British numismatic historian, Justin Robinson, takes us on a fascinating journey spanning 2000 years as he examines how the powerful symbol of Britannia changed and evolved over the centuries.
The Polish Constitution of 3 May was adopted 230 years ago. Thomas Jefferson, who then served as an American envoy in Paris and later became the President of the USA, stated that there were only three constitutional acts that deserved recognition: those of the United States, Poland and France. The introduction of the May Constitution was one of the most momentous events in the history of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, and an attempt at defending its independence. Unfortunately, the joy was short-lived. In 1792, a confederation of conservatives opposing all reform appealed to Empress Catherine II to intervene. The Russian army entered Poland, and the end of the Commonwealth drew near.
3 May 1791 – Sejm Proceedings under Military Escort
Faced with the progressive limitation of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth’s sovereignty (following the first partition in 1772) and a growing dependence on Russia, patriots started calling for reform. A chance to introduce them arrived during the Great Sejm (1788-1792). The confederated Sejm (which could not be broken off) culminated in the adoption of the Constitution of 3 May 1791.
The legislation was passed in a controversial manner, in circumstances that could be likened to staging a coup. The proceedings were held two days before the planned date, thus a number of MPs and senators (including many conservative) were not in Warsaw at the time. The army surrounded the Royal Castle, where the Sejm congregated, in order to quell any possible unrest. Military men disguised as valets guarded the members of the progressive patriotic faction. Marshal of the Sejm Stanisław Małachowski was given special protection.
The session was heated from the very beginning. Everyone was aware of the gravity of the moment. And although patriots had the advantage, their opponents did not want to surrender without a fight. Member of Parliament Jan Suchorzewski, who opposed the reforms, even proclaimed that he would sooner kill his son than let him live under the oppression that the country was about to experience.
Amidst noise and nearly theatrical scenes, the king and the Marshal of the Sejm strove to have the Constitutional act ratified. The draft for the document had been prepared in secret by a team which included King Stanisław August, Stanisław Małachowski, Ignacy Potocki, Hugo Kołłątaj and others, aided by the royal secretary Scipione Piattoli.
Changes Introduced by the May Constitution
The Constitution comprised eleven articles. It acknowledged the Roman Catholic creed as dominant, but guaranteed the freedom of practicing other religions. The nobility was to keep their privileges and prerogatives, with the exception of the infamous ‘liberum veto’, which allowed any single member of parliament to cause an immediate termination of the ongoing session. The Constitution also upheld the provisions of the Free Royal Cities Act adopted on 18 April 1791, which granted townspeople the right to send their representatives to the Sejm, guaranteed their personal freedom and allowed them to purchase land estates and hold public office, thus offering a path to social advancement to a substantial section of the society. The issue of the peasantry was also tackled. While not granting peasants any specific rights or freedoms, the Constitution was the first act to acknowledge them as a part of the civic community, alongside the nobility and townsfolk.
The Commonwealth was to be governed in accordance with the principle of the separation of power, divided into the legislative (the Sejm), the executive (the king and the ‘Guardians of the Law’) and the judiciary branch. A bicameral parliament was established; it was to convene on a biannual basis. Laws would be passed by a majority vote. It was also expected that a Constitutional Sejm would be held every twenty five years, to introduce necessary amendments to the Basic Law.
The king held executive power together with ‘Guardians of the Law’, i.e. his government. Aside from the monarch and the primate, the body was to comprise five ministers, responsible for Foreign Affairs, Internal Affairs, Police, Treasury and War. The ‘Guardians’ were appointed by the king. The Constitution also abolished royal elections in favour of hereditary monarchy. After the death of Stanisław August, the throne was to pass to the House of Wettin. If the king happened to be underage, the ‘Guardians of the Law’ were to act as regents, led by the queen or, in her absence, by the primate of the country.Lastly, the Constitution introduced changes to the judicial system. Courts of first instance would be established in all voivodeships, lands and counties. The choice of judges lay with local assemblies (sejmiki). Additionally, each province was to have a Supreme Tribunal, which served as the court of appeal.
The Dutch Medal Presented to the King of Poland
The adoption of the Constitution was an event that reverberated both within the country and worldwide. Such a momentous occasion had to be commemorated in a fitting manner – and, indeed, it was, not only by publishers and artists producing propagandist prints, but also by medallist.
A unique work of the art of medal-making was created in Amsterdam in 1791. Rich in symbolic depictions, the coin was minted to honour King Stanisław August Poniatowski, and was presented to him as a gift. The donators were citizens of the United Provinces (the Netherlands), by the names of Gülcher and Mülder. A Warsaw-based banker Piotr Blank acted as an intermediary, making sure that the king received the gift.
