When I began my research on the history of this national motto which prominently appears on U.S. currency, I glanced at the Wikipedia article on “In God we trust.” The entry contends that the motto was inspired by the fourth verse of the Star Spangled Banner: “Then conquer we must, when our cause is just, And this be our motto: ‘in God is our trust.’” While this is an alluring idea – national song inspires national motto – the actual history seems more mundane. Congress gradually directed this motto be inscribed on coinage and it took over a 160 years before Congress established this phrase as our national motto.
On April 2, 1792, Congress passed its first law regarding national coinage. This law established the U.S. Mint and a national coinage for the United States. It provided that the coinage should have “proper devices and inscriptions” and section 10 of this law laid out the devices and inscriptions that were to appear:
Upon one side of each of the said coins there shall be an impression emblematic of liberty, with an inscription of the word Liberty and the year of coinage; and upon the reverse of each of the gold and silver coins there shall be the figure … of an eagle with this inscription ‘United States of America’ and upon the reverse of each of the copper coins, there shall be an inscription which shall express the denomination of the piece …
In 1837, Congress passed another law, ch. III 5 Stat. 136, amending the 1792 law regarding the design on the coins. The 1837 law made changes to the devices and inscriptions for the coins. Gold and silver coins were still to have the inscription “Liberty” and the year of coinage on one side and the figure of an eagle with United States of America on the other side. Copper coins were to include the word “Liberty,” year of coinage, value and United States but the representation of an eagle would be omitted.
During the Civil War, the government, particularly the Secretary of the Treasury received petitions asking that some motto showing a reliance on God be included on the United States coinage. According to the Treasury Department’s website, the first request was received in November 1861 from a Pennsylvania minister who suggested a motto of “God, Liberty and Law.” Shortly thereafter Samuel Chase, Secretary of the Treasury, directed James Pollack at the U.S. Mint to prepare a device which would demonstrate “the trust of our people in God.” However, since Congress had already passed the laws on coin designs, it would be necessary for Congress to pass additional legislation before any changes could be made.
On April 22, 1864, Congress passed a law (c. LXVI, 13 Stat. 54) which among other provisions instructed the director of the Mint to fix “the shape, mottos, and devices” of the one and two cent coins. Later in 1864, the Mint issued two cent coins with the motto “In God We Trust.” On March 3, 1865 Congress stated that “in addition to the devices and legends upon gold, silver, other coins of the United States, it shall be lawful for the director of the mint … to cause the motto “In God we trust” to be placed upon such coins hereafter …”
Subsequent laws added this motto to various coin denominations but it was not until 1957 that this phrase appeared on paper money. This occurred after Congress passed House Joint Resolution 396 (ch. 795, 70 Stat. 732) on July 30, 1956 which established a national motto. The 16 word resolution states “the national motto of the United States is hereby declared to be “In God we trust.” However because of technological changes, this phrase did not appear on all currency until 1966 – 174 years after the establishment of the U.S. Mint.