The History of 'In God We Trust' on Currency

Instructor: Ian Aebel

Ian Aebel is a historian, researcher, educator, and writer with a Ph.D. in History and M.S.T. in College Teaching.

The 'In God We Trust slogan you'll find on U.S. coins was born out of necessity during the Civil War, and later in the twentieth century became the subject of controversy when it was added to paper currency to help fight communism.

Controversial Words

If you've been paying any attention at all to the Internet over the past decade, you've likely encountered a meme with the slogan, 'In God We Trust,' usually in the context of a political message, comment about the national debt, or affirmation of religious faith. A few insinuate that the motto has been on U.S. currency since the founding of the United States. However, that is not the case. 'In God We Trust' has been printed on officially circulated coins in the U.S. since 1864, and only made it onto printed bills in 1957. The slogan has been the subject of some controversy and has seen a number of lawsuits to remove it from currency over the past 50 years.

A Famous Poem

'In God We Trust' first arrived in the U.S. political consciousness during the War of 1812. Francis Scott Key, having witnessed the bombardment of Fort McHenry by the British in Baltimore Harbor in 1814, wrote a poem titled 'Defence of Fort McHenry,' which would later become the lyrics of the U.S. National Anthem, 'The Star-Spangled Banner.' In the fourth and last stanza of the poem, Key wrote 'And this be our motto--'In God is our Trust',' which would be sung at the same point as 'Gave proof through the night that our Flag was still there.'

Defence of Fort McHenry
Defence of Fort McHenry

The Civil War and the First Coins

Periodically in antebellum America, or the United States before the Civil War, religious leaders called for a slogan to be placed on coins for purely religious regions. These suggestions never gained too much traction, however, because to do so would violate the First Amendment to U.S. Constitution, which reads, in part, 'Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.' But it was the Civil War itself that would lead to the adoption of the slogan on currency.

While we all know now that the Union won the war and the Confederacy was defeated, early in the war the outcome was less than certain. The Secretary of State, Salmon P. Chase, wrote in late 1861, responding a letter he received from Reverend Watkinson, that '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.' In a time of war, Chase felt that the U.S. should proclaim its trust in God in a public way.

Protype 1863 2 Cent Coin
Prototype 1863 2 Cent Coin

By 1863, the U.S. Congress passed a law stating that a motto signifying trust in God could be placed on coins. Prototypes were made; on the front was printed 'Our God and Our Country,' and on the back, the coin read 'In God We Trust.' Congress approved the design on April 22, 1864, and the first coins began to appear in circulation later that year. Later laws passed in 1865 and 1873 ignored the use of 'Our God and Our Country' but continued to approve the use of 'In God We Trust.' The use of the motto on coins was selectively utilized throughout the first half of the twentieth century.

Winning the Cold War with Slogans

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, the United States began a period of passive-aggressive warfare against the Soviet Union lasting until the early 1990s. We called it the Cold War, in spite of the fact that there was plenty of 'hot', or active, warfare going on in places like Afghanistan, Korea, and Vietnam. The United States was afraid that the political philosophy of the Soviet Union, communism, would eventually spread all over the world. Communism, or state ownership of a nation's productive capacity, held some popularity in the United States during the early twentieth century due to its focus on workers' rights, but did not have a great deal of supporters after World War II.

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