Washington’s Mystery Firearm

Washington's Firearm

Dear Smithsonian Magazine Editor,

Your October 2019 edition of the Secrets of American History Smithsonian magazine contains an article by David Preston titled “New Evidence Young George Washington Started a War”. The cover image has an illustration by Tim O’Brien of a man resembling George Washington leaning with both hands on a firearm. The body of the article has an additional image by O’Brien showing what appears to be the same figure holding a smoking muzzle loader firearm. The firearms featured in these two illustrations suggest that Washington was carrying a musket, likely based on a circa 1742 Brown Bess Long Land pattern.

George Washington Smithsonian Magazine October 2019
Image 1: The Smithsonian magazine article illustrations of George Washington’s firearm and the likely 1742 Brown Bess model that the artwork is based on

The implication that Washington was carrying a musket during the French Indian war is unfounded and uncorroborated by any historical source and is almost certainly wrong. I would like to correct several misconceptions that the imagery and article imply. The evidence that I will present here is based on a combination of historical document review and the use of Artificial Intelligence-based video analytics. The analytics were used to analyze various physical objects belonging to Washington in addition to a large collection of images of period firearms.

Historical Records 
Based on historical records dating to 1755-1772, we can safely establish that Washington owned several long firearms. However, there is no evidence that he used a musket or a fusil. We know this from these sources:

  1. His diary details his purchase and use of more than one rifle
  2. His diary details his travels on the frontier with a rifle
  3. One of his letters indicates that he lent his rifle to another individual during the war and another correspondence suggests that he didn’t ever get it back
  4. His diary contains entries of his hunting excursions (most likely with a fowler)
  5. His diary details his use and ownership of a number of fowling pieces 
  6. Multiple letters indicate that Morgan’s rifleman were Washington’s pride and joy unit and attest to his affinity for military rifle use.

Firearms of the First President
Image 2: 1956 NRA The American Rifleman Magazine: a review of Washington’s historical firearm collection and the misidentification of the firearm in the Peale portrait as a musket (click image for larger view)

To emphasize the veracity of these historical records, we can reference the following events:

On July 19, 1754, after a failed expedition to oust the French from the areas of the Ohio River, Washington—the 22 year old commander of the American force—was forced to surrender at Fort Necessity. From the records of the weapons confiscated by the French, we know that there were “7 rifled guns” valued at £6 each.

Nearly two months after his surrender, on August 27, 1754, James Mackay, Washington’s comrade in arms wrote to him:

“I Shall take care that you Shall have your Rifle, but the man that has it hops that youl be So good as to gett him Some other Rifle for it, as you Was plasd to accquaint every person that whatever they Carried Should be their own and every person have payd for what ever they Returnd.”

From the context of the letter, it looks like Washington lent his rifle (not a musket or a fusil) to a soldier during the battle and was now trying to retrieve it.

In another example, Washington’s diary entry for March, 1770 shows that he was staying with his friend Robert Alexander. The two used to hunt together and on that occasion, he rode to “George Town” (a village eight miles upstream from Alexandria, Virginia) to pick up his rifle from the gunsmith John Yost for £6 and 10 shillings (about $1,500 in today’s currency). His preference for high quality firearm can be gauged from the fact that during the Revolution, Yost made rifles for American troops and invoiced them at £4 and 15 shillings each. So Washington paid almost a hundred percent premium for this custom-made rifle!

Three years later, on his 41st birthday, February 22, 1773, Washington’s dairy details his purchase of another rifle from Aaron Ashbrook for £4 and 15 shillings. Later that year, he had it repaired by Joshua Baker, a gun-maker in Frederick County, Virginia, who specialized in rifles.

According to the late Milton F. Perry the former curator of history at the West Point Museum, at the time of his death, Washington possessed around 19 pistols, three rifles, four muskets, and nine fowlers. The reason for owning these muskets could be explained through an August, 1748 advertisement published by Washington’s older brother Lawrence. In it, he referred to a runaway slave that stole “new soldier musket”. In similar fashion, it is possible that Washington’s muskets were part of the plantation armory and were used by his staff for general purpose security.

So, from documentary evidence, we have no reason to assume that Washington personally used long firearms other than hunting fowlers or rifles.

1740 Fowler
Image 3: A sample 75 ¾” long .65 caliber fowler circa 1750-1760 (George C. Neumann Collection Valley Forge National Historical Park)

Caliber and Powder Charge
One possible reason for Washington’s use of longer custom made firearms with smaller calibers (i.e. less than .75) could be attributed to the American emphasis on ball speed and distance. In Europe, hunting with guns was a luxury pastime reserved for the nobility. In America, on the frontier settlements, gun powder and lead were scarce and gun ownership and hunting skills were a question of survival. Children were introduced to firearms from an early age. Reverend Joseph Doddridge who grew up on the Virginia frontier wrote:

“A well grown boy, at the age of twelve or thirteen years, was furnished with a small rifle and shot pouch. He then became a fort soldier, and had his port hole assigned him. Hunting squirrels, turkeys and raccoon soon made him expert in the use or his gun…

Shooting at marks was a common diversion among the men, when their stock of ammunition would allow it; this, however, was far from being always the case. The present mode of shooting off hand was not then in practice. This mode was not considered as any trial of the value of a gun; nor, indeed, as much of a “test of the skill of a marksman. Their shooting was from a rest, and at as great distance as the length and weight of the barrel of the gun would throw a ball on a horizontal level.

Such was their regard to accuracy, in these sportive trials of their rifles, and of their own skill in the use of them, that they often put moss, or some other soft substance, on the log or stump from which they shot, for fear of having the bullet thrown from the mark, by the spring of the barrel. When the rifle was held to the side of a tree for a rest, it was pressed against it as lightly as possible,
for the same reason. Rifles of former times were different from those of modem date; few of them carried more than forty-live bullets to the pound. Bullets of less size were not thought sufficiently heavy for hunting or war.”

