In 1776, 180 years earlier, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson proposed that E Pluribus Unum (out of many, one) appear on the first Great Seal of the United States. It would became the unofficial motto of the country.
The first coins with E pluribus unum were dated 1786 and struck under the authorization of the State of New Jersey by Thomas Goadsby and Albion Cox in Rahway, New Jersey.
Congress passed the first law regarding national coinage, which also created the US Mint, on 02 April 1792.
In November 1861, a Pennsylvania clergyman suggested adding the motto “God, Liberty and Law” to U.S. coins.
The suggestion intrigued President Lincoln’s Treasury Secretary, Salmon P. Chase, who wrote the director of the US Mint:
“No nation can be strong except in the strength of God, or safe except in His defense,” Chase wrote to the director. “The trust of our people in God should be declared on our national coins.”
The fact that the Civil War began in April 1861 probably played a role in political rhetoric that linked the nation with God. In 1864, major Protestant denominations (unsuccessfully) promoted a “Sovereignty of God” amendment. They wanted to rewrite the preamble of the Constitution, declaring the “Almighty God as the source of all authority and power in civil government.”
Instead, on 22 April 1864, Congress passed the Coinage Act which instructed the director of the Mint to fix “the shape, mottos, and devices” of the one and two cent coins. By 1938, all coins carried In God We Trust.
President Eisenhower presided over changes to motto, currency and school children’s lives
Americans United for Separation of Church and State argues that President Eisenhower (1953-1961) was the catalyst for visibly weaving together religion and American government.
In his book One Nation Under God, Kevin M. Kruse, a professor of history at Princeton University, points toward Eisenhower’s revolutionizing of religion in American society as a catalyst for the motto change. Eisenhower is the only president to have been baptized during his time in office. He was close friends with Billy Graham, instituted opening prayer before cabinet meetings and cemented the idea that America is, should be, and always was, a religious nation.
Here they are, Graham and Eisenhower, in their own words:
In 1955, Congress directed the Treasury to place In God We Trust on all paper and coin currency.
The prior year, President Eisenhower had signed legislation requiring that “under God” be inserted into the Pledge of Allegiance.
Francis Bellamy, an ordained Baptist minister who worked at the magazine Youth’s Companion, promoted a Pledge of Allegiance as part of the 400th anniversary of Columbus discovering America (October 1892).
I pledge allegiance to my flag and the Republic for which it stands—one Nation indivisible—with liberty and justice for all.
Not content with the pledge as it stood, in 1923, the American Legion and the Daughters of the American Revolution wanted “my flag” to be changed to “‘the flag of the United States,’ lest immigrant children be unclear just which flag they were saluting.” The following year, they added “of America.”
The change was controversial. In 1943, the Supreme Court ruled in that no public school child can be compelled to recite the pledge. Justice Robert Jackson:
If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.
One hundred sixty-three years after we ratified the First Amendment, Congress nonetheless approved adding the words “under God” to the pledge.
I pledge Allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with Liberty and Justice for all.
On 14 June 1954, President Eisenhower signed the bill modifying the pledge into law.
We are reaffirming the transcendence of religious faith in America’s heritage and future; in this way we shall constantly strengthen those spiritual weapons which forever will be our country’s most powerful resource, in peace or in war.
One hundred sixty-five years after we ratified the First Amendment, Congress made In God We Trust our national motto. In 2011, a Republican Congress affirmed that decision.
Writing in November 2011, historian Thomas Foster reiterates that In God We Trust is a not legacy of the nation’s founders. Rather, “it is a legacy of the founders of modern American conservatism — a legacy reaffirmed by the current Congress.”
It is also a legacy of war, from the Civil War to World War II.
For once, I agree with strict Constitutionalists. E Pluribus Unum (out of many, one) was aspirational in 1784. And it is even more aspirational today, when 30% of Americans have no religious affiliation and fewer than half belong to a religious congregation.
It should be our motto.