The Mercury Dime
Upon hearing it said of America that she, longest-lived of all modern states (if democracy is the measure by which we’re to attribute national age), would never become a socialist country, I felt simultaneously contended and relieved. Admittedly, it wasn’t the man by whom this statement was declared (President Trump at his latest State of the Union Address) that was the cause of so rare a combined sentiment of happiness and hope, of felicity and equanimity, but that it was declared at all.
So fervid has the promulgation of socialism become in recent months that I was beginning to think that our country was on the very precipice of its full embrace. Once a flirtation of a utopian and a transitory type, socialism seemed to have become a goal to which every left-leaning politician was dedicated. Undismayed by its failures when tried in the various countries of our recent and distant past (Cuba, Russia, and North Korea to name but a few), they pressed for it as if it might imminently be attained. It appeared to be an idea whose time had come—an idea by whose specious novelty we were all once again besotted.
It’s true, support for socialism among millennials (that oft-derided demographic to which I sheepishly belong) has increased exponentially through the course of the past few years. If not exponentially, it certainly has done so quite vociferously; there’s now very little of the quondam hesitation that once stifled the declaration of one’s socialist druthers. Seemingly every liberal writer and cable news anchor stirs atop his platform and shouts for and races toward its arrival. The politicians aren’t exempt from this clamorous cry. Bernie Sanders, the most recognizable of American Socialists, promotes his view of his quasi-Marxist view of the economy while enjoying wide favorability and public renown, as does his young Puerto Rican protégé, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. The irascible octogenarian and the lovable Cortez have managed to paint the face of socialism anew and expound on its guaranteed benefit.
You can see, then, that the ideology is experiencing a vigorous resurgence—thanks, in no small part, to those two enticing politicians of whom I made mention. At the very least, if only in its imagined and not its implemented form, socialism in America is in a robust and salubrious state. It certainly looks less becoming in places like Venezuela and China, but those unprepossessing examples bother us not. Socialism “the American way” has proven itself, unlike that of those other two states, philosophically healthy, amiably received, and continually increasing in strength. It’s becoming publicly more palatable than it was even ten years ago.
Aside from socialism, there’s another political ideology of which we hear endless mention. That, about which we speak not wishfully as we do of socialism but despairingly and forebodingly, is fascism.
Fascism, doubtless more illusory and ill-defined than any other ideology about which we know, is claimed often to be a pernicious, burgeoning, and above all a frighteningly real force in American politics. Wildly, indeed ubiquitously misunderstood, fascism has become a byword for everything and thus nothing. It’s everything from a minatory lapse of humanity, to a faltering in political decorum, to an ungracious thought, to an uncouth tweet. Being that it’s so ambiguous, it’s a term that’s been applied to all, an epithet of which every side has been charged. There are fascists on the left and fascists on the right. There are fascists unaware of their fledgling fascism and those—typically cursorily dressed in black ski masks and reinforced gloves—who stand athwart the ideology with an intention literally to fight it wherever it lives (these are the fanatical “freedom fighters” upon whom the misnomer “Antifa” is bestowed).
Again, it was said by our now capricious, now sonorous Commander in Chief that America would never be a socialist country. He made no mention, however, of the possibility of it becoming a fascist one. I suppose that in the declaration of the former, one might implicitly deduce the corollary that is the latter, and in some ways, that’s how we might perceive things. With any luck, America won’t become a fascist state. It won’t descend into the wretched oppression and endless brutality of a legitimately fascist regime. But, that of course isn’t to say that she never was in such a state.
To see in America’s past her rather blatant embrace of fascism, one needn’t look to university syllabi, nor to political manifestoes, nor even to governmental decrees. Indeed, one need look not at the obvious manifestations of government as we imagine them, but at the federal mint—that inconspicuous and swelling production facility of dollars and coins. It’s there that fascism, or at least the fasces after which the political ideology was named, was imprinted upon American life.
Between the years 1916 and 1945, an awful quarter of a century during which two World Wars were fought, the United States Mint produced what was charmingly, though misleadingly known as the “Mercury Dime”. As every numismatist worth his bottom dollar will know, the Mercury Dime was an extraordinary piece of pecuniary treasure. Indeed, even till this day it continues to be highly-esteemed by those enraptured by this archaic and specialized hobby. More than that, even for the lay saver and spender and depositor of cash, it’s a coin of which our historical consciousness ought to take further note.