Another American innovation was the reduction of bullet caliber: the Brown Bess smoothbore army muskets averaged .75 of an inch. Many Pennsylvania long gun makers reduced the caliber to between .45 and .50. The smaller rounds made for major savings. Using one pound of lead, one could mold about 11 .75 caliber balls; for a .50, that figure would triple to 33.

The Europeans believed that a larger bullet was more lethal than a smaller one and so refused to downgrade the size of their rounds. It turns out, though, that the size of the round does matter, but the bullet’s lethality depends to a larger degree on the proportion of gunpowder charge to the size of the bullet. The American practice was to load half the weight of the bullet in powder.

Alexander Rose, in his excellent book: The American Rifle, explains this practice in the following way:

“[Using this ratio, an American smaller ball weighing 200 grains (1 gram = 15.43 grains) would be boosted by 100 grains of powder (6.5 grams), and a British ball of 400 grains, by the same 200 grains. Thus, a British shooter would load the same amount of powder as an American, but because the ball was much heavier, each grain would be forced to do more work. The projectile’s velocity and kinetic energy consequently suffered. So, what the smaller American ball lost by its lack of weight was made up by increased velocity of the higher powder ratio.]”

Imagery of Washington’s Long Firearm
Peale’s portrait of Colonel Washington is unique among the many paintings of eighteenth-century American field officers who are typically depicted with swords and not with long firearms.

George Washington by Charles Willson Peale Rifle
Image 4: The 40 year old Colonel George Washington in 1772 depicted by Charles Willson Peale. The painting shows a non-standard issue firearm that does not match any known Brown Bess musket or fusil pattern

George Washington 1855 Etching Print From 1772 Portrait By Charles Willson Peale-2 Engravering of George Washington by Forrest John 1814-1870 after  by Charles Willson Peale-3
Image 5:
Two Engravings of George Washington by Forrest John 1814-1870 after the portrait by Charles Willson Peale 1772. The slender stock, the ramrod thimbles, and the lack of a bayonet lug suggests that this a fowler piece.

One example of this trend is the 1821 painting by John Trumbull titled the “Surrender of British General John Burgoyne at Saratoga”. The group painting only shows two firearms: one a short carbine carried by Captain Seymour (the figure on horseback), and the other a long firearm held by Colonel William Prescott. Colonel Morgan—the rifle icon standing in front of Prescott in a white linen hunting frock—is seen holding a sword. Evaluating Prescott’s long fire arm in this painting suggests that this is also not a Brown Bess. Prescott was over 6 feet tall and from the proportions and height of the firearm in the image (the tip of the barrel reaches his mid face) it looks like his gun could possibly be a fowler or a rifle.

Surrender of British General John Burgoyne at Saratoga, New York on October 17, 1777
Image 6: The 1777 painting depicting General Burgoyne prepared to surrender his sword to General Gates (see painting legend here)

Prescott owned a sword and we have documentary evidence that he used it several times during the Battle of Bunker Hill, so the fact that he is featured in the painting with a long firearm must have had some contextual significance.

The shortage of long firearms in group and personal portraits of senior officers likely has to do with the subtle message that the subjects of paintings wished to convey. The presence of edged weapons such as the small sword or cavalry saber indicated military status and rank. Firearms were utilitarian tools. Throughout history, guns were associated with common soldiers and weren’t usually carried by officers in the field. The only time a gentleman officer looked through the sights of such weapons and pulled the trigger was when he was engaged in target practice, hunting, or shooting game.

Washington is probably one of few senior American or British officers who had such an affinity for long firearms and would thus prefer that it be incorporated into his portrait.

Surrender of Lord Cornwallis 1820
Image 7: Plenty of swords but not one firearm in sight.  The Surrender of Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown, October 19, 1781, by John Trumbull c.1820 (see painting legend here).

Alexander Rose provides the following explanation for Washington’s inclusion of a firearm as a prop in his portrait:

“The rifle is instead discreetly tucked away in the background, serving, it seems, as a reassuring symbol, for those in the know, that this individual, dressed in a uniform last donned two decades before, is one of them. So what was Washington telling his fellow Americans? The answer lies hidden somewhere amid the vast, remote American wilderness, An unconquered territory densely thicketed by forests, rumpled by towering mountain ranges, and watered by unbridgeable rivers.

For newcomers to this land, it was a terrifying place such as had not existed in Europe since the dark and cold days of the Neanderthals. It was the frontier… In the 1770s, for those staid Virginian planters sitting in the clubby House and reluctantly steeling themselves for the final showdown with London that would erupt at Lexington and Concord, that rifle in the Peale portrait symbolized something meaningful. Washington’s rifle was carefully calculated to prompt a certain reaction. It was a deliberate effort to capture the image of the frontiersman, then as now a halcyon icon of very American—or in the political context of the 1770s, anti-British—traits: doughty individualism, rugged self-reliance, and an independent spirit determined to defend hearth and home against the predations of outsiders.

By identifying himself simultaneously with the American frontiersman and with the professional soldier, Washington succeeded in squaring an obstinately round circle. One day, and that day was fast approaching, this feat would Lead to his unanimously approved elevation to commander in chief of the American forces for a war of independence.”

So, based the social trends and the preference for personal arms found in the period paintings and illustrations, we have no reason to assume that an American officer would carry a Brown Bess musket.

Senior Officers with Swords
Image 8:
Portraits of revolutionary war officers (both British and American) posing with swords

The Analysis of Washington’s Firearm
Considering the previous documentary and artistic evidence, I will argue that the firearm in the painting is not a standard military issue Brown Bess (as depicted in the Smithsonian article), but rather a custom made piece, most likely a fowler. Fowler or fowling arms were primarily used for hunting waterfowl during the 17th and 18th centuries. We know from historical records and museum specimens that these type of firearms saw action during the French Indian War and during the American Revolution with militias. The fowler was operationally similar to the musket but had a smaller caliber, was longer, and did not have a bayonet lug.

