It is possible, although not certain, that if President John F. Kennedy had not been assassinated on November 22, 1963 in Dallas, Texas, we could still be carrying Franklin Half Dollars in our pockets. The events of that November day changed the United States – and arguably the world – and that included the half dollar coin. As I shared in the Coin History article on the Franklin Half Dollar, the assassination of Kennedy brought forth rapid legislation to change the half dollar in his honor. While that legislation brought us the coin in 1964, it has had its own challenges in its 57 year history. That includes times of high popularity all the way to no production because of lack of circulation. The Kennedy Half Dollar has had an interesting life and it may be on its way out if current legislation passes to change it.
Initial Actions & Legislation After Kennedy’s Assassination
John F. Kennedy was the 35th President of the United States. On November 22, 1963 at 12:30 PM Central Time he was shot by Lee Harvey Oswald as his motorcade made its way through downtown Dallas. Kennedy was shot once in the back (which exited through his neck) and once in the head, the fatal shot. Kennedy was rushed to Parkland Memorial Hospital where he was declared deceased at 1:00 PM Central Time. At 3:08 PM, Lyndon B. Johnson, Kennedy’s Vice President, was sworn in as the 36th President of the United States.
As the entire world watched the events unfold, officials at the United States Mint were watching and realizing the gravity of the situation. Mint Director Eva Adams made a call to Chief Engraver Gilroy Roberts. Adams, who had already received calls, told Roberts that serious consideration was already floating in Washington D.C. about depicting Kennedy on one of the larger silver coins (Dollar, Half Dollar, or Quarter Dollar). This was confirmed a few days later, on November 27th. Then, Adams called Roberts again, authorizing him to start work on Kennedy design, specifically for the Half Dollar. According to Adams, Jacqueline Kennedy had indicated her preference to not have George Washington removed from the Quarter Dollar but rather have Franklin be replaced by Kennedy on the Half Dollar.
Work on the new coin was frantic. Because the Franklin Half Dollar had not been in circulation for 25 years, Congress had to approve the change to the coin to honor Kennedy. That authorization came on December 30, 1963, just 39 days after Kennedy’s death. Even before the legislation passed, Chief Engraver Roberts and then Engraver Frank Gasparro became modification of existing work they had done for Kennedy. Roberts modified an existing bust of Kennedy that he had crated for the Mint’s Presidential Appreciation series. Meanwhile, Gasparro focused on the Reverse, which was a modification of the Reverse he had design for the same medal series. The use of existing designs by Roberts and Gasparro fundamentally came down to time constraints. The legislation passed by Congress indicated that production of the new Kennedy Half Dollar was to start in January 1964. By January 2, 1964, the first dies for the new half dollar were complete and trial strikes were produced. These, in turn, where shown to Mrs. Kennedy and Senator Robert F. Kennedy, the late President’s brother. Generally speaking, the Kennedy family approved the designs. Mrs. Kennedy did recommend some slight tweaks – a full or half figure of the President and some improvements to the hair details – but those were eventually not done due to the time constraints.
With little question, the Kennedy Half Dollar was one of the fastest approval-to-minting coins in the history of the United States. From Kennedy’s assassination to the release to the public was just 123 days. Arguably, had Roberts and Gasparro not have the Presidential Appreciation Medals designed, it would have taken considerably longer.
Public Release & Reaction
The Treasury Department released the Kennedy Half Dollar to the public on March 24, 1964 and demand was exceptionally high. Bare in mind that the assassination of President Kennedy was just four months prior and his popularity had not waned in that time. When the Treasury Department opened for coin sales in Washington D.C. and coin sales were limited to 40 coins per customer with 70,000 coins available for purchase.
The coins were all sold by the end of the day.
In Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, banks quickly figured out that the demand for the coin was high and began rationing inventory but were all sold out by Noon. The next day, in New York, sales began with rationing imposed on purchases but banks in the city were out of them by the next day.
To try to meet the demand, the Mint significantly ramped up minting of the new Half Dollar. Initially, the Treasury had only planed to produce 91 million of the coins but announced shortly after its release that it would be producing 141 million of them. Yet, by November 1964 virtually no Kennedy Half Dollars were found in circulation and by that time, the Mint had struck approximately 160 of them. Why was this the case? It is a two-fold answer.
First, and this cannot be lost, was the overwhelming popularity of the dead President. Americans hoarded the coins as keepsakes and even the government itself was giving away the coins internationally. Kennedy was one of the few United States Presidents that had such popularity and his assassination cemented his legacy. Second, the answer is simply silver. Silver prices were rising and in 1964, the Kennedy Half Dollar was struck in 90% silver. Speculators and the public began hoarding them further. The Treasury, in an effort to counter the silver speculating, asked for and received Congressional approval to strike 1964 dated coins in 1965. It did little to help the situation and in the end, there were nearly 430 million Kennedy Half Dollars struck with the 1964 date.
