lengthy legacy on coins
In God We Trust, E Pluribus Unum
By Cindy Brake
Mottoes and inscriptions –
Liberty, In God We Trust, and E Pluribus Unum –
appear on United States coin edges, obverses and
The original Mint Act (April 2, 1792) mandates
"an impression emblematic of liberty with an
inscription of the word Liberty and the year of
coinage." These requirements would ultimately
become Sec. 18 of the Coinage Act of 1873, Sec.
3517 of the revised statutes and later, in
uncodified form, was known as 31 USC 342. It is
today found in 31 USC 5221.
E Pluribus Unum
The Latin motto apparently was a familiar phrase
to literate Americans of the 18th century and
appeared in the Gentleman's Magazine, published
monthly in London since 1731. The legend e
pluribus unum was used on the title pages of the
annual volumes that contained a collection of
the year's 12 editions of the magazine, states
the Web site www.gospelgrace.com/nwo_un/GreatSeal.htm.
Before being placed on federal coins, the motto
was adopted for use in the seal of the United
States of America. According to the Web site
www.greatseal.com/mottoes/unum.html, the phrase
e pluribus unum was suggested by the committee
Congress appointed July 4, 1776, to design a
seal for the United States of America. The
center section of the committee's shield for the
seal had six symbols for "the Countries from
which these States have been peopled." The
symbols were a rose to represent England,
thistle for Scotland, harp for Ireland,
fleur-de-lis for France, lion for Holland and an
imperial two-headed eagle for Germany. Linked
together around the shield are 13 smaller
shields, each with the initials for one of the
"thirteen independent States of America."
The phrase unum e pluribus appeared in 1787 on
several New Jersey coppers and a gold doubloon
or $16 gold piece coined by Ephraim Brasher, a
prominent New York City gold and silversmith.
While the designs were not approved, the motto
was selected by Charles Thomson six years later
when he created the final Great Seal in 1782 and
inscribed e pluribus unum on the scroll carried
in the beak of the American bald eagle who
carries the "power of peace" in his right
According to George Henry Preble in History of
the Flag of the United States of America, the
motto first appeared on an unauthorized copper
coin struck for New York at Newburg, N.Y., by a
private mint in 1786.
The phrase unum e pluribus appeared in 1787 on
several New Jersey coppers.
The motto also appears on a gold doubloon, or
$16 gold piece, coined by Ephraim Brasher, a
prominent New York City gold and silversmith.
Brasher struck two different styles of gold
coin: one in style of Spanish colonial gold
coinage, or the Lima-style pieces, and a New
York-style piece, which bears the Latin motto.
The reverse of the New York style gold doubloon
displays the New York state seal of a sun rising
over a mountain with the sea in the foreground
surrounded with the legends nova eboraca,
columbia and the state motto excelsior. Brasher
also signed the coins by adding his last name
brasher below the scene.
The obverse of the New York-style doubloon
displays the U.S. eagle with shield and the
motto unum e pluribus (the "Unum" appears on the
left side of the coin, before the "E Pluribus,"
with the date at the bottom separating the
traditional order of the words in the phrase) as
well as the date 1787. After making the coins,
Brasher counterstamped his eb initials on the
reverse; six examples survive with the stamp on
the wing and one survives with the stamp on the
The motto "In God We Trust" was intentionally
omitted from the new designs of the gold $20
double eagle (shown) and the gold $10 eagle (not
shown) introduced in 1907 by Theodore Roosevelt
and sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens. Congress
ordered the motto be placed on the 1908 coin
after the public voiced disapproval.
In 2005, three Brasher doubloons brought a
combined price of more than $6 million during
Heritage's Platinum Night auction at the FUN
convention. A 1786 Lima-style doubloon sold for
$690,000; a Punch on Wing version of the 1787
New York-style doubloon sold for $2,415,000; and
the unique 1787 Punch on Breast version realized
The motto was first used on U.S. federal coinage
issued under the Constitution on the 1795 Capped
Bust, Heraldic Eagle gold $5 half eagle, which
presents on its reverse the main features of the
reverse side of the Great Seal of the United
States. The phrase is inscribed on the scroll
held in the beak of the eagle on the Great Seal
of the United States.