The donators enlisted the services of an excellent Dutch medallist Johann Georg Holtzhey (1729-1808), master of the mint in Amsterdam and Utrecht.
Holtzhey designed the obverse of the medal to feature an elegant royal portrait of Stanisław August. In an interesting propagandist move, he chose to adorn the king’s head with oak leaves instead of the more typical laurel. In Ancient Roman tradition, an oak wreath was granted as a reward for extraordinary civic merit. Aside from the king’s customary titles (“Stanisław August, z Bożej łaski król Polski i wielki książę litewski” [Stanisław August, by the Grace of God King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania]), the legend around the rim of the coin included the phrase “PATRIAE PARENS” [Father of the Homeland].
The main motif on the reverse is the quartered coat of arms of the Commonwealth (with the Poniatowski family crest – Ciołek), depicted on a globe-shaped field, topped with a mural crown and a Christogram (to signify religious tolerance). Beside it, a winged genius holds a Phrygian cap (a symbol of freedom) in his right hand, and an olive branch and a caduceus in his left. The broken shackles depicted at the genius’ feet represent foreign violence.
The background features sunbeams and the eye of Providence keeping watch over the citizens’ endeavours. To the left of the coat of arms, the medallist depicted a fasces, scales and the sword of justice, to represent fair and equal judgment for everyone in the country. The surrounding inscription reads: “TERRORE LIBERA” [Free of Fear]; the one beneath the main motif is: “EX PERHONORIFICIO COMITIORUM DECRETO D.III MAY MDCCXCI” [By Honourable Decree of the Assembly on 3 May 1791].
Treason at Targowica
The May Constitution was a short-lived act. In 1792, opponents of the reforms formed a conspiracy that led to a Russian intervention. A group of magnates, among them General of Artillery of the Crown Stanisław Szczęsny Potocki, Great Crown Hetman Franciszek Branicki and Field Hetman Seweryn Rzewuski, met at Targowica in Ukraine to establish a confederation that would defend the freedoms they believed Constitution to violate.
Their actions were enthusiastically welcomed by the Russian Empire, which – having signed a peace treaty with Ottoman Turkey – sought to reinstate its weakened influence over Poland. Empress Catherine II happily assumed the role of ‘protector of freedom’ and deployed nearly 100,000 troops to Poland to “aid the common cause of restoring to the Commonwealth its rights and privileges”. This was the beginning of the Russo-Polish War of 1792, a conflict that would hasten the demise of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.
These painful events were commemorated on a medal coin, the so-called Targowica thaler, issued in 1793 at the initiative of the confederates. Unusually, the obverse did not feature the likeness of the king, only a propagandist inscription glorifying the ‘patriotic’ deeds of the confederation: ”Obywatelom, których miłość kraju powodowała, że starali się bronić wolności polskiej, zniszczonej przez spisek z dnia 3 maja 1791 r. – Rzeczpospolita powstająca” [To the citizens whom love of their country prompted to defend Polish freedom, destroyed by the conspiracy of 3 May 1791 – the Commonwealth Rising]. The message was additionally reinforced by the wording of the inscription around the rim: “Wdzięczność współobywateli przykładem dla potomności” [In gratitude to fellow citizens to set an example for posterity].
The reverse also differed from that of standard thaler coins. Instead of the coat of arms, it depicted the following inscription: “Postanowieniem Rzeczpospolitej skonfederowanej w dniu 5 grudnia 1792 r. za panowania Stanisława Augusta” [By decree of the Confederated Commonwealth on 5 December 1792, during the reign of Stanisław August].
The Grodno Sejm, the last session of parliament in the history of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, held in 1793 with ‘encouragement’ from the Russian army, ratified the second partition of the country and nullified the May Constitution. The final attempt at saving Poland’s independence came in 1794, in the form of an uprising led by general Tadeusz Kościuszko. The insurrection was suppressed by Russian forces; and one year later Poland ultimately disappeared from the map of Europe.
Marcin Brzezinski is a graduate of the Faculty of Journalism and Political Science at the University of Warsaw. He is interested in the history of Polish aristocracy and old photography. Author and co-author of several books, including: “Adam and Jadwiga Czartoryski. Photographs and Memories” (2013), “Stanisław Kazimierz Kossakowski. I love photography” (2019). Co-creator of historical exhibitions, including: “For here we do not have an enduring city – a story about palaces on the Royal Route in Warsaw” (2010). He has been cooperating with the National Treasury (Skarbnica Narodowa) for several years. The area of his numismatic interest is primarily historical Polish coins.