This, in turn, had a significant impact on the silver stock that was held by the Treasury.
A Change in Silver Content – Coinage Act of 1965
As the demand for the Kennedy Half Dollar remained incredibly high, the United States Treasury had another problem looming: They were running out of silver. The challenge was the raising price of the bullion itself, so much so that by June of 1965, a Dime had 9.33 cents in silver. This left the Treasury with virtually no overhead for minting costs themselves.
On June 3, 1965, President Johnson announced that silver would be radically reduced or removed from circulating coinage. That became a reality with the passing of the Coinage Act of 1965, which was passed on July 23, 1965. The called for changes to be made the the Dime, Quarter, and Half Dollar from a silver base to a coper-nickel base, often referred to as a “clad” coin. Here are the highlights of the changes:
- Roosevelt Dime would change from 90% silver and 10% copper to 8.33% nickel and 91.67% copper
- Washington Quarter would change to the same composition
- Kennedy Half Dollar would change 40% silver and 60% copper
The idea behind the changes were to help squelch the demand for silver, which continued to skyrocket in price. That, in turn, would ease the coin shortage that gripped the nation with people hoarding the silver based coins.
The first of the new 40% silver clad Kennedy Half Dollars were struck at the Denver Mint on December 30, 1965. Despite it being the penultimate day of the year, these coins were struck with the date 1965. However, and more interesting, is that throughout much of 1966, the date did not change. The Treasury was determined to eliminate the coinage shortage in the country and in an effort to prevent hoarding and get coins circulating, it was given permission to continue to strike the 1965 dated coins in 1966. This continued until August when the coin shortage was reportedly abated.
The reality is, the change in the base metal of the half dollar did little to its circulation woes. Very few were found in circulation as hoarding of the 40% silver coins continued. Couple this with the decision to dramatically cut production of the half dollar by the Treasury, the coin all-but disappeared. Rightfully so, the Treasury was reluctant to spend any of its now scarce silver resources on a coin that simply was not circulating.
The Mint continued to strike the 40% silver Kennedy’s until 1970 but production was severely decreased. For example, in 1964, 273.3 million of the coins were struck Philadelphia and another 156.2 million in Denver. By 1970, those numbers had dropped to just 2.15 million in Denver, none being struck in Philadelphia, and another 2.63 million being struck in San Francisco for Proof Sets.
Today, these 1964-1970 40% Kennedy Halves are easy to find and most in Mint State condition are around $6 each with the proof coins costing slightly more.
Silver Content Removed & A Clad Kennedy Half Dollar
By May 1969, with the half dollar seeing very little circulation, the Treasury sought authorization from Congress to change the base metal of the coin. The request was to remove all of the silver content of the half dollar and make it a copper-nickel “clad” coin which had been done to the Dime and Quarter in 1965. Part of the request was also to authorize the striking a clad dollar coin which would meet the need of casinos and other vending machine needs. The Treasury’s hope was that by removing the silver from the half dollar and dollar coins that they would regain circulation in the country.
Throughout 1969 and 1970, this turned into a political hot potato, not because of the removal of the silver from the half dollar, but the proposed dollar coin. Former President Dwight Eisenhower died in March 1969 and almost immediately there was discussion of having his likeness on the proposed dollar. President Richard Nixon supported the idea but the legislation was shutdown in the House of Representatives. There, several Republicans did not like the idea of having Eisenhower on a base metal coin and wanted it to be silver. Eventually there was a compromised reached: The circulating dollar coins would be clad coins while the proof releases for collectors would be a 40% silver composition. The legislation authorizing the change in base metal of the Kennedy Half and the new Eisenhower dollar was signed into law by President Nixon on December 31, 1970.
You can read about the history of the Eisenhower Dollar in this Coin History article.
With the delay in getting this new legislation passed, the result was that in 1970, the only half dollars struck were in Denver and only 2.1 million were produced and they were only available in Mint Sets. From a collectors perspective, the 1970-D is considered one of the key date coins in the series.
The Treasury’s hope of seeing the clad half dollar and dollar be used in circulation was just that, a hope. The reality is that it never really happened. By 1971, both coins rarely were found in circulation and the Treasury reported only moderate increases in use. Indeed, in July 1971, Mint Director Mary Brooks disclosed that the Treasury had over 200 million of the new clad half dollars in vaults due to banks not ordering them. Mrs. Brooks theorized that, because of the hoarding of the 1960’s releases, the general public had become accustom to not seeing the half dollar in circulation. Ultimately, this forced the Treasury to reconsider production numbers for the Kennedy half. In 1970, in Philadelphia and Denver, 457.2 million of them were produced (with another 3.2 million proofs in San Francisco). By 1974, that number had fallen to 280 million (with 2.6 million proof coins). With the exception of the Bicentennial release in 1975-1976, production numbers would continue to fall.
