Vote For Science, Child of Liberty

The Half Disme (or half-dime) above was silver.

“Where did the short-lived motto “Liberty: Parent of Science & Industry” come from, and why did it disappear? There are no documents that explain its origins. Because Secretary of State Jefferson supervised Mint operations (President Washington put it under State not Treasury and Secretary Hamilton) he must have chosen, or at least approved of the phrase, on the experimental 1792 coins. It is puzzling that this exact phrase is unknown from his writings or those of any of the other founding fathers. The phrase is identical—except for one word—to an earlier phrase of his. Jefferson in 1789 wrote in a letter to Joseph Willard, President of Harvard, and used this phrase: “Liberty…is the great parent of science and virtue….” One can imagine that some of his colleagues would have pushed back against a platitude linking liberty and virtue, especially for the slaveholder Jefferson. Did Jefferson use this phrase in conversations? One can imagine Hamilton scoffing at the statement, if and when he heard it. Also, by 1792 Jefferson had begun to realize that liberty did not automatically lead to virtuous conduct in public affairs. He must have been alarmed by events in France, where their revolution was becoming increasingly bloody. Or maybe he was convinced by Hamilton’s arguments that the new republic needed a strong industrial base in order to survive, and that “industry” should replace “virtue” in the motto. We do not know. All we know is that the first motto on a U.S. coin was “Liberty: Parent of Science & Industry.”

The phrase was a blessing and a premonition.

“U.S. science and industry rose together all through the 19th and 20th centuries, leading to the invention of the telegraph, accelerated by the U.S. Civil War and the growth of the railroads; blossoming into electricity, the telephone, the internal combustion engine, the airplane, the film industry, the atomic bomb, the integrated circuit, and the personal computer; and culminating in the moon landing and exploration of the solar system. In the early 21st century, U.S. science and industry may be loosening its grip on global dominance, but we still attract many of the greatest young minds who want to come here to study and work. Jefferson and Hamilton in the early 1790s may have dreamt that their fledgling country would grow in scientific stature and industrial strength, but they never could have imagined the world of discovery and innovation that they helped bring into being. “Liberty: Parent of Science & Industry.” A truer prophecy was never struck on a coin.”

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