Do coins have the power to bring GOOD LUCK? For centuries, many have believed this to be true. There are countless stories of how coins have ensured fortune and luck (and in some cases, the loss of a coin has led to failure and even disaster!) While your choice of a personal good luck charm remains completely up to you, let’s examine SEVEN of the most popular lucky coins around the world.
1. The Silver Sixpence (Great Britain)
In Great Britain, the Lucky Sixpence appears in the nursery rhyme Sing a Song of Sixpence as well as the tradition of hiding a Sixpence inside each British child’s Christmas Pudding to bring good luck for the new year.
Even better known is the mention of this coin in the famous wedding rhyme: “Something borrowed, something Blue, and a Sixpence for her shoe.” For centuries, brides have been wearing a sixpence coin in their shoes in the hope that their marriage be filled with prosperity and good luck. For that reason, British sixpence coins are among the most popular wedding gifts for brides.
2. The Lucky Irish Penny (Ireland)
The Lucky Irish Penny was minted in Ireland from 1928-1968. In 1926, as designs were being considered for this new coin, Irish poet William Butler Yeats was named the design committee’s chairman. Ultimately, the committee selected a design of the Irish harp, which traced its origins to a coin first issued by Henry VIII in 1534. The coin’s reverse side, it was decided, would feature a hen and chicks design as a tribute to Ireland’s tradition of agriculture.
These coins were first minted in 1928 and continued to be issued virtually unchanged until 1968. Struck in copper, each coin weighs approximately an ounce. The coin’s inscription is in Gaelic, the native language of Ireland.
Large and relatively inexpensive, the Lucky Irish Penny is a popular good luck piece carried in pockets throughout the world.
3. Leap Year Mercury Dimes (United States)
Many gamblers across the U.S. swear by the luck of the leap year Mercury Silver Dime. This widespread superstition likely stems from an overall belief in the power of silver coins coupled with Mercury being the god of “the crossroads” or fate, as well as chance. The leap year dates that occurred during the run of the Mercury Dime series are 1916, 1920, 1924, 1928, 1932, 1936, 1940, 1944.
The belief in the Leap Year Mercury Dime is particularly ironic, however, since this silver dime has long been misidentified as depicting the Roman god Mercury, when it actually features Lady Liberty wearing a winged cap – symbolizing freedom of thought.
4. The Five-Yen Coin (Japan)
Many Japanese people believe in destiny. The term “go-en” (ご縁) refers to those seemingly serendipitous encounters that result in long and meaningful relationships. The Japanese 5-yen coin is also called “go-en” 五円. Because it sounds the same as the “go-en” of destiny, many Japanese people believe that holding a 5-yen coin will help them discover what the Universe has in store for them. This could involve finding soulmate spouse, a perfect job, a dream home, or many other facets of life.
Similarly, 5-yen coins are commonly placed into offering boxes at shrines while one utters a prayer of thanks, followed by a wish for something in the future (always in that order). Because this belief all ties back to destiny, a 5-yen coin is seen as simply helping along the good luck and the serendipity that is actually always meant to be!
5. Vault Protector/Cash Coins (China)
In China, “cash coins” featuring a square hole in the middle hold a special meaning. The square in the centre represents the four corners of the Earth while the outer circle shape symbolizes the heavens around it. In ancient China, money was often frequently carried on strings rather than in purses. These coins are also often worn around the neck with a red ribbon as amulets to fight off negativity and illness.
Certain large and heavy cash coins are known as “Vault Protector” coins. Created only for special occasions, Chinese mints would sometimes cast large, thick, and heavy coins with a square hole in the centre. These coins were not for circulation – but instead occupied a special place at the treasury. The treasury had a spirit hall, where offerings could be made to gods such as the God of Wealth. These special coins would often be hung with red silk through their square hole, suspended above the incense table. They were called Vault Protector coins because they were believed to have charm-like powers to protect against evil and disaster, thus ensuring good fortune, prosperity, and wealth.
Giving a gift of Chinese cash coins ensures that the receiver is granted your wishes of wealth, prosperity and happiness.
6. Touch Pieces – Healing Coins (England & France)
Touch Pieces are coins that have been touched by rulers, monarchs or other powerful beings who are believed to hold their authority directly from God. Touch Piece coins were extremely auspicious and are said to have demonstrated healing powers.
Actually, this practice dates back to the Ancient Roman Empire. The Roman Emperor Vespasian (69-79AD) is reported to have initiated ceremonies during which he would hand out coins to the sick. This ceremony became known as “The Touching”.
