It’s November 11, 1907, and President Roosevelt has just signed a letter to the Reverend Roland C. Dryer of Nunda, New York. In the missive, he outlines in forceful terms his reasons for not wanting the phrase “In God We Trust” emblazoned on U.S. money. But just what was it that made Roosevelt feel so strongly about this seemingly trivial matter?
Before we answer that question, though, let’s find out how Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt Jr. ended up as the 26th president of the United States. Roosevelt made his entrance into a well-to-do household in New York City’s Manhattan in October 1858. His father was successful in business and philanthropy, while his mother was a socialite.
The young Roosevelt was a sickly child who was prone to severe asthma episodes that were alarming to both him and his parents. Despite his ailments, though, he was an active boy with a lively mind. Meanwhile, his father was a major influence. And indeed, in later life, Roosevelt wrote of his father in his 1913 autobiography, “He would not tolerate in us children selfishness or cruelty, idleness, cowardice or untruthfulness.”
Roosevelt’s parents ensured that he had a good education too. Having been homeschooled for much of his young life, he went to Harvard College in 1876. Having apparently shrugged off his earlier poor health, he threw himself into boxing and rowing. He did well in his studies, although he was later scornful of what he saw as the over-rigid teaching methods favored at Harvard.
After Harvard, Roosevelt could have chosen a life of leisure. You see, his father had died in 1878, and Roosevelt’s inheritance had totaled $125,000 – more than $3 million in today’s money. But a life on easy street was entirely against his character. Instead, he went to study at Columbia Law School. The pull of public life was overwhelming, though, and he dropped out of his course to take up politics full time.
In fact, Roosevelt’s first taste of electoral success in 1882 precipitated his dropping out of education. Standing as a Republican, he won against an incumbent to take a seat in the New York State Assembly. Roosevelt quickly began to make a name for himself with his strong anti-corruption position, and he was reelected in both 1883 and 1884.
After a couple of years out of politics while he fulfilled his fantasy of living the cowboy life by building a ranch in North Dakota, Roosevelt returned to the fray in 1886. However, his political ambitions were dealt a blow when his bid to become mayor of New York City ended in electoral defeat.
Apparently believing that he might never regain a foothold in politics, Roosevelt wrote a book. The Winning of the West, a potted history of pioneer Americans, was well received by critics and became a bestseller. But his fledgling literary career was put on hold when he then took a government job with the United States Civil Service Commission.
With his customary robust energy, Roosevelt used his new position to root out corruption in the civil service. The New York Sun wrote that the man was “irrepressible, belligerent and enthusiastic.” In 1894 Roosevelt joined the New York City Police Commissioners and later became the board’s president. Subsequently, he enacted a thoroughgoing reorganization of the city’s police force.
Then, after a short spell as Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Roosevelt resigned this post to take part in the Spanish-American War of 1898. He raised his own unit, the First U.S. Volunteer Cavalry Regiment, and the outfit became known as the “Rough Riders.” With his unit assembled, Colonel Roosevelt then went on to lead his regiment into battle in Cuba.
After a victory at the Battle of Kettle Hill, Roosevelt stood for election to the governorship of New York State, campaigning strongly on his new-found public reputation as a swashbuckling military man. And his effort proved successful when he won at the polls, albeit by the narrow margin of one percent.
The governorship of New York raised Roosevelt’s political profile, and some of his supporters now approached him to stand for the U.S. presidency. He decided that he wasn’t yet ready for this challenge, though. But the opportunity to aim for election as vice president came in 1900, and he took it.
After a successful election for the Republicans, Roosevelt became vice president in March 1901 alongside President William McKinley. And then in a dramatic turn of events, a Polish-American anarchist called Leon Czolgosz shot McKinley, who died a few days later on September 14, 1901. Consequently, Czolgosz went to the electric chair some weeks afterwards.
Roosevelt, meanwhile, became the 26th president of the United States. And in his new office, he continued to campaign against government corruption. In fact, his drive against nefarious conduct extended to the Land Office, the Post Office and the Indian Service. Some officials were forced to resign as a result, while others were prosecuted for fraud and bribery.
Evidently relishing the position of president, Roosevelt stood for election in 1904 and soundly beat his Democratic opponent, Alton Brookes Parker. That’s right, Roosevelt won the Electoral College by 336 to 140 votes, and he also earned a 56 percent share of the popular vote.
So, we’ve seen how Roosevelt had become a consummate politician and how he’d grown into the role of president. But what of his religious beliefs? He was in fact a devout Christian. Yes, Roosevelt was a member of the Reformed Church of America, which is a U.S. faith associated with the Dutch Reform Church.
Roosevelt was a committed worshiper in church who used his position in public life to encourage others to regular church attendance. What’s more, it was said that nothing would make him forgo a Sunday service. And when gas was rationed at the time of the First World War, Roosevelt walked the six-mile round trip to uphold his regular presence at church.
Roosevelt also confirmed the depth of his religious beliefs in a speech to the Long Island Bible Society in 1901. “Almost every man who has by his lifework added to the sum of human achievement of which the race is proud, has based his lifework largely upon the teachings of the Bible,” he told his audience.
But Roosevelt’s strongly held religious beliefs embroiled him in a controversy in 1907. As we saw earlier, Roosevelt wrote a letter to the Reverend Roland C. Dryer of Nunda, New York, in that year. And in the message, the president expressed strong views about the inclusion of the phrase “In God We Trust” on American currency.
