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2-cent ‘God’ motto symbol of wartime hope
By R.W. Julian
September 26, 2017

At the present time the Mint is striking cents and nickels at a loss. Coupled with their low purchasing power there, have been suggestions that these two denominations be eliminated. However, one would think that a two-cent piece of aluminum could be made that would serve the marketplace. This denomination once was useful and could be again. The story of this little-known coin began early in the 19th century.

During the presidency of Thomas Jefferson, there was a proposal before Congress to create a two-cent piece. This 1806 suggestion met with strong opposition from the Mint and soon found itself no longer being considered. However, the matter was again raised in 1835 when Treasury Secretary Levi Woodbury, at the request of President Andrew Jackson, promoted the idea as part of an overall reorganization of the coinage.

Because the Treasury was firmly behind the two-cent piece, it was more difficult for Mint Director Robert M. Patterson to oppose the idea. Dies were cut by Christian Gobrecht and the necessary patterns duly struck. However, because Woodbury wanted to produce a billon coinage (a combination of silver and copper, but mostly copper), Patterson was able to scuttle the project by also striking pieces in pure copper and defying anyone to distinguish between the two.

In 1850, due to a shortage of silver coins in the marketplace, there was consideration of a two-cent piece in silver. It was soon realized that such a coin would be too small and Congress eventually decided on the three-cent silver (trime). However, in a few years events would create a need for a coin worth two cents.

As early as June 1862, due to the American Civil War, all of the coined gold and silver had left circulation to be hoarded or exported abroad. The only coins now left for the public were the copper-nickel cents, first struck in 1857; some of the old large copper cents were still in use, but they were seen less and less as the war progressed.

By late 1862 the public had begun to hoard the cent pieces, and the Mint was hard pressed to provide even these coins to the public. During 1863 the Mint began to fall further and further behind as it was often many weeks before an order for cents could be filled. Mint Director James Pollock not only had trouble striking the cents fast enough, but by late in 1863 it was becoming increasingly difficult to find sufficient supplies of nickel for the coinage.

Even though the government cents were hoarded by the public as early as 1862, this is not to say that the marketplace was entirely without coinage. Private minters began striking cent-sized Civil War tokens in late 1862, and by the summer of 1863 this had become a veritable flood. The private pieces, however, were made of copper or bronze, not copper-nickel as in the official coinage.

Many of these Civil War tokens were put into circulation by businesses, who placed their names on the tokens, but others were patriotic in nature and could not be traced back to the issuer. These “storecards,” as the private issues are sometimes called, performed yeoman service for the public and meant that “coins” were at least available, even if not issued by the Mint.

All of this activity was not lost on Mint Director Pollock. As early as the summer of 1863, he began encouraging Treasury officials to sponsor legislation creating a cent and two-cent piece from a bronze alloy rather than copper-nickel. (The bronze alloy was also known as French bronze and was composed of 95 percent copper and 5 percent tin and zinc.) It was a good suggestion but not very practical from a political viewpoint.

In 1863, Joseph Wharton owned a Pennsylvania nickel mine, the only one of importance in North America. He obviously had a vested interest in seeing to it that nickel remained in the coinage, regardless of the problems this created in the marketplace. Wharton had powerful allies in Congress and every attempt during 1863 to introduce bronze coinage met with strong resistance.

Despite setbacks in Washington, Pollock ordered Chief Engraver James B. Longacre to prepare dies for a two-cent piece. By the end of November, several dies had been prepared and combined in various ways to strike the appropriate patterns; in early December, specimens were sent to Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase for his consideration.

For the obverse there were two basic designs: one with the head of George Washington and the other with an ornamental national shield. The reverse carried the value inside of a wreath. The shield obverse had a variation for the motto “In God We Trust,” which also appeared as “God Our Trust.” The Washington obverse carried “God and Our Country” as its motto.

The motto was the result of increased religious sentiment during the Civil War. (One is reminded of the old saying: “There are no atheists in foxholes.”) Reverend Mark Watkinson of Ridleyville, Pa., had written a letter to the Treasury in 1861 suggesting that, because of the war then raging, a religious motto be put on our coinage, and this idea struck a receptive chord with Treasury Secretary Chase.

During 1862, the Mint began to strike gold and silver patterns illustrating various forms of the motto. It was not until 1863, and the two-cent piece, that a motto appeared on a base-metal pattern.

Although Pollock pressed hard for the adoption of his bronze coinage scheme, official Washington seemed to have lost interest during the early weeks of 1864. Then in March, without warning, Secretary Chase threw the entire weight of the Lincoln Administration behind the plan. On April 22, the President signed the measure into law; Pollock now had his bronze cent and two-cent piece.

Because of popular prejudice against actual people appearing on the coinage, the Treasury and Director Pollock soon agreed that the ornamental national shield was the best obverse design. Chase was permitted by the April 22 law to choose the motto that appeared on the new coinage and he now decided that “In God We Trust” would grace the two-cent piece but not the cent; there was not enough room on the smaller coin.

