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E Pluribus Unum

The Battle of Gettysburg

Many Americans mistakenly believe that the government’s use of the words “In God We Trust” dates back to the time of the Founding Fathers – as do two other familiar coinage inscriptions, “Liberty” and “E Pluribus Unum.” In point of fact, it was the Civil War, not the American Revolution, that gave rise to the phrase. The bitter, bloody War Between the States stoked religious fervor and led the Union government to seek solace and guidance from above.

Up to then, during more than seven decades of production, no U.S. coin had carried the motto, or anything resembling it. U.S. coinage had never made reference before that time to a supreme being – but the strong religious sentiments stirred by the Civil War created a climate conducive to the use of such an inscription.

A Baptist minister from Ridleyville, Pa., the Rev. Mark R. Watkinson, is credited with planting the seed for this unprecedented action. In a letter to Salmon P. Chase, President Abraham Lincoln’s Treasury Secretary, dated Nov. 13, 1861, Watkinson urged that provision be made for “the recognition of the Almighty God in some form on our coins.”

“This,” he said, “would relieve us from the ignominy of heathenism. This would place us openly under the Divine protection we have personally claimed.”

Chase shared Watkinson’s view. And he soon set in motion steps that led to a prominent reference to God on U.S. coinage. After receiving the minister’s letter, he sent a note to Mint Director James Pollock stating: “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 tersest terms possible this national recognition.”

James Pollock was a former governor of Pennsylvania and an accomplished congressman. He was raised in the Christian faith and had a strong belief in God. He was a close friend of Abraham Lincoln with whom he had been active in the anti-slavery movement. 

Pollock apparently carried out this directive without delay. Though 1861 was drawing to a close, he arranged for the striking of pattern half dollars and eagles ($10 gold pieces) bearing that date. Patterns are coins produced by a government mint to demonstrate something new – a new design, a new alloy or, as in this instance, a new inscription. They carry a statement of value, but are not legal tender because they were never monetized. And they’re frequently struck in metals other than the ones used in regular coins of the same denomination.

The pattern half dollars were identical in design to the Liberty Seated halves then being issued for commerce – except for the addition of the motto “God Our Trust” above the eagle on the reverse. In all, about three dozen of these were made – some in silver and some in copper. The motto was placed on a scroll on some of the coins, and written in small letters in the field above the eagle on the rest.

The pattern $10 coins were struck in copper, rather than gold, some with bronzed surfaces. Only 11 of these are known to survive; a single specimen in gold has been reported but not confirmed. These had the same Liberty Head design as regular $10 gold pieces of that time, but the words “God Our Trust” appeared in the field above the eagle on the reverse.

Although there was no official reason for producing any more, similar pattern half dollars and eagles were struck in somewhat higher quantities in both 1862 and 1863 – apparently to satisfy demand from numismatists who by then had become aware of the earlier patterns’ existence.

There also are pattern silver dollars dated 1863 that are thought to have been made at a later time, as well as some pattern halves seemingly struck in a similar manner. Instead of “God Our Trust,” these bear the inscription “In God We Trust” above the eagle. The Mint also produced a number of different patterns in 1863 for a proposed bronze two-cent piece – and it soon became apparent that such a coin, as a new denomination, would be a logical way to introduce an inscription that also was new.

All forms of coinage vanished from circulation as the Civil War dragged on, largely because of speculative hoarding. The Union and Confederate governments both issued paper money, but this was widely distrusted and lost much of its value during the war – especially in the South, where Confederate notes eventually were used as wallpaper by many who found themselves holding the bags of worthless currency.