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Freshly-made pennies at the U.S. Mint in Denver in 2007. (AP) Freshly-made pennies at the U.S. Mint in Denver in 2007. (AP)

Freshly-made pennies at the U.S. Mint in Denver in 2007. (AP)

Jeff Cercone
By Jeff Cercone January 17, 2024

A penny and some thoughts: Claim about Lincoln, racism off base

If Your Time is short

  • Former President Abraham Lincoln has always faced to the right on the U.S. penny. Lincoln scholars say that’s because the sculptor modeled the design after a 1864 photo of Lincoln.

  • Former U.S. Presidents Thomas Jefferson on the nickel, Franklin D. Roosevelt on the dime and George Washington on the quarter all faced left when they first were put on those coins. But coins in circulation now have Jefferson facing forward and Washington facing right.

  • Learn more about PolitiFact’s fact-checking process and rating system.

The U.S. penny has inspired some thoughts from one social media user about American history and racism.

"Abraham Lincoln’s coin is copper because he freed the slaves. The others face left because they turned their backs to him in protest," read text with an image shared Jan. 15 on Instagram

The image showed a penny with Lincoln, the 16th president, facing right, next to a nickel, dime and quarter with other U.S. presidents Thomas Jefferson, Franklin D. Roosevelt and George Washington each facing left.

"Since FOLKS don’t know HISTORY. Racism was placed on our coins so that we would always be reminded," a caption with the post said.

This post was flagged as part of Meta’s efforts to combat false news and misinformation on its News Feed. (Read more about our partnership with Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram.)

(Instagram screenshot)

The post is wrong on two counts — the color of U.S. coins and the direction former presidents face on them.

First, the color. The 1792 Coinage Act — enacted nearly 17 years before Lincoln was born and about seven decades before he freed  enslaved people — established the mint and the regulation of U.S. coins. The first pennies created under the Coinage Act were in copper. The first nickels, dimes and quarters were made of silver (today they’re made of copper, nickel and a copper alloy).

A 1793 penny. (U.S. Mint)

Second, the post is wrong about why Lincoln and other former presidents face the directions they face on the coins. It also ignores what we know about current coins in circulation.

Lincoln has always faced right on the penny. When their images were first added to U.S. coins — Jefferson on the nickel, Roosevelt on the dime and Washington on the quarter — they all faced left. 

The post ignores that, of coins currently being produced by the U.S. Mint, Washington now faces to the right, and Jefferson is facing forward. We’ll explain those changes below.

But first, why is Lincoln facing right? The answer is simple, according to two Lincoln scholars we interviewed. 

"There's a lot of discussion about why presidents face certain ways on currency and usually the answer is much more straightforward than you find online," said Lincoln historian Christian McWhirter of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Illinois.

Here’s what we know about the coins featuring presidents.

The penny

Lincoln was the first U.S. president to have his face engraved on a coin. Lincoln’s mug adorned the penny in 1909 to mark his 100th birthday and has been used ever since.

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Sculptor Victor David Brenner designed the Lincoln penny, and based his design off a Feb. 9, 1864 photo of the former president, Lincoln experts told PolitiFact.

"Lincoln was the most photographed president in history at the time," said McWhirter. "There's a photograph from early 1864 where Lincoln is facing to the right and that's the one the sculptor based the penny on."

Brenner had previously used the photo to create a plaque of Lincoln in 1907.

A cropped profile photo of President Abraham Lincoln taken Feb. 9, 1864, by Anthony Berger. (Library of Congress)

The Lincoln penny profile is an exact replica of Brenner’s plaque that was based on the photo, Lincoln historian and author Harold Holzer said.

"The pose has him facing in this direction, with his famous mole visible. It wouldn’t have been visible had he faced the other way," Holzer said. "Explanation: it was copied faithfully."

As for Lincoln being on the copper penny, Holzer said, "The idea advanced at the time was that the most common, inexpensive metal was a perfect tribute to a president who had risen from the humblest origins."

Clockwise from top left, the penny, nickel, dime and quarter designs on coins currently in circulation. (U.S. Mint)

The nickel

Jefferson first adorned the nickel in 1938 and the coin’s design resulted from a contest open to American sculptors to replace the Buffalo nickel. The Treasury Department’s contest announcement mentioned no requirements that Jefferson face a certain direction, and many of the entries had Jefferson facing forward or to the right.

