On Friday, I read an atheist’s blog here on WordPress that was concerned about a new Pennsylvania bill that, if passed, will become the “National Motto Display Act.” This is legislation requiring public schools in Pennsylvania to display prominently our nation’s motto, “In God We Trust.” In the public memo for this proposed legislation, Representative Rick Saccone states:
The motto “In God We Trust” is part of the history and heritage of the United States. On April 22, 2014, we will celebrate the 150th Anniversary of our national motto “In God We Trust” on our coins. While this phrase was first introduced to the nation by Francis Scott Key in 1814 in the words of our national anthem, it was a Pennsylvanian, James Pollock, the 13th Governor of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, who was responsible for suggesting the installation of these words on our coins during his term as Director of the United States Mint. In April of 1864, Congress first approved the use of the motto on United States two-cent pieces, and since then, the motto has been inscribed on most denominations of coins in an uninterrupted period of time extending from the present back to 1916. [Source for bill text; PDF]
As a coin enthusiast, I knew this information was inaccurate. The Coinage Act of April 22, 1864 contains nothing about the new motto. I felt that we all could benefit from some numismatic historical perspective to truly understand the forces that shaped its adoption. There are several key factors omitted in that other blog, and to say (as he did) that national fear drove its adoption is such a simplification as to be misleading. The articles of the Coinage Act of 1864 were:
- Standard weight, &c., of the cent. The small cent composition was adjusted from a whitish copper-nickel (1856-1864) to bronze (1864-1982).
- Two-cent pieces to be coined. This short-lived denomination was issued from 1864 through 1873. Exactly why a piece of this denomination was considered necessary in our decimal coinage system is not known. The wartime suspension of specie payments (silver and gold coins) had encouraged hoarding and severely restricted the circulation of coins, so perhaps the two-cent was intended to help alleviate this. [Source]
- Shape, devices, &c. of Two-cent. It was made of the same bronze and exactly double the weight of the new specs for the Indian Head cent.
- Present laws extended thereto.
- Director of mint to secure conformity of alloy in such coins.
- Such coins to be legal tender and for what sums. During the era when we had gold and silver money, lower denominations from the half-cent through the nickel could not be used in large quantities. You couldn’t legally use more than ten of these “legal tender” base-metal coins in a single purchase. That kept people from hoarding coins that needed to circulate for uninhibited commerce.
Since 1971, all our currency is “legal tender,” meaning that it’s only valuable because the government makes it legal to use as currency. That’s why you now see the phenomenon of people making larger purchases with rolls of pennies. Also cashless transactions have made coins less necessary to our economy.
- Penalty for making coins intended to be passed as cents, &c.
Nothing in there about the motto. It just so happened that the two-cent was issued before Congress officially permitted our coins to have this new motto one year later.
So where did the motto come from? On Nov. 3, 1861, Reverend M.R. Watkins wrote a letter to then Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase. He felt that Congress had overlooked “the recognition of Almighty God in some form on our coins.” The Rev. continues: “What I propose is that instead of the goddess of liberty we shall have next inside the 13 stars a ring inscribed with the words PERPETUAL UNION; within the ring the all seeing eye, crowned with a halo; beneath this eye the American flag, bearing in its field stars equal to the number of the States united; in the folds of the bars the words GOD, LIBERTY, LAW. This would make a beautiful coin, to which no possible citizen could object.” Rev. Watkins was clearly referring to designs on popular tokens that circulated when pennies were scarce during the war.
“Dear Sir,” Chase directed in a letter to the Director of the US Mint, “No nation can be strong except in the strength of God, or safe except in His defense. The trust of our people in God should be declared on our national coins. You will cause a device to be prepared without unnecessary delay with a motto expressing in the fewest and tersest words possible this national recognition.” Such designs were proposed by the Philadelphia Mint and refined through 1862-1863, including some that featured the bust of Pres. Washington. Finally the Union Shield (brought back to the penny in 2010) was chosen.
Treasury Secretary Chase had acted on his own, though being in Abraham Lincoln’s cabinet meant he had undoubtedly acted in the spirit of his leader’s administration. (…Notice the word LIBERTY is missing?) A little over a month before Pres. Lincoln’s assassination, congress passed the much more comprehensive Coinage Act of March 3, 1865:
- A three-cent piece to be coined. Silver three-cent pieces or trimes had already been in circulation since 1851. This act allowed one to also be minted from nickel.
- Composition, weight, shape, device, &c.
- Laws applicable.
- Laws relating to coins and coinage extended to this coin, &c.
- Director of mint to make regulations.
- To be legal tender for sixty cents, the three-cent coin may be paid out in exchange for lawful currency, except, &c.
- Expenses, how paid.
- No fractional note to be issued under five cents.
- Knowingly making or passing any coin, token, &c., for coin authorized by this act, how punished.
- “In God we trust” may be placed on coins hereafter issued.
- “One-Cent” and “two-cent” coins to be legal tender only for four cents.
