The History of Our National Motto, 'In God We Trust'

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   “And this be our motto: ‘In God is our trust.’” (Francis Scott Key).
   In our times, the concept of freedom of speech joined with scientific rationalism has brought our forefathers’ allegiance to a higher power, usually titled as God, under fire. Repeated litigation demanding the eradication of the word ‘God,’ and references to a higher power, from all government activities has caused early and cherished American traditions to be banned. The goal of the godless dissenters is to turn this democracy into a secular government that ignores its traditional faith roots.
   It is little known that the removal of references to God would cause the rejection and removal of our national anthem, “The Star Spangled Banner.” The last stanza of Key’s poem, now the national anthem of the United States is:
   “Blest with vict’ry and peace, may the heav’n rescued land
   Praise the Pow’r that has made and preserv’d us a nation
   And conquer we must when our cause is just
   And this be our motto: ‘In God is our trust.’ 
   And the Star Spangled Banner in triumph shall wave
   O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.”
   How did this come to be?  Some world changing events happened to Francis (“Frank”) Scott Key in September of 1814 during a trip to Baltimore. Traveling under a white flag, Key met with both an enemy general and admiral, recovered a war prisoner, became a war prisoner, watched a historical bombardment, lost a night’s sleep, and wrote our national anthem. Along with all that, he created the best known, and most succinct statement of blind faith ever known.
   The anthem he wrote was, of course, “The Star Spangled Banner.” In its fourth stanza, Key closed with the words, “And this be our motto - ‘In God is our Trust!’” That line was both his statement of faith and a prophecy. Shortened in 1864 to “In God We Trust,” to fit a newly designed two-cent piece, it quickly earned its popular place as America’s unofficial motto. In 1955, Congress ordered it placed on all United States’ currency.
   This motto of the most powerful nation in world history now rides piggyback on its coveted currency. Every day millions of people of every nation and religion read our faith confession. It is known everywhere.
   While the currency is coveted, the faith underlying its value is often neglected, and sometimes even scorned. Being such common tender, “In God We Trust” has become a jaded cliché to many who carry it in their pockets and purses. Its message is least understood by criminals of every shade and place who obtain it by lawless means.
   The simple and implied blind faith of the motto deserves our review and reaffirmation. At the same time, it is inspiring to revisit the man and events that forever established Key’s place in American history.
   On June 18, 1812, the upstart United States declared war on England, then one of the world’s most powerful nations. Being then involved in a war with France, England was unable to respond with immediate vigor. In efforts to blockade each other, both England and France had been interfering with American shipping. Neither respected American sovereignty, but the English were the more abusive. American crews were captured and forced to crew on British ships. Congress declared war on England in order to preserve “Free Trade and Sailors’ Rights.”
   In 1814 after defeating Napoleon, England dedicated enough troops and ships to discipline its former colony. A large English force arrived in Chesapeake Bay on August nineteenth, and by the evening of the twenty-fourth, they had attacked, captured and torched the capital.
   Their attack was sudden, unexpected and mostly unopposed. So rapid was their advance that President Madison left the White House without his wife, Dolly, and hastily fled across the Potomac River. Later when Dolly had to run, she saved Start’s portrait of George Washington by breaking it from its frame, and taking it with her. Glow from the flames from the burning city, including both the White House and the capital, could be seen in Baltimore, forty miles away. Providential rains, deluging at dawn on the twenty-fifth, doused the fires to save the city.
   The following day, more fires were started, but once again, hurricane force thunderstorms saved America’s capital.
   Their dirty deeds now finished, the English left town. Withdrawing to their ships, the British soldiers took along a prisoner, the elderly and revered physician, William Beanes. According to some reports, Beanes was arrested for making uncomplimentary remarks about the over-sensitive invaders. History has not recorded exactly what Dr. Beanes’ potent comments were which so offended the soldiers. Some reported it to be unfounded slander. Whatever he said or did, by those actions he was destined to be a key player in the historical epoch that would soon unfold.
The people of Baltimore began preparing for the attack they knew was coming. Baltimore’s protective Fort McHenry was readied for battle by its commander Major George Armistead.
   In the fort’s store, there was a giant forty-two foot flag, destined to be remembered forever. In 1813, with Hancock-like flourish, Armistead asked for a flag so large, “the British would have no trouble seeing it from a distance.” Flag maker Mary Young Pickersgill was hired to design and make it.
   The resulting banner had fifteen stars two feet across from point to point. Spaced in five rows of three, they proudly and brightly stood out on the flag’s royal blue field. The stripes were eight red and seven white, each two feet wide. The flag parts were cut from four hundred yards of wool bunting by Mary and her thirteen-year old daughter, Caroline. Finally sized at thirty by forty-two feet, the flag was much too large to be assembled in the bedroom where it was designed and cut. The local Claggett Brewery’s malt building’s floor was borrowed for laying out the parts and sewing them together. Completed in August 1813, the flag cost $405.90.
   History’s great moments usually come out of mundane events, so it was no great historic call that brought Francis Scott Key into the forefront of this American historical drama. He was asked to go on a mission to free Dr. Beanes, and dutifully he went.
   Key, a man of faith and an Episcopalian by persuasion, had practiced law in Washington since 1805. The well-known attorney had presented several cases before the Supreme Court. A veteran of the current war, he had served at the battle of Bladensburg, Kentucky.
   Hearing of Dr. Beanes’ capture, the locals feared for his life. Believing that the brutal British would string their favorite physician from a yardarm by his neck, they sought Key’s help. He accepted their call, and enlisted the aid of Colonel John Skinner, an experienced American agent for prisoner exchange.
