Theodore Roosevelt Signed Letter Regarding IN GOD WE TRUST On Coinage

    President Theodore Roosevelt Typed Letter Signed "Theodore Roosevelt" as President, three pages, on 8" x 10.5" White House letterhead, November 11, 1907, Washington. A spectacular and important letter written to the Rev. Roland C. Dryer of Nunda, New York defending his omission of the motto IN GOD WE TRUST from newly minted $10 and $20 gold coins designed by Augustus Saint-Gaudens. Dryer protested the omission of the motto, which had appeared on numerous U.S. coins since 1864. He was one of many who protested its absence and pressured Congress to mandate the motto be used on all gold and silver coins in 1908. Roosevelt's reasons for opposing the motto were varied and nuanced and had nothing to do with issues surrounding the separation of Church and State.
    Roosevelt defended the removal of the phrase citing legal precedent: "When the question of the new coinage came up we lookt [sic] into the law and found there was no warrant therein for putting 'IN GOD WE TRUST' on the coins. As the custom, altho [sic] without legal warrant, had grown up, however, I might have felt at liberty to keep the inscription had I had approved of its being on the coinage. But as I did not approve of it, I did not direct that it should again be put on. Of course the matter of the law is absolutely in the hands of Congress, and any direction of Congress in the matter will be immediately obeyed. At present, as I have said, there is no warrant in law for the inscription."
    Roosevelt continues on a personal note, citing his own reasons for disliking the motto on coinage. "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 not good but does positive harm, and is in effect irreverence which comes dangerously close to sacrilege. A beautiful and solemn sentence such as the one in question should be treated and uttered only with that fine reverence which necessarily implies a certain exaltation of spirit. Any use which tends to cheapen it, and, above all, any use which tends to secure its being treated in a spirit of levity, is free from every standpoint profoundly to be regretted. 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 buildings 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 be 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."
    To bolster his argument, Roosevelt cites numerous examples of the misuse and denigration of the motto: "As regards to its use on the coinage we have actual experience by which to go. In all my life I have never heard any human being speak reverently of this motto on the coins or show any sign of having appealed to any high emotion in him. But I have literally hundreds of times heard it used as an occasion of, and incitement to, the sneering ridicule which it is above all things undesirable that so beautiful and exalted a phrase should excite. For example, thruout [sic] the long contest, extending over several decades, on the free [silver] coinage question, the existence of this motto on the coins was a constant source of jest and ridicule; and this was unavoidable. Everyone must remember the innumerable cartoons and articles based on phrases like 'In God we trust for the other eight cents'; 'In God we trust for the short weight'; 'In god we trust for the thirty-seven cents we do not pay'; and so forth and so forth. Surely I am well within bounds when I say that a use of the phrase which invites constant levity of this type is most undesirable."
    However, Roosevelt concedes that he is prepared to act according to the will of Congress: "If Congress alters the law and directs me to replace on the coins the sentence in question the direction will be immediately put into effect; but I very earnestly trust that the religious sentiment of the country, the sprit of reverence in this country, will prevent any such action being taken. Sincerely yours, [signed] Theodore Roosevelt."
    The phrase "In God We Trust" first began appearing on American coins in 1864. According to the Department of the Treasury, in the early days of the Civil War, Secretary of the Treasury, Salmon P. Chase received numerous appeals that the United States recognize the Deity on U.S. coins. On November 3, 1863, the Rev. M. R. Watkinson of Ridley, Pennsylvania appealed to Chase: "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."
    Seven days later Chase wrote to James Pollock, Director of the Mint in Philadelphia: "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." In order to do this however, they had to alter the laws passed in 1837 regulating coinage. That law mandated that "...upon the coins struck at the mint there shall be the following devices and legends; upon one side of each of said coins there shall be an impression emblematic of liberty, with an inscription of the word LIBERTY, and the year of the coinage; and upon the reverse of each of the gold and silver, there shall be the figure or representation of an eagle, with the inscription United States of America, and a designation of the value of the coin; but on the reverse of the dime and half dime, cent and half cent, the figure of the eagle shall be omitted."
