America's Two Cent Coin

Minted for only 10 years, the unusual American two cent coin was actually the first to carry the motto In God We Trust.

The Civil War shook the United States to its very foundations, right down to the penny. Initially expected to be a short war, when fighting dragged into its third year, worried Americans began to hoard their gold and silver and copper coins to protect themselves against an uncertain future. By 1863 virtually all coins had disappeared from general circulation.

To combat the coin shortage, American businessmen produced a cheap bronze token which could be used as a money substitute. Officials in the United States Treasury took notice. For the first time, it was realized that the American people would not reject coins that did not contain enough precious metal to redeem its face value. Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase set out to retool America's minor coins as convenient exchange pieces rather than receptacles for valuable metal.

Operating under the shortages of raw materials caused by the Civil War, Chase proposed a two-cent coin. Congress had considered a two-cent piece in 1806 and 1836 but it had been rejected as an easy mark for counterfeiters. Now the country needed coins and the two-cent piece was rapidly ushered into circulation.

Prior to this time, no United States coin had contained any reference to a supreme being. But with American men and boys dying by the thousands every week the country was rapidly acquiring an increasingly religious patina. In a letter dated November 13, 1861, the Revered M.R. Watkinson, Minister of the Gospel from Ridleyville, Pennsylvania wrote Secretary Chase urging "recognition of the Almighty God in some form on our coins."

Several slogans were considered. The Chief Engraver of the United States Mint in Philadelphia, James Barton Longacre, submitted two designs for the two-cent piece; the first with a portrait of George Washington and the motto GOD AND OUR COUNTRY. The second bore a simple shield with the words IN GOD WE TRUST. Both featured the denomination "2 Cents" within a wheat wreath on the reverse side.

His latter design was adopted and IN GOD WE TRUST appeared on an American coin for the first time. Even though it wasn't mandated by Congress, IN GOD WE TRUST has appeared on virtually every American coin since. With the disappearance of the buffalo nickel in 1938, it has appeared on every coin and, in fact, was so mandated by Congress in 1955.

Nearly 20 million two-cent coins were minted in its first year, 1864, and the coin was very popular. But the two-cent piece was very much a product of the Civil War. When the war ended, the old coins came out of hiding and its popularity waned. The Mint stopped production in 1873, one of the shortest runs for an American coin in history. Within a decade, the two-cent piece had become a Civil War curiosity.

The two-cent coin also had nothing to do with the saying "put my two cents in" for stating one's opinion. That old chestnut has its derivation in the game of poker when the placing of an ante to begin play was known as "putting my two bits in."

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