If you look closely at American coins and dollars, you’ll find the phrase “In God We Trust” printed on every one. But this was not always on United States currency. In fact, it did not become the national motto until 1956, and its usage was widely debated beforehand. One of the most famous opponents was 26th President Teddy Roosevelt. Why didn’t he want the motto on U.S. coins? Stay tuned to find out.
One President Did Not Want The Motto On Coins
In the early 1860s, Congress considered engraving “In God We Trust” on every U.S. coin. Most Americans were in favor of this, and the law passed. But later, one noteworthy figure denounced it– President Theodore Roosevelt.
In a letter to Reverend Roland C. Dryer, Roosevelt wrote that he “did not approve” of the coin motto, and claimed that it “not only does no good, but does positive harm.” But why was Roosevelt so vehemently against the coin motto?
The Phrase First Appeared On Currency In 1864
The first time “In God We Trust” appeared on a coin was in 1864. At first, it was only on a two-cent piece. The idea was pitched by Republican Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase.
During this time, America was in the midst of the Civil War. Religious sentiment became more and more popular as Americans wanted to portray what their country stood for. In these years of infighting, many wanted something to unite the North and South.
What Was The Purpose Of The Phrase?
Chase received several letters about including “In God We Trust” on money, and he agreed with them. In a 1861 letter, Reverend M. R. Watkinson, told Chase that he wanted others to know America’s values.
Watkinson worried that featuring the Goddess of Liberty on a coin would make “antiquaries of succeeding centuries rightly reason from our past that we were a heathen nation.” Essentially, he wanted future generations to see that America was mostly Christian.
Spending Years Choosing The Ideal Phrase
After several requests, Secretary Chase asked James Pollock, Director of the Mint, to incorporate a message that included God. Pollock sorted through several phrases before deciding on one. “In God We Trust” stemmed from a lesser-known verse in Francis Scott Key’s “Star-Spangled Banner.”
In 1864, Pollock began printing the phrase on two-cent coins. He was allowed to do so under The Coinage Act of 1864, which also changed the overall shape of the one-cent coin.
These Coins Quickly Became Popular
Initially, only the two-cent coin contained the words “In God We Trust.” But its popularity quickly grew, and Congress very much enjoyed the idea. On March 3, 1865, Congress passed another Act that authorized– but did not demand– putting the phrase on every U.S. coin.
Before the Civil War, all American coins had no mention of religion. The Coinage Act ended 72 years of secular money, and although some people fought against the phrase, most Americans approved of it.
…Even Though Only 20 Were Printed
Based on Chase’s order, you might assume that all coins afterward had the motto. In reality, only 20 coins were printed. The motto required a complex printing method for the time, with 11 different strikes required to create the words.
These 20 gold coins were worth around $20 at the time. But today, they are so rare that they can be worth millions. In 2005, one sold for $3 million. Despite their rarity, word quickly spread about the new coin motto.
When This Was Happening, Roosevelt Was Still Young
While this was going on, Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt was only a boy. He was born on October 27, 1858, to socialite Martha Stewart “Mittie” Bulloch and businessman Theodore Roosevelt Sr.
During his youth, Roosevelt could hardly focus on anything other than his ailing health. He had debilitating asthma, resulting in nighttime asthma attacks that terrified him and his parents. Despite dozens of trips to the doctor, nobody could find a cure. But that did not stop Roosevelt’s ambitions.
Despite This, He Was Active And Successful
Despite his asthma, Roosevelt was an active boy who played sports throughout his childhood. He was homeschooled by both tutors and parents, which he seemed to excel at. In 1876, he entered Harvard College.
Roosevelt discovered that rigorous and consistent exercise improved his asthma. Because of this, he maintained a vigorous exercise schedule, mainly through boxing and rowing. He participated in his fraternity, the literary society, and the school paper– but his joyful lifestyle would be short lived.
The Death Of His Father Left Him A Lofty Inheritance
On February 9, 1878, Roosevelt’s father suddenly died from a gastrointestinal tumor. Roosevelt was crushed; he had looked up to his father as a role model. However, his death came with a hefty inheritance.
Roosevelt received $65,000, which is equivalent to over $1,740,000 today. He could have retired and lived the rest of his life comfortably with this money. But that was not in Roosevelt’s nature; instead of wallowing in grief, he threw himself into his studies.
For A While, He Left Politics For Ranching
Although Roosevelt’s father was a prominent Republican, he was not as involved in politics. But that changed after he graduated Harvard. Roosevelt made friends within the party, and by 1882, he had entered the New York State Assembly.
