How the Meaning of the Presidential Challenge Coin Changed Over the Years

Posted by: Challenge Coin Writer
Date: July 17, 2020
How the Meaning of the Presidential Challenge Coin Changed Over the Years

How the Meaning of the Presidential Challenge Coin Changed Over the Years

The presidential challenge coin was, and still is, one of the most coveted challenge coins ever made. Read this to learn why, and how it changed over the years.

Presidential challenge coins have sparked much attention in recent years.

In the recognizable form, they date back to the Clinton’s Presidency. Since then, all presidents issued coins to various guests and military service members.

But, what many don’t know is the story of challenge coins starts way before this.

The first known pieces originate from ancient times. Fabled Roman soldiers received them on a regular basis. The coins signified different military affiliations and branches. In U.S. modern history, challenge pieces have a similar purpose. They represent specially-designed coins given to military personnel. The pieces bear presidential/national insignia, motto, and emblems. This may seem like a no-brainer, but there are some caveats.

So, let’s analyze the meaning behind it all.

Foundations of Military Tradition

Challenge coins are the crown jewels of a longstanding military tradition.

It all started with officers distributing military coins to troops as signs of exemplary service. These coins held division insignia or emblems of units and teams.

Monetary value is of secondary importance here.

Namely, coins serve as proof of membership and means of boosting morale.  It’s a great honor to receive one and the very act of exchange commands respect.

Also, note that challenge coins are named after actual challenges. They revolve around service members tempting each other to produce coins at a moment’s notice. Failure to do so would result in losers buying rounds of drinks.

Not such a terrible price to pay that is.

Presidential Challenge Coin: The New Milestone

When President Clinton came around, he opened a new chapter in the challenge tradition.

He started doling them out as personal mementos. Eagerly showcasing multiple racks of them, he also proved to be a passionate collector himself.

We can also see coins in the background of his presidential portrait, which hangs in the White House.

From that point on, presidents would have their own special coins. We need to distinguish these items from non-presidential coins. The latter involves various emergency first-responders, such as police and fire departments.

Hand in Hand

Coin design choices vary across the years, but the essence stays the same.

When handing out coins, the President of the U.S. acts as a Commander in Chief. He is the embodiment of patriotism and military prowess, values that coins ooze.

The custom is to give coins by way of a secret handshake. It’s a subtle and discreet guest of friendship, trust, and recognition. And it works because coins fit in the palm of the hand.

Beyond that, the presidents can also choose to hand coins to foreign guests visiting the U.S. That’s the way to show our welcoming spirit and symbolize honorary membership.

In this context, coins are gifts of choice for meaningful occasions.

Two Sides of the Coin

Presidential challenge coins are supposed to highlight shared values and ideals.

Not surprisingly, most of them went to those guarding Marine One and Air Force One. President Barack Obama handed coins to service members and even left them on the graves of deceased soldiers.

President George W. Bush made similar gestures of appreciation. He awarded coins to family members of soldiers killed in action.

At other times, the presidential challenge works the other way around.

Yes, in the past, presidents have received challenge coins from U.S. service members. These tokens usually include battalion logos of respective military personnel.

President Gorge W. Bush got one from Marine combat patrol while visiting Iraq. Trump received one from a vice-admiral in 2016, as President-elect. These are just a few instances that put an interesting twist on tradition.

In the Spotlight

For a time, the design of the coins remained a mystery.

This was on the account of the secret nature of the exchange. But, Presidents Bush and Obama, being avid fans of these coins, allowed us to take a closer look.

Bush’s coin had a presidential seal and the White House etched in. On the front, there was also an inscription stating the president’s name and title as Commander in Chief.

A national motto occupied a prominent place. We’re talking about “E Pluribus Unum”, which means “out of many, one”. Besides that, the presidential seal was an integral part of the design, which is only fitting.

Photos of Obama’s coin revealed a 3D representation of the White House and the president’s signature. There was also a gold text against a blue background. It said “Barack Obama, 44th President of the United States.

Disruptive Forces

Well, Trump’s Presidency marks a deviation from tradition.

He removed the presidential seal, Latin motto, and thirteen arrows representing original colonies.

In place of these coveted symbols, he put his campaign slogan “Make America Great Again”.  It dominates both sides of the coin.

The new element is the eagle perched behind the shield and carrying Trump’s signature. President’s name appears three times, which is unusual, to say the least.  The coin is also two times thicker than pieces made for previous presidents.

It’s not even clear who’s paying for the coin. The administration is yet to set the record straight on that.

At this point, it’s hard to extract meaning and we have to state the obvious. Eagle is a national symbol, but that cannot be said about some other additions.

In fact, the campaign slogan jeopardizes the separation of military and politics. It casts a shadow of doubt and suspicion over the beloved coins.

Challenge Accepted

Presidential challenge coin honors the tradition of a challenge and military servitude.  

It strengthens the bonds between Commanders in Chief and military personnel. In other words, they remind us of the ties between the army and the supreme commander are ever-vital and lasting.

After years and nomenclatures rolling by, presidents still distribute pieces of greatness. People who get them understand their importance and significance.

Alas, the recent makeover is a breakaway from the tradition that raises eyebrows. Clouds of uncertainty loom over presidential coins and their future. Time will tell if the coins will survive or perish trying.

Our military personnel across the globe deserve better odds than that. We mustn’t fail to commemorate their special feats and accomplishments.

Feel free to browse our gallery to get inspired and find a coin for yourself.

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