The Lathes Of Giants – James B. Longacre
by: David Kielek
Our first entry is James B. Longacre (1794-1869); appointed Fourth Chief Engraver of the United States Mint in 1844. Already an portraitist and designer of some renown , Longacres early career is curiously reminiscent of another American legend, Benjamin Franklin. Born impoverished in rural Pennsylvania, Longacre, as did young Franklin, left home for Philadelphia at the age of 12, became apprenticed to an engraver, and spent the next years perfecting his skills which included specie design and engraving and portraiture, for which he opened his own enterprise in 1819. His self-made-man persona fits well with the American character of independence, self-reliance, ingenuity and sacrifice. The young artists meticulous attention to detail, his superb eye for forms and shapes, his master craftsmanship and his work ethic were all honed by his early apprenticeship, in a peculiar way as was Franklins.
The young Longacre also exhibited adroit political connections. His National Portrait Gallery of Distinguished Americans, established around 1830, enabled him to meet with and exploit connections with the American upper-crust. Portraits of Daniel Boone and other well-known contemporaries earned the portraitist fame in the 1830s-40s. Famous South Carolina Senator John C. Calhoun was one of Longacres many influential friends, and it was he who helped ease the way for his appointment to the Chief Engravers job, in 1844, on the death of then-head Christian Gobrecht.
Longacress long tenure at the mint was marked by conflict. Entrenched interests, politically connected, had long taken residence there. Political corruption, illegal side-vending, graft of all sorts existed in the office at that time, and these entrenched interests worked hard to minimize the oversight and supervision role of the Chief Engraver.
That James B. Longacre fought these forces arrayed against him and, in large part, was able to clean up the political corruption at the Mint, and at the same time produce an array of some of the most beautiful US coins, either gold coins or silver coins, is a testament both to his courage and his talent, both as a designer and as an administrator. That he was able to…