Henry Lee Medal - Back
Photo Credit: Princeton University
A unique medal from the Revolutionary War has been discovered in the collection of Princeton University’s library and was put on public display for the first time on November 13, 2005. The medal was authorized by the Continental Congress for Henry Lee (popularly known as Light-Horse Harry) for the Battle of Paulus Hook in 1779, but through a series of mishaps was not made or awarded until many years later. The medal disappeared from view early in the nineteenth century and resurfaced in a numismatic auction in 1935, when the Friends of the Princeton University Library purchased it and presented it to the school in honor of Lee, a Princeton University alumnus of the class of 1774.
The medal is hand-engraved on a silver disk about the size of a silver dollar, and encircled in a decorative holder. This is not what was originally intended by the Continental Congress which, on September 22, 1779, voted that Lee be given a gold medal for his heroism in the battle that captured a British encampment in what is now Jersey City. The medal was to have been designed and struck in Paris, along with medals for such other Revolutionary War heroes as George Washington, Nathaniel Greene, and Anthony Wayne. When the other medals were finally received from France almost a decade later, it was discovered that the Lee medal had not been ordered. Lee appealed to Secretary-of-State Thomas Jefferson, who directed the newly established Philadelphia Mint to strike a replacement medal. The equipment of the Mint was inadequate for the task, and the new die, engraved by the Mint’s first Chief Engraver Joseph Wright, broke before the medal could be produced.
The Princeton Lee medal appears to have been intended as a substitute for the failed Philadelphia medal. The technique of hand engraving of a silver base was used for other medals produced in America in this period, such as the medals awarded to the three captors of Major John André and the Indian Peace Medals of the Washington administration. The medal bears the inscription To Henry Lee for Valour & Patriotism on the obverse and Washington & Independence 1775-1783 on the reverse. Documentation of its manufacture and award have not yet been found. The most likely explanation for its appearance in the numismatic market is the circumstance that in 1810, to meet the demands of his creditors and be released from debtor’s prison, Lee was forced to sell all of his possessions.
The medal was sold at the January 25, 1935, auction of Thomas L. Elder, one of the leading American coin dealers of the period, where it brought $100, a large sum for a silver medal at the depths of the Depression. Elder’s catalogue states that the medal had been in a very old American family for many years and came from the South. The Princeton Friends of the Library had the medal suspended from a silver pinback by an orange and black ribbon and put in a custom leather box for presentation to the University President Harold W. Dodds at a banquet at the Plaza Hotel in New York on April 25, 1935. While a description of the presentation was published in the New York Evening Sun, no notice of the new owner reached the numismatic press, and the medal’s whereabouts have been unknown for the past seventy years.
The general history of the Lee medal had long been known to Princeton’s Curator of Numismatics, Alan Stahl, who in 1995 had published a catalogue of medals authorized by the Continental Congress in public collections. He came upon the medal in its presentation box this summer while planning the numismatic display for an exhibition to celebrate the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Friends of the Library. The piece was not housed with other medals in the library’s numismatic collection, but was in its objects collection, alongside such items as the key to Thomas Jefferson’s wine cellar, a snuff box given to Benjamin Franklin by Louis XVI, and a block of tea certified to be from the Boston Tea Party.
Dr. Stahl admits to having been skeptical at first of the authenticity of the piece and to withholding final judgment on it pending further research. “The main point arguing in its favor,” he notes, “is the price that it fetched at auction by a reputable dealer. The inscription suggests the input of Lee – the obverse proclamation of honor and valor (two qualities he was publicly accused of lacking in the rough-and-tumble politics of the early Republic) and the association with Washington on the reverse (Lee is best known for his funeral oration for Washington which popularized the epithet ‘First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.’)”
The medal is on view with other pieces from the University’s Numismatic Collection, including two pewter continental ‘dollars’, large cents from 1793 and 1794, a silver dollar of 1794, the Thomas Jefferson inaugural medal of 1801 and an Indian Peace Medal of James Madison (Princeton class of 1771). Also included are a signed letter of Lee to the New Jersey quartermaster from 1780 and a signed letter of the same year from George Washington to Lee approving Lee’s plan to capture Benedict Arnold. The exhibition opened on November 13 in the Firestone Library’s main exhibit gallery and will be on view through April 23 on weekdays, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. (to 8 p.m. on Wednesdays) and on weekends from noon to 5 p.m. Admission is free.