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The U.S. National Mottos:
Their history & constitutionality 

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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 two-cent coin.

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. 2 Watkinson suggested the words "God, Liberty, Law."3 In 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.

Congress 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" 1908-JUL-1. 3

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 multiplied:

  • The phrase "under God" was added to the otherwise secular Pledge of Allegiance

  • "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 Trust." 4 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.

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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, other 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:

"From 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 religion."

This ruling was sustained by the Fifth Circuit court. 1

  • 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 that:

"[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

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References used in this essay:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. "God on our coins," American Atheists at: 
  2. "History of the motto 'In God We Trust'," Department of the Treasury, at:
  3. "History of 'In God We Trust'," U.S. Department of the Treasury, at:
  4. Authorized by HR 619, 1955-JUN-29.
  5. "U.S. Supreme Court turns down Foundation appeal," Freedom From Religion Foundation, at:
  6. "Euro introduction much more than just a replacement of guilder: National currency symbols end centuries-long history," The Windmill, 1999-OCT-7, at:
  7. "Euro coins: Country specific side: Holland," at:
  8. Steve Jordahl, "President Signs Law Affirming God in the Pledge," Focus on the Family, CitizenLink, 2002-NOV-15.
  9. "In God We Trust: History of the motto of the U.S.A.," Cornerstone Ministries, 1997-DEC-01, at:

Other Internet references:

Copyright 2000 to 2012 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2000-AUG-13
Latest update: 2012-MAR-24
Author: B.A. Robinson

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