Here’s the full text about the motto:
SEC. 5. And be it further enacted, That, in addition to the devices and legends upon the gold, silver, and other coins of the United States, it shall be lawful for the director of the mint, with the approval of the Secretary of the Treasury, to cause the motto “In God we trust” to be placed upon such coins hereafter to be issued as shall admit of such legend thereon. [Source]
So if the design of a particular coin has the space for this motto, it was now lawful to put it there. The new three-cent nickel never even had the motto throughout its entire mintage (1865-1889). Nor did it have 13 stars, nor the flag, nor did the all-seeing eye replace the bust of Liberty.
Over the next couple years, many of the gold and silver coins had this motto added to the reverse existing design, like this example:
I know that many other sites on the web have explained the history behind the motto, but none other lays out the entire history like the National Legal Foundation’s briefing on the motto. In particular, I want to point out that in 1904, President Theodore Roosevelt started to push for improvements to US coins, saying that the bald eagle on the reverse looked like a roasted squab! He enjoyed coins and was particularly inspired by the high-relief designs of ancient Greek coins.
Use of the national motto “In God We Trust” on coins continued from 1864 up to 1907. At that time, the U.S. Mint released new eagles and double eagles designed by Augustus Saint-Gaudens. President Theodore Roosevelt had commissioned Saint-Gaudens to design the new coins in a high relief style. The new eagles and double eagles did not include the motto “In God We Trust” in their design.
Public outcry for the motto’s restoration arose soon after the new coins’ release. President Roosevelt defended the motto’s removal. In a letter to the Reverend Mr. Roland C. Dryer of Nunda, New York, who along with many others had protested the omission, Roosevelt stated that public recognition of God was important and that “In God We Trust” was “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, wherever it will tend to arouse and inspire a lofty emotion in those who look thereon”. Roosevelt expressed fear that use of the motto on coins was “in effect irreverence which comes dangerously close to sacrilege.”
The President pointed out he had never heard anyone speak reverently of the motto on coins. He cited examples of how people had used the phrase in a jesting manner during debates over the free coinage of silver in the 1800’s. Noting the law did not require the motto, but only permitted its use. Roosevelt followed his personal conviction and chose not to use it. He did point out, however, a law could be passed mandating the use of the phrase “In God We Trust” on all coins. Roosevelt stated he would comply with such a mandate as the desire of the American people expressed through Congress.
Responding to increasing public demand, Congress did pass legislation requiring the use of the phrase “In God We Trust” on all coins which had previously borne the motto. The law stated:
That the motto “In God We Trust,” heretofore inscribed on certain denominations of the gold and silver coins of the United States of America, shall hereafter be inscribed upon all such gold and silver coins of said denominations as heretofore.
President Roosevelt signed the new law of May 18, 1908, and “In God We Trust” was restored to the [Twenty Dollar] coins.
So keep in mind that, again, coins that did not previously have the motto didn’t have to start using it. There was a stock market crash in 1907, but there was no mortal danger to the nation’s existence. There was no draconian law forcing its full adoption. In fact, the Buffalo Nickel (1913-1937) was designed after the 1908 law, and incidentally it was the last US coin designed without the motto.
I have been in prayer all weekend about this blog post; and I keep coming back to the reality that these logical arguments have no weight in the real world. They deny the fact that humans are spiritual beings and it is in our nature to seek out spiritual matters. We have a God-sized hole in our hearts and the fact that we are never satisfied, by default, points to the existence of higher sources for satisfaction. To place trust in a “god”, no matter what (or who) that is, reflects a humility that is healthy for all humans to cultivate. I don’t really have a problem with this National Motto Display Act; I see it as an appropriate counterstrike against the Satanic statue being built for display at the Oklahoma state capitol.
I really do have pity for the atheists’ deliberate spiritual blindness. There are spiritual wars being waged all the time, and we can’t pretend they don’t exist. I personally feel that it is important to take a stand for goodness and righteousness. It is disingenuously illogical to say that being an a-theist means you don’t believe in anything. It denies what is plain to even the smallest child: that spirituality exists. They have a belief system; they’re just not intellectually willing to accept that fact, so they open their own spirits to further corruptions. I pray for the destiny of their eternal souls.
Therefore I keep getting Psalm 14 stuck into my mind. On April 1st I heard some Christians saying to each other “Happy Atheist Day,” citing Psalm 14:
14 The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.”
They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds,
there is none who does good.
2 The Lord looks down from heaven on the children of man,
to see if there are any who understand,
who seek after God.
3 They have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt;
there is none who does good,
not even one.
4 Have they no knowledge, all the evildoers
who eat up my people as they eat bread
and do not call upon the Lord?
5 There they are in great terror,
for God is with the generation of the righteous.
6 You would shame the plans of the poor,
but the Lord is his refuge.
7 Oh, that salvation for Israel would come out of Zion!
When the Lord restores the fortunes of his people,
let Jacob rejoice, let Israel be glad.