Liberty First: What an Old Coin Can Teach Us

My dad’s half dime

W.J. Astore

When I was a kid, I was a stamp collector.  My dad, in contrast, saved old coins.  He was not a collector; he didn’t file them away in special folders. He just tossed old silver coins into a cigar box.

My favorite coin of his was also the oldest one he had: a “half dime” from 1845.  To me, it’s a remarkably simple and aesthetically pleasing design, featuring a seated figure of “Liberty” on the obverse, with the words “Half Dime” on the reverse.

half dime

Note what’s missing: the words “In God We Trust.”  This motto was not added to coins until the national trauma of the U.S. Civil War reinforced religious revivals that had preceded that war.  It made its first appearance in 1864.  (Interestingly, in the “Pledge of Allegiance,” the words “under God” were added only in 1954 during another crisis, the fear of communism stoked by McCarthyism during the Cold War.)

As a nation it seems we invoke God during crises, calling on Him for support and guidance and blessing.

But I want to return to my dad’s half dime from 1845, because that coin, in its simplicity, enshrines a value that is most fundamental to our country: Liberty.

With respect to religion, liberty to me means the freedom to worship God in one’s own way, to include the freedom not to worship God, even the freedom to express disbelief in God.

Such liberty was extremely rare in the 18th century when our nation was founded.  Back then, being labeled an “atheist” was roughly equivalent to being labeled a “terrorist” today.  But our nation’s founders were of diverse religious persuasions, to include Catholics and Quakers as well as myriad branches of “dissenting” Protestantism.  A few were deists (Thomas Jefferson most famously) who rejected the Trinitarian Christianity of most of their peers, and a small number (Thomas Paine, perhaps) were skeptics to the point of atheism.

What united them was a belief in liberty.  In religion, this was expressed as the freedom to worship in any way you chose, or not to worship at all.  Thus there was no religious “test” for office, no requirement to be a Christian or to express a belief that “In God We Trust.”

That profound belief in personal freedom — in liberty first — is captured on my dad’s old coin.  It’s also captured in the Pledge of Allegiance before 1954: “one nation indivisible with liberty and justice for all.”

In today’s political climate, with all of our public prayers and calls to God to bless America, with talk of Muslims not being allowed to hold office because their god is somehow the wrong god, we need to recall that America was founded on Liberty first.

Or as my mom put it in her inimitable way, “You worry about your soul and I’ll worry about mine.”  Jefferson and Paine would have liked my mom.


5 thoughts on “Liberty First: What an Old Coin Can Teach Us

  1. Your sentiments on liberty in America without embedding religion directly are undoubtedly accurate.

    However, including, “Muslims not being allowed to hold office because their god is somehow the wrong god” is misplaced. Let’s look a facts and history in the 20th Century regarding Islam in Turkey which does not have a record of tolerance to other religions, including today. Also Islam embraces government with its precepts, so it is more than a religion it is governing as well.

    This is not to say there is an open ban on other religions in Islamic countries, however, the restraints of government and society will not permit its growth. Some Islamic countries have allowed small numbers of other religious faiths for business interests or in the case of Iran where there was historically tolerance for Armenians, who were among the first people to adopt Christianity as a national religion in Armenia, which formerly encompassed eastern Turkey.

    Finally, Islamphobia is not U.S. government policy, therefore to insert it brings the prospect of fear mongering. The conduct of criminals towards someone’s religion does not represent a nation.


  2. Last Saturday Antonin Scalia addressed a (Catholic) high school and told the students this: ‘In his brief remarks, Scalia said that the principle of religious neutrality has been twisted by jurists since the 1970s to mean that traces of religion must be banished in favor of a purely secular public square. He called that idea “absurd.”

    This from a jurist who ruled in the Hobby Lobby case that religious convictions held by certain business orders may dictate reproductive decision options for employees, effectively forcibly inserting (privileging) more than a mere trace of particular religious doctrinal beliefs into the public square and beyond, directly down the throats of affected employees.

    Meanwhile, as has always been the case since 1789, anybody at any time still may stand on his own property and shout any religion-related thought that emanates from his fevered brain. He may also do this in the municipal park in his community, the edge of some sections of streets where there is sufficient right-of-way, sidewalks not adjacent to businesses, even government grounds. If there have been judicial rulings that limit this, I am unaware of them. The scope of any such rulings is certainly extremely circumscribed, I should think, and would it not be exceedingly likely that Justice Scalia would — given the pop-off proclivity he exhibited before these students — have boasted about any pending case where he could flex his impartial (sic) judicial muscles on the matter?

    What I hear from his speech, and I acknowledge he did not use these exact words — those on the Christian Right with theocratic tendencies are few who employ direct, unequivocal language — is that legal challenges to Christian privilege regarding artifact displays on publicly funded property, and certain non-secular behavior by public employees, brought by FFRF and the ACLU among others, prevail over theocracy in judicial rulings. And Antonin does not like this one bit better than his Baptist sidekick Judge Roy Moore.

    The comments at the linked source I placed above do not include anything readers of this blog have never before heard, but cover other things I would have otherwise wanted to say.


  3. Very interesting! I had no idea there’d ever been a “half dime” coin–predecessor, I presume, to the nickel. Nice irony, the minting date of 1845. The young USA was either on the brink of or already engaged in a war to impose its notions of “liberty” on the inhabitants of Mexico, whose borders of course extended far north of the Rio Grande at the time. To say nothing of the still totally legal institution of chattel slavery. But the most important point I wish to make here is that, “in theory,” the right to hold one’s religious beliefs and worship practices STOPS at the border, if you will, of another person’s civil liberties. And that includes the freedom of non-believers to NOT be subjected to tablets depicting The Ten Commandments, etc., on taxpayer-funded (that is, government) property. The degree of success the Religious Far-Right has enjoyed in eroding these principles upon which the nation was allegedly founded absolutely sickens me. The “wall of separation between church and state” was long ago reduced to a slice of Swiss cheese, and the holes keep growing bigger. IMPEACH ANTONIN SCALIA!!!


    1. Obviously, Greg, we had to liberate the Mexican territories from those pesky Mexicans. Hence “Liberty.” 🙂


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