since he was a blacksmith, he might have made the stamp himself. Among his duties, on May 16, 1844, Smalley and other members of the NRA signed a letter to Joseph Smith, leader of the Mormon Church, asking Smith’s opinions concerning public lands. Smith replied from Nauvoo, Illinois, indicating he generally supported the NRA’s goals, but the first goal of a virtuous people should to abolish slavery.

By 1878 Smalley had moved to Kansas and was noted as a member of the City Council of Council Grove in a lawsuit. A few years later he was mentioned in the Congressional Record of the 46th Congress (1881) as having submitted a petition. “Ellis Smalley, of Council Grove, Kansas, that the public domain may be held and preserved exclusively for actual settlers. Referred to the Committee on the Public Lands.” (Again, this information was obtained by searching on his name using Google “Books”... Quite a useful source of information!)


Bowers, Q. David. 2001. Fifty Favorite Numismatic Pearls. Wolfeboro.

Brunk, Gregory G. 2007. “Internet Rules” (How to Use the Internet to Identify Numismatic Items). Numismatist 2007 Jan: 51-55, Feb: 53-55. __. “Coins Countermarked with Political Messages,” NI Bulletin continuing series since 2008, now up to Portugal.

Duffield, Frank G. 1919. “A Trial List of the Countermarked Modern Coins of the World,” Numismatist series 1919 to 1922. Reprinted in Brunk, 1976. World Countermarks on Medieval and Modern Coins. Lawrence.

Merchant, Robert J. 2009. “Vote the Land Free: A Recent Discovery Solves the Mystery,” TAMS Journal 49: 6-9.

Wayne Homren, Editor

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