In 1820, a U.S. revenue cutter captured the slave ship Antelope off the coast of Florida with nearly 300 African slaves. Francis Scott Key was the defense counsel for the Africans, many of whom were just young teenagers. Key fought to free the slaves in an expensive legal battle which dragged on for seven years.
Arguing their case before the Supreme Court in 1825, Francis Scott Key, as recorded by Henry S. Foote: “… greatly surpassed the expectations of his most admiring friends … Key closed with … an electrifying picture of the horrors connected with the African slave trade.”
Jonathan M. Bryant wrote in “Dark Places of the Earth: The Voyage of the Slave Ship Antelope” (2015): “Most startling of all, Key argued … that all men were created equal. … If the United States had captured a ship full of white captives, Key asked, would not our courts assume them to be free? How could it be any different simply because the captives were black? … Slavery was a dangerously hot subject, but Francis Scott Key stepped deliberately into the fire.”
Bryant continued: “Key had unleashed all of his rhetorical weapons. … This was a case he believed in and had worked personally to bring before the Supreme Court. The Antelope was a Spanish slave ship that had been captured by privateers and then seized by a United States Revenue Marine cutter off the coast of Florida. …”
Jonathan M. Bryant continued: “Using clear precedent, poetic language, and appeals to morality, Francis Scott Key argued that the hundreds of African captives found aboard the Antelope should be returned to Africa and freedom. United States law demanded it, he said. The law of nations demanded it, he said. Even the law of nature demanded it. Key looked into the eyes of the six justices sitting for the case, four of whom were slave owners, and announced that ‘by the law of nature, all men are free.'”
Considered one of its many shameful decisions, the Supreme Court sadly chose to define slaves as property. Only a portion of the slaves were returned to Africa where they founded the colony of New Georgia in Liberia. Key raised $11,000 to help Africans in their return trip.
In 1841, two years before his death, Francis Scott Key helped John Quincy Adams free 53 African slaves in the Amistad case. During the War of 1812, Francis Scott Key wrote “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Though many are familiar with the first verse, the fourth verse had an enduring effect:
O thus be it ever when free men shall stand,
Between their loved home and the war’s desolation;
Blest with victory and peace, may the Heaven-rescued land,
Praise the Power that hath made and preserved us a nation!
Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just;
And this be our motto ‘In God is our trust’!
And the Star Spangled Banner in triumph shall wave,
Over the land of the free and the home of the brave!
The “Star-Spangled Banner” stirred patriotism across America, with its fourth verse inspiring the 125th Pennsylvania Infantry to use “In God We Trust” as its battle cry at the Battle of Antietam.
During the Civil War, Rev. M.R. Watkinson wrote to the Treasury Department, Nov. 13, 1861, suggesting the recognition of “Almighty God in some form in our coins.”
Another proposal was supported by Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, Senator B. Gratz Brown of Missouri and Senator John Sherman of Ohio, along with Director of the U.S. Mint and former Pennsylvania Governor, James Pollock, to amend the Preamble of the U.S. Constitution to: “We, the people of the United States, humbly acknowledging Almighty God as the source of all authority and power in civil government, the Lord Jesus Christ as the Ruler among the nations, His revealed will as the supreme law of the land, in order to constitute a Christian government, and in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquillity, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the inalienable rights and the blessings of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness to ourselves and our posterity, and all the people, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
Lincoln’s pastor, Rev. Phineas Gurley, arranged for proponents to meet with the President, Feb. 11, 1864, after which Lincoln responded: “The general aspect of your movement I cordially approve. In regard to particulars I must ask time to deliberate, as the work of amending the Constitution should not be done hastily.”
Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase, who Lincoln later appointed Chief Justice, assigned James Pollock, Director of the U.S. Mint, with the task of adding the phrase “In God We Trust” to the two-cent coin
James Pollock was the former Governor of Pennsylvania and a former U.S. Congressman. Pollock complied with Secretary Chase’s request.
The Report of the Secretary of the Treasury on the State of the Finances (U.S. Dept. of the Treasury, 1863, page 190-191), printed James Pollock’s reply: “We claim to be a Christian nation – why should we not vindicate our character by honoring the God of Nations. … Our national coinage should do this. Its legends and devices should declare our trust in God – in Him who is ‘King of Kings and Lord of Lords.'”
James Pollock continued: “The motto suggested, ‘God our Trust,’ is taken from our National Hymn, the ‘Star-Spangled Banner.’ The sentiment is familiar to every citizen of our country – it has thrilled the hearts and fallen in song from the lips of millions of American Freemen. … The time for the introduction of this … is propitious and appropriate. ‘Tis an hour of National peril and danger – an hour when man’s strength is weakness – when our strength and our nation’s strength and salvation, must be in the God of Battles and of Nations. Let us reverently acknowledge his sovereignty, and let our coinage declare our trust in God.”
Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase wrote to James Pollock, Dec. 9, 1863: “I approve your mottos, 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.'”
Salmon P. Chase’s proposal was passed by Congress on April 22, 1864, allowing the motto on one-cent and two-cent coins.
On March 3, 1865, Congress voted to approve the motto “In God We Trust” for all U.S. coins.
House Speaker Schuyler Colfax noted: “The last act of Congress ever signed by President Lincoln was one requiring that the motto … ‘In God We Trust’ should hereafter be inscribed upon all our national coin.”
“In God We Trust” was inscribed in the U.S. House Chamber above the Speaker’s rostrum; above the Senate’s main southern door; on a tribute block inside the Washington Monument; and on a stained-glass window in the U.S. Capitol’s Chapel.
