Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Annals of numismatics: Fact-checking the New York Times 

Last week, the New York Times picked at Mitt Romney's speech about religion, both his and its role in American civic life. I'll leave it to others to argue with the opinions of the editors -- they tediously conform to the reader's expectations, whether he is a critic or a fan -- but I cannot ignore this bit of historical ignorance:

Mr. Romney dragged out the old chestnuts about “In God We Trust” on the nation’s currency, and the inclusion of “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance — conveniently omitting that those weren’t the founders’ handiwork, but were adopted in the 1950s at the height of McCarthyism.

True, the legend was added to our currency in the 1950s, but it first appeared on our coinage in 1864. Evidence at right. So the editors of the New York Times are intellectually dishonest when they link the motto to "the height of McCarthyism." It was adopted for the coinage of the United States during 1864 by an act of Congress in response to a groundswell of Northern spiritualism during the darkest days of the Civil War. The motto appeared sporadically on coin designs from 1864 on, but it only became universal on American coins in 1938, during the "height of" the presidency of the sainted Franklin D. Roosevelt. McCarthyism had nothing to do with it.

Of course, we could cut the Times the maximum possible break and suppose that notwithstanding the ubiquity of "In God We Trust" on our coinage, the Congressional action to add it to the "currency" was a separate political decision with some nefarious motivation other than a desire for consistency. Was that motivation "McCarthyism," or some derivative of McCarthyism? Highly unlikely. "In God We Trust," already on all the nation's coins for 18 years and many of them for more than 90, was adopted as the official motto of the United States by an Act of Congress in 1956. By then, McCarthyism was hardly at its height -- the famed "Army-McCarthy" hearings, widely regarded as McCarthy's high water mark and greatest public relations defeat, were in April 1954. Lastly, the Bureau of Engraving and Printing did not produce currency with the motto until October 1957, five months after Joseph McCarthy had died and long after McCarthyism had been substantially discredited in the center of the American electorate.

Finally, it is worth looking at the entry in the Congressional Record establishing IGWT as the national motto of the United States. The adopting resolution, introduced by (Democratic) Senator Spessard Holland, cited the long history of the motto on our coinage and the line from one of the rarely sung verses of "The Star-Spangled Banner", "And this be our motto - 'In God is our trust.'" There is no reference in the Record to McCarthyism, the scourage of Communism, or any similar right-wing subversion. There is a reference to the only widely-discussed alternative -- E pluribus unum -- but, according to Senator Holland, "the committee considers 'In God We Trust' a superior and more acceptable motto for the United States." I suppose a lunatic Times editor might claim that the meaning of the rejected alternative -- "from many, one" -- smacks of godless Communism and that is evidence of McCarthyism, but that, too, is implausible. There was no attempt to eradicate EPU from the currency, which presumably there would have been had McCarthyism been the motivation for the adoption of the new national motto.

The question is, why did the editors of the New York Times write, or deceptively imply, that "In God We Trust" was the product of McCarthyism when it manifestly was not? Is their point that every piece of legislation adopted during the Eisenhower administration is suspect because it was at the "height of McCarthyism"? Or did they just lie because they needed evidence to criticize Mitt Romney and they knew that hundreds of thousands of people would read the editorial and only a few thousand people would read the blogs pointing out their dishonesty?

CWCID: James Taranto.


By Anonymous Anonymous, at Wed Dec 12, 10:39:00 PM:

Your point with regard to the currency is certainly well taken, and if the Times wants to support Truth as a worthy counterpoint to God, they have acted as hypocrites. But you (and Taranto) mistake McCarthy-ism with the man himself. To say, as Taranto does, that adding the phrase "under God" in 1954 was not at the height of McCarthyISM because he was censured by the Senate six months _later_, is of course ludicrous given the slow wheels of government bureaucracy. The same principle would apply to the currency design edits.

It is possible that at one time, the phrase "under God" might have fairly represented the religious beliefs of all, but in the 1950s... certainly not. I must regard anyone who believes the 1954 law which amended the Pledge did not "respect an establishment of religion" (in either sense of the verb) is either a religious fanatic or has excrement for brains. The notion this nation is somehow legally established upon Christian religious law, as opposed to a Protestant cultural heritage which allowed democratic life to thrive, is likewise without any basis beyond anecdote.

It is fitting, and revealing, that Lincoln's "under God" reference -- which inspired Rev. Docherty in her 1954 sermon to Eisenhower -- was spoken ad lib (as was Washington's oft-repeated "so help me God"). In this country, at least, God is held by the individual, not country.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Wed Dec 12, 11:10:00 PM:

McCarthyism is not dead, it is institutionalized as exemplified by the language in my passport application form (in the late 1960s) stating (under penalty of perjury) that I was not now and never had been a member of the communist party.  