My argument that the firearm in the Peale painting is a fowler is based on the following:

  1. The key features of the firearm in the painting and several later lithographs of it do not match any known Brown Bess morphology.
  2. The edge of the wood stock closer to the barrel tip doesn’t have a foreend brass cap. It just tapers upwards toward the barrel.
  3. The tight fit of the ramrod next to the barrel doesn’t leave room for mounting a bayonet–which was a mandatory feature on the land pattern Brown Bess
  4. The diameter of the brass ramrod cap is close to the caliber of the barrel. This was not the case with the Brown Bess where the ramrod cap was noticeably smaller than the 0.75-0.76 range caliber
  5. The length of the firearm is about 65”-70”, much longer than the average 58” of the Brown Bess

Note on Firearm Uniformity
There are numerous variations in the models of 18th century military firearms. Individual items like the ramrod composition (wood/brass/steel), the use of belt hooks, the geometry of the stock and thimbles could be different for each production batch by the same gunsmith. There is a great deal of variation among samples of surviving firearms, even from the same year and shop. These differences are the result of not just eighteenth-century manufacturing processes but also deliberate choices made by individual gun makers and the incremental evolution of the firearm design.

Ferguson Rifle and the Brown Bass Patterns
Image 9:
Two Brown Bass musket patterns from c. 1755 and two c. 1776 Ferguson rifle patterns

The Analysis 
My strategy in trying to solve the question of Washington’s firearm involved the use the process of elimination. The rationale was that it would be exceedingly difficult—if not impossible—to precisely match the firearm in the painting, but relatively easy to eliminate the possibility that it was a Brown Bess.

My first step was to collect precise dimensions from the portrait itself and from at least one item depicted in it and then to try and determine the scale of the painting in order to confirm the accuracy of Peale’s rendition of the details. Once the scale was determined, I evaluated the caliber of the firearm muzzle: if it came up in the 0.75 range, then it could be a Brown Bess. Anything significantly below that caliber would indicate a rifle or a fowler.

Another measurement objective was to evaluate the overall length of the firearm. The Brown Bess standard length of the long land pattern was about 58”, so a length in excess of 60”-70” would eliminate the possibility that this was a standard issue British musket.

Brown Bess Patterns
Image 10: Samples of several Brown Bass patterns used in the analysis

As I was solving the painting scale problem, I also used an artificial intelligence video object classifier and detector to evaluate a large collection of images of period firearms. This was done in the hopes of finding a match or at least a close similarity.

Ram Rods
Image 11
: Sample of images of ramrods used for the machine learning training set

ML Fusils Muskets Fowlers and Rifles
Image 12: Sample of several hundred images of period long firearms used for the machine learning training set

Sample of evaluated Fusils, Muskets, and riles
Image 13: Sample of several hundred images of period long firearms evaluated in the analysis

Solving the Scale Problem
Luckily, both Washington’s portrait and his small sword survived and are kept at the Mount Vernon Museum in Virginia. The curators at the museum were exceedingly generous and accommodating to me and allowed me to visit and take precise measurements and high resolution scans of Washington’s small sword. I was also fortunate enough to acquire a high resolution scan of the restored Peale portrait.

Object in Peale's Painting
Image 14
: Various objects and their rough scale in Peale’s painting

Image 15: Collection of gorgets used for size estimation

After collating the field measurements, I then dimensioned all of the visible parts of the small sword in the portrait.  I focused on the ornaments, and details on the quillion, grip, knuckle guard, pummel, and button.

General Washington's Sword
Image 16: Dimensions taken directly from Washington’s short sword: courtesy of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association

Measurement Results
The analysis of the physical sword dimensions and its comparison to the sword depicted in the portrait indicate that Peale’s work was accurate to within 2 mm. This is quite incredible and a true testament to Peale’s artistic abilities.

Washington was about 6’-3” (75”) and as can be clearly seen in Peale portrait, the firearm—if rotated from slanted to vertical view—would be slightly shorter than his height. Using the paint scale vs. the actual scale, I concluded that the firearm caliber was in the range of .65 caliber and the firearm length was in the range of 70”.  As I suspected, the caliber was about 10% smaller than that of the Brown Bess, .75, and about 20% longer of the Brown Bess 58”.

Washington Portrait With Projeced Full Size Firearm
Image 17
: Projected length of gun using the scaled firearm and John Trumbull’s portrait dimensions for Washington’s body

Based on these evidence, I think that we can conclude that the firearm in the Peale portrait is not a Brown Bess and neither should it be depicted as one in the Smithsonian article.

Special thanks to Mrs. Amanda Issac, the Associate Curator at the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association for allowing me to photograph and take measurements of George Washington’s 1767 Silver-Hilted Smallsword. Credit: Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association

Special thanks to both Mrs. Rebecca Williams, the Museum Operations Assistant and Mrs. Patricia Hobbs, the Associate Director/Curator of Art & History Museums at Washington and Lee University for sharing a high resolution image of the portrait U1897.1.1, titled “George Washington as Colonel of the Virginia Regiment” (1772) by Charles Willson Peale. Credit: Washington and Lee University.

Special thanks to Mr. Less Jensen, the Curator of Arms and Armor at the West Point Museum for allowing me to photograph and measure the historical arms at the museum’s special collection. Credit: U.S. Army West Point Museum

References and Sourcing
XRVision Sentinel AI Platform – Face recognition, image reconstruction, and object classification

American Rifle: A Biography – Alexander Rose
Men of War: The American Soldier in Combat at Bunker Hill, Gettysburg, and Iwo Jima – Alexander Rose
Notes on the settlement and Indian wars of the western parts of Virginia and Pennsylvania from 1763 to 1783 – Joseph Doddridge, p123
Firearms in American History 1600-1800 – Charles Winthrop Sawyer
The History of Weapons of the American Revolution – George C. Neumann
The Flintlock Musket: Brown Bess and Charleville 1715–1865 – Stuart Reid, Steve Noon (Illustrator), Alan Gilliland (Illustrator)
Red Coat and Brown Bess – Anthony. Darling
Red Coat & Brown Bess. Historical Arms Series No 12 – Anthony D. Darling
The Brown Bess; An Identification Guide and Illustrated Study of Britain’s Most Famous Musket –Erik Goldstein, Stuart Mowbray
Thoughts on the Kentucky Rifle in its Golden Age 3rd Edition – Joe Kindig Jr
Firearms in American History – 1600 to 1800 – Charles Winthrop Sawyer
The Pennsylvania-Kentucky Rifle – Henry J. Kauffman
Kentucky Rifles & Pistols 1750-1850 – James R. Johnson

