During 1812, Francis Scott Key had a very eventful September. Traveling under a white flag, Key met with both an enemy general and admiral, recovered a war prisoner, watched a historical bombardment, lost a night’s sleep and wrote what eventually became the American National anthem, the Star-Spangled Banner.
The final stanza reads:
“And this be our motto: ‘In God We Trust,’
And the Star-Spangled Banner in triumph shall wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.”
In 1864 the words were shortened to “In God We Trust” and applied to a newly designed two-cent coin.
Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase in 1863 asked the director of the Mint, James Pollock to prepare suitable wording for a motto to be used on Union coins during the Civil War. Pollock suggested, “Our Trust is in God”, “Our God and Our Country”, “God and Our Country” and “God Our Trust”. Chase picked “In God We Trust” to be used on some of the government’s coins. The phrase was a subtle reminder that the Union considered itself on God’s side with respect to slavery. Congress passed enabling legislation. Since an 1837 Act of Congress specified the mottos and devices that were to be placed on U.S. coins it was necessary to pass another Act to enable the motto to be added. This was done on April 22, 1886. The motto has been in constant use on the one-cent coin since 1909, and on the ten-cent coin since 1916. It has also appeared on all gold coins and silver coins, half-dollar coins and quarter-dollar coins struck since July 1, 1908.
Theodore Roosevelt disapproved of the motto and wrote in a letter; “My own feeling in the matter is due to my firm conviction that to put such a motto on coins, or to use it in any kindred manner, not only does no good but does positive harm, and is in effect irreverence which comes dangerously close to sacrilege. It is a motto which it is indeed well to have inscribed on our great national monuments, in our temples of justice, in our legislative halls and in buildings such as those at West Point and Annapolis – in short, whenever it will tend to arouse and inspire a lofty emotion in those who look thereon. But it seems to me eminently unwise to cheapen it by use on postage stamps, or in advertisements.”
The motto was first used on paper money in 1957, when it was added to the one-dollar silver certificate. By 1966, “In God We Trust” was added to all paper money, from $1 to $100 denominations.
During the 1950’s the federal government’s references to God multiplied.
1. “Under God” was added to the pledge of allegiance.
2. “So help me God” was added as a suffix to the oaths of office for federal justices and judges. However, they are not compelled to recite the words.
3. All American currency since 1957 has included on it the motto, “In God We Trust”.
The Dutch have had a religious motto on their money for over a century. Coins carry the motto, “God zij met ons”, “God is with us”.
Although not a motto, many British coins contain a drawing of the queen identified as “Elizabeth II by Grace of God Defender of the Faith.” In Britain the monarch is the head of the Church of England.
Canadian coins carry the phrase, “Elizabeth II D. G. Regina.” She is the queen of Canada but not the “Defender of the Faith”, because Canada does not have a state religion for her to defend!
R W Jay Austin