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Money mottos: reflections of liberty?

Most Americans probably don't take notice of the mottos on U.S. coins, but both "In God We Trust" and "E Pluribus Unum" have been used in the debate over the separation of church and state as either evidence of status as a Christian nation or signs of the founders' original intent. And, as usually happens, the facts get muddled. So, I delved into the 2002 edition of R. S. Yeoman's Guide Book of United States Coins, the "official red book," for a closer look.

Since ancient times, coins have been like bumper-stickers promoting the spirit of some cause in slogans or the power of some authority in likenesses. Prior to the establishment of the U.S. mint in 1792, coins such as the Nova Constellatios (1783-1785) often echoed battle cries of the revolution--"Libertas Justitia"--without appeals for divine intervention. Before then, colonial coins varied greatly. The elephant tokens of New England and Carolina (1694) beseeched, "God Preserve Our New England" or "Carolina," respectively, with Carolina adding, "And The Lords Proprietors."

Religious references weren't always strictly Christian. Roman and Greek mythology still held appeal. The Janus Copper of Massachusetts (1776) evoked liberty as a goddess. A New Yorke token (circa 1668-1673) depicted Cupid chasing a winged Psyche. Imagine suggesting this today given how some people reacted to the Harry Potter books. Until an established government could stand behind its currency, U.S. coins were considered an annoyance and their values could be contested. The Higley coppers of 1737, for example, were originally valued at threepence. But when the quantity in circulation exceeded demand, new coins were inscribed: "Value Me As You Please."

E Pluribus Unum

Possibly the earliest U.S. coins with "E Pluribus Unum" or "Unum E Pluribus" (one from many) were the New Jersey coppers in 1786; some experimental pattern Confederation coppers, including a Washington likeness in 1786; and the New York Brasher gold doubloons and Excelsior coppers in 1787. This sentiment was also evident on Continental currency from 1776 and on the first coins issued by authority of the United States, the Fugio cents of 1787. Both had the words "We Are One" surrounded by "American Congress" on the Continental coins and "United States" on the Fugio. The other side of both admonished: "Mind Your Business."

"E Pluribus Unum" first appeared on official U.S. mint coins in 1798 on the dime and silver dollar. The word "liberty" had sufficed on the first regular issues in 1793. However, the very first coins issued in 1792 by the newly established mint --the silver center cent, Birch cent, half disme, and disme--reveal something of intentions.

First of all, George Washington disapproved of his portrait appearing on coins since it insinuated monarchy. (His likeness did appear on coins dated 1783-1795; however, Yeoman notes that "many were of English origin and made later than the dates indicate.") A female figure symbolic of liberty was decided upon; the flowing-haired image adopted may have been modeled by Martha Washington. Washington then appointed scientist and philosopher David Rittenhouse as the first director of the mint. The first motto inscribed--"Liberty Parent of Science & Industry"--reflected the Enlightenment mindset which held freedom and reason as higher priorities and the common bonds more likely to unify people than insistence on conformity to any one religion's creeds. But this humanistic motto didn't survive.

Still, the early coins were consistent with the secular government and the reasoning behind it being established as such. The country's founders recognized that the new nation was a pluralistic society. It needed more people, a healthy economy, and good relations to expand. Leaving any reference to a deity off its money not only reflected the belief that religion was a personal matter but protected religion from the taint of money. It also emphasized the practical desire to disentangle religion from government so as not to discourage immigration or foreign investors or to complicate negotiations with other countries. Thus, we have the treaty with Tripoli in 1797 assuaging any doubts: the United States was "not in any sense founded on the Christian religion."

Religious wording on coins would have circumvented the sincerity of such intentions--as would any similar wording in the Constitution. Imagine coins depicting a flag draped over a cross with the motto, "Don't Tread on Our Christian Nation"! Of course, today the United States is the dominant economic and military power in the world, and success seems to breed a desire to arrogate divine sanction. Just watch any sporting or awards event: seeking to make one's self or nation look specially favored by a god has become so linked with our national rhetoric that efforts to guard against arrogance and intolerance and protect civil and religious freedoms now may be more formidable than they were in 1787.