On-line Articles
Founders Online
– Correspondence and other writings of six major shapers of the United States
George Washington’s Gorget

The Virginia Gazette Sat Sep 9 1775 Morgan is in Town
Image 18: The Virginia Gazette Saturday September 9, 1775 discussing Captain Morgan’s and Captain Cresap’s rifleman arrival to Boston (click image for larger view)

Henry and John Yost Gunsmiths (Samuel Preston Adams IIINSSAR# 185382 Saramana Chapter SAR)

“John Yost, arms supplier, Georgetown, District of Columbia. On July 7, 1776, of that year he contracted to make 300 muskets at £4/5/0 each, and 100 rifles at £4/15/0 each. By the late summer of 1776 he had erected a horse mill for boring gun barrels in Georgetown, now in the District of Columbia.

On January 17, 1776, the Council of Safety requested information on furnishing and delivery of guns. On August 1, 1776, the Council of Safety concerning shipment of arms. On September 13, 1776, Yost wrote to the Council of Safety concerning the manufacture of guns.

On December 9, 1776, Yost wrote to the Council of Safety requesting monies. In 1776 Yost wrote to the governor, asking for payment on account for making muskets and rifles. [Maryland State Revolutionary War Papers]. On 10 August 1776, the Council of Safety paid “John Yost ,400 to enable him to manufac­ture good substantial Musquets”  [5 Amer Arch 1 at 1352]. 

On 3 March 1776, “Pay to John Yost £2/11/7 for repairing guns” [11  Md Arch 214]. On 23 May 1776, “Send the Musquets made by John Yost at Georgetown to Port Tobacco in Charles County”  [4 Amer Arch 5 at 1576].  John Murdock of Montgomery County to the Governor: “16 July 1781 “John Yost who has already repaired several public arms and is now employed about those you sent last to this county.” Murdock warned the governor that unless Yost was paid for work already done, and the state was much in arrears, he was going to stop work  [47 Md Arch 351-52].

During the War of American Independence, John and his brother Henry Yost of George Towne (now Georgetown, Washington, D.C.) manufactured muskets and bayonets for the American forces. Henry (Heinrich) and John (Johannes) Yost (Youst) entered into contract with the Revolutionary Committee of Safety as early as October 1775 to produce muskets and bayonets exclusively for the Continental Congress for one year. They committed themselves to delivering to Annapolis 75 muskets with bayonets by May 1776. But they ran behind, and by May 1 the weapons had not yet arrived in the capital of the Province of Maryland. Therefore, they received a letter admonishing them. They then committed themselves to producing not only the 75 weapons by May but to deliver an additional 25 each following month to Major Price of Georgetown.

They must have completed the first order by May 23, because Col. Beall was told on that day to deliver muskets produced by John and Henry Yost to the company stationed in Port Tobacco on the Potomac.”

George Washington to Daniel Morgan, June 13, 1777:

”Orders to Colonel Daniel Morgan [Middlebrook, N.J., 13 June 1777]


The Corps of Rangers newly formed and under your Command, are to be considered as a Body of Light Infantry and are to act as such, for which reason they will be exempted from the common Duties of the Line.

At present you are to take post at Van Veighters Bridg⟨e⟩ and watch, with very small scouting parties (to avoid fatiguing your men too much under the present appearance of things) the Enemy’s left Flank, and particularly the Roads leading from Brunswic towards Millstone, princetown &ca.

In case of any movement of the Enemy you are instantly to fall upon their flanks and gall them as much as possible, taking especial Care not to be surrounded⟨,⟩ or ha⟨ve your⟩ Retreat to the Army cut off.

I have sent for Spears which I expect shortly to receive and deliver to you, as a defence against Horse. Till you are furnished with these, take care not to be caught in such a Situation as to give them any advantage over you.

Given under my Hand at Head Quarters Middle Brook this 13th June 1777.”


Copyright 2020 Yaacov Apelbaum, All Rights Reserved.

In God We Trust

In God We Trust Signs

One of the pervasive proofs for the strong affinity between Judeo-Christian ethics and the role that these principles played in the formation of American political consciousness is the national motto “In God We Trust”. This inscription is engraved on our currency. It’s inscribed on the pediment above the Speaker’s podium in Congress. It’s featured on dozens of public buildings and schools across the country. It’s printed on police cars and stamps. It’s on official state documents and generously sprinkled throughout historical speeches. It’s placed over the judge’s bench in many of our courts and it’s even featured on license plates in several states. A 2016 Gallup poll found that the majority of Americans support this motto, with close to 90% of those surveyed saying they also approve of the inscription on our currency.

In God We Trust in Congress
Image 1: The “In God We Trust” motto in congress

Despite its ubiquity and popularity, this motto has been under attack and the subject of repeated challenges in court for the past 40 years. The leading argument has been that its use violates the first amendment clause of the constitution. The use of the motto has also been actively opposed by the majority of progressive civil liberties groups on ideological grounds.

Another leading contemporary argument against the use of the “In God We Trust” is the proposition that the founders were secularists who deliberately chose the Latin phrase E pluribus unum (from many to one) because they were political inclusivists who wanted to extract religious language and symbolism from state affairs. In this post, I’ll briefly review the history of the motto, it’s deep connection to the American psyche, and refute the secularist founders argument.

