The lowly penny and the $5 bill are dedicated to the quintessential American icon, Abraham Lincoln.
Our 16th president preserved the Union through the catastrophic carnage of the Civil War. By his assassination, he fulfilled his own poetic prose, by giving his “last full measure of devotion” as he strove to heal his fractured nation’s wounds “with malice toward none and charity for all.”
Although many remember Lincoln’s sublime rhetoric, most have forgotten one of his most ubiquitous legacies.
Take a look at a Lincoln penny. It seems almost worthless in our era with a national debt of a “score” of a trillion dollars. (Let’s hope Congress solves the problem long before it becomes “four score” trillion.)
That humble coin (as well as all our currency) bears the national motto, “In God We Trust.” Have you ever wondered how those words got there?
Salmon P. Chase, Lincoln’s secretary of the treasury, proposed the national motto be placed on American coins. According to House Speaker Schuyler Colfax’s eulogy for Lincoln, this became the president’s last official act.
Just before he was assassinated, Lincoln signed into law Congress’ legislation, which passed on March 3, 1865. Although Lincoln had throughout his life struggled with depression and doubt, in his last act he called on Americans in their daily acts of commerce to trust in God.
A day after Congress passed the bill, in his Second Inaugural Address, Lincoln openly manifested trust in God. He declared, “The Almighty has His own purposes.” Lincoln appealed to “the providence of God,” insisting that “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”
He committed himself to “firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right.” By his signature on Congress’ bill, from an idea proposed by Chase, he made trust in God a prominent feature of American life.
Little did he know that his life would be cut short.
On April 14, 1865, John Wilkes Booth’s .44-caliber Derringer delivered its fatal blast. Lincoln died the next morning, on April 15.
In an accident of history, ever since 1954, Tax Day has been April 15 (except when it falls on a weekend or holiday, like this year). Thus, for more than 60 years, the day of Lincoln’s demise has normally been the day that the federal government collects (or confiscates) Lincoln pennies, Lincoln bills and a whole lot more. Taxpayers often feel like they have given more than their “last full measure of devotion.”
So on Tax Day this year, remember Honest Abe, his final official act and ask if we still trust in God as a nation. If we’ve forgotten Lincoln’s date of death and his final official act, it’s not surprising that in our national amnesia we may have forgotten God, too.
This would be no surprise to Lincoln.
On March 30, 1863, in the midst of the war, Lincoln joined Congress in calling for a day of prayer and fasting. He declared:
“We have grown in numbers, wealth, and power, as no other nation has ever grown. But we have forgotten God. … Intoxicated with unbroken success, we have become too self-sufficient to feel the necessity of redeeming and preserving grace, too proud to pray to the God that made us!”
Look again at Lincoln’s visage on the penny. Give thanks to God for his leadership. Give thanks, too, that you’ve made enough this year to have to pay taxes.
And, if you can, declare with Lincoln, “In God We Trust.”
Lillback is the president of the Providence Forum in King of Prussia, Penn. He wrote this for the Philadelphia Inquirer.