Bicentennial Coinage of 1975-1976
In 1976, the United States of America celebrated the two hundredth anniversary of its founding. As part of that effort, Mint Director Brooks announced on March 5, 1973 that the Mint would be commemorating the Bicentennial with new Reverse designs on the Quarter, Half Dollar, and Dollar coins. The designs would be temporary – only for 1975 and 1976 – before the original Reverse designs returned in 1977. On October 18, 1973, President Nixon signed into Public Law 93-127 which authorized the changes in design. Part of that law also authorized the Mint to produce 1976 silver-clad coins for Proof and Mint sets but not for general circulation.
Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That the reverse side of all dollar, half-dollar, and quarter-dollar coins minted for issuance on or after July 4, 1975, and until such time as the Secretary of the Treasury may determine, shall bear a design determined by the Secretary to be emblematic of the Bicentennial of the American Revolution.
SEO. 2. All dollar, half-dollar, and quarter-dollar coins minted for issuance between July 4, 1975, and January 1, 1977, shall bear “1776-1976” in lieu of the date of coinage; and all dollar, half-dollar, and quarter-dollar coins minted thereafter until such time as the Secretary of the Treasury may determine shall bear a date emblematic of the Bicentennial in addition to the date of coinagePublic Law 93-127
With the legislation in place, the Mint announced that an open competition would be held for all American sculptors to submit designs that met the criteria of the law. For the Kennedy Half Dollar, the design depicting Independence Hall by Seth G. Huntington was selected.
Production of the Bicentennial Half Dollar began in 1975 with them being released to the general public in July 1975 (for non-American readers, American Independence Day is July 4). Production would continue through until the end of 1976. Note that there are no 1975 Kennedy half dollars – nor any Washington quarters or Eisenhower dollars. All coins minted in 1975 bare the 1776-1976 date on them.
During the two years of the Bicentennial strikes, over 521 million half dollars were struck for circulation, a significant increase from the previous three years. However, the Mint was determined to avoid a hoarding situation with the one-off design and made sure there were plenty for circulation.
A Return to Reality and a Halt in Production
In 1977, the half dollar again saw a significant drop in production. That year, a total of 75.05 million half dollars were struck, down from the 521 the previous two years for the Bicentennial strikes. Indeed, production of the half never reached 100 million again. Still, by 1987, the Treasury indicated that it had at least a two year supply of the coins and halted production after just 5.781 million 1987 half dollars were minted. Demand for the coin had evaporated with many vending machines no longer accepting them as well as casinos producing chips rather than dealing with actual coinage. Production resumed in 1988 and remained steady until 2002. That year, the Treasury made the decision to no longer produce the Kennedy half for general circulation. Instead, bags and rolls of the current year’s coins would be offers by the Mint at a premium above face value. Since 2002, production has remained under 3 million coins for Denver and Philadelphia with the San Francisco Mint only producing proof varieties of the coin.
2014 saw perhaps the most significant changes to this practice. That year, which was the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination, the Mint produced a range of special releases and finishes for the half dollar. Those releases included:
- 2014-P High Relief
- 2014-P Silver (90%)
- 2014-D High Relief
- 2014-D Silver (90%)
- 2014-S Silver (90%)
- 2014-S Silver Enhanced (90%)
- 2014-W Reverse Proof Silver (90%)
- 2014-W Gold (90%)
Despite the relatively low production numbers in 2014, most of these coins are readily available at under $100.
In 2021, the United States Mint began striking in small quantities the Kennedy half for general circulation.
Collecting the Kennedy Half Dollar
The good news for collectors is that even with the lack of circulation after 2002 and the silver coins in the 1960s, there are few true key date coins in the series. Obviously the 2014 coins have significance as outlined above but beyond this, most of the coins from any year are easily obtainable and inexpensive.
Some of the key releases in the series include:
- “Accent Hair” 1964 Proof – Heavy hair accents on the Obverse. Approximately 100,000 produced
- 1965-1967 Special Met Set Releases
- 1776-1976 Silver Clad Proofs
- 2014 Special Releases (outlined above)
- 2019-S Enhanced Reverse Proof
Most of these coins, with a few exceptions, are readily available and under $25. That makes the Kennedy Half Dollar one of the least expensive series and obtainable to collect.
Future of the Kennedy Half Dollar
While the Mint has made no indication that the life of the Kennedy half is ending, there are changes coming to the coin. The Circulating Collectible Coin Redesign Act of 2020 will see changes coming to the coin in 2026 to honor the United States’ Semiquincentennial. From 2027 to 2030, there will be a new Reverse design each year depicting Paralympic sports. The Obverse my be redesigned in 2027 but after 2030 will still bear Kennedy’s likeness.
- Tomaska, Rick – A Guide Book of Franklin and Kennedy Half Dollars, 3rd Edition
- Yoeman, R.S. – A Guide Book of United States Coins Hardcover 2021