Monday, March 29, 2004

Annals of numismatics: In re "In God We Trust" 

The "under God" debate is getting tedious, especially so since opponents of the "G word" are throwing up just about anything to see if it will stick. Via Taranto, Ellen Goodman has massaged the history of the application of the motto "In God We Trust" to our nation's beautiful coinage, to wit:

Justice Sandra Day O'Connor said, "there are so many references to God in the daily lives of this country" that the words in the pledge have no more religious meaning than the words on the coin. Maybe so. But remember that adding "In God We Trust" was also a political sop to opponents after Lincoln rejected their proposal to insert Jesus Christ into the preamble of the Constitution.

What? As Taranto points out, "[t]hat's a pretty neat trick, seeing as how the Constitution was written in 1787 and Lincoln wasn't born until 1809."

Actually, there is something to Goodman's point, although she botches it. Read here, for example, an interesting history of the motto that more or less supports Goodman's account. The author, one Ralph Reynolds, is president of the "Rochester Chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State," which means that he has an ax to grind, but the essay seems credible enough. Reynolds provides the text of a proposed amendment to the preamble of the Constitution during Lincoln's administration:

We, the people of the United States, humbly acknowledging almighty God as the source of all authority and power in civil government, the Lord Jesus Christ as the ruler among nations, his revealed will as the supreme law of the land, in order to constitute a Christian government, and in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the inalienable rights and the blessings of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness to ourselves, our posterity, and all the people, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America. [Proposed additions italicized.]

However, Reynolds concedes that the proposed amendment didn't get the approval of Congress or any state -- in other words, like many Constitutional amendments, it was dead on arrival. So it seems unlikely that Lincoln, in the middle of the Civil War, felt it necessary to throw a "sop" to the people who wanted to amend the Constitution's preamble. How, then, did the motto end up on our coins?

Reynolds explanation happens to dovetail quite nicely with the official history of the motto on the Department of the Treasury's web site. According to the Department of the Treasury,

The motto IN GOD WE TRUST was placed on United States coins largely because of the increased religious sentiment existing during the Civil War. Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase received many appeals from devout persons throughout the country, urging that the United States recognize the Deity on United States coins. From Treasury Department records, it appears that the first such appeal came in a letter dated November 13, 1861. It was written to Secretary Chase by Rev. M. R. Watkinson, Minister of the Gospel from Ridleyville, Pennsylvania.

According to both accounts, Secretary Chase then directed his Director of the Mint, one James Pollock, to "cause a device to be prepared without unnecessary delay with a motto expressing in the fewest and tersest words possible this national recognition" [of the trust of people in God].

As it turned out, however, a law of 1837 specified the "mottoes and devices" that might appear on the nation's coinage, so Chase and Pollock needed to get Congress to pass and Lincoln to sign new legislation to authorize any new motto. This they accomplished more than two years later, in a law more widely known to numismatists for authorizing changes in the composition of the small cent (from 88% copper and 12% nickel to 95% copper and 5% tin and zinc) and the striking of two-cent pieces. The Mint Director (still Pollock) was authorized to prepare designs for these coins and submit them for the approval of Secretary Chase. The small cent did not change -- it remained the "Indian head" design that had prevailed since 1860 -- but Pollock inserted the new motto "In God We Trust" on the obverse of the strange two-cent piece.

Reynolds confirms most of this, and a good deal more, but adds the claim that Pollock was a member of the National Reform Association, which was the group that had submitted the aforementioned DOA amendment to the Preamble. Reynolds is, of course, intemperate in his words, accusing Pollock of having "succeeded in his goal of subverting the Constitution." Since, according to Reynolds, the actual goal of the National Reform Association was the creation of a Christian theocracy in the United States, Pollock's actual accomplishment -- the insertion of "In God We Trust" on one of the least circulated coins in American history -- doesn't really seem like success to me, but then I'm not a church/state separation activist.

Goodman is probably not being fair to Lincoln in her characterization that the motto was a "sop" to the National Reform Association and its followers (if that is, in fact, what she means). Instead, it seems like a moderate consequence of the rising religiousity of the age, entirely appropriate on the coinage of a nation at war for its very survival. Who could be against it?

But, much as it pains me to say it, Taranto was even more unfair to Goodman than Goodman was to Lincoln.


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