A Brief History of the ‘…Trust in God’ Phraseology  
More than two thousand years before the term made its way into our political iconography and phraseology it was already in wide circulation. The primary source for the phrase and its permutations is the Hebrew Bible. The term appears in a number of books including:

Psalm 40:4
And He has put a new song in my mouth, even praise unto our God; many shall see, and fear, and shall trust in GOD.
וַיִּתֵּן בְּפִי, שִׁיר חָדָשׁ–תְּהִלָּה לֵאלֹהֵינוּ:יִרְאוּ רַבִּים וְיִירָאוּ;יִבְטְחוּ, בַּיהוָה

Proverbs 3:5-6
Trust in GOD with all your heart, and lean not upon your own understanding.
בְּטַח אֶל-יְהוָה, בְּכָל-לִבֶּךָ;וְאֶל-בִּינָתְךָ, אַל-תִּשָּׁעֵן

Proverbs 29:25
The fear of man brings a snare; but who so putt his trust in GOD shall be set up on high.
חֶרְדַּת אָדָם, יִתֵּן מוֹקֵשׁ;וּבוֹטֵחַ בַּיהוָה יְשֻׂגָּב

Psalm 40:5
Happy is the man that has made GOD his trust, and has not turned unto the arrogant, nor unto such as fall away treacherously.
 אַשְׁרֵי הַגֶּבֶר–אֲשֶׁר-שָׂם יְהוָה, מִבְטַחוֹ;וְלֹא-פָנָה אֶל-רְהָבִים, וְשָׂטֵי כָזָב

Psalm 73:28
But as for me, the nearness of God is my good; I have made the Lord GOD my refuge, that I may tell of all Thy works. 
 וַאֲנִי, קִרְבַת אֱלֹהִים–לִי-טוֹב:שַׁתִּי, בַּאדֹנָי יְהוִה מַחְסִי;לְסַפֵּר, כָּל-מַלְאֲכוֹתֶיךָ

Psalm 118:8
It is better to take refuge in the LORD than to trust in man.
טוֹב, לַחֲסוֹת בַּיהוָה–מִבְּטֹחַ, בָּאָדָם 

During the English civil war, Oliver Cromwell’s army went into battle with banners adorned with a variation of the phrase including terms such as:

“Jehova [God] will provide”, “God with Us”, “God For Us”, “if God is With Us, Who Shall Be Against
Us”, “God’s Law”, and “The Word of God”

Crowell is also credited in an 1834 poem titled “Oliver’s Advice” with the phrase:
“Trust in God, my boys, and keep you powder dry”.

Oliver Cromwell In G-D We Trust
Image 1: June 14, 1645, Cromwell’s army marching to the Battle of Naseby (image from the 1970 movie Cromwell by Columbia Pictures)

In America, 125 years later, just prior to the revolution, there were a number of hymns and manuscripts that used this and similar terms. In the 1770 The New England Psalm Singer songbook which contained an hymn titled “Chester” by William Billings. In 1778, Billings wrote a second version of the hymn in his The Singing Master’s Assistant . This version was sung during the American Revolutionary War.

In God We Trust Up-Biblum God Cambridge 1663 & 1661 Early Bible Printing
Image 2: Early American bible titled “In God We Trust” printed in Cambridge in 1663

The first stanza of this hymn contained a verse similar to the motto we use today:

Let tyrants shake their iron rod,
And Slav’ry clank her galling chains,
We fear them not,
we trust in God,
New England’s God forever reigns.

Howe and Burgoyne and Clinton too,
With Prescot and
Cornwallis join’d,
Together plot our Overthrow,
In one Infernal league combin’d.

When God inspir’d us for the fight,
Their ranks were broke, their lines were forc’d,
Their ships were Shatter’d in our sight,
Or swiftly driven from our Coast.

The Foe comes on with haughty Stride;
Our troops advance with martial noise,
Their Vet’rans flee before our Youth,
And Gen’rals yield to beardless Boys.

What grateful Off’ring shall we bring?
What shall we render to the Lord?
Loud Halleluiahs let us Sing,
And praise his name on ev’ry Chord.

An example of a pre-revolutionary era manuscript that illustrates the co-dependency of the pre-republic on G-d is the July 1774 Draft of Instructions to the Virginia Delegates in the Continental Congress written by the future president Thomas Jefferson which contained the following lines:

“The God who gave us life gave us liberty at the same time”  and ”Can the liberties of a nation be secure when we have removed a conviction that these liberties are of God?”

A similar phrase “In God is Our Trust” can also be found in the 4th stanza of the 1812 broadside the “Defence of Fort M’Henry“, a poem that later became our national anthem “The Star-Spangled Banner”.

Defence of Fort M'Henry
Image 3
: Francis Scott Key’s poem the “Defence of Fort M’Henry”

The Need for a Religious National Motto
In 1776, work began on the design of the official seals for the new nation. The seal was to be used to formalize legal documents and international treaties. When John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson—the committee of three appointed to the task by the Continental Congress—submitted a design for the seal it included three mottos.

One of these three Annuit coeptis (G-d favors our undertakings) had an unmistakable religious tone. The other two: E pluribus unum (from many to one) and Novus ordo seclorum (new order of the ages) emphasized the republican aspects of the new nation. 

The motto “In God We Trust” began its rise to prominence as both a religious and political device during the Civil War. This was in response to the war’s carnage and horror following the terrible losses in the war’s first few months. According to US treasury documents, the genealogy of the motto on our currency can be traced back to an appeal written to Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase by Rev. Mark R. Watkinson, a Baptist minister from Ridleyville, Pennsylvania. In the letter dated November 13, 1861 Watkinson expressed concern about the absence of any reference to G-d on the country’s currency. He wrote:

Ridleyville, Pennsylvania, to Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase:

You are about to submit your annual report to Congress respecting the affairs of the national finances. One fact touching our currency has hitherto been seriously overlooked. I mean the recognition of the Almighty God in some form in our coins. You are probably a Christian. What if our Republic were now shattered beyond reconstruction? Would not the antiquaries of succeeding centuries rightly reason from our past that we were a heathen nation?

