Two Cents

From a practical standpoint, the two-cent piece was one of the least successful coins in U.S. history: The United States Mint produced it for only ten years, and each year the mintage declined, reflecting steadily falling public interest in the coin. Yet, despite its failure as a medium of exchange, the two-cent piece made a singular and enduring contribution to the nation’s coinage history, for this was the coin that introduced the motto IN GOD WE TRUST. The motto and the coin itself were both direct results of the Civil War.

By the end of 1862, with the war in its 21st month, virtually all U.S. government coinage had vanished from circulation; hoarders and speculators—joined by millions of just plain frightened Americans—had set aside every coin they could get their hands on, including not only gold and silver pieces but also base-metal issues. Inventive entrepreneurs came up with a clever replacement: cent-sized bronze tokens, generally bearing an implied or even explicit promise of redemption in goods, services or money. These so-called “Civil War tokens” soon gained broad acceptance as a useful money substitute.