‘IN GOD WE TRUST’ – THE STORY OF OUR NATIONAL MOTTO
By Mike Fuljenz

“In God We Trust.”

one-dollar
By 1966, the motto had been added to all of the nation’s paper money.
The national motto “In God We Trust” has withstood the latest in a long line of legal challenges.

A federal judge in New York, in a ruling Sept. 10, dismissed a lawsuit seeking to force removal of the words from U.S. coins and currency. In doing so, District Judge Harold Baer Jr. wrote that “the U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly assumed the motto’s secular purpose and effect” and that federal appeals courts “have found no constitutional violation in the motto’s inclusion on currency.”

The suit had been filed Feb. 1 by an atheist group called the Freedom From Religion Foundation and 19 other plaintiffs. They demanded that the U.S. Treasury be ordered to remove the motto from U.S. coins and paper money on grounds that its use constitutes “discrimination” against non-believers.

By handing their money to anyone in a commercial exchange, the plaintiffs argued, atheists are “forced to proselytize – by an act of Congress – for a deity they don’t believe in.”

The judge ruled that while the plaintiffs might feel offended, they suffered no “substantial burden” because of the motto’s appearance on U.S. money.

A similar case in 2011, brought by the same atheist attorney, Michael Newdow, went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where it was rejected.

Most Americans, including President Barack Obama, have taken the words “In God We Trust” for granted. Thus, many were surprised in 2011 when the House of Representatives voted to reaffirm this simple phrase as the official national motto.

barack-obama
44th President Barack Obama

The story of the motto is an engrossing one, full of fascinating twists and turns – and from its inception, the phrase has been closely linked to the money in Americans’ pockets. The motto now appears on all U.S. coins and paper money, but nearly a century passed before that point was reached. One coin lacked the inscription as late as 1938 – and it didn’t appear at all on the nation’s paper money until 1957.

The phrase “In God We Trust” made headlines in October 2011, when the House of Representatives passed a non-binding resolution reaffirming its status as the U.S. national motto. It did so after President Barack Obama mistakenly referred to “E Pluribus Unum” as the nation’s official motto. That familiar phrase – which in Latin means “Out of many, one” – has appeared on U.S. coinage for more than two centuries, but enjoys no official status.

Democrats, including Obama, charged that in drafting and passing the resolution, the Republican-controlled House was wasting time that could have been better spent on hammering out a job-creation bill.

“That’s not putting people back to work,” Obama said. “I trust in God, but God wants to see us help ourselves by putting people back to work. There’s work to be done. There are workers ready to do it. The American people are behind this.”
 


Randy Forbes Resolution


Congressman Randy Forbes


Pennsylvania State Capitol Entrance
In response, the Republican sponsor of the resolution, Congressman Randy Forbes of Virginia, noted Obama’s earlier misstatement about “E Pluribus Unum” and pointed out that those words had been engraved in the new Capitol Visitors Center until Congress ordered use of the proper inscription. Forbes’ resolution supports and encourages the display of the words “In God We Trust” in all public schools and government buildings. It was approved overwhelmingly, 396 to 9, with two abstentions.


E Pluribus Unum


The Battle of Gettysburg was fought July 1–3, 1863
Many Americans mistakenly believe that the government’s use of the words “In God We Trust” dates back to the time of the Founding Fathers – as do two other familiar coinage inscriptions, “Liberty” and “E Pluribus Unum.” In point of fact, it was the Civil War, not the American Revolution, that gave rise to the phrase. The bitter, bloody War Between the States stoked religious fervor and led the Union government to seek solace and guidance from above.

Up to then, during more than seven decades of production, no U.S. coin had carried the motto, or anything resembling it. U.S. coinage had never made reference before that time to a supreme being – but the strong religious sentiments stirred by the Civil War created a climate conducive to the use of such an inscription.

A Baptist minister from Ridleyville, Pa., the Rev. Mark R. Watkinson, is credited with planting the seed for this unprecedented action. In a letter to Salmon P. Chase, President Abraham Lincoln’s Treasury Secretary, dated Nov. 13, 1861, Watkinson urged that provision be made for “the recognition of the Almighty God in some form on our coins.”

“This,” he said, “would relieve us from the ignominy of heathenism. This would place us openly under the Divine protection we have personally claimed.”

Chase shared Watkinson’s view. And he soon set in motion steps that led to a prominent reference to God on U.S. coinage. After receiving the minister’s letter, he sent a note to Mint Director James Pollock stating: “The trust of our people in God should be declared on our national coins. You will cause a device to be prepared without unnecessary delay with a motto expressing in the fewest tersest terms possible this national recognition.”

