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Congressional Medal

Congressional Medal.  In America a medal authorized and enacted into law by the Congress of the United States. Usually these have been to honor specific individuals who have made some outstanding contribution to the country or humanity by military or naval valor, by lifesaving, or by their scientific, medical or other accomplishments. There

is a large body of medals that are "Congressional medals" but not all mention Congress in the medal's inscription.

History of Congressional Medals.  Because European nations had honored military heroes with medals, the Continental Congress sought to award gold and silver medals to American victors of both land and sea battles. The first of these went to George Washington – the Washington Before Boston Medal – and it, like five others in those early years, were struck in France at the Paris Mint. All other national medals of the United States since that time have been struck by the United States Mint at Philadelphia.

Thus Congress was the first to issue medals in America, a right it still upholds and practices infrequently 200 years later. Of all the medals listed in the book by Robert Julian, Medals of the United States Mint: the First Century, 1792-1892; half are authorized by Congress (290 of the 573 listed, the other half are private issues). Although most of these are issued automatically – medals of every President, Secretary of the Treasury, and Mint Director – Congress stipulates that these be issued by the Director of the Mint's discretion under Congressional authority.

After the Civil War Congress chose to honor military heroes with decorations, more so than with [table] medals. This was to allow military personal to wear their awards on their uniforms. For civilians, this was, of course unnecessary, and the customary form of medal was employed.

Congress chose to honor the heroes of the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Mexican War of 1837, various battles, both at sea as well as on land. It honored Cornelius Vanderbilt, in 1862, for the donation of his private yacht to the government. In 1874 it honored John Horn for his efforts in saving lives in a ship sinking on the Detroit River. In the 20th century it honored the Wright Brothers and Charles Lindbergh for their aviation achievements; and it has awarded medals to such other Americans as medical researcher Jonas Salk and comedian Bob Hope.

The recipient of each of these medals receives the medal in gold. The policy of

the government – and this is in harmony with the democratic concepts of America – that the same die that struck the gold medal can be further used to strike issues in bronze. Thus bronze medals are permitted to be sold to anyone who wishes to purchase them. Many are list medals, sold by Department of the Treasury.

Congressional medals should not be confused with the Congressional Medal of Honor, which is a decoration. It is intended to be worn with its neck ribbon. In contrast, Congressional medals are table medals, issued in a case or box. While American citizens are permitted to purchase bronze copies of any Congressional medal, no copies of the Congressional Medal of Honor are issued or allowed to nonrecipients.


O37 {1977} Julian.

O19 {1969} United States Mint.

Note the sunken area in the center of the reverse, formed by internal metal flowing into the high relief eagle on the obverse. Congruent mass is a problem for single struck coins where designers and engravers must eliminate this. It is not as critical for art medals which can be multiple struck.

Congruent Mass. Heavy concentration of relief on one side of a coin or medal in respect to the corresponding point on the opposite side. An experienced coin or medal designer will never purposely put two areas of high relief back-to- back in a design to be struck. Such a situation creates very difficult problems for striking, as the core metal must flow from a greater distance to fill the two congruent die cavities. This creates an area of GHOSTING.

For single struck pieces – as in coining – this is extremely difficult; for multiple- struck medals it can be accomplished but increases the number of blows and annealing required to fully STRIKE UP each piece. For cast medals congruent mass is not a problem.

One way of separating masses on opposite sides of a coin or medal led to the widespread use of the WREATH as such a popular design element for the reverse. Obverses usually bear portraits with high relief in the center of the struck piece, the wreath on the reverse occupies an area surrounding this central area (and fits well within the circle); thus the two areas of mass are not back-to- back, not congruent.

An early American example of inept design and congruent mass is the Hard Time token created for the Bergen Iron Works of Lakewood New Jersey (due, undoubtedly, to the die engraver's manifest inexperience). His high relief on both sides – an eagle on obverse and clasped hands on rev – prevent- ed any piece from being fully STRUCK UP as the devices on both sides always appear weakly struck.

England's Royal Mint Report of 1932 (p 12) discussed this problem but called it "out of balance" designs.

Reference:                                                                                                  CLASS 02.14

NC8 {1988} Breen, p 260 for problem U.S. Jefferson nickel.

excerpted with permission from

An Encyclopedia of Coin and Medal Technology

For Artists, Makers, Collectors and Curators


Roger W. Burdette, Editor

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