What I propose is that instead of the goddess of liberty we shall have next inside the 13 stars a ring inscribed with the words ” perpetual union” ; within this ring the all seeing eye, crowned with a halo; beneath this eye the American flag, bearing in its field stars equal to the number of the States united; in the folds of the bars the words “God, liberty, law.” This would make a beautiful coin, to which no possible citizen could object.

This would relieve us from the ignominy of heathenism. This would place us openly under the Divine protection we have personally claimed. From my heart I have felt our national shame in disowning God as not the least of our present national disasters. To you first I address a subject that must be agitated.

In January 1862, Rev. Watkinson followed with a second letter stating:

“Dear Sir:
Will you allow a few suggestions respecting the devices upon our American coins? Is it not a burning shame that this far in our national history our coins have been so thoroughly heathenish?

Suppose our governmental fabric were now dissolved [due to the civil war]; suppose in a future era some antiquary searching among the ruins of our public edifices, even of our churches, would alight upon the corner stone memorials of them; would he not justly pronounce us an idolatrous people, worshipping [sic] the “goddess of liberty;” and perchance pantheistic also, so far as to worship eagles?

Can God, the eternal arbiter of national destiny, have been pleased with this displacement and superseding of Himself?

As a result of a nationwide campaign and the appeals from clergy and multitudes of individuals, Secretary Chase instructed James Pollock, Director of the mint at Philadelphia, to prepare a befitting motto.

Rev. Watkinson second letter to the Secretary of the treasury Chase
Image 4
: Rev. Watkinson’s second letter to Secretary of the Treasury Chase

Finalizing the Motto’s Verbiage
In November 20, 1861, Chase addressed the following letter to James Pollock, Director of the Mint in Philadelphia:

Dear Sir: No nation can be strong except in the strength of God, or safe except in His defense. The trust of our people in God should be declared on our national coins.

You will cause a device to be prepared without unnecessary delay with a motto expressing in the fewest and tersest words possible this national recognition.

And on that with the shield, it should be changed so as to read: IN GOD WE TRUST.”

In December 1863, the mint Director Pollock submitted designs for new one-cent, two-cent, and three-cent coins to Secretary Chase for approval. Pollock proposed the following two motto variations:

“Our Country; Our God” and “God Our Trust”, which he took from a line (“And this be our motto: In God is our trust”) from the fourth stanza of the “Star-Spangled Banner”.  Interestingly, Pollock referred to the poem as “our National Hymn”. In a December 9, 1863 letter to Mint Director Pollock, Secretary Chase replied:

I approve your mottos, only suggesting that on that with the Washington obverse the motto should begin with the word Our, so as to read Our God and Our Country”

After some additional back-and-forth, the phrase was eventually finalized as “In God We Trust”. Legislation for adding the motto was passed in April 22, 1864, and US coinage widely adopted the motto in 1865.

The Ideology Behind the Motto
Creating the new motto was an exercise in religious nationalism. The war rekindled the flame of a religious revival in the North and South armies with both sides calling on G-d for guidance. When the Confederate States of America wrote their own constitution, its preamble read as follows:

“We, the people of the Confederate States, each State acting in its sovereign and independent character, in order to form a permanent federal government, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity—invoking the favor and guidance of Almighty God—do ordain and establish this Constitution for the Confederate States of America.”

Constitution of the Confederate States of America
Image 5: The preamble to the confederate constitution

Many northern clergy reacted to the confederate constitution by calling for the federal leaders in DC to make a similar religious statement.

The Steady Growth in the Motto’s Popularity
The motto was intended to deliver the message that the United States was a nation of believers, and it that spirit, it appeared on some of the coins in 1864, about a year before the end of the war.

But, not everyone celebrated the new phrase. The New York Times, in true character to its MO, campaigned against it calling it a “new form of national worship”, describing “such tract-printing by the government as “always improper” and asking Americans “to carry our religion—such as it is—in our hearts and not in our pockets”.

Five years after the war, the motto was added to other denominations and with the increased circulation it gained more popularity and made its way into everyday use. By the 1870s, many Americans were already referring to “In God We Trust” as “our nation’s motto”. Moreover, it quickly became associated not only with the country’s currency, but also with our political culture. By the 1880s, the slogan was adopted by many groups such as Masonic orders in decorating their lodges.

IN GOD WE TRUSTon the 1864 Two-cent piece
Image 6: First appearance of “IN GOD WE TRUST” on the 1864 two-cent piece

Further, Prohibitionists embraced it as an unofficial motto for their movement. Activists across the political spectrum from pacifists to nativists made use of it. Political parties utilized it to lend credence to their case. In the election of 1896, for example, with the free silver political debate, Bryan Democrats charged their Republican opponents with seeking to change “In God We Trust” to “In Gold We Trust”, while McKinley Republicans responded that if Bryan won, “In God We Trust” would mean only that the coin holder could “trust in God for the balance due”.

1896 McKinley & Hobart In Gold We Trust Badge
Image 7: 1896 McKinley & Hobart “In Gold We Trust” Badge

By the close of the nineteenth century, “In God We Trust” had taken on universal religious and political meanings. The motto’s character was embraced by all religious streams, Protestant,  Catholic and Jewish alike. In 1883, the Reverend William Harris of Garrison Avenue Congregational Church in St. Louis told a multi-congregation Thanksgiving Day service how “In God we Trust” was “stamped on the coins of our country” and how he “hoped to God the same motto was stamped upon the hearts of the American people”.

In the Reconstruction era, “In God We Trust” emerged as the common ground for national reconciliation. In less than fifty years since its creation, the new motto was as revered as the American flag and became the core of the American civil religion

In 1893, Boston’s Congregation Ohavei Sholom (the Lovers of Peace) marked its fiftieth anniversary with a celebration attended by the Mayor of Boston and the Governor of Massachusetts, featuring a sermon by Rabbi Joseph Silverman on America’s “liberty and good will” toward the Jewish people and the singing of a special hymn, titled “In God We Trust”, written for the occasion.