The motto was added to certain silver coins in
1798, and soon appeared on all coins made of
gold and silver.
In 1834, it was dropped from most gold
denominations, to mark the change in the
standard fineness of the coins. In 1831, it was
dropped from the quarter dollar when the
diameter of the coins was made a little smaller.
In 1837, it was dropped from the silver dime and
half dollar, concurrent with composition and
Congress' Act of Feb. 12, 1873, would return the
inscription to all United States coins. Despite
the act, U.S. Mint records reveal that officials
did not consider the provisions of the law
mandatory. The motto did not appear on all coins
struck after 1873 and not until much later were
the provisions of the act followed in their
The motto appears on all coins currently being
In God We Trust
A Baptist preacher is credited as the
inspiration that resulted in the motto in god we
trust. According to the U.S. 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 Nov. 13, 1861," written to Chase by
the Rev. M.R. Watkinson of Ridleyville, Pa.
The inscription in god we trust first appeared
on the bronze 2-cent coin, following passage of
the Act of April 22, 1864. The act authorized
the coin and gave the Mint director authority
over what mottoes to use on the piece.
Watkinson's proposal was to replace the goddess
of liberty with the inscription "Perpetual
Union" inside a 13-star ring; within the ring
the all-seeing eye, crowned with a halo; beneath
this eye the American flag, bearing in its field
stars equal to the number of the States united;
in the folds of the bars the words "God,
"This would make a beautiful coin, to which no
possible citizen could object. This would
relieve us from the ignominy of heathenism. This
would place us openly under the Divine
protection we have personally claimed. From my
hearth I have felt our national shame in
disowning God as not the least of our present
national disasters," Watkinson wrote.
Chase instructed James Pollock, director of the
Mint at Philadelphia, to prepare a motto
expressing in the "fewest and tersest words
possible this national recognition."
Designs submitted December 1863 proposed either
"Our Country Our God" or "God Our Trust" should
appear as a motto on the coins. Chase approved
the suggestions with minor changes that included
"In God We Trust."
The Mint, however, lacked the authority to make
coin design changes. That power rested with
Congress under an act dated Jan. 18, 1837.
According to Richard S. Patterson and Richardson
Dougall in The Eagle and the Shield, a treasury
historical summary "found that the Act of
January 18, 1837, prescribed the mottoes and
devices that should be placed upon the coins of
the United States, so that nothing could be done
Congress passed the Act of April 22, 1864,
changing the composition of the 1-cent coin and
authorizing the minting of the 2-cent coin. The
1864 Act also granted the Mint director greater
authority over the devices and mottoes used on
the 1-cent and 2-cent coins, with the approval
of the secretary of the Treasury, and "it is
upon the 2-cent bronze piece that the motto In
God We Trust first appears," write Patterson and
Another Act of Congress passed March 3, 1865,
allowed the Mint director, with the Treasury
secretary's approval, to place the motto "In God
We Trust" on all gold, silver and "other" coins
(use of the motto, however, was not mandatory).
Under the authority granted by the act, the
motto was placed on the gold $20 double eagle,
the gold $10 eagle and the gold $5 half eagle
starting in 1866. It was also placed on the
silver dollar, half dollar and quarter dollar,
and on the copper-nickel 3-cent coin, all also
beginning in 1866.
e pluribus unum, found on the reverse on the
ribbon dangling from the eagle's beak, was first
used on U.S. federal coinage issued under the
Constitution on the 1795 Capped Bust, Heraldic
Eagle gold $5 half eagle. The motto was added to
certain 1798 silver coins, and soon appeared on
all coins made of gold and silver.
