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The Historic Massachusetts For Justice Medal of 1856

DCWDCW Posts: 6,973 ✭✭✭✭✭

Recently, my research on this interesting piece was published by the Civil War Token Society for their quarterly journal, and I'd like to share it with you all here. For those interested, you can join the Civil War Token Society for $18 a year. It includes four periodicals full of articles like this with many other benefits. Check it out: http://www.cwtsociety.com/membersh.shtml
The images and text didnt exactly line up in this format, so I've attached the PDF to this thread for anyone to use. Thanks for reading!

The “Massachusetts For Justice” Medal (1856)
By: D. Carver Wells LM.246

The Massachusetts For Justice medal has captivated me for a very long time. Attributed as Dewitt SL-1859-2 by Edmund Sullivan in his epic tome, “American Political Badges and Medalets, 1789-1892,” it is listed alongside the John Brown, “Slavery, the Sum of All Villanies” medal as the only two issues for the year 1859. As such, it is often presumed to have been struck as an anti-slavery piece following the raids that year on Harper’s Ferry, but that is not correct. It was actually struck much earlier in the wake of another watershed moment in US history.

On May 22, 1856, Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts was sitting at his desk in the Senate Chamber, when he was approached by a man with a cane and a Southern drawl. Identifying himself as Preston Brooks, a representative from South Carolina, he immediately began to air a set of grievances against the senator, which arose from a recent speech he gave concerning the “Crime Against Kansas.” Particularly incendiary language was chosen by Sumner in this anti-slavery oration. Several times he invoked sexual imagery in defining the evils of this institution, even mocking Senator Andrew Butler of South Carolina by name, and declaring the “Harlot, Slavery” his “mistress.” Brooks, a relative of Butler, took umbrage.

Before Sumner could even stand up, Brooks pounced upon him, pummeling him with such force that his heavy gutta percha cane was split into pieces. Trapped beneath his desk and unable to move to safety, Sumner was beaten nearly unconscious while his colleagues watched in a mixture of horror and elation. Two congressmen, both from the South, positioned themselves between the melee and all who wished to intervene, cautioning to “let them be” and brandishing canes of their own.

The assault on the Massachusetts Senator became national news, and each man was viewed equally as hero and villain from a viewpoint drawn purely on geography. Southern institutions praised Brooks and presented him dozens of new canes, some elaborately engraved with the words “Hit him again” and “Well done.” In the North, as the Senator convalesced over the next three years from his injuries, he became a kind of “living martyr.” Newspapers opined that this act of aggression was an attack on free speech itself, marking the beginning of the end to diplomacy between the North and South.

This lithograph by artist John L. Magee of Philadelphia (1856) captured perfectly how fractured the Union had become. The Senator lies helpless, clutching his quill in one hand and his famous speech in the other. As the South Carolina representative beats him senseless in front of his colleagues, half of whom are smiling, Sumner gazes skyward in a dream like state.

In Boston, one man saw opportunity. Reading page after page of the local paper, a young engraver named Joseph Henry Merriam, noted the ardor in which each editorial was written. It was all people were talking about, and it stirred something inside of him. The Merriams were among the Bay State’s first European families. They traced their roots proudly to the Old Colony. His Great Grandfather, Josiah, was a militiaman at Lexington and Concord, a soldier at the dawn of the American Revolution. Merriam looked at the Great Seal of the Commonwealth and found inspiration; the arm and saber seemed to beckon his talents.
Only a week after this event, as reported in the Boston Evening Transcript on June 2, 1856, Merriam had already cut steel dies to memorialize the extreme sentiments of the day in medallic form. It is unquestionably his earliest medal, struck while he was still partnered with his brother, John C. Merriam, in Faneuil Hall and by profession, a manufacturer of “brands, seals, and stencils.”

Up until that time, Merriam had limited his numismatic work to “metallic checks” for railroad companies, eating establishments, and the like. They were simple pieces struck in tin, usually consisting of the merchant’s name and address around a beaded circle with an incused number in the center. This changed with the caning of Mr. Sumner. By combing through newspapers, Merriam found new subjects for his medals, and by the time of the Presidential Election of 1860, he would already be widely regarded as Boston’s foremost die sinker and medalist. That all began exactly here, so the importance of this piece to those who admire his work cannot be overstated.

The medals were handsomely struck on 27mm planchets and are known in three compositions: tin, copper, and brass. While Sullivan’s book omits brass and lists silver, I’m confident that this is an error. This is corroborated by the three medals housed in the DeWitt Collection that Mr. Sullivan curated at the University of Hartford.
The obverse displays an arm and saber, the crest of the state’s coat of arms, surrounded by the motto, “Massachusetts For Justice.” The reverse is engraved with a very simple laurel wreath, heralded by the words, “Freedom of Speech- We Never Will Surrender.”

