Did you know that the United States once had a coin with a denomination of two cents?
It’s true, the coin was the Shield Two-Cent piece minted from 1864 to 1873. Unfortunately, this coin is one of the shortest-lived and least successful U.S. coins in America’s history. The United States Mint produced it for only ten years and each year the mintage continued to decline, reflecting steadily falling public interest. Yet, despite its failure as a medium of exchange, the Shield two-cent piece made one singular and enduring contribution to our nation’s coinage history, it was the coin that introduced us to the motto “IN GOD WE TRUST”.
Believe it or not, the motto and the coin itself were both direct results of the Civil War. By the end of 1862, with the Civil War nearing the end of its second year, virtually all U.S. government coinage had vanished from circulation due to hoarders and speculators, not to mention millions of just plain frightened Americans. A lot of people of the time had set aside every coin they could get their hands on, including gold coins and silver pieces along with base-metal issues. Some entrepreneurs came up with shrewd replacements such as cent-sized bronze tokens, generally bearing an implied or even explicit promise of redemption in goods, services, or money. These I.O.U. coins or so-called “Civil War tokens” soon gained broad acceptance as a valuable money substitute.
These Civil War tokens’ success came as a revelation to the U.S. Mint. Up to that point, it was assumed that Americans would not tolerate money or money substitutes with such small intrinsic value. These tokens proved otherwise, so the Mint began preparing a modified one-cent piece modeled after these wartime emergency pieces, a cent that would retain the new and popular Indian Head design but on a slim, bronze planchet instead of the thick, copper-nickel one then in use. At the same time, Mint officials started giving serious thought to a two-cent piece of similar composition, reasoning that this would alleviate the coin shortage even faster. In December of 1863, Mint Director James Pollock wrote to Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase recommending the issuance of a two-cent piece in a French bronze. This was the same alloy chosen for the slimmer Indian cent. Pollock submitted two proposed designs, both by Chief Engraver James B. Longacre, who had also designed the Indian cent. The first bore the head of George Washington and the second depicted a shield and arrows. Pollock and Chase both favored the second design.
Up to this point, no U.S. coinage had carried a reference to any supreme being. But that was about to change, largely due to the strong religious passion born of the Civil War. You see in 1861, a Baptist minister, the Reverend Mark R. Watkinson of Pennsylvania, wrote a letter to Secretary Chase urging that provision be made for “the recognition of the Almighty God in some form on our coins.” Watkinson stated, “This would relieve us from the ignominy of heathenism and place us openly under the Divine protection we have personally claimed.” Clearly, Treasury Secretary Chase had taken this appeal to the heart and specified the inclusion of some such inscription on the two-cent piece.
Interestingly enough, Watkinson didn’t come up with the words “IN GOD WE TRUST”. In fact, on the first trial of the two-cent piece, the motto “GOD OUR TRUST” appeared. Other options for the motto included “OUR GOD AND OUR COUNTRY” and “IN GOD IS OUR TRUST”. Numismatic scholar Walter Breen theorized that the final form was influenced by the motto of Chase’s alma mater, Brown University: IN DEO SPERAMUS, a Latin phrase meaning “In God, we hope.” However it happened, IN GOD WE TRUST was the version picked in the end. Congress didn’t stipulate the motto in the legislation authorizing the two-cent piece, which won passage on April 22, 1864. That law simply gave Treasury officials discretionary authority concerning inscriptions on the nation’s minor coins. On March 3, 1865, this authority was extended to gold and silver coins, and, for the first time, “IN GOD WE TRUST” was specifically mentioned. However, the use of the motto wasn’t mandated, until 1908, and even at that point, the order applied only to gold and silver coins. It wasn’t until 1955 that Congress enact legislation requiring the inscription to be placed on all U.S. coins.
On the two-cent piece, IN GOD WE TRUST is clearly displayed on the ribbon above the shield on the obverse and the date appears directly below the shield. The reverse bears a simple wreath using wheat stalks that surround the statement of value—2 CENTS—and encircling the wreath bears the UNITED STATES OF AMERICA.
Interestingly, Americans were starved for coinage of any kind and readily embraced the two-cent piece when it first appeared in 1864. That year also witnessed the highwater mark for the coin’s production, with nearly 20 million business strike examples being made. Output was relatively high in 1865, as well, topping 13.6 million. However, both acceptance and mintage levels both fell off dramatically after the war and as other coins began to reappear in circulation. Fewer than 3.2 million pieces were struck in 1866 and, by 1870, production plunged below the one million mark. Business strikes hit rock bottom in 1872 when the Mint issued only 65,000 pieces for circulation.
In 1873, the coin’s final year, there were only proofs. In all, the Mint produced just over 45.6 million business strikes and slightly more than 7,000 proofs. Because of its small size and absence of great rarities, this is a set that even collectors of modest means have a realistic chance of completing by date-and-mint (especially considering that only one mint—Philadelphia—produced this coin). In practice, though, many settle for collecting the series by type alone. Although it is unusually short and doesn’t include a single branch mint issue, the two-cent series does contain some interesting varieties. The best known are the Small Motto and Large Motto issues of 1864. On some of that year’s two-cent pieces, “IN GOD WE TRUST” has noticeably smaller and fatter lettering. These Small Motto pieces are considerably scarcer than their Large Motto counterparts and command much higher premiums in every grade level.
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There also is a scarce and valuable 1867 doubled-die error, and the proof-only 1873 issues come in two varieties, with a Closed 3 and an Open 3 in the date. Two-cent pieces are readily available in grades up to Mint State-65 and Proof-65, but supplies dwindle sharply above that level. Mint state pieces command higher premiums when they are fully red in color.