I was reading The Scarlet Letter a couple months ago and came across a reference to a U.S. half penny. Wow. A half-penny? That’s what my brain is worth before coffee. I grabbed my iPhone and veered down tangent road.
At The Coin Page (https://www.coinpage.com/half%20cent-pictures.html ) I saw the half-cent coins, one side beautifully depicting various images of a goddess of liberty. My curiosity was piqued. The image seemed to honor women, or at the very least was powerful female imagery. I poked around the Internet some more and learned that “Centuries before Lady Freedom topped the U.S. Capitol or the Statue of Liberty dominated New York harbor, images of women were already widely used to symbolize the traits, virtues, and opportunities of the United States of America.” (“Origins, The Female Form as Allegory,” https://xroads.virginia.edu/~cap/liberty/origins.html )
I wondered whether other circulating coins held, or still hold, the liberty goddess. It turns out she was depicted on a number of early coins, including the half-cent, onecent, three-cent, nickel, half-dime, dime, twenty-cent, quarter, half-dollar and dollar coins. (https://coins.about.com/library/Coin Identification/bl identify us coins using photos.htm) I checked the coins in my pocket. Nope. No liberty goddesses there. Why, I wondered. What explains her absence? I surfed over to the U.S. Treasury Department website, and learned a rather unsettling history lesson (https://www.treasury.gov/about/education/Pages/in-god-wetrust.aspx ).
After the U.S. Civil War, then Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase (later, the Chief Justice of the U.S.) received many requests from devout Christians to recognize “the Diety” on U.S. coins. The first of these, dated Nov. 13, 1861, from Rev. Watkinson of Pennsylvania, read: “Dear Sir: You are about to submit your annual report to the Congress respecting the affairs of the national finances. “One fact touching our currency has hitherto been seriously overlooked. I mean the recognition of the Almighty God in some form on our coins. “You are probably a Christian. What if our Republic were not shattered beyond reconstruction? Would not the antiquaries of succeeding centuries rightly reason from our past that we were a heathen nation? What I propose is that instead of the goddess of liberty we shall have next inside the 13 stars a ring inscribed with the words PERPETUAL UNION; 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, LIBERTY, LAW. “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. To you first I address a subject that must be agitated.”
In response, Secretary Chase instructed his Director of the Mint, James Pollack: “Dear Sir: No nation can be strong except in the strength of God, or safe except in His defense. The trust of our people in God should be declared on our national coins. You will cause a device to be prepared without unnecessary delay with a motto expressing in the fewest and tersest words possible this national recognition.”
But Pollack and Chase did not have the power to change the motto. Congress needed to act. That it did. As a result, “In God We Trust” first appeared on the two cent coin in 1864. Gradually, it was rolled out on other coins. It was removed from some coins here and there, but since 1938, all U.S. coins bear that inscription. (https://www.treasury.gov/about/education/Pages/in-god-we-trust.aspx )
The Goddess of Liberty was on a coin until 1947 (https://www.coinflation.com/coins/1916-1947Silver-Walking-Liberty-Half-Dollar-Value.html). In 1954, in an apparently unanimous vote, Congress passed a law requiring “In God We Trust,” be placed on U.S. currency. (31 U.S.C. §§ 5112 (d) (1), 5114 (b).) It became our national motto in 1956, and has been reaffirmed over the years. (See 36 U.S.C. §302; https://www.treasury.gov/about/education/Pages/in-godwe-trust.aspx )
But, the phrase has faced challenges. In one of the most recent, on September 9 of this year, a federal district court in New York dismissed a case brought by atheists and the Freedom from Religion Foundation. (Newdow v. Congress of the United States (S.D.N.Y., Sep. 9, 2013, No. 13-CV-741-HB, 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 128367, 2013 WL 4804165.) Plaintiffs alleged that “In God We Trust” on currency violates the Establishment Clause, the Free Exercise Clause and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000bb, et seq. The district court disagreed, as have the Ninth, Fifth, Tenth, and D.C. Circuits (Ibid). While the U.S. Supreme Court has not squarely addressed the issue, in dicta it has assumed the motto’s secular purpose and effect. (Ibid). No word yet on an appeal.
While I do not really have an opinion yet as to its constitutionality, having “In God We Trust” on our currency seems unnecessary. Did not our money serve its purpose before the slogan appeared? Yes. Does it increase tithing? Probably not. Would its absence make me think we are heathens? No. Does its presence make me a better person or ours a better nation? I don’t think so. Does it remind me before I buy a cheeseburger that I should trust in God? No. Trust in God seems a highly individual endeavor, if one taken at all.
And “In God We Trust” seems untrue in the collective. Then, as now, many in this nation do not believe in God. And, if trust in God is turning one’s will over to God, then many who do believe in God probably don’t trust God all the time, either. So it’s not altogether true that “We” trust God.
Lastly, I ponder whether “In God We Trust” has been used as a doorway through which our nation and our government acts in the world and in our own country as if it is certain it so acts at the direction of God.
What would I like to see happen? Currently, only the portrait of a deceased person can appear on currency and securities (31 U.S.C. § 5114 (b)). Even though the word “liberty” is on our coins, maybe it’s time for Lady Liberty to adorn our currency again. In this day of phone call tracking, location monitoring, drones, and prisons over capacity, liberty, in whatever form is most important to each of us individually, is probably something we can agree on.
Lisa Spillman is an attorney in Ventura. She handles criminal appeals and habeas corpus petitions.