When Congress passed the Coinage Act of Feb. 12,
1873, it slightly modified the authority for the
motto: The act said that the Treasury secretary
"may cause the motto In God We Trust to be
inscribed on such coins as shall admit of such
The use of "In God We Trust" on U.S. coinage has
The motto disappeared from the copper-nickel
5-cent coin in 1883, and did not reappear on
that denomination until production of the
Jefferson 5-cent coin began in 1938.
Later, the motto was intentionally omitted from
the new designs of the gold $20 double eagle and
the gold $10 eagle introduced in 1907. The
decision was made by President Theodore
Roosevelt and sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens.
According to Ted Schwarz in A History of United
States Coinage, Saint-Gaudens questioned the
need to place the motto on the coins, writing to
Roosevelt, "At one time the words In God We
Trust were placed on the coins; I am not aware
there was authorization for that, but I may be
mistaken. Will you kindly inform me if what I
suggest is permissible."
Schwarz writes that Roosevelt was "delighted
with the idea of removing the religious
inscription from coins. Although the original
intent of the motto was to show respect for God,
Roosevelt felt it did quite the opposite."
Robert R. Van Ryzin in Twisted Tails Sifted
Fact, Fantasy and Fiction from U.S. Coin
History, writes that Saint-Gaudens believed
simplicity of design was essential, while
Roosevelt considered the use of the motto on a
coin as sacrilegious.
Saint-Gaudens's son, Homer, wrote in a 1920
article, according to Van Ryzin, that the
"removal of the ‘In God We Trust' drew down the
lightning of public disapproval."
In response to a general demand, though,
Congress ordered the motto restored, in the Act
of May 18, 1908; some 1908 eagles and double
eagles were struck without the motto before the
motto was required. The 1908 act made the motto
mandatory on all denominations upon which it had
previously appeared; thus the motto was not
mandatory on the 1-cent coin and 5-cent coin but
could be placed on them by the Treasury
secretary or by the Mint director with the
Treasury secretary's approval.
The motto has been in continuous use on the
1-cent coin since 1909 with the introduction of
the Lincoln design, and on the 10-cent coin
since 1916 with the introduction of the Winged
Liberty Head type. It also has appeared on all
gold coins and all dollar coins, half dollars,
and quarter dollars struck since July 1, 1908.
Since 1938, all United States coins have borne
U.S. paper money, however, lacked the motto.
Arkansas collector Matthew Rothert is credited
with launching a movement in the mid-1950s to
have the motto "In God We Trust" placed on U.S.
Rep. Charles E. Bennett of Florida, after
looking into the matter, introduced a bill that
was unanimously approved by the House. After
Senate approval, the bill became law with the
president's signature July 11, 1955. The motto
was first used on paper money in 1957.
A law passed by the 84th Congress and approved
by the president on July 30, 1956, declared "In
God We Trust" the U.S. national motto.
Patterson and McDougall write, "It has been
suggested that the United States Supreme Court
cast doubt" on the motto's constitutionality
when the court ruled in the 1960s that a brief
nondenominational prayer in schools violated the
In 1977 a lawsuit was filed in U.S. District
Court claiming the motto violated the First
Amendment guarantees of free speech and free
exercise of religion. The suit was dismissed in
1978, as were subsequent appeals. In 1979 the
Supreme Court refused to hear the case.
More recently, some coins among the first year's
Presidential dollar issues were missing edge
inscriptions, including the motto in god we
trust, earning them the title "Godless dollars"
An amendment in the Consolidated Appropriations
Act, which became law in 2007, directs the U.S.
Mint to move the motto in god we trust on the
Presidential dollars from the edge to the coins'
obverse or reverse.
The United States Mint plans to make these
changes beginning with the 2009 Presidential $1
Coins. Mint mark and e pluribus unum will remain
on the edge of the dollar coins.
The Citizens Coinage Advisory Committee favors
moving the in god we trust inscription to the
reverse of the Presidential dollar rather than