Today in 1864: Congress coins phrase “In God We Trust”

April 22, 2010

Today in Legal HistoryNothing brings out popular religious sentiment quite like a war, which is why Congress took time in the middle of the Civil War to approve the motto IN GOD WE TRUST for U.S. coins.

The vote took place in the spring of 1864, when Washington was under the looming threat of a Confederate attack, but the effort began three years earlier. Rev. H.R. Watkinson, a minister from Pennsylvania, got the ball rolling in 1861 with a letter to the U.S. Treasury, urging it to adopt the motto GOD, LIBERTY, LAW for its coins.

Watkinson’s letter argued that getting “God” into the nation’s money supply was an urgent matter.  “This would make a beautiful coin, to which no possible citizen could object,” he wrote. “This would relieve us from the ignominy of heathenism. This would place us openly under the Divine protection we have personally claimed. Two-cent coinFrom my heart I have felt our national shame in disowning God as not the least of our present national disasters.”

The Treasury secretary was receptive to the idea, although internal debate ultimately led to the current motto. However, it soon came to light that updating the words on a U.S. coin requires, quite literally, an act of Congress. And so it was on April 22, 1864, that Congress voted to order the minting of the first two-cent coin, which would also be the first coin to bear the words IN GOD WE TRUST.

The two-cent denomination must have been handy, too – because who likes to carry a pocketful of pennies?