Removing the Motto from the Currency
Interestingly, the biggest challenge to the motto came not from atheists or a progressives but rather from a religious statesmen who had given several speeches urging the American public to read the Bible regularly. Theodore Roosevelt had long felt that placing G-d’s name on the currency was a sacrilege because it was an object of greed and materialism.

Roosevelt saw his opportunity in 1907 when a new coin was being designed. He directed the mint’s artist to omit the motto which had been on coins for over fifty years by that time. His decision would evoke heated debates across the country, uniting preachers, rabbis, politicians, and ordinary citizens around the meaning of the motto and its status as a sacred and secular symbol.

The debate only lasted a few months but in the process, Roosevelt become the the first and last national political leader to question the use of the motto. Roosevelt, attempting to emulate the elegance of European coins, instructed sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens to create new designs for the new ten- and twenty-dollar dollar currency. Saint-Gaudens suggested that extraneous inscriptions including “In God We Trust” be removed, and Roosevelt agreed. He then authorized the Director of the Mint to issue the coins without the motto. The first of these coins went into circulation in 1907, only to be met by immediate criticism.

Roosevelt tried to defend his action by releasing a letter in which he described “In God We Trust” as a sacred symbol, a “solemn” statement of faith that “should be treated and uttered only with that fine reverence which necessarily implies a certain exaltation of spirit.” He argued that it was appropriate to place the motto on the nation’s monuments and public buildings but not on anything as common as its currency. To “leave it on [the currency] would be nothing less than “irreverence, which comes dangerously close to sacrilege”. But that was too late, the flood gates of national consensus around the motto were wide open.

Among the first to take on Roosevelt were Presbyterian leaders who denounced the design of the new coin and condemned the President’s actions and called on “all Christian ministers” to join the “fight to the bitter end for the restoration of the old motto”. In Chicago, Catholic clergy were united in their stand against removing the motto. In Baltimore, a minister preaching a sermon opposing the change convinced his congregation to petition Congress to restore the inscription. In the South, Methodist conferences passed resolutions calling on the President to rescind his order and maintain the motto on the country’s coins. Most arguments for reinstating the motto were that it was a religious statement, a clear expression of America’s belief in G-d. To strip it represented forgetting and repudiating G-d and attacking American embrace of religion.

In demanding the motto’s return, many argued that its purpose on currency was to provide a spiritual disinfectant to the otherwise corruptible worlds of investment, commerce, and trade. Boston’s Rabbi M. M. Eichler wrote that the motto should be seen as a means to overcome the growing gap between “the domain of God and the domain of gold” by reminding everyone “that all blessings come from God”.

As the debates raged on, the motto gained the support of the general public. Its promoters became more emboldened as congregants began to express strong opposition to the President’s decision. Faith-based organizations such as the Gideons mobilized in support of the motto and were joined by an coalition of civic, patriotic, and veterans groups that included chapters of the Daughters of the American Revolution.

Finally, by 1908, Roosevelt realized his defeat and performed a strategic retreat, announcing that he would not veto any bill in congress to reestablish the motto on American currency.

At that point, the motto was set in stone. A House committee wrote a bill recommending that it be restored to the country’s coins. Charles G. Edwards (D-GA) wrote “the Methodist, the Baptist, the Presbyterian, the Catholic, the Hebrews, the Episcopal, in fact all churches, all creeds, who have a belief in God, are as one in the opinion that it was a great mistake to ever have removed this motto from our coins”. Washington Gardner (R-MI) spoke about the motto’s importance for national reconciliation. He wrote “We of the North join hands with you of the South and say, your God is our God, as your people are our people”.

In 1956, after 48 years of uninterrupted use, and two years after incorporating the phrase “under God” into the pledge of allegiance, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed a law officially declaring “In God We Trust” to be the nation’s official motto. The law, P.L. 84-140, also mandated that the phrase be now printed on all American paper currency.

Since the 1960, in spite of numerous challenges, the Supreme Court uphold the motto, which remains the official expression of US government to this day.

The Motto in the Post Modern Era
Through extensive litigation over recent years, the progressive movement has been promoting the argument that “In God We Trust” should not be our national motto because we have now become a pluralistic society.  

To all of you post modernists/revisionist cauldron stirrers hard at work boiling hedonistic atheism as the nourishment for the new American Socialist Democracy, you may want to go back and examine the primary sources from the Revolutionary era. These days, much is being said about the separation of church and state and the removal of G-d from all public life. But as is abundantly clear from the writings of our founding fathers, there was never a doubt in their mind as to the role that G-d played in the formation of the American republic and his continued involvement in its future welfare. Let’s pray that future generations will remember our dependency on the divine. Or as George Washington wrote in 1792:

To John Armstrong


Dear Sir,Philad. March 11th 1792

“…I am sure there never was a people who had more reason to acknowledge a divine interposition in their affairs than those of the United States; and I should be pained to believe that they have forgotten that agency which was so often manifested during our Revolution—or that they failed to consider the omnipotence of that God who is alone able to protect them.

Your friendly wishes for my happiness and prosperity are received with gratitude—and are sincerely reciprocated by Dear Sir, Your affectionate & obed. Servt

Go: Washington


From George Washington to John Armstrong, 11 March 1792
Image 8
: George Washington to John Armstrong, March 11, 1792 in regards to G-d’s role in the establishment of the Untied States and its future welfare

Sources and References:
George Washington to John Armstrong, March 11, 1792George Washington Papers
From George Washington to John Armstrong, 11 March 1792 – National Archives
The Eagle and the Shield – A History of the Great Seal of the United States – page 514
Defence of Fort M’Henry – The poem that became the “The Star-Spangled Banner”
The U.S. National Motto & the Contested Concept of Civil Religion – Michael Lienesch

The Complex Personality of Rev. Watkinson – by Roger W. Burdette 
“On November 25, 1860, in a sermon from his pulpit, Rev. Watkinson let his people know where he stood. He declared himself forthrightly in favor of the course of the South, and in opposition to the views of abolitionists. The sermon created a sensation; many people were overjoyed and called for a church conference that evening to request a copy of the sermon”

“When the Virginia Legislature passed a secession bill in April 1861, rioting and violence
threatened Portsmouth. The United States flag was torn down on April 20, 1861. Ships were burnt in the Gosport Navy Yard in nearby Norfolk – the region seemed in open rebellion. Apparently, some of the violence was directed at Rev. Watkinson and his family due to his position in the community. His family was in danger and he quickly sent his wife and children northward by steamer.”

