By Pat Centner, AFAJ staff writer
February 2002 – The month of February can be a dreary one, with dark, somber days and prolific rain or driving snow, depending on where you live. But February has its redeeming factors as well.
For the light-hearted, there’s Groundhog Day on February 2 when world-famous Pennsylvania groundhog Punxsutawney Phil predicts – based on whether or not he sees his shadow – if there’ll be a longer winter or an early spring. And, on a more serious note, February boasts the birth of two of America’s most revered presidents: Abraham Lincoln on February 12, and George Washington on February 22.
Both of these men played a vital part in America’s history, with Washington serving as both a general in the Revolutionary War and the nation’s first president, and Lincoln serving during the country’s bloodiest conflict, the great Civil War.
It was during Lincoln’s tenure as president that American coins first carried the inscription “In God We Trust.” There is some controversy surrounding how “religious” Lincoln may or may not have been. But there was another president from a later day who had strong feelings about God and how He should be revered.
The bully boy
“Speak softly and carry a big stick.” Theodore (Teddy) Roosevelt, America’s president from 1901 to 1909, made this statement famous. Roosevelt may have advocated soft speech, but he was much better known for his strong personality and vigorous lifestyle. His pounding fist and high-pitched “Bully!” (another favorite expression meaning “Great!”) were trademarks of this dynamic man who led the Rough Rider Regiment during the Spanish-American War and loved to go on African safaris.
Roosevelt took the country’s helm shortly after William McKinley was assassinated in September of 1901. He became, at age 42, the youngest man sworn in as president of the United States.
He was a man of wide and varying interests, some of which he would probably have become famous for even if he had not been elected president. In addition to holding numerous public offices, Roosevelt was an established historian and naturalist with a great love for the outdoors and appreciation for all created things.
He also had a deep reverence and respect for God. In fact, he felt that to use God’s name on United States coins was “irreverent” and demeaning to God. Thus, in 1907, he commissioned Augustus Saint-Gaudens to create a new series of U.S. gold coins and instructed him to leave the inscription “In God We Trust” off the coins. Apparently, this action was questioned by Rev. Roland C. Dryer of Nunda, New York, because on November 11, 1907, Roosevelt wrote Dryer and expressed his thoughts on the subject.
He told Dryer that in studying the laws passed by Congress regarding the use of the phrase “In God We Trust” on coins, it had been determined that it was not mandatory for the inscription to be included. (Use of the phrase on coins was allowed by Congress on March 3, 1865, but not made mandatory.) Further, Roosevelt said he might have felt “at liberty to keep the inscription” had he approved of its being on the coinage. But since he did not approve, he instructed that the new coins be minted without it. Roosevelt further explained:
“My own feeling in the matter is due to my very firm conviction that to use 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. A beautiful and solemn sentence such as the one in question should be treated 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 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 me imminently 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. 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 about the public’s attitude toward removing the inscription from the coins. Despite the beauty of the gold pieces designed by Saint-Gaudens, a huge public outcry in early 1908 resulted in Congress passing a law requiring that “In God We Trust” be inscribed on all United States coins.
This represented one of the few defeats in Roosevelt’s life, but it was, after all, a defeat born out of honorable intentions.