Both sides of the Mercury Dime were remarkable. On its front was pictured an image of the Roman goddess, Libertas. Truly, her presence and her visage require no further explanation from so profligate an expositor as me. Ours, after all, is a vigorous nation enamored of being free and inextricably steeped in liberal ideals. These come to us quite naturally and need little in the way of elucidation. As such, no other matronly mascot than Libertas would suit us and it’s not difficult to see why. During those two great wars of Europe, those continental moments of strife when enslavement, genocide, and oppression were everywhere to be felt and seen, Libertas—to whom we might affix the more familiar names of Columbia or Lady Liberty—was an image of our peculiarly American ideal. She was the paragon of our bounding patriotism and the protectress of our uniquely unfettered soul. She was the exception to the world’s disorder and, like pagans, we adored her.
Yet, for all the estimable attributes with which she was rightly associated—which were, likewise, those for which our own country was commended by those yearning desperately to be free—our government gave her the wrong name. How could it be so remiss? Apparently, much though we think them to be, mistakes of our government’s making aren’t a new nor especially modern phenomenon of which we now take such keen note; they’ve been since our founding inveterate problems, but they’re the type to which we’ve learned to resign ourselves, grin, and move on. Still, it’s because of a governmental mistake that we know her not as the “Liberty Dime”, as really we ought to, but rather as the “Mercury Dime” as no scholar would’ve permitted. Leave it to a nation illiterate of the classics to toy with and ultimately to corrupt classical themes.
The Roman goddess Liberty, you see, was identifiable by her conical Phrygian cap. It’s the same headpiece that would reappear centuries later atop the restive heads of the Parisian sans-culottes during the Revolution in France (known to that plebeian rabble as the bonnet rogue, or the “red hat”), as well as upon the coats of arms of nearly every South American country in existence today. Though far from American origination—be it North or South—the hat has been a cherished piece of our multicultural appropriation from the east to the west. The cap, as its names implies, was exported from Phrygia, or our modern-day Turkey, whence it was scattered across the world. From Asia Minor, the hat was sent, either symbolically or sartorially, to the rest of the untrammeled world (from which Turkey, sad though I am to say, is presently hopelessly excluded).
But the man upon whom the task was pressed to design this “Mercury Dime”, to envisage Libertas for the country, and to bring to life her noble head was confused with his myth. Though perhaps competent in the art of bas-relief and the nuance of the numismatist’s craft, he was a middling antiquarian and a classicist sorely lacking in the erudition of taste. To Lady Liberty’s Phrygian cap, he added a pair of erroneous wings upon her ear lobes. One needn’t be a bardolator of Homer nor a Sophoclean devotee to recognize the god to whom those wings belong. Of course, they belong to Hermes or, as the Romans called him, Mercury.
Mercury, an ever-vacillating deity, played his part in the Pantheon as the god of cupidity, correspondence, and love or lust. To his credit, or to everyone else’s shared disgrace, this errant attachment to the image of Mercury isn’t exclusive to the printer of coins; many of our medical professionals still wrongly display the avaricious god’s staff coiled bilaterally by snakes over which a pair of telltale wings hangs. The more austere and salutary rod of which they’ve been so neglectful is that of Asclepius—son of Apollo and god of medicine for whose forgiveness we do pray.
And so, what might’ve been the “Liberty Dime” became at once the “Mercury Dime” as the mercurial became the financial and the coin’s circulation got underway. But the misapplication of its name and its inaccurate depiction of its goddess need not reduce the artistic grandeur of this ten-cent piece. It’s still a beautiful little coin upon which the eyes and the soul can profit.
The face of Libertas, ambiguously feminine, was modeled upon that of Elsie Stevens. She escapes history if not for her being the sparsely comely wife of the highly celebrated author by the first name of Wallace. Etched in profile, the face is succinctly handsome and powerfully self-assured. In so constrained a space as is to be found on the surface of a dime, one can’t help but admire her overflowing resolution and her boundless courage. With aquiline nose, paper thin-lips, an insuperable chin, and unblinking eyes, she stares stoically into the commerce of the world. Her hair, the only indication of her femininity—coupled with a slightly softened zygomatic arch—is tussled beneath that confusion of a Hermetic-Phrygian hat (of which I made previous mention). Again, alongside her ear, that amply-feathered wing emerges as if in preparation to alight. We can only hope to imagine that this austere deity is descending to greet us money-changing mortals from the heavens above. Above the wing the Phrygian hat flops over, in what appears an ill-tailored excess of fabric, toward the lady’s stoical brow. This fold, however, has its reason (to which I also earlier alluded), and no metallurgist worth a damn nor a dime would add to his work so superfluous a cap.