    To provide for the addition of "In God We Trust" to U.S. numismatica, Congress passed an amendment to an 1857 act "Relating to foreign Coins and the Coinage of Cents at the Mint of the United States." The amendment empowered the Director of the Mint, with approval of the Secretary of the Treasury, to determine "...the shape, mottoes and devices of said coins..." In December 1863 Pollack presented two proposed mottos: "OUR COUNTRY; OUR GOD" and "GOD, OUR TRUST". Chase wrote in reply, "I approve your mottoes, only suggesting that on that with the Washington obverse the motto should begin with the word OUR, so as to read OUR GOD AND OUR COUNTRY. And on that with the shield, it should be changed so as to read: IN GOD WE TRUST."
    The first U.S. coin to appear with the motto was the two cent piece in 1864. In 1865, Congress passed similar legislation regarding the three cent piece which allowed "the director of the mint, with the approval of the Secretary of the Treasury, to cause the motto 'In God We Trust' to be placed upon such coins hereafter to be issued as will admit of such legend thereon." "In God We Trust" was placed on numerous circulating coins in subsequent years.
    While Theodore Roosevelt's objections to use of "In God We Trust" were based on principle, there was also an issue related to aesthetics. In 1903 Roosevelt commissioned Augustus Saint-Gaudens to design his inaugural medal. The finished product was so impressive, Roosevelt commissioned the artist to design new coins. The President held the opinion that American coinage was of poor artistic quality. Saint-Gaudens spent eighteen months producing various designs, in particular the $10 and $20 gold eagles. According to his son, Homer Saint-Gaudens, the inscriptions for the coins proved the most vexing. He solved most of the issues: " placing upon them the previously milled edge of the coin, in one case, the forty-six stars, in the others, the thirteen stars with the 'E Pluribus Unum.'" Saint Gaudens, however found "The motto 'In God We Trust' an inartistic intrusion... he wholly discarded [the motto] and thereby drew down upon himself the lightning of public comment." The controversy was already brewing before the first $10 and $20 coins entered circulation on November 18, 1907. Roosevelt likely felt pressure to respond before the first coins entered circulation; perhaps it was even a fairly hurried response in light of the typographical errors in this letter.
    Congress forced the issue on March 8, 1908 by passing "An Act Providing for the restoration of the motto, 'In God We Trust' on certain denominations of the gold and silver coins of the United States. Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That the motto "In God We Trust," heretofore inscribed on certain denominations of the gold and silver coins of the United States of America, shall hereafter be inscribed upon all such gold and silver coins of said denominations as heretofore..."
    Roosevelt, in a letter to Senator Thomas Carter, called the legislation "...not necessary, it is rot; but the Congressmen say there is misapprehension as to the religious purport of it--it is easy to stir up a sensation and misconstrue the President's motive--and that the Committee is agitated as to the effect of a veto, I repeat, it is rot, pure rot; but I am telling the Congressman if Congress wants to pass a bill re-establishing the motto, I shall not veto it." True to his word in his letter to Rev. Dryer, Roosevelt signed the act into law on May 18, 1908. The motto has continued in use to this day on most U.S. coinage and in 1957 began appearing on U.S. currency as well.
    This is an important Roosevelt letter illustrating his position on a lightning-rod issue. The government's use of the motto "In God We Trust" still sparks controversy to this very day. The debate over the oft-convoluted line between Church and State remains a divisive discourse in today's society. This exceptional content letter represents remarkable insight--and brilliance--in the thinking of one of our greatest presidents.
    This incredible letter is in fine condition with mailing folds. The original envelope is included, showing a November 13, 1907 Washington, D.C. postmark on the front and a Rec'd Nunda, N.Y. postmark on the verso dated November 14, 1907. Both are enclosed with a Roosevelt engraving inside a handsome archival binding in quarter-leather with marbled boards. In gilt on the spine is "Theodore Roosevelt - Typed Letter Signed - 'In God We Trust' - November 11, 1907."

    Published in Elting E. Morison ed., The Letters of Theodore Roosevelt, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1952. Text also found in Hermann Hagedorn, ed, Memorial Edition, Works of Theodore Roosevelt, 24 vols., Charles Scribner's Sons, New York, 1923-1926.
    Sold at Sotheby's, June 1, 1995, lot 327, where it brought $21,000.

    The only other copy known that ever appeared on the market was with identical text, written to William Boldly and sold in 1975 and has not appeared since at auction. We have never seen this piece and we don't even know if it was genuine.
    From The Phillip H. Morse Collection of Saint-Gaudens Coinage.

    View all of [The Morse Collection: Palm Beach, November 3, 2005 ]

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