CONGRESSIONAL GOLD MEDALS AND THEIR STORY

Congressional Gold Medals have a long history and the process and creation of them is not very well known. However, according to their website, the Citizens Coinage Advisory Commission (CCAC) states: Congressional Gold Medals have long been an important way for Congress to express public gratitude for important historical events and achievements. Congressional Gold Medals, which have been issued since the American Revolution, are “the highest civilian honor award program … [to] honor national achievement in patriotic, humanitarian, and artistic endeavors.”

Senators and Representatives are frequently asked to support or sponsor proposals recognizing historic events and outstanding achievements by individuals or institutions. Among the various forms of recognition that Congress bestows, the Congressional Gold Medal is often considered the most distinguished. Through this venerable tradition—the occasional commissioning of individually struck gold medals in its name – Congress has expressed public gratitude on behalf of the nation for distinguished contributions for more than two centuries. Since 1776, this award, which initially was bestowed on military leaders, has also been given to such diverse individuals as Sir Winston Churchill and Bob Hope, George Washington and Robert Frost, Joe Louis, and Mother Teresa of Calcutta.

Congressional Gold Medal legislation generally has a specific format. Once a gold medal is authorized, it follows a specific process for design, minting, and awarding. This process includes consultation and recommendations by the Citizens Coinage Advisory Commission (CCAC) and the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts (CFA), pursuant to any statutory instructions, before the Secretary of the Treasury makes the final decision on a gold medal’s design. Once the medal has been struck, a ceremony will often be scheduled to formally award the medal to the recipient.

INTRODUCTION

Since the late 1700s, Congress has expressed public gratitude to individuals and groups by awarding medals and other similar decorations.

1. The first Congressional Gold Medals were issued by the Continental Congress. Since that time, Congress has awarded gold medals to express public gratitude for distinguished contributions, dramatize the virtues of patriotism, and perpetuate the remembrance of great events. This tradition of authorizing individually struck gold medals bearing the portraits or actions of honorees is rich with history. Although Congress has approved legislation stipulating specific requirements for numerous other awards and decorations, there are no permanent statutory provisions specifically relating to the creation of Congressional Gold Medals. When such an award has been deemed appropriate, Congress has, by special action, provided for the creation of a personalized medal to be given in its name.

2. Early Practices: the first Congressional Gold Medals were issued by the Continental Congress. As initially conceived, Congressional Gold Medals were awards “imbued with the conviction that only the very highest achievements [were] entitled to such a distinction, and that the value of a reward is enhanced by its rarity!”

3. At that time, the Continental Congress concluded there was no better way to honor “and preserve the memory of illustrious characters and splendid events than medals—whether we take into consideration the imperishable nature of the substance whence they are formed, the facility of multiplying copies, or the practice of depositing them in the cabinets of the curious.” The first Congressional Gold Medal was authorized on March 25, 1776, for George Washington, then commander of the Continental Army, for his “wise and spirited conduct” in bringing about British evacuation of Boston. During the next 12 years, the Continental Congress authorized an additional six gold medals for Revolutionary military leaders.

20th AND 21ST CENTURY RECIPIENTS: In the 20th and 21st centuries, Congress continued to broaden the scope of Congressional Gold Medals to include recognition of excellence in such varied fields as the arts, athletics, aviation, diplomacy, entertainment, exploration, medicine, politics, religion, and science. Several of the following individuals were the first in their specialties to be awarded gold medals: Composer George M. Cohan (1936) was the first entertainer to receive a gold medal, for his patriotic songs “Over There” and “A Grand Old Flag.”; Wilbur and Orville Wright (1909) were the first aeronautical or space pioneers to receive a gold medal, for their achievements in demonstrating to the world the potential of aerial navigation; Lincoln Ellsworth (1926) was the first explorer honored, for his polar flight in 1925 and transpolar flight in 1926; Major Walter Reed and his associates (1928) were the first scientists honored, for discovering the cause and means of transmission of yellow fever in 1921; Vice President Alben W. Barkley (1949) was the first political honoree. In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, numerous other individuals have been honored for a variety of contributions including civil rights activism and humanitarian contributions.

MEDAL PRESENTATION, DESIGN AND STRIKING:

Congressional Gold Medal legislation typically includes a section that provides details on the presentation, design, and striking of the medal.
(a) Presentation Authorized.—The Speaker of the House of Representatives and the President Pro Tempore of the Senate shall make appropriate arrangements for the presentation, on behalf of Congress, of a gold medal of appropriate design to the recipient.

(b) Design and Striking.—For purposes of the presentation referred to in subsection (a), the Secretary of the Treasury (referred to in this Act as the “Secretary”) shall strike a gold medal with suitable emblems, devices, and inscriptions to be determined by the Secretary.

DUPLICATE MEDALS:

Gold medal legislation also generally authorizes the Secretary of the Treasury to strike and sell duplicate medals in bronze. The duplicates are generally sold in two sizes: 1.5 inches and 3 inches. Duplicates are sold at a price which allows the U.S. Mint to cover the cost of striking the gold medal.

DESIGN OF MEDALS:

Congressional Gold Medal designs vary for each issuance. In general, the authorizing legislation provides that the Secretary of the Treasury “shall strike a gold medal with suitable emblems, devices, and inscriptions, to be determined by the Secretary.” When designing a Congressional Gold Medal, the Secretary consults with the Citizens Coinage Advisory Commission (CCAC) and the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts (CFA) before determining the final design. Citizens Coinage Advisory Commission, established by P.L. 108-15, the CCAC advises the Secretary of the Treasury on theme and design of all U.S. coins and medals.

For Congressional Gold Medals, the CCAC advises the Secretary “on any theme or design proposals relating to … Congressional Gold Medals.” The CCAC consists of 11 members appointed by the Secretary of the Treasury, with four persons appointed upon the recommendation of the congressional leadership. The CCAC meets several times each year to consider design suggestions for coins and medals. For each coin considered, the CCAC provides advice to the Secretary “on thematic, technical, and design issues related to the production of coins.” Recommendations are then published to the committee’s website, at http://www.ccac.gov.

SPECIFICATION OF DESIGN ELEMENTS:

Congressional Gold Medal authorizations generally do not specify design elements. Instead, they direct the Secretary of the Treasury to “strike a gold medal with suitable emblems, devices, and inscriptions to be determined by the Secretary.” Should Congress want to specify particular design elements, they might be included in the authorizing legislation.This would provide the Secretary of the Treasury with congressional intent on what should be incorporated into the gold medal design. Similar statutory specificity is sometimes included in commemorative coin legislation. Such specification, however, could serve to limit design choices for the gold medal and might alter the cost structure of striking the award, if the required element diverges from standard practices.

LOCATION OF MEDAL AWARDED TO GROUPS:

Congressional Gold Medal legislation for groups generally provides that only a single gold medal is struck and specifics where it will be located after it is formally awarded.

Editor’s note: For additional information, please check out the CCAC website. Citizens Coinage Advisory Committee, “About Us,” at https://www.ccac.gov/ aboutUs/index.html. Congressional Gold Medals: which includes Background, Legislative Process, and Issues for Congress Congressional Research Service, the House, the House minority leader, the Senate majority leader, and the Senate minority leader. This is excerpted material.