Bronze cent coinage began around the middle of May 1864, but the planchets and dies for the two-cent piece were not ready until the very end of that month. Once striking began for the two-cent piece, however, it was very heavy and remained that way well into 1865. In 1864 alone, nearly 20 million two-cent pieces were struck for a coin-starved public. (The private tokens were declared illegal by the April 22 law, although they continued to circulate well into the 1870s.)

By accident, one of the pattern two-cent obverse dies was used for the regular coinage in June 1864. This obverse had the motto “In God We Trust” in smaller letters than appeared on the regular design. Collectors refer to the two varieties of 1864 coins as Small Motto and Large Motto pieces. The Small Motto two-cent pieces of 1864 are quite scarce and, according to the coin value guide in Numismatic News, are worth $355 in F-12 while a specimen in XF-40 is tabbed at a respectable $700. The Large Motto coinage of the same year is worth about $42.50 in XF-40, according to the same source.

The Mint continued to strike two-cent pieces at a heavy rate for the first six months of 1865. When the war ended, however, the coinage fell off dramatically, and the nearly 14 million pieces of 1865 were counterbalanced by just over 3 million in 1866.

The heavy coinages of the two bronze coins actually exceeded the capacity of the Philadelphia Mint to prepare its own planchets. In order to have the presses running at full capacity, a contract for cent and two-cent planchets was made with the Holmes, Booth, and Hayden company of Waterbury, Conn. During 1864 and 1865, this firm furnished a large number of such planchets, which enabled the Mint to strike all of the coins of these two denominations needed by the public.

The two-cent pieces of 1864-1869 are available at very reasonable prices. In G-4 the value is generally in the $10 to $15 range, but collectors are advised to pay a little more and obtain a decent specimen for their collections. Even in MS-60 the slightly scarcer 1869 is worth only about $145, a bargain considering that the mintage is a scant 1.5 million pieces. A comparable Lincoln cent would be worth many times that figure.

Part of the reason for the decreased demand for two-cent pieces in 1865 was not entirely due to the ending of the war. In March 1865, supporters of Joseph Wharton pushed through Congress a bill authorizing a three-cent piece of copper-nickel and these were coined in large numbers from mid-April 1865. In 1866, a nickel five-cent coin in the same metal was also authorized by the legislators and this further eroded the need for two-cent pieces.

By 1870, two-cent coinage had dropped to under 1 million pieces and continued to decline for the next three years. The year 1872 saw a mere 65,000 pieces struck, and there is some doubt that all of these were released to the public. The wartime demand had virtually evaporated due to heavy coinages of the three- and five-cent nickel coins.

Despite its low mintage, the 1872 two-cent piece in XF-40 is worth only about $1,000. This figure can be attributed to the fact that not all that many collectors specialize in such coins. In fact, most numismatists are content with a high-grade type coin, usually of 1864 or 1865. If the two-cent piece was to be struck again, however, the value of these earlier coins would go much higher.

Proofs exist of all dates from 1864 through 1873, but those of 1864 are the rarest. In Proof-65 the Small Motto 1864 coin is valued at $28,000, but the more normal proof value for most dates in Proof-65 is about $650. The 1873, which was issued in proof-only for collectors, has higher value in this grade ($3,200), but this is due to the fact that business strikes are not available and those who collect by date must have the proof version.

The 1873 proof two-cent piece has two varieties, the Open and Closed figure 3. This difference was due to Chief Coiner A. Loudon Snowden, who noticed that the closed figure 3 had the appearance of a figure 8 and asked the engraver to correct the problem. This was done, resulting in similar varieties for other denominations.

It has long been rumored that the Open 3 specimens of the two-cent piece were restrikes made in the years after 1873. This is not true, and the Open 3 pieces are simply those struck in February or March 1873 and which were not sold to collectors. Leftover pieces were then switched by Mint employees in late 1873 for full-weight two-cent pieces of other dates, and the 1873 proofs were clandestinely removed from the Mint.

In 1864, collectors had to obtain their proof two-cent pieces separately from the Mint as such pieces were not included in the regular sets until June 1864, and by that time most collectors had purchased their sets. After 1864, however, such pieces were included in the regular “silver” proof set, which included all coins from the cent to the silver dollar. Beginning in 1865, there was also a “minor” proof set that contained only the four base metal coins.

The end for the two-cent piece came in February 1873 when Congress passed a law codifying the Mint laws and making sweeping changes at the same time. As of March 31 of that year, several coins were then eliminated, including the two-cent piece.

Although the law abolished the two-cent piece in 1873, this did not mean that such coins suddenly were no longer used by the public. In fact, two-cent pieces were occasionally seen in commercial channels until after 1890, when they slowly faded from view.

The two-cent piece merits a better press than it now gets from the numismatic community. As a memento of the dark days of the Civil War, it deserves a home in all collections of U.S. coins.

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