This Day in History: “In God We Trust” restored to U.S. coins
On this day in 1908, Teddy Roosevelt signs an act restoring the motto “In God We Trust” to certain U.S. coins. His decision to sign this piece of legislation came in the wake of an incident in which he’d tried to have the phrase removed from U.S. currency.
“In God We Trust” was on U.S. coins for several years after the Civil War. Then-Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase had been receiving many letters from Americans: They wanted “recognition of the Almighty God in some form on our coins.”
Chase agreed with the sentiment. He wrote the Director of the Mint: “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.” The Director complied and suggested several designs for Chase’s consideration. Ultimately, however, congressional legislation was needed before the U.S. Mint could make all the design changes that had been requested. In 1864, Congress gave the Mint this authority for one and two-cent coins.
The Mint produced the first two-cent coins with the inscription “In God We Trust” later that year. And, in 1865, Congress passed a law allowing the Mint to redesign more denominations of coins. At this point, the phrase was being used, but its use was still technically discretionary.
Well, at least, the phrase was being used until Teddy Roosevelt came along. Apparently, he wasn’t a big fan of this tradition!
During his administration, Roosevelt commissioned Augustus Saint-Gaudens to design some new coins for the Mint. These new coins did not include the “In God We Trust” motto. Importantly, it was not anti-religious sentiment that drove Roosevelt’s decision, but pro-religious sentiment. Roosevelt explained, at the time, that inclusion of the phrase on coins was “in effect irreverence which comes dangerously close to sacrilege.” He thought that use of the phrase on coins or postage stamps “cheapen[s] the motto.”
To be fair, some people think that his pro-religion claims were a bit specious, aimed at appeasing an outraged public. One alternative explanation? He simply hadn’t spent that much time thinking about the motto. Instead, he’d become a bit obsessed with an idea that he’d had to model U.S. coins on those of classical Greece. If he were to create a Greek-style coin, that meant keeping it simple and stripping the coin of extra verbiage.
The public disagreed with Roosevelt’s decision, and the outcry soon prompted Congress to pass a law. This law required use of the phrase on “certain denominations of the gold and silver coins of the United States of America . . . as heretofore.”
Despite his earlier statements, Roosevelt complied with the congressional decision. He had already indicated that “the matter of the law is absolutely in the hands of Congress, and any direction of Congress in the matter will be immediately obeyed.”
Teddy Roosevelt signed the law that he personally disagreed with on May 18, 1908.
A Companion to Theodore Roosevelt (Serge Ricard ed. 2011)
History of 'In God We Trust' (U.S. Department of the Treasury website)
James L. Halperin et al., The Coinage of Augustus Saint-Gaudens (2006)
Joseph Bucklin Bishop, Theodore Roosevelt and His Time, shown in his own letters (Scribner's Mag.; July-December 1919 ) (Vol. 66)