Ultimately, a design by sculptor Felix Schlag with a portrait of Jefferson facing left won.

The nickel has changed twice since then. It featured four different designs in 2004 and 2005 to commemorate the bicentennials of the Louisiana Purchase and the Lewis and Clark expedition, according to the U.S. Mint. Two of those designs, the American Bison and the Ocean in View nickels, both released in 2005, show Jefferson facing right.

Since 2006, Jefferson has faced forward on the nickel. That design, the U.S. Mint said, was based on a Rembrandt Peale portrait done in 1800.

The dime

This coin has featured the image of President Franklin D. Roosevelt facing left since Jan. 30, 1946, less than a year after his death.

John Sinnock, who was the U.S. Mint’s chief engraver from 1925 to 1947, designed it. There was some dispute about who designed the dime after Selma Burke, a sculptor who created a sculpture of Roosevelt facing left in 1943, said Sinnock’s design resembled hers. Sinnock said his design relied on past work he had done on presidential medals for Roosevelt, Atlas Obscura reported. In those medals, Roosevelt was facing right.

The quarter

The quarter’s design is also not without controversy. Congress in 1932 held a competition to add the nation’s first president to the coin to mark his 200th birthday. The U.S. Commission of Fine Art recommended a Washington design by sculptor Laura Gardin Fraser that showed him facing right.

But then-Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon chose something different: a left-facing design by John Flanagan, which remained on quarters through 2021. 

In 2022, the U.S. Mint initiated the four-year American Women Quarters Program to celebrate the contributions of women in history on the reverse side of the coins. As part of that program, Fraser’s design replaced Flanagan’s on the front of the coin, where it is scheduled to remain at least through 2025.

Our ruling

An Instagram post claimed that the Lincoln penny is copper because Lincoln ended slavery, and that presidents on other U.S. coins are facing a different direction in protest of Lincoln’s actions.

But the post ignores the history of those coin designs and colors, and the design of current coins in circulation. The claim is False.

Our Sources

Instagram post, Jan. 15, 2024

Phone interview, Christian McWhirter, Lincoln Historian at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Illinois, Jan. 16, 2024

Email interview, Lincoln historian and author Harold Holzer, Jan. 16, 2024

United States Mint, Circulating Coins, accessed Jan. 16, 2024 

United States Mint, The History of U.S. Circulating Coins, accessed Jan. 16, 2024

United States Mint, Penny, accessed Jan. 16, 2024

United States Mint, Lincoln Bicentennial One Cent Program, accessed Jan. 16, 2024

United States Mint, Nickel, accessed Jan. 16, 2024

United States Mint, American Bison Nickel, accessed Jan. 16, 2024

United States Mint, Ocean in View Nickel, accessed Jan. 16, 2024

United States Mint, Westward Journey Nickel Series, accessed Jan. 16, 2024

United States Mint, Coinage Act of April 2, 1792, accessed Jan. 16, 2024

United States Mint, Dime, accessed Jan. 16, 2024

Atlas Obscura, Who Really Designed the American Dime?, Jan. 17, 2018

Stack’s Bowers Gallery, Superb 1936 Assay Commission Medal, accessed Jan. 16, 2024

Stack’s Bowers Gallery, 1945 Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial Medal. By John R. Sinnock., accessed Jan. 16, 2024

United States Mint, Quarter, accessed Jan. 16, 2024

United States Mint, The Woman Behind the Long-Awaited Obverse Quarter Design, Nov. 8, 2021

United States Mint, American Women Quarters Program, accessed Jan. 16, 2023

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Abraham Lincoln by Victor David Brenner, created 1907

American Numismatic Society, Victor David Brenner's Lincoln Plaster, April 15, 2015

Library of Congress, [President Abraham Lincoln, with beard; half-length portrait, seated profile], created Feb. 9, 1864, The Jefferson Nickel Competition 1938, accessed Jan. 16, 2024

Coinweek, United States 1938 Jefferson Nickel, Aug. 15, 2022 

The White House Historical Association, Portrait of Thomas Jefferson by Rembrandt Peale in 1800, accessed Jan. 16, 2024

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A penny and some thoughts: Claim about Lincoln, racism off base

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