National Motto on Rare Gold Coins: In God We Trust
“In God We Trust.”
By 1966, the motto had been added to all of the nation’s paper money.
The national motto “In God We Trust” has withstood many challenges through the years –
including a current lawsuit contesting the legality of using this familiar phrase on U.S. coins and paper money and seeks its removal.
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
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
1864 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.
God-less Buffalo nickel
The famous 'God'-less Buffalo nickel
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.
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:
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
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
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
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.
34th President Dwight D. Eisenhower
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.
50th Anniversary of Our National Motto
'In God We Trust' now appear on all coinage.
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
“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
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.
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.
In all of these respects, it has been an important – and now indispensable – thread in the fabric of America’s national life.
Meet America's Gold Expert®, Mike Fuljenz
Known as America's Gold Expert®, Mike Fuljenz has won more than 50 prestigious national and regional awards for his consumer education and protection work in rare coins and precious metals.
His books, media appearances and newsletters about gold and rare coins have won Best of the Year awards from the Numismatic Literary Guild and the Press Club of Southeast Texas, and he received the NLG's coveted top honor in 2013, "The Clemy Award." Mike Fuljenz is a frequent expert guest on local and national business and personal finance programs, such as Fox Business Network and CNBC, and has been quoted in The Wall Street Journal, Kiplinger's, Los Angeles Times and other broadcast, print and online news media.
A respected community leader in his hometown of Beaumont, Texas, Fuljenz is a Past President of the Diocese of Beaumont Catholic School Board and received the Catholic Charities Humanitarian Award. He has served with distinction as a consultant to the Federal Trade Commission, U.S. Postal Service, General Services Administration, United States Mint and Royal Canadian Mint, and is on the Boards of Directors of Crime Stoppers of Beaumont, the influential Industry Council For Tangible Assets and the Numismatic Literary Guild.
The Fuljenz article on "In God We Trust - The Story of our national motto" has appeared in various forms in numerous newspapers, magazines and journals. Below are listed some of the current listings: