By Peter Rexford
I heard the bells on Christmas day, Their old familiar carols play,
Mild and sweet their songs repeat, Of peace on earth good will to men.
And in despair I bowed my head, There is no peace on earth I said,
For hate is strong and mocks the song, Of peace on earth, good will to men.
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep, ‘God is not dead; nor doth he sleep!
The Wrong shall fail, The Right prevail, With peace on earth, good-will to men!’
— Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
The legions of people who are upset because they think our country is irreparably divided need just dial the clock back 155 years. On that Christmas in 1864, few had anything to celebrate. The U.S. Civil War was at its peak. Revised figures show that 750,000 died on battlefields and in towns across the eastern U.S. Over 7,000 were killed at Gettysburg alone. The loss of life was so overwhelming family members resorted to walking the battlefield to find the bodies of their fallen loved ones.
Whether as a soldier or a family member, few were spared from the horrors of that war. Funeral services became so frequent some cities asked churches not to ring their bells for each one. The incessant ringing was too much of a negative reminder of the constant carnage.
Believing their respective causes were just, both the North and South professed God was on their side. The need for divine confirmation was so critical that northern Baptist minister M.R. Watkinson sent a letter to U.S. Treasury Secretary Salmon Chase proposing that recognition of God be placed on the circulating coinage in the North.
Reverend Watkinson suggested the words, “God, Liberty, Law” be put on coins. With the war escalating and the populace growing increasingly desperate over the divisiveness, Chase embraced the idea. President Lincoln gave his approval and Chase modified Watkinson’s sentiment to read, “In God We Trust.” Since just before Christmas 1864 to today, that motto remains on our coinage.
The first coin to bear the words was a copper two-cent piece roughly the size of a quarter. During the war, people everywhere hoarded coins because the metal content always had value. Paper did not. Moreover, not knowing which side might win made people skeptical of saving any paper money. Naturally, those who saved Confederate paper currency were the inevitable losers.
Why create a two-cent coin you might ask? At that time, the cost to mail a letter was two cents. The coins (plus a three-cent variety for heavier mail) were struck to pay the cost of postage. Most contemporary local coin dealers have specimens of those classic two-cent copper coins available for just a few dollars apiece. One could be a great idea for an interesting holiday gift.
There’s loads more lore behind the motto, the coins themselves, and the role they played in the Civil War. All that is masterfully chronicled with countless photos and color images in the new book, In God We Trust: The American Civil War, Money, Banking and Religion. Written by William Bierly, its 352-pages are an intriguing step back in time to when Americans were grasping for most anything that would assuage their angst over a divisive and seemingly unending war.
Bringing a tinge of much-needed humor to the new motto was then-fledgling author Samuel Clemens, a.k.a. Mark Twain. According to the book, of the four new words on the coin, Twain suggested:
It is not proper to boast that America is a Christian country when we all know that five-sixths of our population could not enter in at the narrow gate.
In God We Trust retails for $29.95 and features a photo of a vintage two-cent coin on the cover. It is available at larger bookstores or online directly from the publisher. There still may be time to receive a copy by Christmas. Best of all, combining the book with an actual two-cent coin would be a true journey through time. Of course, that’s just my two-cents worth.