The next year, though, he visited the Dakota Territory and wanted to explore the cowboy life. He invested $14,000 in cattle ranching there. His first wife passed away in 1884 and he remarried a few years later. It would be a while before he re-entered the public sphere.
He Didn’t Become Famous Until The Spanish-American War
Roosevelt re-entered politics in 1886 when he ran for mayor of New York. Almost ten years later, he stopped running for mayor to become a New York City Police Commissioner and, later, the Assistant Secretary of the Navy.
But Roosevelt would not become a national figure until the Spanish–American War in 1898. Although many of his coworkers begged him to stay in New York, he was determined to fight to America. Roosevelt surrendered his position and formed a military regiment called the Rough Riders.
Now A War Hero, He Ascended To Presidency
Roosevelt became a well-known war hero after the Spanish-American War. When he returned, he campaigned to become the Governor of New York. He won by a 1% margin.
In 1899, Vice President Garret Hobart suddenly passed away. Roosevelt campaigned for the role of Vice President, which he won. But his vice presidency only lasted for six months and was relatively uneventful. Roosevelt was not finished, however. The next year, he ran for President, even though he didn’t have a vice president.
Roosevelt Campaigned Against Government Corruption
On September 14, 1901, Roosevelt became the 26th president of the United States. One of his most popular campaigns was against corruption. He believed in a strong executive branch, and in order to achieve that, he had to call out government and business corruption alike.
He worked with the Northern Securities Corporation to expose corruption among the nation’s leading railroad companies. He set maximum charges for railroads and promoted federal regulation of meat products. Citizens felt more secure knowing that Roosevelt was against anyone ripping them off.
So Why Didn’t He Like The Coin?
By 1901, “In God We Trust” had been on American coins for almost four decades. However, that did not stop people from arguing against the design.
Some believed that anyone who argued against the coin were anti-religious. But in the case of Theodore Roosevelt, that was not the case. Roosevelt was devoutly religious, and he was well known for it. His arguments against the motto on the coin stemmed from his religious beliefs.
Roosevelt Was Devoutly Religious
Roosevelt was a lifelong member of the Reformed Church in America. He publicly encouraged Americans to go to church, and he attended every Sunday himself. When gas was rationed during World War I, he walked three miles to the local church and back. Even when he had a serious operation that made it difficult to walk, he went.
According to biographer Edmund Morris, Roosevelt was also an advocate of the Bible and often spoke about religion. So why did he oppose the new coin?
He Shared His Strong Views In A Letter
In 1907, Roosevelt wrote a letter to Reverend Roland C. Dryer of Nunda, New York. In it, he talked gave his opinion on the coin motto, which was actively being debated in Congress.
He wrote, “My own feeling in the matter is due to my very firm conviction that to put such a motto on coins, or to use it in any kindred matter, not only does no good but does positive harm, and it is in effect irreverence which comes dangerously close to sacrilege.”
He Believed That Coins Would “Cheapen” The Phrase
To summarize, Roosevelt believed that putting “In God We Trust” on a coin would “cheapen” the phrase. He claimed that the phrase was important enough for national monuments, legislative halls, and historic documents– but not coins that people earn and spend every day.
“It seems to me eminently unwise to cheapen such a motto by use on coins, just as it would be to cheapen it by use of postage stamps or in advertisements,” he told Reverend Dryer.
Most Americans Disagreed With Him
On November 13, Roosevelt’s letter was published in The New York Times. It is unclear how the letter made it there, but the president’s opinion was controversial. Many debated over whether coins would “cheapen” the motto as Roosevelt had asserted.
News rapidly reached Congress, which sparked a larger debate. Depending on how the vote went, the phrase could have been removed from money in 1907. But Roosevelt seemed to be in the minority, and his position as president did not dissuade people.
However, Roosevelt Accepted Congress’s Decision
Roosevelt did not try to push his views. In his letter, he admitted that he would abide to whatever Congress had chosen. “Of course the matter of the law is absolutely in the hands of Congress, and any direction of Congress in the matter will be immediately obeyed,” he wrote.
Roosevelt also earnestly believed in “the religious sentiment of the country.” He concluded that the opinion of the majority of Americans trumped his desires. However, he would still argue his case.
He Persuaded Congress To Remove The Phrase… Briefly
That same year, Roosevelt argued his case to Congress. He brought up that the law “had no warrant therein putting ‘In God We Trust’ on coins,” which permitted them to remove it. Congress agreed, and they removed the motto from gold coins.