President Truman stated Oct. 30, 1949: “When the U.S. was established … the motto was ‘In God We Trust.’ That is still our motto and we still place our firm trust in God.”
President Eisenhower remarked at a ceremony issuing the first stamp bearing the motto “In God We Trust,” April 8, 1954: “America’s greatness has been based upon a spiritual quality … symbolized by the stamp that will be issued today. … Regardless of any eloquence of the words that may be inside the letter, on the outside he places a message: ‘Here is … the land that lives in respect for the Almighty’s mercy to us.’ … Each of us, hereafter, fastening such a stamp on a letter, cannot fail to feel something of the inspiration that we do whenever we … read ‘In God We Trust.'”
The same day, President Eisenhower stated to a Women’s Conference: “I have just come from assisting in the dedication of a new stamp. … The stamp has on it a picture of the Statue of Liberty, and on it also is stated ‘In God We Trust.’ … All of us mere mortals are dependent upon the mercy of a Superior Being. … The reason this seems so thrilling is … the opportunity it gives to every single individual who buys the stamp to send a message – regardless of the content of a letter … that this is the land of the free and ‘In God We Trust.'”
President Eisenhower remarked at the 75th anniversary of the incandescent lamp, Oct. 24, 1954: “‘In God We Trust.’ Often have we heard the words of this wonderful American motto. Let us make sure that familiarity has not made them meaningless for us. We carry the torch of freedom as a sacred trust for all mankind. We do not believe that God intended the light that He created to be putout by men.”
Eisenhower continued: “Atheism substitutes men for the Supreme Creator and this leads inevitably to domination and dictatorship. But we believe – and it is because we believe that God intends all men to be free and equal that we demand free government. Our Government is servant, not master, our chosen representatives are our equals, not our czars or commissars.”
Eisenhower concluded: “We must jealously guard our foundation in faith. For on it rests the ability of the American individual to live and thrive in this blessed land -and to be able to help other less fortunate people to achieve freedom and individual opportunity. These we take for granted, but to others they are often only a wistful dream.”
One Sunday in 1953, Matt H. Rothert, president of the American Numismatic Association, was at church and noticed on the collection plate only coins bore the motto “In God We Trust.” Realizing that paper currency had a larger global circulation, Rothert wrote letters and gave speeches promoting the motto be added to paper currency.
World War II veteran Congressman Charles E. Bennett of Florida, with other senators and representatives, helped pass H.R. 619, signed by President Eisenhower on July 11, 1955, to include “In God We Trust” on all U.S. currency.
Congressman Bennett stated on the House floor: “Nothing can be more certain than that our country was founded in a spiritual atmosphere and with a firm trust in God. … While the sentiment of trust in God is universal and timeless, these particular four words ‘In God We Trust’ are indigenous to our country. … In these days when imperialistic and materialistic communism seeks to attack and destroy freedom, we should continually look for ways to strengthen the foundations of our freedom.”
In 1956, “In God We Trust” was legally adopted by Congress and the president as the official United States National Motto. (Public Law 84-140; United States Code at 36 U.S.C. § 302). On Oct. 1, 1957, the first paper currency bearing the phrase “In God We Trust” entered circulation – the one dollar silver certificate.
John F. Kennedy stated Feb. 9, 1961: “The guiding principle of this Nation has been, is now, and ever shall be ‘In God We Trust.'”
President Reagan stated in his National Day of Prayer Proclamation, March 19, 1981: “Our Nation’s motto ‘In God We Trust’ – was not chosen lightly. It reflects a basic recognition that there is a divine authority in the universe to which this Nation owes homage.”
Reagan stated at a White House observance of National Day of Prayer, May 6, 1982: “Our faith in God is a mighty source of strength. Our Pledge of Allegiance states that we are ‘one nation under God,’ and our currency bears the motto, ‘In God We Trust.'”
Reagan said following a meeting with Pope John Paul II in Vatican City, June 7, 1982: “Ours is a nation grounded on faith, faith in man’s ability through God-given freedom to live in tolerance and peace and faith that a Supreme Being guides our daily striving in this world. Our national motto, ‘In God We Trust,’ reflects that faith.”
President George H.W. Bush met with Amish and Mennonites at Penn Johns Elementary School in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, March 22, 1989. When a Mennonite leader stated: “We want to keep that theme, ‘In God We Trust,’ which is stamped on our money,” President Bush replied: “It’s staying there. Nobody can knock that off.”
President George H.W. Bush remarked on the National Day of Prayer, May 4, 1989: “We are one nation under God. And we were placed here on Earth to do His work. And our work has gone on now for more than 200 years in the Nation – a work best embodied in four simple words: ‘In God We Trust.'”
In a 2003 joint poll by USA Today, CNN, and Gallup reported that 90 percent of Americans support “In God We Trust” on U.S. coins.
In 2006, on the 50th anniversary of its adoption, the Senate reaffirmed “In God We Trust” as the official national motto.
In July 2010, a Federal Appeals Court in the District of Columbia ruled 3-0 the National Motto was constitutional under the First Amendment, quoting the 1970 decision, Aronow v. United States: “It is quite obvious that the national motto and slogan on coinage and currency ‘In God We Trust’ has nothing whatsoever to do with the establishment of religion.”
On March 7, 2011, the Supreme Court denied a challenge by an atheist who was intolerant of the National Motto, by letting the decision of the Federal Appeals Court stand.
On Nov. 1, 2011, the House of Representatives passed an additional resolution in a 396-9 vote reaffirming “In God We Trust” as the official motto of the United States.
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