Comitia Americana and Related Medals

Comitia Americana and Related Medals; Underappreciated Monuments to Our Heritage, by John W. Adams and Anne E. Bentley. George Frederick Kolbe Publications (Crestline, Calif.), 2007. ISBN: 0-934352-09-7, 6″ x 9″, xv, 285 pages, both black & white and color illus., linen-bound hardcover, $135 ($10 P&P in the U.S., $25 elsewhere).

The formidable team of Adams and Bentley has succeeded in pulling off a truly rare feat for this day and age. They have thrown a spotlight on an area of early American numismatics that has somehow managed to dodge the attention it so rightfully deserves—simply by hiding under all of our noses.

The Comitia Americana series and their sister medals have been known to antiquarians and historians since they were created, having never disappeared from the collective numismatic consciousness of the past two centuries. As such, it is almost amazing that this book wasn’t penned over a century ago by the likes of a C. Wyllys Betts or a William Sumner Appleton.

One must start with the introduction, where the authors thoughtfully lay out their approach, clearly differentiating their philosophy from the normal numismatic perspectives, which occasionally are overly occupied with condition and die variation. In their words, those who collect early American medals are collecting history. With this declaration, Adams and Bentley are preparing the reader to learn of the true contexts of the medals, from the events and heroes thus immortalized to the circumstances behind their creation.

The story begins with the hundreds of sets of medals authorized by Congress that never came into existence, a truly disappointing episode in our early history. Those few surviving sets and partial sets are then surveyed. From there, each medal in the series receives its own chapter, complete with all of the information one could possibly want, all backed up by primary source documentation cited in the abundant endnotes section.

Presented in a formulaic manner, the authors first give an account of the military event that resulted in the Congressional authorization for the recipient’s medal, along with relevant biographical information. Next is the section detailing the creation of the medal, followed by a thorough description of its devices and a translation of the legends. With so many strong points to this tome, it is perhaps the documentary history that will prove of greatest interest to the reader.

As a result of a worldwide survey of almost seven hundred individuals and institutions, Adams and Bentley also present their analyzed findings in the metrology sections of each chapter, along with a chart denoting the weight, diameter, metal, and location for each of the specimens listed. With hundreds (if not thousands) of Comitia Americana medals studied, the authors reached an ideal vantage to comment on both the original dies and their evolution as they wore, rusted, cracked, or failed during manufacture. Even the later copy dies used for restrikes are given their due. One could argue the metrology sections are the book’s greatest contribution.

In addition to the Comitia Americana medals, appropriately lavish attention is also paid to the Benjamin Franklin medals of 1777, 1784, and 1786, the gorgeous Libertas Americana medal, and the Diplomatic Medal of the United States. As these medals have much to say regarding the creation of the Comitia medals, and as the reverse is also true, the authors are unquestionably correct in choosing to include these additional pieces in their discussion.

Throughout, the text is illustrated with high-quality color and black-and-white images of the medals under discussion. Interspersed are photographs of many of the actual dies cut during the eighteenth century to strike these medals, accompanied by images of some of the sketches and drawings produced during their design phase.

The authors conclude the medals portion of the book with a chapter on the wide-ranging sagas of the dies during the intervening centuries—a discussion that could easily stand on its own as a monograph. As this work is sure to prove of use and interest to military and art historians in addition to numismatists, the final chapter explains the mechanical processes used to create the different types of medals studied, from initial authorization to final production, be it by striking, casting, or electrotyping.

It can be said with great conviction that this book is an invaluable reference work with high production values. Both John Adams and Anne Bentley are to be heartily congratulated for producing this essential and enjoyable research tool, which belongs in the library of every history buff, military historian, art lover, numismatist, and museum.

—Erik Goldstein