Tin was the composition meant for general distribution, consistent with Merriam’s use of this soft metal in striking his earliest merchant tokens. Examples are scarce but attainable with some searching.

Copper examples were almost certainly “numismatic strikes” of the day. They are extremely rare with perhaps as few as three known.

Brass is probably the rarest composition of all. The only example I have traced since 1890 is the J. Doyle Dewitt specimen pictured here, which was locked away in a museum until 2022.

Although they were sold into the fervor of 1856, the earliest numismatic auctions for Massachusetts For Justice medals seem to begin around 1860 when Merriam’s other works gained favor. Bangs, Merwin & Co. in New York listed a lone tin example in VF condition. The following year, the sale of Connecticut banker and numismatist, Alfred S. Robinson’s Collection at Leonard & Co. in Boston included no less than five Massachusetts For Justice medals (all in tin) under the grouping of “Merriam’s Splendid Tokens.” By this point, Merriam had produced medals of prominent figures like George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Abraham Lincoln, and Edward Everett. I couldn’t find a record of either copper or brass specimens until March of 1863. William H. Strobridge lists both metals in that auction catalog stating, “but three of these medals were struck.”

The sale of the J. Doyle Dewitt Collection in 2022 presented an interesting opportunity, along with an unexpected discovery. Lot #43672 at Heritage Auctions featured all three compositions, and the copper example stood out. I immediately noticed something special.

This medal was struck over a large cent! Amazingly, the auction house either never noticed this fact or failed to mention it. As part of the most famous collection of political memorabilia ever assembled, I find the omission extraordinary. Moreover, this is the plate specimen in the aforementioned Sullivan book. He too overlooked it. Indeed, in all of my research, I can find not a single reference to an overstrike for this issue. This may be unique. Conversely, examination of other specimens in copper may reveal that Merriam used large cents as planchets for them all. He may have simply prepared them in a way to conceal the details of the host coin prior to being struck. Further research is required.

The obverse details of the host coin are evident on the obverse of this Massachusetts for Justice Medal. Most prominent are the letters “O” and “CE” of “ONE CENT” which are peeking through the arm and beads below it.

Faint details of the wreath are seen just below the end of Massachusetts and on either side of the saber’s tip. “UNITED STATES OF AMERICA” is almost obliterated as it overlaps “Massachusetts For Justice.” Across the words, “Freedom of Speech” and “Surrender,” the viewer can just make out the stars of the host coin’s obverse.

The lips and chin details are almost all that remains of Lady Liberty from the obverse of the Large Cent.
This overlay shows how the piece would appear if the design elements of both the medal and host coin retained all of their features during the overstrike. Most of the details on the large cent are gone, including any evidence of a date. However, we can conclude that this is a Braided Hair cent struck sometime between the years 1836 - 1856.
Interestingly, this overstrike lacks a diagnostic present on all Massachusetts For Justice medals I have studied. On the reverse of each medal in every composition that I’ve seen, there is a lateral die crack at 3 o’clock. It runs east to west from the rim in between the E & C of the word “SPEECH.” Depending on die state, it can extend well into the wreath and beyond. But there is no trace of the crack on this overstruck large cent. It begs the question-is this piece a die trial? Did Merriam overstrike a large cent before initiating his production of medals, only to have the reverse die immediately crack? And did he, after noticing this, move onto a softer medal (tin) in order to extend the life of the die?

A die crack is seen extending from the rim into the wreath on this tin example, a diagnostic found on all medals I have studied.

In the end, justice would come swiftly for Massachusetts; well before the Civil War even started. Just seven months after this medal was struck, Preston Brooks died suddenly from a severe case of croup at 37 years of age. According to the official dispatch from Washington, he “died a horrid death and suffered intensely” where he “endeavored to tear his own throat open to get breath.” If that language weren’t striking enough, the following quote from the same telegram is added for good measure:

“The wrath of man is avenged in the justice of God.”

Charles Sumner lived for another 18 years, serving in the Senate until his death in 1874. While never fully recovering from the injuries afflicted upon him by Mr. Brooks, he nonetheless continued to fight for what he knew was right until his last breath. He will be remembered for tirelessly advancing the cause of liberty and equal rights to all men. The Civil Rights Bill of 1875, an amended piece of legislation that he championed throughout Reconstruction, was passed soon after his death. A final tribute to the abolitionist Senator from Massachusetts.

Dead Cat Waltz Exonumia
"Coin collecting for outcasts..."