Where, you might ask, in the depiction of this inspiring lady is the fascist strain to be found? Was she, in either her mercurial or her liberal form, actually a crypto-fascist concealed from our view? Was she a maiden Mussolini in whom, as the coin’s inscription exhorts us, we ought not to place our trust?
Mrs. Stevens, or Mrs. Mercury, or Mrs. Liberty, for that matter, can have her many names cleared of so scandalous a charge. The fascism, you see, was on the coin’s obverse side. She felt it, but saw it not. Adorning the side of the coin opposite her face is an emblem with which most observers will be unfamiliar. Beautifully and intimidatingly constructed with carefully-spaced vertical lines, the image is that of the fasces.
The fasces, from which our “fascism” derives, was an ancient Roman weapon and symbol of unified strength. Along with unity, it was demonstrative of such manly Roman virtues as glory, martial zeal, virility, and intimidation. As it appears on the Mercury Dime, it’s an ambivalent weapon around which an olive branch is wrapped. It’s at once intimidating and irenic. In Roman times, however, it was all the former and nothing of the latter. The fasces was used by the lictors who were present in both the monarchical and the republican periods of Rome.
Few in number but unwavering in oath, these were the men by whom the Roman kings, consuls, and later magistrates were surrounded. They carried in their arms this cumbersome device after which an Italian political movement would be named nearly two millennia hence.
Simply put, though perhaps complexly conceived, the fasces was essentially an ax around which a bundle of durable sticks and rods were tied. Often, the ax protruded from the top of the bundle as if a minatory jack-in-the-box were leaping for a kill. Other times, the ax component would emerge from the middle section of the sticks as if a scathing excrescence.
In the event of an assault, this sturdy but ungainly weapon might be used to bludgeon or eviscerate a foe. It seems to the military eye of modernity a rather defensive than offensive threat, but it appears to be the case that in either capacity, it’d be apt to fail. One certainly wouldn’t carry so curious a device into the throes of battle or the desperate tumult of single combat. It was more likely to be used in a unilateral bout—one where the victim was, by the state’s decree, murderously preordained.
Aside from its rather limited utility as a weapon of war (it would shrink in futility in the presence of any other well-crafted Roman sword—the redoubtable type for which the empire would become so internationally famous), the fasces was of deep symbolic import. It was, as noted, a sign of Roman unity, order, and strength. The proximity of the ax to the sticks by which it was supported, and the sticks to one another to which they were collectively bound, described in one device the ethos of an empire. It would be unified and it would be strong. It would be trenchant and it would be swift. It would be homogenous and dangerous, universally recognizable and virtuously bound. It would be redoubtable and shockingly durable through the passage of time.
And durable, and very nearly invisible, it’s remained through many centuries on end. Until this day, it persists undetected before our unseeing eyes. The Mercury Dime, I admit, isn’t the only place it can be seen. To list all of the American icons upon which the fasces appears would be, I fear, an unwise effort on my part; I dare not stretch to exhaustion the good reader’s patience for which I’ve been so grateful thus far. This, I should think, will be a matter of further independent research if you’re so inclined. Suffice it to say, once one is cognizant of it, the fasces leaps out from every corner of our national iconography and clamors with a bit of discord in the ear. Permit me one example, and I’ll refer your attention to the official seal of the U.S. Senate. Expectedly red, white, and blue, the seal is an emblem at whose bottom two fasces cross as if to form an “X”. Additionally, at its top, a Phrygian cap rests. Between these two conflicting symbols a shield of stars and stripes is to be found over which the phrase E Pluribus Unum is found draped and inscribed.
At least on the one point, the president was correct: America will never be a socialist country. That doesn’t exclude, of course, the possibility of it being a fascist one. And if the Mercury Dime and the U.S. Senate’s seal and the doorway to the Oval Office and the chair upon which Abraham Lincoln at his eponymous memorial sits are to offer us any evidence at all, in its iconography, America has been just that—a symbolically fascist state. One need only look to see.