Centuries later, the Kings and Queens of England and France embraced this practice – holding regular touching ceremonies up through 1714. The fact that an angel appeared on some British coins from the time of Henry VIII onward further cemented the tradition of the healing coin from the hand of your monarch. The British tradition of Maundy Money may have derived from this overall custom, as it features the monarch gifting specific subjects with token gifts of silver coins.
Of course, it wasn’t just about royalty. Clergymen were also known to hand out or even sell healing coins during ceremonies which were said to bring healing powers to the believer. There are many contemporary accounts of people being cured by this method. In a convenient bit of rationale, those who remained ill were accused of not having enough faith.
7. The Gold Angel (France)
As we have just seen, coins with angels on them have been treasured as tokens of good luck, health, and fortune. If a King or Queen handed an angel coin to a subject, it would often become a family heirloom – being handed down through the generations.
The legend of the Lucky French Gold Angel, however, has an even more dramatic start. During the French Revolution, Augustine Dupré, was standing on the platform waiting in line to lose his head to the guillotine. In his pocket, Dupré carried a gold coin that he himself had engraved, a French Gold Angel. He believed that carrying the coin with him would protect him from evil and danger. Sure enough, faced with the dire prospect of the guillotine, the Angel delivered him!
Legend holds that moments before his execution, a huge thunder roared and lightning struck, scaring the executioner and delaying the planned execution. Before it could be rescheduled, Dupré was granted a pardon – and thus the Gold Angel saved his life.
Inspired by this tale, Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte also carried a Lucky Gold Angel—but legend reports that he lost his coin just the day before the Battle of Waterloo. We all know the outcome of that battle!
Dupré’s angel design was revived from 1871 to 1898 on 20 Franc and 50 France gold coins. The coin’s legend continued into the 20th century, with sea captains and fighter pilots in both World Wars believing the coin brought them luck and protection.
SPECIAL BONUS: Personal Lucky Charm Coins
The above list details some of the most popular and longstanding lucky coins from around the globe. But you may, in fact, find your own lucky coin(s) quite a bit closer to home.
Commonly, coins dated from your birth year or other significant milestone in your life are believed to be lucky. Also, if you are from an immigrant background, treasuring a coin from the country your parents or grandparents came from is often considered a way to ensure good luck, prosperity and fortune.
No matter what the source, look around you today and see if you can’t pocket a special coin to bring you luck, prosperity, and happiness!
Steve Wolff is an American numismatist, writer, and video producer who has spent over 20 years sharing the fascinating stories behind coins and the historical events and personalities that inspired and shaped them.
The 1962 Seattle World’s Fair offered its ten million visitors many exciting sights. Astronaut John Glenn brought his Friendship 7 space capsule, Elvis Presley even filmed a movie there, and Seattle’s famous Space Needle was built as the fair’s futuristic symbol. However, if you had purchased your ticket and walked on the fairgrounds in the spring of 1962, you would have been treated to a spectacular display which has never been re-created: a wire corn crib holding 1 MILLION gleaming US Silver Dollars!
This incredible display was the result of an unlikely partnership between the Philadelphia Mint and three Washington numismatists. The three convinced a Columbus, Nebraska manufacturing company to build a steel building on the fair site, while two large semi trucks each carried 500,000 silver dollars in mint-sealed bags from Philadelphia all the way across country to Seattle. (Of course, the trucks also carried armed Pinkerton guards, while state troopers and local police provided additional escort.)
To construct the Million Silver Dollars exhibit, 800,000 Morgan silver dollars in mint bags dated 1910-1915 were carefully stacked in the center of the aforementioned corn crib. Then, once the mountain of bags was completed, the final 200,000 Peace dollars were poured in to completely cover the bags. Fair visitors were allowed to pass within just a few feet of this amazing display from the Fair’s opening day, April 21, 1962, until it closed in October. Anywhere from 25,000 – 40,000 visitors passed through the steel building every day to gaze upon this once-in-a-lifetime sight. While most visitors considered themselves lucky to even be close to this treasure, one unsuspecting lady was the luckiest of them all! In June, as the one millionth fair visitor passed through the gates, she was presented with 100 of the silver dollars from the exhibit.
In the fall of 1962, just after the World’s Fair has closed, an ad appeared in a national coin magazine offering actual dollars from this exhibit, in commemorative holders, for $1.95 each. Or, you could purchase up to 5 bags per person for $1500 per bag of 1000.
Oh for a time machine to travel back 59 years, eh?!!
Steve Wolff is an American numismatist, writer, and video producer who has spent over 20 years sharing the fascinating stories behind coins and the historical events and personalities that inspired and shaped them.