Have you ever wondered how America got its motto “In God We Trust”? It’s printed proudly and boldly on our money, and some cities use it as their motto as well. It wasn’t always our nation’s motivational phrase, but it is a saying that is familiar to us all.
E pluribus unum
The first motto, E pluribus unum, was suggested in 1776, during the American Revolution, by Pierre Eugene du Simitiere. Latin for “Out of many, one,” it is also translated as “One out of many,” or “One from many.” Basically, the concept was that from the union of the original 13 colonies (the many) emerged a single nation (the one). Congress adopted this motto in 1782, and it became the nation’s seal until 1956.
IN GOD WE TRUST
Although not officially adopted until 1956, “In God We Trust” was referenced as such as early as 1814 in our national anthem, The Star-Spangled Banner, written by Francis Scott Key. It is heard in the last stanza: “…And this be our motto: In God is our trust. And the Star Spangled Banner in triumph shall wave, O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.” The words were shortened to In God We Trust in 1864 and the first coins bearing the motto were made.
It is believed that during the Civil War, religious sentiment increased significantly, spurring a request to recognize God on the country’s coins. Rev. M.R. Watkinson, Minister of the Gospel from Ridleyville, PA, wrote a letter suggesting such to the Secretary of the Treasury, Salmon P. Chase, dated Nov. 13, 1861. Chase then asked James Pollock, the director of the Mint, to prepare a motto. In a letter to Pollock dated Nov. 20, 1861, Chase wrote:
“Dear Sir: No nation can be strong except in the strength of God, or safe except in His defense. 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 and tersest words possible this national recognition. It was found that the Act of Congress dated January 18, 1837, prescribed the mottoes and devices that should be placed upon the coins of the United States.”
Pollock responded with several suggestions, including “Our Trust Is In God,” “Our God And Our Country,” “God And Our Country,” and “God Our Trust.” Chase gets the credit for choosing the motto we know today, and it first appeared in 1864 on the then-new two cent coin. By 1909, most coins had the nation’s new motto.
On July 11, 1955, during the Cold War, President Dwight D. Eisenhower took it one step further and signed Public Law 140, which made it mandatory for all currency – coins and paper – to display the motto.