This decision was met with public backlash. After hundreds of complaints flew across the country, Congress backtracked. The motto was reinstated on all U.S. coins before the year even ended. Roosevelt never returned to the debate.
The Public Was Already Upset With Roosevelt
Not many know that, while people were debating the coin motto, Roosevelt was already in hot water. In 1907, Roosevelt involved himself in the nature fakers controversy. He criticized nature writers such as Ernest Thompson Seton and Charles G. D. Roberts for describing nature with too much embellishment and less realism.
Roosevelt was a staunch conservationist who placed many areas of wildlife under federal protection. Even so, these nature writers were popular at the time, and many disagreed with Roosevelt for publicly denouncing them.
The Debate Did Not End After Roosevelt
Roosevelt passed away from a blood clot on January 5, 1919. Although the coin debate did not end in his favor, it did not end, period. His viewpoints sparked a discussion that would continue for decades to come.
As the two World Wars came and went, most Americans only acknowledged the “In God We Trust” motto on national monuments, not money. But the debate would spark again during a much later war–the Cold War in the 1950s.
Most Coins Had The Motto, Except For A Few
Under the 1907 law, “In God We Trust” was printed on all American one-cent and 25-cent coins. For some reason, the nickel and dime escaped it. The motto was not mandatory for these coins, but that would later change.
In 1916, all dimes were required to include “In God We Trust.” For nickels, the motto remained optional until 1938, where a new design printed it alongside Thomas Jefferson. Although paper money had been in America for centuries, it was still exempt from the motto.
Cold War Tensions Extended To Religion
In 1947, the Cold War began. The United States issued a wide variety of propaganda against the Soviet Union, from bolstering American-made products to denouncing communism at every turn. And believe it or not, religious sentiment was part of that.
The Soviet Union was an anti-religious government. Although religion was never illegal, the government discouraged religious belief within society and enacted several anti-religious campaigns. In an effort to oppose the Soviet Union, Americans distanced themselves from this ideology.
“In God We Trust” Became The National Motto
Because of the Cold War tensions, many Americans viewed religion as part of the “good vs. evil” fight. Legislatures added religious phrases, including “In God We Trust,” to government institutions, codes of conduct, and even the Pledge of Allegiance.
On July 30, 1956, Congress established “In God We Trust” as the national motto of the United States. Shortly after this, the coin debate resurfaced. However, this debate expanded from coins to paper currency as well.
People Wanted To Put The Motto On The Dollar
At this point, “In God We Trust” was already engraved on most American coins. But many encouraged Congress to put the motto on all money, including dollar bills. They made many more reasons beyond religious devotion.
Proponents argued that, when the U.S. conducted businesses with other countries, those countries would see how different they were than the Soviet Union. Trade was still being done between the Soviets and Americans through trade representatives, and Americans were eager to show their patriotism.
In 1956, National Law Put The Motto On Bills
On July 30, 1956, Congress passed a law that required “In God We Trust” to appear on all U.S. money, from dollar bills to pennies. President Dwight Eisenhower approved of this law on the same day.
The following year, “In God We Trust” appeared on paper money for the first time. The motto remains on all American currency to this day. Despite how commonplace the motto is, that has not stopped people from objecting to its use.
Is The Motto Still Religious?
Opponents of the motto argue that it violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, since it favors certain religions. But the courts disagree. In 1970, Aronow v. United States ruled that the motto has shed its religious meaning, and it is instead “patriotic or ceremonial.”
In a way, this is exactly what Roosevelt had feared. The motto had become an everyday phrase devoid of meaning instead of a religious meaning that Roosevelt held so close. But this argument is the only way it can remain constitutional.
In The Early 2000s, “Godless Coins” Came Out
Despite the prevalence of “In God We Trust,” there are some rumors of American currency that would make Roosevelt proud. In the early 2000s, several people claimed to see currency that did not include the “In God We Trust” motto, which they dubbed “Godless coins.”
In 2008, these rumors reached the halls of Congress. As it turns out, some coins were missing the phrase. But it was not the plot of someone who secretly agreed with Roosevelt; it was a manufacturing error that was quickly fixed.
The Phrase’s Popularity Might Be Waning
Despite its critics, “In God We Trust” remains popular throughout the United States, even on currency. In 2003, USA Today, Gallop, and CNN created a joint survey about the motto. Ninety percent of Americans were in support of having “In God We Trust” on currency.
However, this percentage might be declining. In 2019, College Pulse released the same survey to American students, and only 53% approved of the motto’s use. Whether their arguments align with Theodore Roosevelt’s is unclear.