Thomas who? New dollar coin might help

Most folks can correctly name George Washington as the nation's first president. After that, things get tricky.

The U.S. Mint is hoping its new dollar coin series will help refresh some hazy memories of John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and all the rest.

That could be a tall order, however, given the results of a poll the Mint commissioned to find out just how much knowledge Americans have about their presidents.

According to the telephone poll, conducted by the Gallup Organization last month, nearly all those questioned knew that Washington was the first president. However, only 30% could name Thomas Jefferson as the nation's third president, and memories of the other presidents and where they fit in was even more limited.

Only 7% could name the first four presidents — Washington, Adams, Jefferson and James Madison — in the correct order. While 94% knew that Washington was first, only 8% knew that Madison was fourth.

And when it came to the next four presidents — James Monroe, John Quincy Adams, Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren — only 16% of those surveyed could name any president in that group and only 2% could name them all.

Mint Director Edmund Moy believes the new dollar coin series will be an antidote for that. And he can cite a good precedent. The Mint's 50-state quarter program, the most popular coin series in history, has gotten 150 million Americans involved in collecting the quarters that are honoring the states in the order they were admitted to the Union.

"My nieces and nephews know a lot more about geography than I did at their age and the state quarters are playing an instrumental role in that," Moy said in an interview with The Associated Press.

Moy released the survey results at the Jefferson Memorial on Wednesday at an event staged to publicize the release of the new $1 Jefferson coin. That coin will go into circulation nationwide on Thursday, the day that people will be able to visit their banks to purchase it. It will also go on sale on the Mint's website at noon ET.

The Jefferson dollar follows the Washington coin, which was introduced in February, and the John Adams coin, introduced in May. The coin honoring James Madison will go into circulation in November, and four more of the nation's presidents will be honored every year in the order they served in the White House.

By having a rotating design on the new dollar coins, the Mint is hoping to keep interest high and avoid the famous flops of two previous dollar coins — the Susan B. Anthony, introduced in 1979, and the Sacagawea, introduced in 2000.

The presidential coins are the same size as the Sacagawea, slightly larger than a quarter, and also golden in color.

Skeptics, however, believe they will suffer the same fate as the Sacagawea unless the government decides to get rid of the $1 bill, something that Congress has strongly opposed.

Moy insisted in the interview that the Mint has learned from the failures of the past dollar coins and that the new presidential series has a good chance for success, in part by finding niche markets such as vending machines, where a dollar coin will be more convenient than getting a pocketful of quarters in change.

"Vending machine companies are spending up to $1 billion a year in maintenance costs due to paper jams," he said. "More use of dollar coins will mean less in maintenance costs."

Moy said the program is off to a good start with 700 million presidential coins already ordered by the Federal Reserve to put into circulation in the first eight months, half the time it took the Sacagawea to reach that milestone.

There have been glitches, especially with customers having difficulty finding the coins at their local banks. Moy said that problem is occurring because of misunderstandings on the part of banks about how they can go about reordering coins if they run out.

He has appointed a Mint task force to come up with solutions to the distribution problems, and he predicts that between 80% and 100% of all banks will have the new Jefferson coin this week.

To bolster the educational part of the coin program, the Mint has developed special lesson plans on its website for use by parents and teachers.

The survey to find out people's knowledge of the presidents was based on telephone interviews with 1,000 adults conducted July 18-25. It has a sampling error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.