The motto IN GOD WE TRUST was placed on United States coins largely because of the carnage experienced during the Civil War. They say there are no atheists in a foxhole and certainly faith in God was at a premium following this conflict. Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase received countless appeals from citizens throughout the nation. These people suggested that God should be recognized on United States coins. The most famous appeal and the one cited as the reason for the placing of the motto on our coins came in a letter dated November 13, 1861. It was written to Secretary Chase by Reverend M.R. Watkinson, a minister from Ridleyville, Pennsylvania. It said:
Dear Sir: You are about to submit your
annual report to the Congress respecting the affairs of the national finances. One fact touching our currency has hitherto been seriously overlooked. I mean the recognition of the Almighty God in some form on our coins. You are probably a Christian. What if our Republic were not shattered beyond reconstruction? Would not the antiquaries of succeeding centuries rightly reason from our past that we were a heathen nation? 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.
This would relieve us from the ignominy of heathenism. This would place us openly under the Divine protection we have personally claimed. From my heart I have felt our national shame in disowning God as not the least of our present national disasters.
To you first I address a subject that must be agitated.
This must have had some effect because in a letter dated November 20, 1861, Secretary Chase ordered James Pollock, the Director of the Mint at Philadelphia, to suggest a motto:
Dear Sir: 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.
An Act of Congress dated January 18, 1837, had already mandated the motto and device that should be placed on the coins of the United States. This meant that no coinage changes were possible without additional legislation. In December 1863, the Mint Director submitted designs for a new one-cent coin, two-cent coin, and three-cent coin for approval. He proposed that upon the designs either OUR COUNTRY; OUR GOD or GOD, OUR TRUST should appear as a motto on the coins. On December 9, 1863, in a letter to the Mint Director, Secretary Chase stated:
I approve your mottoes, only suggesting that on that with the Washington obverse the motto
should begin with the word OUR, so as to read OUR GOD AND OUR COUNTRY. And on that with the shield, it should be changed so as to read: IN GOD WE TRUST.
On April 22, 1864, Congress passed legislation which changed the metal composition on the one-cent coin and authorized minting of a two-cent coin. IN GOD WE TRUST first appeared on this newly authorized 1864 two-cent coin.
On March 3, 1865 Congress authorized the Mint Director, with the Secretary of the Treasury’s approval, to place the motto on all gold and silver coins. Subsequently, the motto was placed on the gold $20 coin, the gold $10 coin, and the gold $5 coin. The motto also appeared on the silver dollar, the half-dollar and the quarter-dollar. 1866 saw the motto appear on the nickel three-cent type coin. The Coinage Act of 1873 said that the Secretary “may cause the motto IN GOD WE TRUST to be inscribed on such coins as shall admit of such motto.” The use of IN GOD WE TRUST disappeared from the five-cent coin in 1883, and did not reappear until the Jefferson nickel in 1938. Later, the motto was found missing from the new design of the Double-Eagle gold coin and the Eagle gold coin shortly after they appeared in 1907. In response to widespread protest, Congress ordered it restored, and the Act of May 1908 made it mandatory on all coins.