The U.S. National Mottos: Their history & constitutionality
The original national motto: "E Pluribus Unum"
The original motto of the United States was secular. "E
Pluribus Unum" is Latin for "One from many"
or "One from many parts." It refers to the welding of a
single federal state from a group of individual political units -- originally
colonies and now states.
On 1776-JUL-4, Congress appointed John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson to prepare a design for the Great Seal of the United
States. The first design, submitted to Congress on 1776-AUG-10 used
the motto "E Pluribus Unum." It was rejected. Five other
designs also failed to meet with Congress' approval during the next five
years. In 1782, Congress asked Mr. Thomson, Secretary of Congress, to
complete the project. Thomson, along with a friend named Barton, produced
a design that was accepted by Congress on 1782-JUN-10. It included an
eagle with a heart-shaped shield, holding arrows and an olive branch in
its claws. The motto "E Pluribus Unum" appeared on a scroll
held in its beak. The seal was first used on 1782-SEP-16. It was first
used on some federal coins in 1795. 1
The replacement motto: "In God We Trust:"
The war of 1812 was an unusual conflict. Both sides claimed victory. The
winner depends upon which history books or which country's schools you attended.
Also, the war lasted well beyond 1812.
During 1814, Francis Scott Key (a.k.a. Frank) had an eventful September.
"Traveling under a white flag, Key met with both an enemy general and
admiral, recovered a war prisoner, became a war prisoner, watched a
historical bombardment, lost a night's sleep, and wrote" what eventually
became the American national anthem: The Star Spangled Banner. 1
The final stanza reads:
"And this be our motto: 'In God is our trust.'
And the Star Spangled Banner in triumph shall wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave."
In 1864, the words were shortened to "In God We Trust" and
applied to a newly designed
Almost a century and a half ago, eleven Protestant denominations mounted a
campaign to add references to God into the U.S. Constitution
and other federal documents. Rev. M.R. Watkinson of Ridleyville PA was the first of many to
write a letter to the
Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase in 1861 to promote this
concept. 2Watkinson suggested the words "God, Liberty,
Law."3In 1863, Chase asked the Director of the Mint, James
Pollock to prepare suitable wording for a motto to be used on Union coins
used during the Civil War.
Pollock suggested "Our Trust Is In God," "Our God
And Our Country," "God And Our Country," and
"God Our Trust." Chase picked "In God We
Trust" to be used on some of the government's coins. The phrase was a subtle
reminder that the Union considered itself on God's side with respect to
slavery. Ironically, so could the Confederacy; both could quote copious Bible passages in support of their position.
passed enabling legislation. Since a 1837 Act of Congress already specified the mottos and
devices that were to be placed on U.S. coins, it was necessary to pass another
Act to enable the motto to be added. This was done on 1886-APR-22. "The motto
has been in continuous use on the one-cent coin
since 1909, and on the ten-cent coin since 1916.
It also has appeared on all gold coins and silver
dollar coins, half-dollar coins, and
quarter-dollar coins struck since"
Decades later, Theodore Roosevelt disapproved of the motto. In a
letter to William Boldly on 1907-NOV-11, he wrote:
"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 manner, not only does no good but
does positive harm, and is in effect irreverence, which comes dangerously
close to sacrilege...It is a motto which it is indeed well to have
inscribed on our great national monuments, in our temples of justice, in
our legislative halls, and in building such as those at West Point and
Annapolis -- in short, wherever it will tend to arouse and inspire a lofty
emotion in those who look thereon. But it seems to me eminently unwise to
cheapen such a motto by use on coins, just as it would be to cheapen it by
use on postage stamps, or in advertisements."
In 1956, the nation was suffering through the height of the cold war,
and the McCarthy anti-communist witch
hunt. Partly in reaction to these factors, the 84th Congress
passed a joint resolution to replace the existing
motto with "In God we Trust." The president signed the
resolution into law on 1956-JUL-30. The change was
partly motivated by a desire to
differentiate between communism, which promotes Atheism, and Western
capitalistic democracies, which were at least nominally Christian. The
phrase "Atheistic Communists" has been repeated so many times
that the public has linked Atheism with communism; the two are often considered synonymous.
Many consider Atheism as unpatriotic and un-American as is communism. The
new motto was first used on paper money in 1957, when it was added to the
one-dollar silver certificate. By 1966, "In God we Trust" was added to
all paper money, from $1 to $100 denominations. 3
Most communists, worldwide, are Atheists. But, in North America, the reverse is
not true; most Atheists are non-communists. Although there are many Atheistic
and Humanistic legislators at the federal and state
levels, few if any are willing to reveal their beliefs, because of the
immense prejudice against Atheism. If they were open about their beliefs,
none would ever have been elected.
