In 1893, the World's Fair was born with Chicago's vast and elaborate Columbian Exposition. Mark Twain visited the city during the exposition. Although he may not have realized it during his short stay, the great fair was also the birthplace of the United States Mint Commemorative Coin, which now could be an important means to helping to preserve and extend Twain's legacy.
The Columbian Exposition Half Dollar was issued to mark the occasion, and subsequent decades saw collectors snap up coins in honor of events, places and people as diverse as Queen Isabella of Spain, the Battle of Gettysburg, Daniel Boone, the Oregon Trail and Booker T. Washington. In recent years, the popular program has enticed buyers with homage to Dolley Madison, the Little Rock school desegregation case, Abraham Lincoln and — just this year — the bicentennial of "The Star-Spangled Banner."
Now, at long last, the iconic American author, Twain, is close to getting his due in a commemorative coin issued by the mint. He would be the first American author to be so honored. But first he needs the support of Congress.
In April, the U.S, House of Representatives, in a hopeful display of bipartisanship, voted 408-4 to approve the Mark Twain Commemorative Coin Act. The effort was led by Connecticut Democratic Rep. John Larson and Missouri Republican Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer.
A companion Senate bill has been sponsored by Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal. Under the rules governing commemorative coin bills, the measures must attract two-thirds of the Senate as co-sponsors in order to proceed to the Banking Committee, and then to the Senate floor. The requisite number was obtained July 16. If passed, the bill will go to President Barack Obama for his signature.
Notwithstanding all this progress, support for the bill is now more important than ever. It would require the Treasury Department to issue Mark Twain $5 gold and silver dollar commemorative coins in 2016. Only one or two of these commemorative coins are issued a year, so collectors will line up to buy them, paying surcharges that cover all costs — no taxpayer dollars will be expended.
But these coins will not just sit on collectors' shelves: They'll go to work.
Revenue from the sales will benefit four important Mark Twain-related organizations: The Mark Twain House & Museum in Hartford; the Center for Mark Twain Studies in Elmira, N.Y., where Twain summered during his Hartford years; the Mark Twain Boyhood Home & Museum in Hannibal, Mo.; and the Mark Twain Papers & Project at the University of California, Berkeley.
Each $5 gold coin would come with a $35 surcharge that raises money for these organizations, while the silver dollar would carry a $10 surcharge. If all the coins are sold — 100,000 gold and 350,000 silver — $7 million will be distributed evenly among the four Twain groups, including $1.75 million for The Mark Twain House & Museum.
For four important non-profit institutions devoted to preserving the heritage of Mark Twain, this would go a long way toward easing the condition Twain referred to when he said "the lack of money is the root of all evil." It would also be a testament to the fact that when Republicans and Democrats get together, they can do something worthwhile.
In the case of The Mark Twain House & Museum, this means providing a wealth of programs for schoolchildren and adults, guided tours and writing classes, scholarly lectures and ice cream socials, and the expensive preservation and maintenance of the grand old home that acts as backdrop and focus for all this activity.
It's all for Mark Twain, "the Lincoln of our literature," as William Dean Howells called him, a man whom Americans and people all over the world love and call their own. Let's hope the Senate moves expeditiously to pass the commemorative coin bill before the end of this Congress.
Jeffrey L. Nichols is executive director of The Mark Twain House & Museum.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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