   Having gained President Madison’s approval, Key and Skinner borrowed a sloop in Baltimore. Under a white flag of truce, they sailed toward the British fleet to find its flagship, Tonnant. On the seventh of September, they found the Tonnant and were allowed to board by British Commanders Admiral Alexander Cochrane.
   After Cochrane heard Key’s petition for Beanes’ release, he refused to free him. Key and Skinner then presented letters from wounded English soldiers still being held as American prisoners. In the letters, Dr. Beanes and their American captors were praised for the fair treatment English captives received. With a change of heart, Ross and Cochrane agreed to free Beanes. However, release was delayed pending the progressing British attack on Fort McHenry.
Because they had seen and heard too much about English battle plans and preparations, Key, Skinner and Beans were confined to their boat under guard. Placed behind the enemy fleet, some eight miles below Fort McHenry, they watched the twenty-five hour bombardment.
   Fort McHenry’s guns were deadly at close range. American cannon sank twenty-two English vessels that tested Yankee aim. For the final assault, English ships lay outside the fort’s range. On the morning of September 13th, promptly at seven, their bombardment began. The fort responded by flying the great flag and holding fire.
   During the next twenty-five hours, English ships fired over 1,500 shells at the fort, stopping the cannonading at dusk. Quiet prevailed until one o’clock the following morning. Shelling then began again with renewed intensity. Rain streamed through the dark sky to magnify the lights and colors flashing from British cannons, rockets, and bombs.
   Ordinance of the era included erratic rockets fired from special small boats. Cannons lobbed two hundred pound fused bombshells. Throughout the night, rockets followed by red, wavering trails glared in the rain. Unreliable fuses caused many bombshells to explode in midair. It was a spectacular show.
   The three American prisoners anxiously endured a sleepless night. Continual shelling was a sign the fort had not surrendered. Several hours before daybreak, the bombardment stopped. The foreboding quiet implied a fearful message. Imagining that the fort had fallen, Key, Skinner, and Beanes waited for daylight to look for the flag. Unknown to them, the British had abandoned their attack, and ordered a retreat, because of diminishing ammunition supplies.
   As the dawn broke, Francis Scott Key looked to the fort for the one sign that would tell the battle’s outcome. It was there. The giant flag was still there.  Fort McHenry stood defiant and undefeated. Inspired by relief and joy, Key took paper from his pocket and began writing the poem that would become “The Star Spangled Banner.”  He closed It with his statement of faith, “this be our motto; ‘in God is our trust!’”
   Key’s poem was published in the Baltimore Patriot’s September 20, 1814 issue. There it was suggested the poem could be sung to the tune of an English song, “Anacrean in Heaven.”  Publicly performed to great acclaim in October of that year, its popularity was insured forever.  Both the Army and the Navy adopted the song as their unofficial national anthem.  Official acceptance of Key’s poem as America’s national anthem was completed by Congress on March 3, 1931.
   The great motto and statement of faith, “In God We Trust” was a little slower gaining public attention. During the dark days of the Civil War, both North and South hoped for God’s mercy and protection. Each side wanted to believe their cause was in God’s will.  Trusting in God was important to the people in those times. Honoring God was thought to be the source and requirement for national strength and success.
   The Union cause fared poorly during 1861.  On the thirteenth of November of that year, a minister of the gospel from Pennsylvania wrote of his concerns to the government. In a letter to Samuel Chase, then Secretary of the Treasury, The Rev. Mr. M. R. Watkinson wrote, “One fact touching our currency has hitherto been seriously overlooked. I mean the recognition of the Almighty God in some form on our coins.”
   Chase agreed. That same week, in a letter dated November twentieth, he wrote to Mint Director, James Pollack: “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...words possible this national recognition.”
   By December, Pollack offered Chase designs for three new coins along with two suggested mottoes. These were “Our country; our God” and “God, our Trust.”  Chase approved but offered suggestions to amend the statements.
   He replied, “I approve your mottoes, only suggesting that on that with the Washington obverse the motto should begin with ‘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.’”
   On April 22, 1864, Congress passed an act authorizing “In God We Trust” to be struck on a new bronze two-cent piece. The following year, on the third of March, Congress passed an act permitting the motto to be used on any other coins having enough space for it.  Finally, in 1955, Congress ordered it put on all United States’ currency.
   In our times, “The Star Spangled Banner” is honored as the expression of our nation’s heritage and confidence in its destiny.  Standing with hands over hearts, and often with tears in their eyes, Americans sing it often with reverence and joy.
   The motto causes a different reaction. It is received in silence, contemplated in private, and most often ignored.  Rarely read in public, it is only occasionally mentioned by those who are seldom out of its presence. But what does it mean? What does it mean to trust God? How can a group of people with diverse religious beliefs affirm as a nation that we trust God both individually and collectively?  What did Key mean when he wrote it?
   Are we using the motto on our currency as a magic talisman, agreeing with Samuel Chase, “No nation can be strong except in the strength of God, or safe except in His defense?” Does the motto express a personal faith that we believe is somehow collectively held by all Americans?
   A recent Gallop poll showed that ninety-six percent of us believe in God or a “Universal Spirit.”  No data is available revealing what percent actually do trust in God.  Almost ninety percent say religion is important in their lives. In some way, this ninety percent do trust in God.  Fearing ridicule, few make public faith expressions. Most Americans seem to have a quiet kind of limited trust from their personal and private faith. “In God we trust” remains a proper American national motto, even though trust is too often a last resort, and not an “around the clock” life style.

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