“As the last boat was about to leave for the North on April 23, 1861, he stepped aboard leaving behind his church and congregation. There were many harsh words about his disloyalty to Virginia, and the inconsistency of his sermon versus his act of abandoning Portsmouth.”

“The next Sunday afternoon 19-year Annie M. Cox [one of Watkinson parishioners] wrote in her diary:

1861 – APRIL 28TH Sabbath afternoon. I did not go to church this morning as it commenced raining just about church time. Pa went down but there was no preaching. Alas! We are now left without a pastor. Mr. Watkinson has taken his departure, gone north & sent a letter of resignation to the church. I think it would have been much more manly & better for him if he had resigned before he left. I am very sorry that he has acted thus & that is after preaching and talking so much against abolitionists to go right among them. But we cannot judge him. God alone knoweth the heart.

1890 Director Edward Leach “In God We Trust” Letter – Based on research by Roger W. Burdette

“1890 letter from Director Edward Leech responding to a congressman’s inquiry on the origin of “In God We Trust” on U.S. coinage. The motto first appeared on the two-cent piece in 1864, although pattern pieces dated 1863 alternately employed GOD AND COUNTRY, GOD OUR TRUST, and IN GOD WE TRUST. The adoption of “In God We Trust” is one of the better documented design changes within United States coinage and is traced back to a November 13, 1861 letter from Rev. Mark Watkinson of Ridleyville, PA to Secretary of the Treasury Salmon Chase, urging acknowledgement of Almighty God on American coinage.

Watkinson’s original proposal was much different than that eventually adopted: “What I propose is that instead of the goddess of Liberty we shall have next inside the thirteen stars, a ring inscribed with the words perpetual union. Within this ring the all-seeing eye, crowned with a halo. Beneath this eye the American flag, bearing in its fields stars equal to the number of the States United. In the fields of the bars the words God, liberty, law.”

1890 letter from Director Edward Leech responding to a congressman’s inquiry on the origin of “In God We Trust
Image 9
: Mint Director Leech’s letter to Alabama congressman Joseph Wheeler, 6/12/1890

Oliver’s Advice

The night is gathering gloomily, the day is closing fast—

The tempest flaps his raven wings in loud and angry blast;

The thunder clouds are driving athwart the lurid sky—

But, “put your trust in God, my boys, and keep your powder dry.”*


There was a day when loyalty was hail’d with honour due,

Out banner the protection wav’d to all the good and true—

And gallant hearts beneath its folds were link’d in honour’s tie,

We put our trust in God, my boys, and we kept our powder dry.


When Treason bar’d her bloody arm, and madden’d round the land,

For king, and laws, and order fair, we drew the ready brand;

Our gathering spell was William’s name—our word was, “do or die,”

And still we put our trust in God, and kept our powder dry.


But now, alas! a wondrous change has come the nation o’er,

And worth and gallant services remember’d are no more,

And, crush’d beneath oppression’s weight, in chains of grief we lie—

But put your trust in God, my boys, and keep your powder dry.


Forth starts the spawn of Treason, the ’scap’d of ninety-eight,

To bask in courtly favour, and seize the helm of state—

E’en they whose hands are reeking yet with murder’s crimson dye—

But put your trust in God, my boys, and keep your powder dry.


They come, whose deeds incarnadin’d the Slaney’s silver wave—

They come, who to the foreign foe the hail of welcome gave;

He comes, the open rebel fierce—he comes the Jesuit sly;

But put your trust in God, my boys, and keep your powder dry.


They come, whose counsels wrapp’d the land in foul rebellious flame,

Their hearts unchastened by remorse, their cheeks unting’d by shame.

Be still, be still, indignant heart—be tearless, too, each eye,

And put your trust in God, my boys, and keep your powder dry.


The Pow’r that led his chosen, by pillar’d cloud and flame,

Through parted sea and desert waste, that Pow’r is still the same.

He fails not—He, the loyal hearts that firm on him rely—

So put your trust in God, my boys, and keep your powder dry.


The Pow’r that nerv’d the stalwart arms of Gideon’s chosen few,

The Pow’r that led the great William, Boyne’s reddening torrent through—

In his protecting aid confide, and every foe defy—

Then put your trust in God, my boys, and keep your powder dry.


Already see the star of hope emits its orient blaze,

The cheering beacon of relief it glimmers thro’ the haze.

It tells of better days to come, it tells of succour nigh,

Then put your trust in God, my boys, and keep your powder dry.


See, see along the hills of Down its rising glories spread,

But brightest beams its radiance from Donard’s lofty head.**

Clanbrassil’s vales are kindling wide, and “Roden” is the cry—

Then put your trust in God, my boys, and keep your powder dry.


Then cheer ye hearts of loyalty, nor sink in dark despair

Our banner shall again unfold its glories to the air.

The storm that raves the wildest, the soonest passes by;

Then put your trust in God, my boys, and keep your powder dry.


For “happy homes,” for “altars free,” we grasp the ready sword,

For freedom, truth, and for our God’s unmutilated word.

These, these the war-cry of our march, our hope the Lord on high;

Then put your trust in God my boys, and keep your powder dry.


Bannside, Nov. 1st. FITZ STEWART.

Originally published in The Dublin University Magazine by “Fitz Stewart” (pseudonym of William Blacker)


Copyright 2020 Yaacov Apelbaum, All Rights Reserved.