Monday, December 28, 2009

Coin Monday: Ode to Louis McHenry Howe

Dec. 28, 2009
Written by John Dale

While it may not have quite the same ring as “Ode to Billie Joe”, there’s an “Ode to Louis McHenry Howe” in lot 2062 of The Boca Collection, Part I, one of three volumes in the set covering Heritage’s January 2010 FUN U.S. Coin Auction.

Just about everyone who isn’t either a Franklin Delano Roosevelt fanatic, over 80 years of age, or a clicker of the hyperlink bearing his name is asking, “Who the heck is Louis McHenry Howe?”
Howe was a journalist turned ultimate political insider and ultimate confidant to Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Through a quarter of a century Howe guided Roosevelt through his early state-level political experiences, his personal and political crises in the aftermath of his failed 1920 bid for the vice-presidency, and the vast majority of Roosevelt’s first term as president.

Still, Howe was doubtless more famous (or infamous) at the height of his influence than in the years following his death; even recent re-tellings of history inevitably must elide ($5 SAT word alert! - Noah) important figures of any one time, and advisors - even influential ones - are often among the first to fade.

Howe’s contemporaries could not deny his influence, however, so they called him names instead, attacking his appearance and his political acumen. He was a “Rasputin” for his perceived influence over Roosevelt, an unflattering “Talleyrand,” a “ghoul.” Less grudgingly, he was also “The President’s Other I,” “The Man Behind Roosevelt,” or as the title of a recent history-biography describes him, FDR’s Shadow.

The Roosevelt-Howe relationship was unusually close for a modern American president and an advisor, and the proof coinage of 1936 is actually a testament to that closeness. Though proof set coinage had been stopped in 1916 because of rising costs and hassle, the idea was revived two decades later.

Why? To quote a quotation of a quote (it makes sense if you read the description…), “It was understood at the Treasury that the resumption of [proof coinage] was ordered on a suggestion of Louis M. Howe, secretary to President Roosevelt, a few weeks before his death.”

Thus, it was a message from the President’s secretary and confidant – in some ways a last wish – and was, ultimately, the catalyst for the return of proof sets. The idea took only months to travel from Howe’s mind to then-Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau’s desk to the coining presses in the U.S. Mint in Philadelphia.

Why did Howe make his request? The press release that was the ultimate source of the above quote states simply, “Howe was said to have been interested in numismatics.”

The mid-1930s were a boom time for coin collecting, and there were a number of collectors campaigning for the return of proof sets at the time, but whether Howe was interested in proof sets himself or was acting on another’s behalf is not widely understood. Perhaps a further examination of Howe’s correspondence will reveal why this intriguing man – the “Medieval Gnome” at Roosevelt’s side, the whisperer in the President’s ear – looked after numismatics in his final days.
After Howe’s death, he was buried as much as he was praised, but his influence on President Roosevelt was incalculable. The last sets of the Boca Collection are the undeniable proof.

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-John Dale Beety

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