During the 1950's the federal government's references to God
"So help me God" was added as a suffix to the oaths of office
for federal justices and judges. However, they are not
compelled to recite the words. There has been a widespread belief that
every president since George Washington has said these words during his
inauguration. The belief appears to be without merit.
American paper currency since 1957 has included the motto "In God We
The Freedom from Religion Foundation has been unable to find any other country in the world
which has a religious motto on their money. 5 However, it appears that:
The Dutch have had a religious motto
on their money for over a century (one source says since the 18th
century; an other says since 1816 CE). Coins carry the
motto "God zij met ons." ("God be with us.").
This motto has been carried over into the Netherlands version of the
new 2 euro coin. 6,7
During the 1980's, former president Jose Sarney introduced into
Brazilian paper money the phrase "Deus seja louvado"
("God be praised.")
Although not a motto, many British coins contain a drawing of
the queen identified as "Elizabeth II D.G. REG. F.D."
This is an abbreviation of a Latin phrase which means "Elizabeth
II by the Grace of God Queen, Defender of the Faith." In Britain,
the monarch is the head of the Church of England. Canadian
coins carry the phrase "Elizabeth II D.G. Regina." She
is the queen of Canada but is not the "Defender of the Faith,"
because Canada does not have a state religion for her to defend.
Is the motto constitutional?
The "In God we Trust" motto promotes theistic religion at the expense of non theistic religion
and a secular lifestyle. It promotes the belief in a single, male deity which is
followed by the main Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam; however,
it is foreign to the beliefs of many other religions: Buddhists do not believe
in a personal deity; Zoroastrians and
Wiccans believe in two deities; Hindus
believe in many. It would
seem to violate the principle of separation of church and
state. Many Agnostics, Atheists,
Buddhists, Hindus, Wiccans,
Neopagans, and others are offended by the motto. However, the religious motto has been challenged by three lawsuits and has
been found to be constitutional. The courts basically found that the motto does
not endorse religion.
"Aronow v. United States," 432 F.2d 242
(1970) in the United States Court of Appeals, Ninth Circuit The
court ruled that:
"It is quite obvious that the national motto
and the slogan on coinage and currency 'In God We Trust' has nothing
whatsoever to do with the establishment of religion. Its use is of
patriotic or ceremonial character and bears no true resemblance to a
governmental sponsorship of a religious exercise."
"Madalyn Murray O'Hair, et al. v. W. Michael Blumenthal,
Secretary of Treasury, et al." 588 F.2d 1144 (1979) in the United
States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. Ms. O'Hair
is (in)famous for successfully challenging compulsory prayer in U.S.
public schools. The United
States District Court, Western District of Texas, referring to the wording of the Ninth Circuit above, ruled that:
this it is easy to deduce that the Court concluded that the primary
purpose of the slogan was secular; it served as secular ceremonial
purpose in the obviously secular function of providing a medium of
exchange. As such it is equally clear that the use of the motto on the
currency or otherwise does not have a primary effect of advancing
This ruling was sustained by the Fifth Circuit
The Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc. conducted a
national survey which showed that "In God We Trust"
was regarded as religious by an overwhelming percentage of U.S.
citizens. They initiated a lawsuit on 1994-JUN-8 in Denver CO to have it removed from
U.S. paper currency
and coins. They also wanted it to be discontinued as the national motto. Their lawsuit was
dismissed by the district Court without trial, on the grounds that
"In God We Trust" is not a religious phrase! The Tenth-Circuit
federal judge confirmed the dismissal, stating in part:
"...we find that a reasonable observer, aware of the
purpose, context, and history of the phrase 'In God we trust,' would
not consider its use or its reproduction on U.S. currency to be an
endorsement of religion." 5
The U.S. Supreme Court declined to review all of these rulings. It might
be embarrassing to them, because the motto also hangs on the wall at the Supreme
Court. The Supreme Court has commented in passing on the motto saying
"[o]ur previous opinions have considered in dicta the motto and
the pledge [of allegiance], characterizing them as consistent with the
proposition that government may not communicate an endorsement of religious
belief." Allegheny, 492 U.S.
Federal bill signed into law:
A bill to reaffirm "In God We Trust" as the national motto, and
the phrase "Under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance was passed with a
99% vote in the House, and unanimously in the Senate. Rep. Todd Akin, (R-MO)
voted for the measure. Apparently he is unaware that the "Under God"
phrase is a relatively recent addition to the Pledge. He said: "I think
the Congress was expressing the fact that they support the recitation of the
pledge as it has always been supported. I think they're further saying that
there isn't any problem with the First Amendment." Historian David
Barton, president of WallBuilders, said: "This bill has no effect on the
'Under God' controversies, because we have seen in a number of cases that
when Congress does something, the Supreme Court almost feels compelled to
tell them to back off and leave them alone." 8