  • Mr_SpudMr_Spud Posts: 4,434 ✭✭✭✭✭

    Cool write up, thanks 👍🏼


  • BillJonesBillJones Posts: 33,479 ✭✭✭✭✭
    edited February 14, 2024 9:35AM

    I have owned this one since the 1990s, but I didn't think that it was made of tin. Sullivan says it's white metal.

    If it is made of tin, it's done a remarkable job of avoiding corrosion.

    Great article, BTW.

    Retired dealer and avid collector of U.S. type coins, 19th century presidential campaign medalets and selected medals. In recent years I have been working on a set of British coins - at least one coin from each king or queen who issued pieces that are collectible. I am also collecting at least one coin for each Roman emperor from Julius Caesar to ... ?
  • DCWDCW Posts: 6,973 ✭✭✭✭✭

    @BillJones said:
    I have owned this one since the 1990s, but I didn't think that it was made of tin. Sullivan says it's white metal.

    If it is made of tin, it's done a remarkable job of avoiding corrosion.

    Great article, BTW.

    Thanks, Bill. That means a lot coming from you!

    As for the composition, "tin" and "white metal" tend to be interchangeable in auction catalogs. Merriam himself called it tin, so I always describe this composition as such. Here is a catalog from 1864:

    Dead Cat Waltz Exonumia
    "Coin collecting for outcasts..."

  • DCWDCW Posts: 6,973 ✭✭✭✭✭

    No interest?

    Dead Cat Waltz Exonumia
    "Coin collecting for outcasts..."

  • 291fifth291fifth Posts: 23,936 ✭✭✭✭✭

    Outstanding thread! :)

    All glory is fleeting.
  • calgolddivercalgolddiver Posts: 1,397 ✭✭✭✭✭

    outstanding history lesson ... thanks Dennis

    Top 25 Type Set 1792 to present

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  • 291fifth291fifth Posts: 23,936 ✭✭✭✭✭

    Sadly, it appears that parking lot penny "error" threads get a lot more attention. :(

    All glory is fleeting.
  • TurtleCatTurtleCat Posts: 4,589 ✭✭✭✭✭

    I enjoyed reading the history of it. And the design is more interesting than many civil war tokens I’ve seen. At least to me.

  • Namvet69Namvet69 Posts: 8,670 ✭✭✭✭✭

    Outstanding overstrike. One is rewarded by seeing stuff that's hiding in plain sight. Peace Roy

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  • jacrispiesjacrispies Posts: 712 ✭✭✭✭✭

    Thanks for sharing the history! I love the style and content of this medal, wish they made more coppers.

    It appears like the first copper example you show is also struck over a large cent. I figured if he struck one example over a cent, then the others are likely struck over existing cents too. Studying the image closer, you can see the stars of the undertype!

    "For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord" Romans 6:23. Young fellow suffering from Bust Half fever.

  • DCWDCW Posts: 6,973 ✭✭✭✭✭


    I had also considered that, but without an in hand examination it seemed like I was seeing things. Those stars are just barely there, right? No trace of any other of the design elements like the other copper medal, which shows bold portions of the face and ONE CENT.

    Merriam probably planed off the large cent nearly smooth for that one. Interesting that it shows the diagnostic crack, and boldly at that!

    Dead Cat Waltz Exonumia
    "Coin collecting for outcasts..."

  • BoosibriBoosibri Posts: 11,867 ✭✭✭✭✭

    Outstanding research! Well done Den.

    The forum can be frustrating when you post a well research article and get next to no responses. Been there. Post a picture of a Merc dime from a coin star machine or a generic Morgan and the comments roll in.

  • DCWDCW Posts: 6,973 ✭✭✭✭✭

    Not a very well known medal, outside exonumia circles I guess. That was kind of the point of researching and putting this together. Seems historically important, and history is presumably an interest we all share. This part was just forgotten until now.

    Well, thanks for all that commented anyway.

    Dead Cat Waltz Exonumia
    "Coin collecting for outcasts..."

  • nwcoastnwcoast Posts: 2,840 ✭✭✭✭✭

    Thank you for sharing this very important and interesting work and research.
    I learned a great deal and appreciate it as I was unfamiliar with this background.

    Happy, humble, honored and proud recipient of the “You Suck” award 10/22/2014

  • coinsarefuncoinsarefun Posts: 21,664 ✭✭✭✭✭

    It is a wonderful article and it shows all the work you put into it; Bravo!
    Pops. I did receive and read it…….thank you so much

  • DCWDCW Posts: 6,973 ✭✭✭✭✭


    Thank you and welcome back!

    Dead Cat Waltz Exonumia
    "Coin collecting for outcasts..."

  • cwtcwt Posts: 292 ✭✭✭

    One of best things about this forum is that every now and then you come upon a well-written and well-researched an article such as this. Thanks, Dennis!

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