Most collectors are aware of President Theodore Roosevelt’s role in the nation’s coinage redesign in the early 20th century. They’re also aware that he thought the placement of the “In God We Trust” religious motto on U.S. coins was an irreverence to the deity that came “dangerously close to a sacrilege.”
What is lesser known is that he was influenced in his feelings by the Free Silver Movement.
The Free Silver Movement, which has been a favorite study area of mine for many years, came to its pinnacle in 1896, when William Jennings Bryan battled the forces of “sound money” (i.e., gold), led by William McKinley, for the presidency of the United States. Free silverites believed fervently in the need to restore full and unlimited coinage of silver at a 16-to-1 ratio as a means of encouraging economic recovery. It would also, they argued, cause silver to rise in value, allowing the bullion value of the silver dollar to again match its face value and restore the nation’s ailing bimetallic coinage system.
One of the interesting side collecting fields that developed from this was a series of pieces known to collectors today as Bryan Money. Most of these pieces mocked Bryan and his cause.
Some were made of silver, but many were of base metal.
A favorite of mine carries the legend “UNITED SNAKES OF AMERICA” and a central device of a donkey-headed goose with “POP” on its body (representing the unity of Populists and Democrats behind free silver). Other popular quips found on Bryan Money were: “IN BRYAN WE TRUST FOR THE OTHER 47CTS;” “FROM THE SILVER MINES OF THE BUNCO STATE;” and “IN MCKINLEY WE TRUST, IN BRYAN WE BUST.”
In a Nov. 13, 1907 letter, penned after the new gold $10s and $20s without the motto were placed into circulation, President Roosevelt wrote that:
…throughout the long contest extending over several decades on the free 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 Eight Cents,’ ‘In God We Trust for the Short Weight,’ ‘In God We Trust for the Thirty-seven cents We do not Pay,’ etc., etc. 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. 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 spirit of reverence in the country will prevent any such action being taken.
Roosevelt was wrong. On May 18, 1908, Congress passed an act requiring the motto’s restoration. Today, except for a few error Presidential dollars, it continues to be shown on coins and paper money, and there’s legislation in Congress to move it from the edge to the obverse of the new dollar coins.