United States Wasn't First to Use 'In God We Trust' Motto|
March 01, 2011
This article was originally printed in Coins Magazine.
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The motto “IN GOD WE TRUST” has over the years become seemingly an automatic adjunct of our coinage. It is not without controversy, oddly in both directions. New collectors are aghast when they find a coin without the motto, while even a president directed its removal. I’ve assembled a few of the conceptions and misconceptions surrounding it.
The precedent for the use of the motto “IN GOD WE TRUST” on our paper money and coins came when the Continental Congress authorized “DEUS REGNAT EXULTET TERRA,” (“God Reigns, let the World Rejoice”). One of the first religious mottoes was “IN GOD IS OUR TRUST,” which appeared on the $100 Interest Bearing Note of March 3, 1863. It’s part of a line from one of the later stanzas of the “Star Spangled Banner.”
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The religious motto was not a legal requirement until the 1950s. Even then, laws for new coins could opt out of its use. In several instances among our commemorative coins the motto would have cluttered an already jammed-up design.
Although the motto has been missing from several commemoratives, it was the gold $10 and $20 coins that attracted the most attention. President Theodore Roosevelt did not want “IN GOD WE TRUST” on our coinage. He had it dropped in 1907, pointing out there was no law requiring it, and in a letter to a William Boldly he said, “My own feeling in the matter is due to my very 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.” An Act of Congress restored it to late 1908 production.
The minister who proposed a religious motto prevailed. Rev. Mark Richards Watkinson of Pennsylvania, wrote Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase, in 1861, suggesting “GOD, LIBERTY, LAW.” Chase agreed to the idea, but it was not made law until July 11, 1955.
There was a lot of public outcry when the motto “IN GOD WE TRUST” was omitted from the 1907 gold $10s and gold $20s, but there was similar problem when the motto was first introduced. It may come as a surprise to learn that Chase took a lot of heat in 1864 when he had the motto placed on the new two-cent piece. It was inspired by the religious fervor surrounding the events of the Civil War, but many of the people in the North felt that it had no place on our coinage.
One interesting sidelight is that part of the funds used to construct the American Numismatic Association headquarters at Colorado Springs, Colo. came from the sale of an “error” medal. In 1964 a National Commemorative Society medal, honoring the 100th anniversary of the adoption of the “IN GOD WE TRUST” motto on our coinage, first appearing on the two-cent piece, was sold for the princely sum of $2,075. The platinum proof had the incorrect middle initial for the motto’s proponent, substituting an “A” for the correct “R” in the Rev. Mark R. Watkinson’s name on the obverse. The NCS donated the proceeds from the sale of the single platinum piece to the ANA Building Fund.
We don’t have a lock on the motto as it, or variations, appear on the coins of several other countries. The Netherlands Antilles 25 gulden of 1973 carries the words “DIOS KU NOS,” which translates to “IN GOD WE TRUST.” Nicaragua has used the slogan on most of its larger modern coins. It is written in Spanish, “En Dios Confiamos,” which translates literally to “In God We Trust.” Numerous other countries use a prayer form rather than a statement.
Our paper money has added to the confusion because the series date on our notes does not indicate the year they were produced. This leads to frequent questions from collectors unfamiliar with the situation. The motto first appeared on our paper money on the 1886 $5 Silver Certificates. The backs of the notes carry five Morgan dollars, four reverses and one obverse, with the 1886 date. Clearly visible on the engraving of the coins is the motto, with TRUST spelled as TRAST on one of the reverses. The official date is in the middle of the 1935-G series $1 Silver Certificates, printed in 1957.
To make it perfectly clear, there are no known notes missing the motto and no known notes with the motto that shouldn’t have it. One caution, it is possible to remove the motto or any other detail with an electric eraser, so any note that should have the motto should be authenticated by an expert.
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