By Michael Fuljenz – Letter-writing has become a lost art in this Internet Age of e-mail, tweets and hash tags. But it still has the potential to influence powerful people and achieve important objectives.
In just the last year or so, we’ve seen a simple letter from a 9-year-old girl ignite a nationwide movement that will lead by 2020 to the use of a woman’s portrait on U.S. paper money.
This is not the first time a well-thought-out letter from an ordinary American has brought about significant, meaningful change in the nation’s coins and currency.
In 1861, a minister’s fervent letter to the U.S. Treasury Secretary led to the addition of the words “In God We Trust” to a new national coin – and, in time, to all U.S. coinage.
And in 1953, a small-town Arkansas businessman’s letter to the Treasury Secretary serving at that time resulted in the addition of this now-familiar phrase to U.S. paper money as well – and, as a bonus, helped persuade Congress to adopt “In God We Trust” as our official national motto.
The power of the pen – and pencil – was demonstrated most recently by a Massachusetts girl who was a third-grader at the time she wrote a letter, in 2014, to President Barack Obama asking him why there weren’t more women on U.S. coins and paper money.
“I think there should be more women on a Dollar/coin for the United States becuas if there where no woman there wouldnt be men,” the girl – Sofia, by name – told Obama in a letter with a few understandable misspellings. (Her last name has not been made public.)
The letter contained a list of prominent American women who, in Sofia’s opinion, had done important things and deserved the honor of being portrayed on U.S. money.
The list included Rosa Parks, Abigail Adams, Emily Dickinson, Helen Keller, Betsy Ross, Michelle Obama, Hillary Clinton, Eleanor Roosevelt and Harriet Tubman.
Obama shared the letter with an audience in Kansas City during an economic speech in August 2014.
“A young girl wrote to ask me why aren’t there any women on our currency,” the President told the gathering, “and then she gave me like a long list of possible women to put on our dollar bills and quarters and stuff – which I thought was a pretty good idea.”
News reports about these comments caught the fancy of media outlets around the country, as well as equal rights advocates. They also led to a nationwide campaign on the Internet – a 21st-century form of letter-writing – to get the federal government to implement the kind of change sought by Sofia and seemingly endorsed by the President.
The movement proved so powerful and persuasive that in June 2015, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew announced that starting in 2020, Uncle Sam will issue $10 bills bearing the image of a woman. That woman’s identity is due to be disclosed by the end of the year. “Tens” with the portrait of Alexander Hamilton, who has appeared on the bills since 1928, will continue to be issued, circulating side by side with the new 10-spots honoring a woman.
Letter-writing was the normal means of communication in 1861, a decade-and-a-half before the invention of the telephone – and that’s the way a Baptist minister from Ridleyville, Pa., the Rev. Mark R. Watkinson, conveyed his concern about the Civil War, then in its opening months, to a high federal official and offered a suggestion for uplifting Americans’ spirits at that time of strife and turmoil.
Writing to Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase, the small-town minister urged that provision be made for “the recognition of the Almighty God in some form on our coins.”
Up to that time, U.S. coinage had never made reference to a supreme being, but strong religious fervor stemming from the war created a climate conducive to the use of such an inscription. Watkinson’s letter crystallized this feeling.
“This,” he told Chase, “would place us openly under the Divine protection we have personally claimed.”
Three years later, in 1864, the U.S. Mint introduced a new bronze two-cent piece bearing the inscription “In God We Trust.” The exact motto wasn’t proposed by Watkinson, but rather evolved as development of the coin and its design moved along.
In 1866, the words “In God We Trust” were added to most other U.S. coins, and they have appeared on every U.S. coin since the debut of the Jefferson nickel in 1938.
Although at least some U.S. coins had carried the motto since 1864, it didn’t appear on U.S. paper money until the 1950s. Again, it was a letter from an average American citizen that resulted in its usage there.
Matthew Rothert, who operated a furniture business in Camden, Ark., was an avid coin collector who later became president of the American Numismatic Association. One Sunday in 1953, while attending Presbyterian church services during a business trip to Chicago, he noticed that while the coins on the collection plate bore the words “In God We Trust,” the paper money did not.
It occurred to Rothert that a message about Americans’ faith in God “could be easily carried throughout the world if it were on United States paper currency.” He wrote to Treasury Secretary George W. Humphrey making this case and also organized a letter-writing campaign that deluged federal officials with expressions of support for the placement of “In God We Trust” on U.S. paper currency.
Congress, with strong support from President Dwight D. Eisenhower, went above and beyond fulfilling Rothert’s goal. It not only passed legislation on July 11, 1955 requiring the use of “In God We Trust” on Americans’ folding money but also, on July 30, 1956, adopted this phrase as the nation’s only official motto.
The motto first appeared in 1957 on new $1 bills, and has graced all U.S. currency issued since 1966.
Sofia, the Rev. Mark Watkinson and Matthew Rothert came from much different eras and diverse social backgrounds. But all had good ideas, and they shared the belief that writing a letter to someone important might transform those ideas into reality.
Their success should serve as an inspiration to others who might have similarly worthwhile ideas and a road map on how to proceed: Get out pen and paper – or use your computer and printer – and write that letter to someone who can fulfil those ideas.
Sofia, now a 10-year-old fourth-grader, has this advice:
“I really think that if anyone has an idea that they think would be important or something they think needs to change, then they should do something about it. They can do a lot of things, even if they’re kids.”