Americans are very familiar with coins and currency that display the motto, “In God We Trust.” It’s our nation’s motto, so it only makes sense that it would appear on our money. This was not always the case, however. Why was the motto added to our coinage and when?
Civil War Upheaval
The first coin to display the “In God We Trust” motto was the 1864 two-cent coin. Given the timing, you can imagine the impetus for the change. Shaken by the worst war that Americans had ever experienced and great casualties for both the North and the South, many people were looking for reassurance that all would be fine and that God had not abandoned them during this terrible ordeal. In 1861, the Secretary of the Treasury, Salmon P. Chase, received the first request for an acknowledgement of God on the national coinage. Rev. M.R. Watkinson wrote to him with a design for a coin in mind involving a ring inscribed with the words PERPETUAL UNION, the all-seeing eye crowned with a halo, the American flag with all the stars of the once again United States, and the words GOD, LIBERTY, and LAW.
“This,” Watkinson wrote, “would place us openly under the Divine protection we have personally claimed. From my hearth I have felt our national shame in disowning God as not the least of our present national disasters.”
In response, Secretary Chase wrote to the Philadelphia Mint’s director, James Pollock, in November of 1861 asking him to add a motto to the coinage that would express “in the fewest and tersest words possible” that the people of the United States trusted God’s strength to defend them.
The “In God We Trust” Motto
Unfortunately for Chase and Watkinson, the Mint could not make that change without additional legislation from Congress. An 1837 Act of Congress had already established which mottoes and devices could appear on U.S. coinage - and “In God We Trust” was not one of them. In April of 1864 Congress did pass an act that changed the composition of the one-cent coin and authorized a two-cent coin, and the Mint director developed designs for them, incorporating Secretary Chase’s previous request to add the words IN GOD WE TRUST.
The design of the two-cent coin features a shield, or escutcheon, on the obverse with 13 vertical stripes, symbolizing the country’s strength and unity. Behind the shield are crossed arrows, and encircling it is a laurel wreath. Above all of these is a banner containing the words IN GOD WE TRUST. The reverse contains the words 2 CENTS inside a wheat wreath. Encircling the wreath are the words UNITED STATES OF AMERICA.
The Mint produced over 20 million two-cent coins in 1864 in two distinct varieties, the large motto and the small motto. The small motto is less common and more in demand by collectors today. Its lettering is not very bold and has larger spacing between the individual letters than the large motto two-cent coin. The two-cent coin would continue to be minted until 1873, but the most common date is 1864.
The Motto in Continuous Use
In 1865 Congress passed another act allowing the Mint Director to use the motto on all gold and silver coins with the Secretary’s approval. As a result it was used on the gold double-eagle coin, the gold eagle coin, and the gold half-eagle coin, as well as the silver dollar, the half-dollar, and the quarter dollar coin and the nickel three-cent coin beginning in 1866. In 1873 Congress allowed that the Secretary could use it “on such coins as shall admit such motto.
The Mint did not use the motto for every coin, not at first. It was very popular, though. It’s been used on Lincoln cents since 1909, on ten-cent coins since 1916, and on all gold coins and silver dollar coins, half-dollar coins, and quarter-dollar coins since 1908.
In 1956, in order to distinguish U.S. culture from the state atheism of the Soviet Union, Congress passed a law declaring “In God We Trust” to be the national motto of the United States. The following year it appeared for the first time on our paper currency. Today it is on all classes and denominations of U.S. currency. It’s so ubiquitous now, in fact, that we do not even notice it when we see it on our coins and dollar bills.