“In God We Trust.”
By 1966, the motto had been added to all of the nation’s paper money.
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.
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
Randy Forbes Resolution
Congressman Randy Forbes
Pennsylvania State Capitol Entrance
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.”
The Two-cent Piece
The motto “In God We Trust,” starting in 1864 on the 2 Cent Piece
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
“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,
In his 1863 report to the Secretary of the Treasury, Pollock acknowledged the influence our National Hymn had on his work when he wrote:
The motto suggested, God our Trust, is taken from our National Hymn, the Star-Spangled Banner. The sentiment is familiar to every citizen of our country; it has thrilled the hearts and fallen in song from the lips of millions of American Freemen. The time for the introduction of this or a similar motto, is propitious and appropriate. Tis an hour of National peril and danger, an hour when mans strength is weakness, when our strength and our nations strength and salvation must be in the God of battles and of nations. Let us reverently acknowledge his sovereignty, and let our coinage declare our trust in God.
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 following more communication between Chase and Pollock, In God We Trust was chosen and after nearly 150 years on the nations 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.
Over the years, the motto was added progressively to other U.S. coins; it has appeared on every denomination since 1938, when the God-less Buffalo nickel was retired.
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
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
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
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
34th President Dwight D. Eisenhower
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.
The Atheist Cent
“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.
First Republican woman nominated for the vice-presidency.
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.
In all of these respects, it has been an important – and now indispensable – thread in the fabric of America’s national life.