By Blogger DEC, at Wed Dec 12, 11:32:00 PM:

Even my liberal friends consider the NY Times one of the world's most boring newspapers.

In the U.S. the political pushback against Communism didn't begin with McCarthy. An early crusader against Communism was one of my relatives, the fighting Quaker A. Mitchell Palmer. Palmer was U.S. Attorney General under Wilson and the mentor of J. Edgar Hoover. (Remember the First Red Scare and the Palmer Raids?) Palmer was a Democrat.  

By Blogger TigerHawk, at Thu Dec 13, 06:24:00 AM:

Indeed, the term "Palmer raids" having a rather infamous meaning among American students of the history of search and seizure.  

By Blogger TigerHawk, at Thu Dec 13, 06:35:00 AM:

Anon 10:39 PM -

You wrote: To say, as Taranto does, that adding the phrase "under God" in 1954 was not at the height of McCarthyISM because he was censured by the Senate six months _later_, is of course ludicrous given the slow wheels of government bureaucracy. The same principle would apply to the currency design edits.

I did not think that Taranto's point on the Pledge was particularly strong -- seven days does not seem like a long time -- but the currency redesign is a different matter. The legislation adopting IGWT was adopted two years after those hearings, and in the intervening period there was a mid-term election in which Democrats had gained control of the House. Indeed, according to the Wikipedia entry, the Donks 19 seat gain was in part the product of the public reaction to the Army-McCarthy hearings.  

By Blogger davod, at Thu Dec 13, 09:20:00 AM:


Thanks for the post. Not being from the USA I have always been interested in the debate about "In God We Trust" on currency. I could never square the 1950's time frame for the introduction of the phrase with the religious foundations of the US.

It always seemed to me as if the phrase would have been included much earlier.

WRT McCarthy. People consider todays political climate to be to partisan, but in fact partisanship has been far worse in the past.

I do wonder whether the backlash to the hearings was more related to partisanship, and left wing MSM bias, than actual horror at the supposed inquisition.  

By Blogger Georgfelis, at Thu Dec 13, 10:25:00 AM:

It’s a good thing those important papers have layers upon layers of fact checkers to catch these little problems. Oh wait…

There is a psychological term for associating two detested events in the same time period to the same cause, but I can not remember the exact term. The libs at the Times have a reflexive disdain for anything with “God” in it, and they know McCarthy was around in the 50’s, so it is only natural for them to assume that their detested enemy was the one responsible. It’s too good to check. Now where have we heard that over and over before? Dan Rather?  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Thu Dec 13, 05:39:00 PM:

TH ... maybe the Times is beefing about McCarthy simply because Ann's writing about him. JT  

By Blogger joated, at Thu Dec 13, 08:48:00 PM:

Perhaps they are beefing about McCarthy because he had the gaul to attack communists when it was needed. His name has been bandied about because of his excesses but the primary motive--to exposes communists--was a job that needed to be done. Just as today it's growing more and more important to expose socialists. (Cough, Hillary, cough.)  

By Blogger Dave Schuler, at Fri Dec 14, 10:57:00 AM:

Tigerhawk do you mean “spiritualism” or “spirituality”?  

By Anonymous melee, at Fri Dec 14, 02:46:00 PM:

Well, one should be careful attributing to malice what is easily explained by stupidity--or at least laziness in research. It is quite easy to believe that the author remembered this fact vaguely, assumed it to be true, looked hard enough to establish an exact date (for the motto, though not for McCarthyism, apparently), and slapped it down on the page.

How many minutes did it take to come up with the facts in the first half of this post? I can't say, but somewhere between five and ten, I'd guess. That's probably four to nine minutes more than the Times author.

Seems to me it's more likely lack of investigational rigour, combined with certain assumptions, than actual deception. Not that this speaks better of the Times, mind.  

By Blogger TigerHawk, at Fri Dec 14, 02:55:00 PM:

How many minutes did it take to come up with the facts in the first half of this post? I can't say, but somewhere between five and ten, I'd guess. That's probably four to nine minutes more than the Times author.

Well, I already knew that the two-cent piece was the first coin with the motto, so that gave me a leg up on the Times. Then I went to the coin's Wikipedia page, which was probably a ten second operation, and we were off to the races.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Fri Dec 14, 08:44:00 PM:

Maybe the Solons of the media need to listen to the entire National Anthem sometime. They'll hear this if they go through all the verses:

"...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!"


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