While "E Pluribus Unum" appeared on all denominations except for the half cent and large cent by 1804, it was left off the new designs issued in the late 1830s. A growing division over slavery and the accompanying battle for balance of power in Congress didn't exactly mirror the spirit of "E Pluribus Unum" anyway. It began to reappear in 1873 on the Trade dollar issued for circulation in the Orient.

In God We Trust

"In God We Trust" was promoted as a U.S. motto in 1862 in a fit of Civil War-inspired religious sentiment to contrast the Union North from the Southern "Rebs" and first appeared on the two cent coin issued in 1864. It became the official U.S. motto in a fit of Cold War-inspired religious sentiment in 1956 to contrast the United States from the communist "Reds." The addition of "under God" to the Pledge of Allegiance was likewise made official in 1954. This is just the kind of legislation we need to be wary of today with war-inspired religious sentiment abounding throughout the country. One has to wonder why anyone would assume God would want his name proclaimed most loudly and most often to justify war and segregation.

"In God We Trust" was added to both the quarter, half dollar, and dollar in 1866 and has remained throughout all other changes to those coins. It was also added to the five-cent piece in 1866 but was replaced by "E Pluribus Unum" in 1883. Both mottos appeared together for the first time on the Trade dollar from 1873 to 1885 and today appear on all U.S. coins--the one-cent piece since 1909, the nickel since 1938, the dime since 1916, the quarter and half dollar since 1892, and the silver dollar since 1878.

Twentieth-Century Coins

The Buffalo nickel, 1913-1938; Mercury dime, 1916-1945; Standing Liberty quarter, 1916-1930; Walking Liberty half dollar, 1916-1947; and Peace dollar, 1921-1935, all belong to a unique era. Along with the St. Gaudens twenty-dollar gold piece, they are arguably the most original and beautiful U.S. coins. Prior to them, all dimes, quarters, and halves of each generation had the same design on the obverse and often only differed in denomination on the reverse. Together they went through a series of female liberty incarnations until 1892 when a Greek-looking male, the Barber design, was used. The more imaginative designs of 1913 to 1921 represent the United States' romantic era of coins.

The Standing Liberty quarter was altered in 1917 because some people were offended by Lady Liberty revealing a breast (similar to John Ashcroft's hangup over Capitol statuary). Thus a precedent was established that no boobs should appear on U.S. coins. (Remember this when new notables to appear on coins are proposed.)

For freethinkers, the so-called Mercury dime might be the coin of choice. It was actually meant to be another feminine representation of liberty designated the "Winged Liberty Head" dime. According to Yeoman, "The wings crowning her cap are intended to symbolize liberty of thought." But the 1913 to 1921 designs are especially unique because they were the last regular issues that didn't depict a president or other historical figure.

No president appeared on any regular issue coins until 1909. By 1971, all U.S. coins had become the exclusive domain of presidents. From the Lincoln cent in 1909, through the Jefferson nickel in 1938, Roosevelt dime in 1946, Washington quarter in 1932, Kennedy half in 1964 (after a brief interlude for Ben Franklin, 1948-1963), and the Eisenhower dollar in 1971, America deified its favored sons. Thus, tinkering had worked them into an association with "In God We Trust." One wonders what Thomas Jefferson would have thought of that.

It wasn't until 1979 that a woman cracked the old-boy network with the ill-fated Susan B. Anthony dollar. Sacajawea replaced her in 2000. African Americans are conspicuously absent from regular issue coins. Booker T. Washington was honored on a commemorative coin from 1946-1951, as was Jackie Robinson in 1997. But, really, commemoratives are the numismatic wasteland. Surely it's time someone like Frederick Douglass got some real "E Pluribus Unum" recognition!

The Founders and God

Most of the big-name founders, like Thomas Jefferson, were deists or otherwise religious rationalists. They respected and advocated the moral teachings of Jesus but rejected his divinity. Deifying Jesus only removed him as a source of emulation. Deists were incredulous of revelation and believed in a God of nature as opposed to the God of history.

Influenced by the Enlightenment view of a Newtonian, mechanistic universe, they saw a natural order in the workings of the world. Once the Great Architect's universe was set in motion, it required no further intervention by a creator. Thus, since nature's God didn't intervene in human affairs, the laws of nature could only be comprehended through reason. And as Michael and Julia Mitchell Corbett point out in Politics and Religion in the United States, this view endows the individual with a great deal of freedom to shape her or his own destiny and implies a burden of obligation to use reason to improve humanity's lot.

