Inscriptions referencing the American belief in God began to appear on US coinage as early as colonial times. The foundation of the nation was ultimately built on the belief in God, as most of the first English to permanently settle in North America were Puritans, Anglicans, and Quakers, among other Christian denominations. When President Theodore Roosevelt was elected into office in 1904, he decided to remove the inscription “In God We Trust” from American coinage. He thought that putting this motto on the coins was atrocious. Roosevelt received a great deal of backlash for his rejection of the nation’s motto on coinage, which led to new legislation requiring the motto to be inscribed on certain coins.
History of “In God We Trust” on Money
The motto “In God We Trust” on money was created based on a number of derivatives that appeared on American coinage long before the US Mint was established in 1792. In colonial America, various coinage from foreign countries circulated since it was newly established. People were using British pounds, Spanish milled dollars, and some colonies eventually created their own currency. Following the American Revolutionary War, the Articles of Confederation authorized states to produce their own coinage and decide their value.
Since Christianity was the dominant religion in colonial America, colonial coins bore inscriptions that recognized the Christian faith. For example, the Carolina cent produced in 1694 included the inscription “God preserve Carolina and the Lords proprietors” on the reverse side. The 1767 Louisiana cent bore the Latin inscription Sit Nomen Domini Benedictum, which translates to “Blessed be the name of the Lord.” The Christian faith was also incorporated in important documents, such as the First Charter of Virginia of 1606, the Mayflower Compact of 1620, and the Declaration of Independence.
The idea of placing a religious sentiment on official US coinage came during the early years of the American Civil War. One of the first official requests to recognize the Christian faith or God on coinage came from Reverend M.R. Watkinson of Ridleyville, Pennsylvania. Reverend Watkinson wrote to the Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase on November 13, 1861 and requested the “Almighty God in some form” be recognized on US coinage. At Reverend Watkinson’s request, Chase contacted the Director of the Mint, James Pollock, on November 20 to prepare a motto to be used on the coins. However, an Act of Congress passed in January 1837 defined what mottos and devices should be placed on American coinage. Before a new motto could be introduced, the current legislation had to be amended.
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In April 1864, Congress passed legislation that would allow adjustments to be made to the one-cent piece and authorized the creation of a two-cent bronze coin. The Director of the Mint was allowed to determine different mottos, devices, and shapes of the coinage, so long as the Secretary of the Treasury approved it. The 1864 bronze two-cent piece was the first coin to bore the inscription “In God We Trust.” In March 1865, Congress authorized the Director of the Mint, with the Secretary of the Treasury’s approval, to place “In God We Trust” on gold and silver coins. As a result, the motto appeared on the eagle, double eagle, half eagle, dollar, half dollar, and quarter dollar coins. Later legislation would involve more specifics as to what devices should be on different coins and additional inscriptions and features were added.
Teddy Roosevelt’s Plans to Redesign American Coinage
Teddy Roosevelt was first sworn into presidency following the assassination of President William McKinley in September 1901. Roosevelt ran for president in the 1904 election and won. Teddy Roosevelt decided to focus some of his attention on changing the designs on US coinage. On December 27, 1907, Roosevelt wrote a letter to the Secretary of the Treasury, Leslie Mortier Shaw, describing the current US coinage as “artistically of atrocious hideousness.” Teddy Roosevelt commissioned American sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens to design his inaugural medal. Roosevelt was very pleased with the design Saint-Gaudens had created for his inaugural coin.
During a dinner at the White House in 1905, Roosevelt asked Saint-Gaudens if he’d be interested in creating new US coinage designs like the intricate Greek coins. Saint-Gaudens agreed that he could create new designs for the one-cent, eagle, and double eagle coins. The process of introducing new designs to American coinage was done somewhat secretively. In the letter to Secretary Shaw, Roosevelt had inquired if he would be able to create new designs and produce new coinage without the permission of Congress. After getting approval from Secretary Shaw, Roosevelt began coordinating with Saint-Gaudens on creating the designs. The initial plan was to quickly get the designs completed and approved by the US Mint before Congress reconvened. This would allow at least some of the coins to enter circulation before Congress could potentially shut it down if they didn’t approve of the new coins.
Teddy Roosevelt Removes “In God We Trust” on Money
President Teddy Roosevelt didn’t purposely remove “In God We Trust” on money. However, he did approve the idea, which was originally suggested by Saint-Gaudens. Including the inscription “In God We Trust,” as Saint-Gaudens suggested, would detract from the artistry on the coins. Roosevelt sought legal advice on the matter to ensure that the motto wasn’t mandatory. No law existed at the time that prohibited the removal of “In God We Trust,” so Roosevelt agreed with Saint-Gaudens that it should be removed.
