The claim is often made that “In God We Trust” did not appear on US Currency until 1957. Well, yes and no. And why is it important?
Currency Technically Means Coins, Too
The definition of currency is the money that circulates, especially the paper money. But it does technically include coins even if most people seem to think it’s just a fancy word for “paper money.” The strictly correct statement is that IGWT was added to US dollar bills (paper money) in 1957, and got added to other denominations in 1964-1966. But it has appeared on some US coins since 1864. It became universal on all US coinage in 1938. So the 1957 date is not by any means the whole story, or the beginning or even the end of it; rather it was a gradual process that took slightly over a century.
But the important point to remember is that it did not always appear on US currency. I’ll come back to that later.
It Began in the Civil War
The Civil War was a time of monetary turmoil. Silver and gold coinage disappeared from circulation, leaving nothing but paper money and cent coins circulating. Not even nickels were around. They didn’t exist yet. At this time the five cent coin was actually a very small silver coin half the size of a dime, it was even called the “half dime.” There was also an even smaller three cent silver coin. Thus with silver gone from circulation, the only coin that circulated was the cent. The government issued “fractional currency” (fractional paper money) in various denominations less than a dollar to try to cover the gap.
So in 1864 the government created the two cent coin, and the cent became solid bronze (instead of a copper-nickel alloy a bit different than what we use today). This coin was the first to bear IGWT. The Wikipedia link above supplies no picture; fortunately I have one myself and I’ve photographed it, below. So how did the motto originate?
Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase had received suggestions from many people that God be recognized on our coinage, the first being on November 13, 1861, from Rev. M. R. Watkinson, Minister of the Gospel, living in Ridleyville, Pennsylvania. Although Secretary Chase and the Director of the Mint, James Pollock, wanted to do this the law of 1837 mandated, in great detail, what was to appear on coinage. They persuaded Congress to pass the requisite legislation, on April 22, 1864.
1865: The Three Cent Nickel is Invented–But No IGWT
The 3 Cent Nickel piece was introduced the following year, to address the continuing shortage of silver coinage. It did not bear “In God We Trust.” (The US Treasury website on this topic claims it did, but this is incorrect.) [The Wikipedia article discusses both the silver and nickel three cent pieces but only shows a picture of the silver.] The coin was discontinued in 1889.
1866: Some Gold And Silver Get The Motto
The next year, Congress passed another law giving the Secretary permission to put the motto on any gold or silver coin where it would fit. (It wasn’t required but it was permitted.) At this point, the first nickel 5 cent piece–like what we use today–was introduced; it too had IGWT.
But given the freedom to place the motto on other coinage, the US Mint did so, and in 1866, it began to appear on quarters, halves, silver dollars, gold half eagles ($5), eagles ($10) and double eagles ($20). The design changes were pretty minimal; generally a ribbon with the motto was shoehorned into blank space in the pre-existing design. (Here is the Wikipedia link on the silver “seated liberty” motif in use at the time but it is rather lacking in pictures; there isn’t even a picture of any coin’s reverse with the motto present.) It did not appear on the cent, three cent nickel, three cent silver, half dime, dime, $1 gold, quarter eagles ($2.50), or three dollar gold pieces. (You’ll note that the US issued a lot more coin denominations back then than it does now!) As one might suspect from the way the law was worded, in essence the physically larger coins got the motto, while the smaller coins remained motto-free.
The Next 40 Years.
Over the next couple of decades, the two cent piece, both three cent pieces, the half dime, and the gold $1 and $3 all were discontinued. There was a brief experiment with 20 cent pieces from 1875-78, those did not bear the motto.
In 1883 the design of the nickel was altered, and IGWT did not appear on the new design–this was the first time the motto was removed from a coin it had previously appeared on. This was to last through another redesign in 1913 (the “buffalo nickel“).
The dime, quarter dollar and half dollar were redesigned in 1892, still with no motto on the dime, and mottos on the quarter and half (the “Barber” design, named for Charles Barber). Silver dollars were redesigned in 1878 (the “Morgan dollar“) and went on hiatus in 1904 though they continued to circulate.
So as of 1907, the cent, nickel, and dime did not bear “In God We Trust”, the quarter dollar, half dollar, and dollar did, the gold quarter eagle ($2.50) did not, and the half eagle ($5), the eagle ($10) and double eagle ($20) did. In essence only physically large coins bore the motto.
1907 and Theodore Roosevelt’s Redesign
Theodore Roosevelt decided to change the rather staid designs of our coinage in 1907, and he commissioned Augustus St. Gaudens, a renowned sculptor in his own right, to come up with a couple of designs that ultimately became the new eagle and double eagle. The designs did not bear “In God We Trust” and this led to a public outcry. Congress passed a law in 1908 requiring that the motto be restored; in fact the act forbade removing the motto from any US coin, but allowed coins that did not have the motto to remain that way. It was a one-way street.
