“In God We Trust” Appears on U.S. Coins Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The motto “In God We Trust” first appeared on the U.S. two-cent coin during the U.S. Civil War, a time of increased religious sentiment in the United States. By the mid-twentieth century the motto had been included on all U.S. coins. The inscription remains the subject of debate between proponents and opponents of religious reference within the realm of government.

Summary of Event

A congressional act on January 18, 1837, had limited what mottos and devices could be placed on U.S. coins. Changes to currency would need the approval of Congress, so on April 22, 1864, congressional authorization was needed to manufacture the two-cent piece and to alter the one-cent piece. The 1864 legislation also gave treasury officials discretionary authority concerning inscriptions on the nation’s minor coins. Inscribed on this two-cent piece was “In God We Trust.” Another congressional act, passed on March 3, 1865, allowed the mint director, with the treasury secretary’s approval, to place the motto on all gold and silver coins. "In God We Trust"[In God We Trust] Coinage, U.S. Congress, U.S.;and coinage[Coinage] Chase, Salmon P. [p]Chase, Salmon P.;and coinage[Coinage] Watkinson, Mark R. Mint, U.S. [kw]"In God We Trust" Appears on U.S. Coins (Apr. 22, 1864) [kw]God We Trust" Appears on U.S. Coins, “In (Apr. 22, 1864) [kw]We Trust” Appears on U.S. Coins, “In God (Apr. 22, 1864) [kw]Trust” Appears on U.S. Coins, “In God We (Apr. 22, 1864) [kw]Appears on U.S. Coins, ”In God We Trust" (Apr. 22, 1864) [kw]U.S. Coins, “In God We Trust” Appears on (Apr. 22, 1864) [kw]Coins, “In God We Trust” Appears on U.S. (Apr. 22, 1864) "In God We Trust"[In God We Trust] Coinage, U.S. Congress, U.S.;and coinage[Coinage] Chase, Salmon P. [p]Chase, Salmon P.;and coinage[Coinage] Watkinson, Mark R. Mint, U.S. [g]United States;Apr. 22, 1864: “In God We Trust” Appears on U.S. Coins[3720] [c]Economics;Apr. 22, 1864: “In God We Trust” Appears on U.S. Coins[3720] [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Apr. 22, 1864: “In God We Trust” Appears on U.S. Coins[3720] [c]Religion and theology;Apr. 22, 1864: “In God We Trust” Appears on U.S. Coins[3720] [c]Social issues and reform;Apr. 22, 1864: “In God We Trust” Appears on U.S. Coins[3720] Pollack, James Longacre, James Barton

The first U.S. coin on which “In God We Trust” appeared, the copper two-cent piece was a wartime expedient that was first issued in 1864 and discontinued after 1873.

The United States had instituted a money system as early as 1792, when Congress passed the first coinage system act. This act set out denominations that remain in use into the twenty-first century. The act provided the following guidelines concerning the coins’ appearance: The goddess of liberty was to be placed on one side; on the flip side was to be placed the year of the coinage, a figure of an eagle, and the inscription “United States of America.” Three years later, “E Pluribus Unum,” chosen as a reference to the unification of states into a single unit, was the first motto to appear on U.S. coins. The motto had been approved by Congress for the Great Seal of the United States in the earliest days of the new nation.

On November 13, 1861, in the face of shaken Union morale caused by Confederate victories in the Civil War, Reverend Mark R. Watkinson and other ministers of the First Particular Baptist Church in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, wrote to Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase requesting “the recognition in some form of the Almighty God” on U.S. coins as a means not only to “protect” the nation from harm but to rid the nation of the reputation of heathenism. The United States, nearing the end of its bloody civil war, suffered massive loss of life, and people had been uncertain about the nation’s future. Watkinson’s efforts were part of a larger campaign waged by an organization of eleven Protestant groups, which sought unsuccessfully to amend the U.S. Constitution to include a reference to God.

Watkinson suggested a different inscription for the coin. He requested, among other things, that the coin have, instead of the goddess of liberty, the words “perpetual union.” His suggested phrase, “God, Liberty, and Law,” was to be placed in the “folds” of the U.S. flag’s stripes. In Watkinson’s view, these inscriptions would bring the nation under God’s protection. Chase agreed, so he ordered design proposals and sought legislative approval for Watkinson’s suggestions.