Pollock apparently carried out this directive without delay. Though 1861 was drawing to a close, he arranged for the striking of pattern half dollars and eagles ($10 gold pieces) bearing that date. Patterns are coins produced by a government mint to demonstrate something new – a new design, a new alloy or, as in this instance, a new inscription. They carry a statement of value, but are not legal tender because they were never monetized. And they’re frequently struck in metals other than the ones used in regular coins of the same denomination.

The pattern half dollars were identical in design to the Liberty Seated halves then being issued for commerce – except for the addition of the motto “God Our Trust” above the eagle on the reverse. In all, about three dozen of these were made – some in silver and some in copper. The motto was placed on a scroll on some of the coins, and written in small letters in the field above the eagle on the rest.

The pattern $10 coins were struck in copper, rather than gold, some with bronzed surfaces. Only 11 of these are known to survive; a single specimen in gold has been reported but not confirmed. These had the same Liberty Head design as regular $10 gold pieces of that time, but the words “God Our Trust” appeared in the field above the eagle on the reverse.

Although there was no official reason for producing any more, similar pattern half dollars and eagles were struck in somewhat higher quantities in both 1862 and 1863 – apparently to satisfy demand from numismatists who by then had become aware of the earlier patterns’ existence.

There also are pattern silver dollars dated 1863 that are thought to have been made at a later time, as well as some pattern halves seemingly struck in a similar manner. Instead of “God Our Trust,” these bear the inscription “In God We Trust” above the eagle. The Mint also produced a number of different patterns in 1863 for a proposed bronze two-cent piece – and it soon became apparent that such a coin, as a new denomination, would be a logical way to introduce an inscription that also was new.

All forms of coinage vanished from circulation as the Civil War dragged on, largely because of speculative hoarding. The Union and Confederate governments both issued paper money, but this was widely distrusted and lost much of its value during the war – especially in the South, where Confederate notes eventually were used as wallpaper by many who found themselves holding the bags of worthless currency.
 

The Two-cent Piece




The motto “In God We Trust,” starting in 1864 on the 2 Cent Piece
Enterprising merchants came up with a practical alternative: cent-sized bronze tokens which found wide acceptance in commerce. Noting that bronze was considerably cheaper than the copper-nickel alloy then being used to mint cents, Treasury officials hit upon the notion of switching to lighter-weight bronze cents and also decided to make bronze two-cent pieces to help re-establish coins in circulation.

There had never been a two-cent piece in the nation’s prior history, but the concept was not entirely new. Twice before, in 1806 and 1836, Congress had considered proposals for two-cent pieces made of billon – silver debased with a high percentage of copper. Both times, however, the plans had been rejected on the grounds that such coins would be easy to counterfeit.

That was not an issue in 1863, and the urgent need for coinage made a persuasive case for issuing such a coin on that occasion.

The mating of the two-cent piece with the motto “In God We Trust,” starting in 1864, seems to have been a marriage of convenience. Secretary Chase had been pondering the placement of some such wording on one or more of the nation’s coins ever since receiving the Rev. Watkinson’s letter early in the war, and production of patterns bearing possible mottos underscored the importance he placed on this objective. The two-cent piece made a perfect vehicle, for use of the motto there would cause no undue disruption or confusion.

Initially, the Mint’s chief engraver, James Barton Longacre, fashioned two pattern two-cent pieces carrying not only dissimilar designs but also different inscriptions.

One of the patterns featured a right-facing portrait of George Washington on the obverse, along with the words “God and Our Country” above the bust. The other design – the one adopted – displayed a simple shield with crossed arrows running through and beneath it; above this, a scroll proclaimed: “God Our Trust.”

In each case, the reverse was dominated by the statement of value “2 Cents” within a wreath of wheat, encircled by “United States of America.”
 

“God”-less Buffalo nickel


The famous 'God'-less Buffalo nickel
Congress enacted legislation in 1955 requiring the inscription on all U.S. coins
Exactly half a century before the motto “In God We Trust” first appeared on circulating U.S. coinage, a close approximation of this now-famous phrase turned up in a poem that went on to attain equally iconic status when it was set to music and became “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Few Americans are aware of this precursor, for the words are embedded in the seldom read – and almost never sung – fourth stanza of the poem, but it provides a fascinating link between their country’s official national motto adopted in 1956 and official national anthem adopted in 1931.

In the poem’s penultimate sentence, those who read – or sing – the entire set of lyrics will find the following reference to the Almighty:

Then conquer we must, when our cause is just,
And this be our motto: “In God is our trust.”