For us, the founders' personal beliefs about religion aren't as important as their respect for and desire to protect each person's freedom to believe as personal reason dictates. And from every right follows responsibility. As Jefferson wrote in 1776 in Notes on Religion:
 From the dissensions among Sects themselves arise necessarily a right of
 choosing and necessity of deliberating to which we will conform. But if we
 choose for ourselves, we must allow others to choose also, and so
 reciprocally, this establishes religious liberty.


In other words, the first official bumpersticker might have read: "Choose to believe what you wish but leave others free to choose!"

Has this ideal changed? Except for the dollar, our current coins have existed longer than any others without changes to the obverse human images. Is this because we have become more governed by emotion than reason or increasingly resistant to change now that we have a history to preserve? Imagine someone unfamiliar with our heroes looking at a Franklin or Kennedy half dollar with its accompanying motto and not unreasonably asking, "Is this your God?" We might laugh, but how do we reconcile the implied unity of trust in God with the founders' idea of freedom of conscience and "E Pluribus Unum"?

Doesn't a government-sanctioned pledge asserting "one nation, under God" and a national motto professing "In God We Trust" convey a fundamental denial that the free dictates of any individual conscience can ever come to doubt the legitimacy of putting trust in supernatural beings? Or at least that any such freely derived consciences aren't equally recognized? Many officials today speak as if our government were divinely ordained. An official bumpersticker today might read, "Choose to believe what you wish, but we will only recognize as legitimate Americans those who believe in theological unknowns." Contrast this to John Adams, who said in "A Defense of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America" (1788):
 The United States of America have exhibited, perhaps, the first example of
 governments erected on the simple principles of nature.... [In] the
 formation of the American governments ... it will never be pretended that
 any persons employed in that service had interviews with the gods, or were
 in any degree under the influence of heaven.... These governments were
 contrived merely by the use of reason and the senses.


Language of Alienation

While "In God We Trust" is ambiguous enough to appease most believers, the fact is we are even more of a pluralistic society today than in Jefferson's time and certainly more secular. Pledges and mottos imposing uniformity of personal, other-worldly beliefs are neither consistent with reality nor conducive to cohesion. They complicate finding common bonds to unite people in dealing with the problems of this world. Most of the founding fathers would probably have acknowledged trust in God, but most would have also objected to codifying such an admission in order to influence others or subvert their personal deity. The founders understood what many people today have forgotten or never learned: making Earth a battlefield for beliefs of heaven never brings peace!

As people of science they would have been open to new understandings. Darwin wouldn't be banned from their schools. As deists they believed it would imply a flaw in the creator if creation needed tinkering, but they also knew they weren't gods and their creation might require tinkering--as, surely, it did. If we went by strict intentions, then the founders obviously intended not to end slavery or allow anyone other than male property owners to vote. But they left us ways to evolve with changing environments by simply making the preservation of freedom the final arbiter, and the essence of freedom is the right to dissent.

The wars which inspired legislation intended to separate us from enemies by arrogating allegiance to God in the name of nationalism are over. Now such rally cries serve only to separate us from each other. Perhaps the 1954 and 1956 breeches in the wall of separation between church and state are in need of review. Perhaps ignition of that process only awaits the posting of "In God We Trust" in public schools and the natural inquisitiveness of children to ask, "Which God?" Or, perhaps, like mottos on coins, people don't really notice and all this is just so much trivia.

But liberty should never be taken for granted. The nation's founders didn't intend for us to believe in God as they or anyone else did; they intended for each of us to be free to reason for ourselves what we believe and to extend that natural right to all. "Liberty" is the lone word that has remained throughout history on our coins. One hopes its legitimacy won't become tainted by too much tinkering and make the jingling of coins in our pockets and purses become like the sound of chains subtly reining in our freedom of conscience.

David Cooper is a writer living in New Castle, Indiana. He graduated from Ball State University in 1994 with a degree in history and has collected coins most of his life.
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Author:Cooper, David
Publication:The Humanist
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 1, 2002
Words:2498
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