1908 saw a redesign of the quarter and half eagle, with the motto now on both of these denominations. 1909 saw the Lincoln cent, with the motto added. 1913 saw the “buffalo” nickel–still without the motto. 1916 saw the “Mercury” dime with the motto added. (The quarter and half were also redesigned, but already had the motto anyway. Nevertheless the new designs were artistic gems so I’ve linked to them.) The silver dollar was resumed in 1921 and redesigned that year (the “Peace dollar“), retaining the motto.
So as of 1917 the nickel was the last holdout. Gold coinage and the silver dollar were discontinued in the 1930s. Finally, in 1938 the Jefferson nickel, bearing the motto, was introduced. Since then all US coins have had the motto.
[11 March 2012–Note: I expanded on this section in a later post, here]
Finally, in 1956 Congress passed an act making IGWT the national motto (leaving E Pluribus Unum as the other motto), and sometime in 1957 it was added to the one dollar silver certificate (notes with a blue, rather than green, seal and serial numbers).
Other paper continued to be printed without the motto. The dates on paper money can be misleading since, unlike coins, they are not changed every year; most notes bore the date “Series of 1950” with a letter suffix even though in many cases the actual production date could be the early 1960s. It wasn’t until the “Series of 1963” that the motto was added to the other denominations, and the actual first date of issue was as late as 1966 for the higher denominations. (Fun fact: the one dollar federal reserve note (green seal and serial number) was first issued at this time; before then one dollar bills generally had red or blue seals and serial numbers, denoting United States Notes and silver certificates, respectively.)
So contrary to what many people believe, money was still being made by the US government as late as the 1965, without “In God We Trust” on it.
The Presidential Dollar–Oops!
When the presidential dollars began to be issued in 2007, it was noticed that “In God We Trust” did not seem to be anywhere on the coin. There was quite a ruckus over this from offended Christians, but it so happens that the motto is stamped into the edge, where it wasn’t noticed by many. This is an unusual feature for US coinage today (it was done in the 1790s into the early part of the 19th century), so it’s understandable that people would make the mistake. On the other hand, the mint has been known to goof and forget to put the edge lettering on!
[Edit, 13 May 2012. It came to my attention yesterday that in 2009 “In God We Trust” was moved to the obverse of the presidential dollar coins. (On the Native American coins also being issued, it is already on the obverse.) “E Pluribus Unum” and the date are still stamped into the edge (as is true of the Native American coins), sometimes barely legibly. This shows where someone’s priorities are; they are with this interloper motto rather than the traditional motto of the United States, or even the fricking date.]
Why It Matters
Now why does this matter?
It matters to me, and many atheists and freethinkers, because there is a perennial argument over whether the United States is a “Christian nation.” Well the answer to that depends on what it means to be a Christian nation. It is a certainly the case that most people in the US during the revolution and the founding of the present-day federal goverment under the constitution, were Christians. But they were Christians of all sorts of different sects, and there were substantial minorities of Jews and deists, and a few atheists as well. Many Jews and deists were leaders in the revolution and in the establishment of the US Constitution, and they decided that the federal government should remain religiously neutral–they even put in a requirement that there should be no religious test for holding public office. In other words, the federal government could not require you to belong to a particular church, or any church for that matter, for you to serve in either elected office or as an appointee. (The last sentence of Article 6 of the original constitution.) More famously the Bill of Rights was passed, and the First Amendment, even by the strictest reading, forbade the establishing of an official church in the United States.
The intent was that the federal government be religiously neutral, whatever the populace might be. The words God and Christian do not appear in the US Constitution at all.
Unfortunately, today many Christians falsely assert that the US was founded on Christianity. And one of their favorite arguments in favor of this is to point to “In God We Trust” on a dollar bill. But that motto did not appear there until 1957, and didn’t make it onto higher denominations until 1964-66! Hardly a good piece of evidence for being founded on Christianity, is it? Even coins did not bear the motto for the first four score and seven years of the United States’ existence. Before this motto was added, US money bore no statement about God, or religion, one way or the other. This is called neutrality.
The motto was first put on the coins to appease religious individuals during a time of great national peril. It is now being used by them as a weapon to further their agenda. Any attempts to restore the previous neutral stance of the money is met by them as an attack–you would think we were trying to push Christians back into the catacombs and lions’ dens. But it’s not like we are asking to put “There Is No God” on the money–that would be an attack and only some very extreme atheists suggest it, and I think most of them are joking or doing a role reversal to show you how the current situation makes us feel.
It should come off. It should come off right now. Restore our religion-neutral currency–coins and paper money both.