The late Walter Breen, a renowned numismatic researcher and scholar, speculated that the final and now-familiar inscription – “In God We Trust” – was influenced by the motto of Chase’s alma mater, Brown University: “In Deo Speramus,” a Latin phrase meaning “In God We Hope.” Ironically, Newdow, the atheist group’s lawyer, also is a graduate of Brown.

A law passed by Congress in 1837 specified what devices and inscriptions could be used on U.S. coins. The Mint could make no changes without congressional approval, and it was with this in mind that Mint Director Pollock submitted the patterns for the new two-cent piece to Secretary Chase in December 1863. He proposed that when issued, the coin should bear one of two inscriptions: “Our Country, Our God” or “God, Our Trust.” Chase replied as follows:

“I approve your mottoes, only suggesting that on that with the Washington obverse the motto should begin with the word ‘Our,’ so as to read ‘Our God and Our Country.’ And on that with the shield, it should be changed so as to read: ‘In God We Trust.’ ”

Whatever the explanation, “In God We Trust” was chosen – and after nearly 150 years on the nation’s coinage, it now seems as basic to the American way of life as singing “The Star-Spangled Banner” or reciting the official Pledge of Allegiance.

A third pattern two-cent piece dated 1863 bears the adopted motto, “In God We Trust.” But this was created in the 1870s, at the end of the coin’s brief life. Its production might be attributable to collector demand for such a coin after the Congress discontinued the two-cent piece in 1873.

Throughout its history, some have made light of the motto with the offhanded quip, “In God We Trust – All Others Pay Cash.” Today, with the dollar so weak, many see a kernel of reality in that quip.

Use of “In God We Trust” wasn’t required by Congress when it passed legislation authorizing the two-cent piece on April 22, 1864. The law simply gave the Treasury discretionary authority regarding the inscriptions on the nation’s minor coins. The Mint chose not to add “In God We Trust” to the new bronze Indian Head cent.

The authority was extended to gold and silver coins on March 3, 1865 – and, for the first time, “In God We Trust” was specifically mentioned in that follow-up legislation. The motto’s use wasn’t mandated, though, until 1908 – and even then, the order applied only to gold and silver coins. It wasn’t until 1955 that Congress enacted legislation requiring the inscription on all U.S. coins. By then, it was already there.
 

“In God we trust” on all coinage


1876 Liberty Double Eagle Type II
Type II $20 Liberty Double Eagles were minted only between 1866 and 1876

In 1866, the motto was added to the silver dollar, half dollar, quarter dollar and $20, $10 and $5 gold pieces (double eagle, eagle and half eagle). It also was used on the Shield nickel, which made its debut that year, and remained throughout the run of that coin – but then was omitted from both the Liberty Head and Buffalo nickels, finally reappearing on the five-cent piece when the Jefferson nickel was introduced in 1938. It wasn’t used on the dime until 1916.

It never appeared on the gold dollar and $3 gold piece, and wasn’t added to the $2½ gold piece (quarter eagle) until 1908.


26th President Theodore Roosevelt
Roosevelt objected to the use of 'In God We Trust' on the nation's money as blasphemous
An 1873 law – the same law, ironically, that eliminated the two-cent piece – reconfirmed that the motto was permitted but not required on coinage. The silver and nickel three-cent pieces and silver half dime never carried the motto. The short-lived Trade dollar, first issued in 1873, bore the inscription but the even shorter-lived twenty-cent piece, first issued in 1875, did not.

In 1908, a law required that the words appear on U.S. coins, though the cent, nickel and dime were exempted because of their size. The Lincoln cent and Winged Liberty (“Mercury”) dime both carried the motto when they debuted in 1909 and 1916, respectively, even though its use on those coins was optional. But the phrase wasn’t added to the nickel until 1938, at which point all U.S. coins carried the motto. All have done so ever since.

The 1908 law resulted directly from a typically impulsive decision by President Theodore Roosevelt. It was Roosevelt who triggered a revolution in U.S. coinage art in the early 20th century, and his interest in coins extended not only to their artistry but also to the inscriptions they carried. He objected to the use of “In God We Trust” on the nation’s money as blasphemous and argued that it cheapened the motto, because the coins could be used for illegal and immoral purposes in less than pious environments.
 

Public Law 140


Augustus Saint-Gaudens
In 1907, Roosevelt ordered the Mint not to place the words on two new gold coins – the double eagle and eagle – designed by Augustus Saint-Gaudens. But Congress quickly overruled him and mandated use of the motto after the omission was detected, upon the coins’ release, by church groups and other dismayed Americans. Some $20 and $10 gold pieces dated 1908 carry the motto, while others do not.

