Almighty Currency

While American references to a higher power extend back to the founding of the nation — the Declaration of Independence states that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights” — the official motto (codified at in title 36 of the United States Code, section 302) of the United States, “In God We Trust,” is a relatively new addition to the American lexicon.

The motto’s origin, at least in American (as opposed to biblical) parlance, is likely from the fourth and final stanza of the Star Spangled Banner (yes, it has four stanzas; the full lyrics can be found here), written in 1814, but was mostly unknown until the Civil War, when it began to appear on coins. As hostilities increased, so did the role of religion in the everyday lives of Americans. Some took to the post, writing letters to Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase, requesting that God be acknowledged on American coins. Chase agreed, and instructed James Pollock, the head of the Philadelphia Mint to devise such a motto. He proposed “In God We Trust” and Congress, in the Coinage Act of 1864, approved the suggestion. The motto first appeared that year, when the Philadelphia Mint began production on a coin most never have heard of, the American two-cent piece, pictured above, and in 1866, emblazoned the Shield nickel. Most other coins followed soon thereafter; only the penny lacked the motto, gaining it in 1909 when the design changed from the Indian Head to the Lincoln one now used. The nickel lost the motto for a few decades — the Shield nickel was taken out of circulation in 1883, the motto left with it, only returning in 1938 on the Jefferson nickel. Since then, all U.S. coins have had “In God We Trust” somewhere on it.

While the adoption by the Department of the Treasury (and Congress) put the motto into circulation (pardon the pun) beginning in 1864, the motto’s official imprimatur did not come for nearly a century later. In 1956, it was added to the U.S. Code as the “national motto,” signed into law by Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Shortly thereafter, the motto appeared on paper money. The first bill to have the phrase was the 1957 $1 Silver Certificate, seen here, but the currency we use today — officially called Federal Reserve Notes — did not include the motto until the 1960s. The $1 bill with “In God We Trust” on it was first printed in January of 1964, and by 1966, it appeared on all bills — and now emblazons all United States coins and currency, from the penny to the $100 bill.

Bonus fact: The Pledge of Allegiance was first written in 1892 and adopted as the official pledge fifty years later, in 1942. As drafted, it did not contain the words “under God” — that was added, informally, from 1948 on, and was officially adopted in 1954. Also: As drafted, the Pledge did not contain the words “of the United States of America” — that phrase was added in 1923, as to make clear to immigrants to which flag and nation they were swearing allegiance.

From the Archives: From Abe to Zinc: Pennies cost more to make than they’re worth.

Marginally related product: A grab-bag of 50 coins from around the world, all for $8.75. Based on the reviews (six, all five stars), one or two of these looks like a good gift for someone (especially a child) who is looking to start a coin collection.

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