Worried about the wartime economy, Americans had begun to horde gold, silver, and copper coins, leading to a coin shortage in 1863. Chase had proposed the two-cent coin to reinvigorate the economy. Watkinson’s suggestion for inscribing coins came along at a time when the country was looking to increase its coinage supply.

As part of a long letter to Secretary Chase in December, 1863, U.S. Mint director James Pollack Pollack, James recommended that new coins have the denominations of one and two cents and be made in bronze. He instructed the chief engraver for the mint in Philadelphia, James Barton Longacre Longacre, James Barton , to prepare two designs. Both coins were designed to contain a portrait of George Washington, but each coin would have a different motto: “God and Country” and “In God We Trust.” The reverse side on both coins would show a wheat wreath, which would show the given coin’s denomination and be surrounded by the words “United States of America.” Chase approved the shield design and motto “In God We Trust” for the two-cent piece. Thus, the 1864 two-cent piece became the first circulating U.S. coin to bear the new motto. Later, Congress passed the Coinage Act of February 12, 1873 Coinage Act of 1873 , which extended the motto’s inclusion on all coins, when aesthetically feasible.

Significance

“In God We Trust” has remained an important part of American history, even though the two-cent coin was discontinued soon after it was placed into circulation. President Theodore Roosevelt Roosevelt, Theodore [p]Roosevelt, Theodore;and coinage[Coinage] had attempted to replace the motto in 1901 with a new design. Public outcry ended Roosevelt’s attempt, however, and led to a bill signed by the president on May 18, 1908, requiring the inscription on all U.S. coins. Attesting to the motto’s significance for the country, President Dwight D. Eisenhower Eisenhower, Dwight D. signed into law on July 30, 1956, a bill that officially replaced the national motto “E Pluribus Unum” with “In God We Trust.”

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ackerman, David M.“In God We Trust” on the Nation’s Coins and Currency as the National Motto: History and Constitutionality. Washington, D.C.: Congressional Research Service, Library of Congress, 1996. A brief, nine-page U.S. government historical study of the use of the motto on the country’s currency and the motto’s place in the debate over constitutionality and the separation of church and state.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Breen, Walter. Walter Breen’s Complete Encyclopedia of U.S. and Colonial Coins. New York: Doubleday, 1988. Comprehensive collection of articles detailing the history of colonial-era and U.S. coinage.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Browin, Frances Williams. Coins Have Tales to Tell: The Story of American Coins. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1966. A good historical narrative that provides an overview of coin usage in the United States.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Burrell, Brian. The Words We Live By: The Creeds, Mottoes, and Pledges That Have Shaped America. New York: Free Press, 1997. History of the significance of words and phrases in the shaping of American cultural and social values. Includes discussion of the use of mottoes such as “In God We Trust” on U.S. currency.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cooper, David. “Money Mottos: Reflections of Liberty?” The Humanist 62, no. 3 (2002). Brief but informative article by a historian and coin collector on the question of inscriptions on U.S. coins, with some discussion of the use of “In God We Trust” on those coins.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cord, Robert L. Separation of Church and State: Historical Fact and Current Fiction. New York: Lambeth Press, 1982. A social and cultural history of the use of the motto “In God We Trust” on U.S. coins in the context of the debate over separation of church and state.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Levy, Leonard. The Establishment Clause: Religion and the First Amendment. New York: Macmillan, 1994. Levy argues that the motto “In God We Trust” violates the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Taxay, Don. The U.S. Mint and Coinage: An Illustrated History From 1776 to the Present. New York: Arco, 1966. History of the various U.S. Mints and of U.S. coinage.

Second Bank of the United States Is Chartered

Establishment of Independent U.S. Treasury

U.S. Civil War

Congress Passes the National Bank Acts

“Crime of 1873”

Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Nineteenth Century, 1801-1900</i>

Thomas Hart Benton; Salmon P. Chase. "In God We Trust"[In God We Trust] Coinage, U.S. Congress, U.S.;and coinage[Coinage] Chase, Salmon P. [p]Chase, Salmon P.;and coinage[Coinage] Watkinson, Mark R. Mint, U.S.

Categories: History Content