Heaton and the Silver Barons

Augustus G. Heaton, one-time president of the American Numismatic Association, author of A Treatise on Mint Marks, 1893 (the first serious study of branch mint coinage), and one of the best-known figures in numismatics in the late 19th century, was an artist by profession. His painting, The Recall of Columbus, hangs in the Capitol Rotunda and is found on the 50¢ Columbian Exposition stamp.

He was also a poet. In 1904 some of his humorous, patriotic, romantic, sentimental, artistic, and other creations—including coin poems—were published in book form in Boston under the title Fancies and Thoughts in Verse.

The Numismatist for January 1894 included Heaton’s poem, “The Convention of the Thirteen Silver Barons.” The “barons” in question consisted of rarities in the American silver series, with the 1804 silver dollar being the “chairman” and the others consisting of the half dime of 1802, an 1804 dime, quarters of 1823 and 1827, half dollars of 1796 and 1797, and dollars of 1794, 1838, 1839, 1851, 1852 and 1858. The lengthy and quite clever poem was a commentary on a burning political issue of the day: the unrestricted coinage of silver. It mentioned rarities, all of which for the early issues are represented in the Pogue Collection today. The poem began:

 The Convention of the Thirteen Silver Barons

Its ranks of silver strange reports had sprung / Of loss of caste and slavery to gold / The silver barons, therefore, willed to hold / Upon their “mettle” requisite debate / And, thirteen in all, they came in lofty state / To hear of general issues and the woes / Their hosts of poor relations might disclose. / Boldly the dollar 1804, more rare / Than the united Barons, took the chair / And to his presence general homage drew, / Though noble ’94 beside him knew / This princely heritage, but chanced to be / Through loss of nearly all the family, / And, that, to his own claim as first in line / And rank undoubted, all should there resign, / Feeling his stately visage could not fear / In all the coinage of the land a peer. / Then dollars ’38 and ’9 were placed, / Their handsome shields with living eagles graced / Instead of varied poultry badly stuffed / That others carried. So they were not huffed / When gossips called them patterns in despite, / But far more polished gave their proof of right. / Then yet more radiant ’51 and ’2 / And ’58 the chair’s attention drew— / These ‘nouveaux riches’ of modern days and men / Whom chance had thrust amid the ‘upper ten.’ / But passing far from such to sit beside / Old ’94 came with a kindred pride Half dollars ’96 and ’97 / Of such high-toned, aristocratic leven / As to provoke the chair and he implored / These gentry not to seem so often bored / When they attended, adding, with a shrug, / The ‘nineties’ often seen to need a ‘plug.’ / At this the entering quarters ’23 And ’27, mighty in degree, / And of a fixed expression lest disgrace / Of dignity should come with ‘altered’ face, / Suggested caution, as the vandal’s hand / Had harmed too many of their little band. / This ‘roused the dime of 1804 intent / To hope that nothing personal was meant / And ask his elder brother not to show / Judgment by halves and here no quarters know. / So when assured, he gave his ‘better half’ / The little 1802 a chance to chaff / The company, a dwarfed, unruly elf, / Who thought none other equal to himself. He joked his large associates of weight…

The poem continued past this point. The title was a punning reference to a group of millionaires whose fortunes were spawned by the exploitation of the Comstock Lode in Nevada beginning in the late 1850s. Most of these men built mansions there and also in distant but more sophisticated San Francisco where they became the high society of the city.

Heaton’s Silver Barons are the “high society” of American numismatics!