God-less Buffalo nickel
Exactly half a century before the motto In God We Trust first appeared on circulating U.S. coinage, a close approximation of this now-famous phrase turned up in a poem that went on to attain equally iconic status when it was set to music and became The Star-Spangled Banner. Few Americans are aware of this precursor, for the words are embedded in the seldom read and almost never sung fourth stanza of the poem, but it provides a fascinating link between their country’s official national motto adopted in 1956 and official national anthem adopted in 1931.
In the poem’s penultimate sentence, those who read or sing the entire set of lyrics will find the following reference to the Almighty:
Then conquer we must, when our cause is just,
And this be our motto: In God is our trust.
In his 1863 report to the Secretary of the Treasury, Pollock acknowledged the influence our National Hymn had on his work when he wrote:
The motto suggested, God our Trust, is taken from our National Hymn, the Star-Spangled Banner. The sentiment is familiar to every citizen of our country; it has thrilled the hearts and fallen in song from the lips of millions of American Freemen. The time for the introduction of this or a similar motto, is propitious and appropriate. Tis an hour of National peril and danger, an hour when mans strength is weakness, when our strength and our nations strength and salvation must be in the God of battles and of nations. Let us reverently acknowledge his sovereignty, and let our coinage declare our trust in God.
A law passed by Congress in 1837 specified what devices and inscriptions could be used on U.S. coins. The Mint could make no changes without congressional approval, and it was with this in mind that Mint Director Pollock submitted the patterns for the new two-cent piece to Secretary Chase in December 1863. He proposed that when issued, the coin should bear one of two inscriptions: Our Country, Our God or God, Our Trust. Chase replied as follows:
Whatever the explanation following more communication between Chase and Pollock, In God We Trust was chosen and after nearly 150 years on the nations coinage, it now seems as basic to the American way of life as singing The Star-Spangled Banner or reciting the official Pledge of Allegiance.
A third pattern two-cent piece dated 1863 bears the adopted motto, In God We Trust. But this was created in the 1870s, at the end of the coin’s brief life. Its production might be attributable to collector demand for such a coin after the Congress discontinued the two-cent piece in 1873.
Over the years, the motto was added progressively to other U.S. coins; it has appeared on every denomination since 1938, when the God-less Buffalo nickel was retired.
Throughout its history, some have made light of the motto with the offhanded quip, In God We Trust All Others Pay Cash. Today, with the dollar so weak, many see a kernel of reality in that quip.
Use of In God We Trust wasn’t required by Congress when it passed legislation authorizing the two-cent piece on April 22, 1864. The law simply gave the Treasury discretionary authority regarding the inscriptions on the nation’s minor coins. The Mint chose not to add In God We Trust to the new bronze Indian Head cent.
The authority was extended to gold and silver coins on March 3, 1865 and, for the first time, In God We Trust was specifically mentioned in that follow-up legislation. The motto’s use wasn’t mandated, though, until 1908 and even then, the order applied only to gold and silver coins. It wasn’t until 1955 that Congress enacted legislation requiring the inscription on all U.S. coins. By then, it was already there.