Nearly half a century passed after that before the inscription was added to U.S. paper money. In 1955, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed a law requiring the motto on all U.S. paper money as well as all coinage. The phrase was added to paper currency in increments from 1957 to 1966. In 1956, the phrase was adopted as the United States’ official national motto.


Matthew H. Rothert Sr
An Arkansas businessman, Matthew H. Rothert Sr. – who clearly didn’t share Teddy Roosevelt’s concern about blasphemy – played a key role in getting the motto added to paper money. Rothert noticed in 1953 that the coins on a church collection plate bore the inscription “In God We Trust” but the paper money did not. He had a more than passing interest in coins and currency, for he was an avid numismatist who went on to serve as president of the American Numismatic Association, the national coin club, from 1965 to 1967.

It was Rothert’s belief that “a message about the country’s faith in God could be easily carried throughout the world if it were on United States paper currency.”


34th President Dwight D. Eisenhower
He conveyed the idea to Treasury Secretary George W. Humphrey and started a letter-writing campaign that resulted in a deluge of letters to federal officials supporting the placement of “In God We Trust” on the nation’s currency.

Public Law 140, requiring use of the motto on U.S. paper money, was introduced in the 84th Congress and signed into law by President Eisenhower on July 11, 1955. A year later, on July 30, 1956, Eisenhower signed a second bill establishing “In God We Trust” as the national motto. And one year after that, in October 1957, new $1 bills carrying the inscription became the first to enter circulation. By 1966, the words had been added to all of the nation’s paper money.



 

50th Anniversary of Our National Motto


'In God We Trust' now appear on all coinage.
The inclusion of 'In God We Trust' on U.S. coins and paper money has also been a point of contention with various segments of the American society.

On July 30, 2006, the 50th anniversary of the 1956 bill recognizing the status of “In God We Trust” as the national motto, President George W. Bush issued a proclamation reaffirming the appropriateness of this designation.


43rd President George W. Bush
President George W. Bush on July 30, 2006 issued a proclamation reaffirming the appropriateness of “In God We Trust” as the national motto.

“Today,” Bush said, “our country stands strong as a beacon of religious freedom. Our citizens, whatever their faith or background, worship freely and millions answer the universal call to love their neighbor and serve a cause greater than self.

“As we commemorate the 50th anniversary of our national motto and remember with thanksgiving God’s mercies throughout our history, we recognize a divine plan that stands above all human plans and continue to seek His will.”

Not long after that, God-fearing Americans began noticing the apparent absence of the inscription on the presidential $1 coins, which made their first appearance in March 2007. In truth, the motto was there – but it had been moved, along with other inscriptions, to the edge of the coins to make room for more artistic designs on the two main surfaces.

 

Atheist Cents


The Atheist Cent
Not realizing this, critics – including Sarah Palin – denounced the supposed omission of the motto. During an appearance at a right-to-life fund-raiser in November 2009, Palin brought up the presidential dollars and seemed to imply that someone in Washington had made a deliberate effort to downplay the importance of “In God We Trust” in the coins’ design.

“Who calls a shot like that? Who makes a decision like that?” she asked rhetorically. “It’s a disturbing trend.”

It was widely believed that Palin assumed the “omission” had been made by the Obama Administration. But, in fact, the placement of the motto on the edge of the presidential dollars had been determined while George Bush was president.

Soon thereafter, the inscription was moved to a much more prominent location on the obverse of the coins.

Some presidential dollars have indeed been “God-less” because they were struck by error with plain edges. Ironically, these coins enjoy substantial premiums over normal examples.


Sarah Palin
First Republican woman nominated for the vice-presidency.
In 1970, a different kind of error involving “In God We Trust” appeared on small numbers of Lincoln cents made at the San Francisco Mint. Part of the steel on one or more dies had broken off, causing metal to flow into the empty space this created on each coin when it was struck. As it happened, the resulting blob of metal – known to collectors as a “cud” – covered the words “We Trust” along the top edge of the obverse (or “heads” side) of each coin, leaving only “In God” visible.

These mint error coins came to be known as “atheist cents” and stirred considerable interest at the time. They’re not great rarities, but they’re scarce enough to be worth a modest premium even now.

The inclusion of “In God We Trust” on U.S. coins and paper money has long been a point of contention with certain segments of the American populace. It has been challenged in court a number of times as a violation of the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment and of the principle of separation of church and state.

Critics charge that the phrase constitutes “respect for an establishment of religion” by the government. However, appeals courts have consistently held that such traditional, patriotic or ceremonial words do not amount to government sponsorship of a religious exercise or the establishment of a religion.

In all of these respects, it has been an important – and now indispensable – thread in the fabric of America’s national life.