‘IN GOD WE TRUST’ – THE STORY OF OUR NATIONAL MOTTO
|Published: Wednesday, 25 January 2012 08:50|
With permission from the Beaumont Examiner
“In God We Trust.”Most Americans take those words for granted today and assume they’ve always been part of our national fabric. Thus, many were surprised when the House of Representatives recently voted to reaffirm that this simple phrase is the official national motto.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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 since early in the war, and the two-cent piece – being new – made this possible without undue disruption.
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 the words “God and Our Country” and the other had the words “God Our Trust.”
The late numismatist Walter Breen speculated that the final form was influenced by the motto of Chase’s alma mater, Brown University: “In Deo Speramus,” a Latin phrase meaning “In God We Hope.” Whatever the explanation, “In God We Trust” was chosen.
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 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.
The 1908 law resulted directly from an 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.
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.
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.
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.” 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.
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.
Not long after that, 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.
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.
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.
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 the traditional words do not amount to government sponsorship of a religious exercise or the establishment of a religion.
Mike Fuljenz brings over forty years of experience and expertise to any gold or numismatic conversation. Fuljenz’s extensive knowledge is only surpassed by his commitment to educating consumers.