If you chart the history of American money, you’ll discover that “In God We Trust” was first included on coinage in 1834. The earliest coin to feature the phrase was, in fact, a two-cent piece. And the coin in question appeared during the Civil War, at a time when the conflict is said to have heightened religious feelings in the U.S.
The phrase itself had been around for some time before its appearance on the two-cent coin, though. Indeed, various hymns and patriotic songs had included it. And the Union Army’s 125th Pennsylvania Infantry had used the words as its motto in 1862. It was a phrase that would have been familiar to many Americans, then.
And it seems that the Unionists during the Civil War may have been particularly keen on the phrase partly to claim that God was on their side in the conflict. In any case, there was obviously a strong religious sentiment attached to the phrase.
In 1861 a Reverend Mark R. Watkinson wrote to the Treasury Department imploring officials to use a phrase that honored “Almighty God in some form on our coins.” This, Watkinson believed, would “relieve us from the ignominy of heathenism.” And the Union authorities decide to act.
Salmon P. Chase, who was treasury secretary at the time, chose the wording “In God We Trust,” and the Coinage Act of 1864 was passed by Congress – thus authorizing the addition of this text on one- and two-cent coins. And further legislation in 1865 allowed the phrase to be included on all coins of gold and silver.
But Roosevelt had his own ideas about including this phrase on bills and coins. And a new coin, designed by the sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens and issued in 1907, omitted the phrase altogether. The splendid coins in question were gold and had a value of $20.
But the detailing on this coin was such that minting it proved very difficult, with as many as 11 strikes needed to produce it. As a result, only about 20 were ever made. Of course, that makes them exceptionally rare – and as such, coin collectors are likely to pay large sums for one of them today. In 2005, for instance, a $20 Saint-Gaudens coin changed hands for just short of $3 million.
But even though the coins did not enter general circulation, their omission of “In God We Trust” apparently caused great controversy. Indeed, the issue led the Reverend Dryer to write to Roosevelt in protestation at this exclusion. Far from going along with the good reverend, however, Roosevelt wrote back firmly defending his position.
In his letter to Dryer, Roosevelt laid out his arguments. “My own feeling in the matter is due to my very firm conviction that to put such a motto on coins, or to use it in any kindred matter, not only does no good but does positive harm, and it is in effect irreverence which comes dangerously close to sacrilege,” he wrote.
Image: Bettmann / Contributor
And Roosevelt went on to hammer home his point too. “A beautiful and solemn sentence such as the one in question should be treated and uttered only with that fine reverence which necessarily implies a certain exaltation of spirit,” he argued.
The president did allow that the “In God We Trust” phrase has its proper place, though. But that was in inscriptions on national monuments and important institutions such as Annapolis and West Point. In those contexts, the words would “tend to arouse and inspire a lofty emotion on those who look thereon,” Roosevelt wrote.
And Roosevelt continued by asserting that because it was on the currency, the phrase was often used disrespectfully. He gave examples such as “In God we trust for the short weight” and “In God we trust for the other eight cents.” These crude jokes, the president argued, showed how debased the phrase was by its inclusion on coins and notes.
Roosevelt ended his letter by saying that the final decision on the inclusion of the phrase lay with Congress. However, he signed off with a reiteration of his view, “I very earnestly trust that the religious sentiment of the country, the spirit of reverence in the country, will prevent any such action being taken.”
But for once, Roosevelt the accomplished politician was on the wrong side of popular opinion in the country. The popular outrage about the omission of “In God We Trust” from the coinage had its effect on members of Congress, and they weren’t prepared to contradict the public mood.
So, in May 1908 Congress considered and approved legislation that mandated the inclusion of the religious text on all coins minted from 1909 onwards. For some reason, the nickel escaped this new law, and it was the only coin to do so. But even it eventually included “In God We Trust,” too, when a new nickel featuring the phrase alongside an image of Thomas Jefferson was minted in 1938.
It’s more than a century since this currency controversy got the better of Roosevelt in 1907. And enthusiasm from most Americans for the inclusion of the phrase “In God We Trust” on bills as well as coins seems, if anything, to have increased through the 20th century and on into the 21st.
As we’ve already discovered, all American coinage included the phrase from 1938 onwards. And in 1956 Congress, supported by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, passed legislation that required all paper money to include the “In God We Trust” motto. Since then, all denominations of dollar bills have indeed included the phrase; check the cash in your wallet or purse if you want to confirm this.
In fact, Eisenhower, with the unanimous backing of the Congress and the Senate, went even further in 1956. The words “In God We Trust” were adopted by law as the official motto of the U.S. And it’s been suggested that this decision was colored by the fact that the Cold War with the Soviet Union was under way by the mid-1950s.
You see, a central tenet of Soviet Communism was the rejection of all religious belief. And the U.S., it’s been argued, was keen to position itself as far as possible from Marxist beliefs. So America wanted to counter the Russians’ militant atheism by publicly declaring it’s belief in God.
However, some Americans have opposed the inclusion of the phrase on currency on the grounds that it breaks the terms of the First Amendment to the Constitution. Among other things, that 1791 amendment prevents the U.S. government from having an established religion and guarantees freedom of belief. But the courts have to date declined to intervene.
And it does seem to be the case that most Americans have been happy to have the “In God We Trust” phrase in their pocket books. It’s hardly recent, but a 2003 poll conducted by Gallup for CNN and USA Today did show that 90 percent of U.S. citizens supported the inclusion of the motto on money. In any case, it seems that the motto will be in the national psyche for a good many years to come.