The ten-dollar eagle piece included Lady Liberty wearing a Native American headdress on one side and an eagle standing on the other side. The twenty-dollar double eagle coin had Lady Liberty standing, holding a torch in one hand and an oak branch in another, along with the year it was produced and the word Liberty bannered across the top. Stars were lined around the rim and the US Capitol was placed in the background. On the reverse side, the coin had a flying eagle with a partial sun in the background and “United States of America Twenty Dollars” located at the top.
Difficulties in Redesigning the Coinage
Roosevelt ran into numerous problems throughout the process of redesigning the new coins. US Mint officials weren’t happy with Roosevelt’s decision to redesign the coins because it infringed upon American tradition. Nevertheless, Roosevelt managed to convince Mint officials to go along with the new designs as long as they met certain criteria for production. Another issue that slowed down the design process was Saint-Gaudens deterioration of health. In 1900, Saint-Gaudens was diagnosed with colon cancer, which ultimately hindered him from producing the designs as quickly as Roosevelt wanted. The design for the one-cent piece was ultimately abandoned due to his declining health so he could focus on the eagle and double eagle coins.
Saint-Gaudens died in August 1907, and his assistant Henry Hering took over the coin redesign project. The new eagle and double eagle coins were released by the US Mint in November. Congress was scheduled to reconvene in December, which allowed only a month for the coins to begin circulating. The 1907 double eagle coin had multiple variations because the relief needed to be reduced to make production easier. The first two variations included a 34-mm version and 27-mm version, which were extremely high relief. The relief was reduced on the third variation and 12,000 made it out of production. The final variation was produced in December 1907, which was a low-relief 34-mm version. By the time these adjustments had been made, the public agitation of the removal of the motto “In God We Trust” was boiling over.
Controversy Erupts Over Removal of the Motto
President Roosevelt expected some opposition to the redesign of the coins, but he didn’t anticipate that it would reach so far as to cause a public outcry for the restoration of the traditional designs. Several groups organized to protest the removal of the motto and express their distaste of the artwork on the coins. Several media outlets, including The New York Sun and The Bookman journal, criticized Roosevelt for changing the coins’ mottos and devices. Although the public was disgruntled with the new artwork, the main focus was on the removal of the motto.
Some saw the removal of “In God We Trust” on money as an attack on the Christian religion, which the foundation of America had been built on. Others claimed that Roosevelt showed complete disregard for the religious sentiments that many Americans valued. The release of the coins and the public backlash also came at an unfortunate time for Roosevelt, as the Panic of 1907 put the country in a financial crisis. Roosevelt’s critics tried to place the blame of the crisis on him for being so harsh on big business practices that gave him his “trust buster” nickname. A number of religious organizations, such as the Presbyterian Brotherhood of America and the Convention of the Episcopal Diocese of New York, protested and sent Congress and the Secretary of the Treasury signed petitions to have “In God We Trust” on money restored.
“In God We Trust” on Money is Permanently Restored
President Teddy Roosevelt responded to the backlash by giving a statement naming his reasons for the motto’s removal. He stated that placing the motto on coinage “not only does no good, but does positive harm, and is in effect irreverence, which comes dangerously close to sacrilege.” Although Roosevelt did state that he would accept the new legislation if Congress decided to make the motto on coinage mandatory, the public didn’t respond well to his message. Congress reconvened on December 2, 1907 and immediately addressed the concerns over the removal of the motto.
The Committee on Coinage, Weights, and Measures established a subcommittee, which was responsible for investigating and reviewing all the petitions that flooded in to restore the motto. Chairman of the committee, William Brown McKinley, introduced a bill that would require the inscription of “In God We Trust” on select coins. The McKinley Bill reached the House of Representatives in March 1908 and passed almost unanimously, with only two representatives opposing the bill.
The US Senate reviewed the bill in May and passed it unanimously. President Roosevelt signed the bill less than a week later. “In God We Trust” reappeared on all gold and silver coins, the half dollar, and quarter dollar coins produced after July 1, 1908. Nearly 50 years later, “In God We Trust” was made the official national motto upon the passage of a Joint Resolution approved by the 84th Congress and President Dwight D. Eisenhower on July 30, 1956.