Theodore Roosevelt and the National Motto

If our past presidents went to high school with each other, Teddy Roosevelt would have been voted “Most Likely to Become a Mythical Hero.” Seriously, that guy is the Chuck Norris of the early 20th century.

Exhibit A in this case would be that picture of T.R. riding a moose. Okay, so it’s actually a fake–I trust you to Google it for yourself. Still, his image allows for that kind of exaggeration. I have infected at least one American History class with my mythical revision of the charge up San Juan Hill–let’s just say my version had more motorcycle exhaust than the real one would have had. I’m joking, obviously, but Roosevelt was one of those larger-than life figures. 

The downside of his public image is that some details of his presidency can get overlooked. He is well known for saying “speak softly and carry a big stick,” but why he insisted on being so quiet while brandishing a piece of wood is usually forgotten.

Here’s a fun fact: Theodore Roosevelt didn’t like the idea of putting the national motto, “In God We Trust,” on our money.

In a letter written in 1907 (which is archived here), he explained his reasoning. Again, I trust you to read this for yourself. 

The issue of the motto could easily be revisited today, and Roosevelt’s letter prompts some good questions (which I will pose without fully answering). 

Should “In God We Trust” be our motto in the first place? If the answer is yes, the question should be why. Many say that answer is because we are a Christian nation, which leads me to the next question. 

Is such a motto true of America? I would wager most of those in support of this motto would also say that America is actually not trusting God at all, if such a thing can even be said of a government. But even if we can presuppose the existence o a “Christian” nation, there is one last question. 

Is it not ironic that this motto should be put on money? One of Roosevelt’s issues was that the motto becomes trivialized when put on money. Most of our money isn’t exactly used for, well, let’s just say “Christlike” activities. Some guy making it rain on some strippers isn’t quite living up to our national motto; stacks of cash used to buy drugs or prostitutes reduce a powerful statement to mere ink on paper. 

I don’t claim the final word on this, nor do I want to start a fight. I find Roosevelt’s reasoning interesting. He was opposed to the motto not because the mention of God was offensive to people, but because the motto’s location was offensive to God. 

Teddy hit me with that idea like a big stick…and I didn’t even hear him coming!


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