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The Two-Cent Piece: The Civil War and In God We Trust

Two-Cent Piece. Image: CoinWeek/ Stack's Bowers.
Two-Cent Piece. Image: CoinWeek/Stack’s Bowers.

The two-cent piece was a large copper coin struck by the United States Mint. It was first struck in 1864, but public demand for the unusual denomination subsided after just two short years. Produced in ever decreasing numbers after that, the coin was last issued for circulation in 1872. Proof-only versions were struck for collectors the year after that but Congress abolished the coin with the passage of the Coinage Act of 1873.

Slightly smaller than a modern U.S. quarter dollar, the two-cent piece was conceived as a stopgap denomination to facilitate trade at a time when most coins had been withdrawn from circulation and hoarded due to the economic strain caused by the Civil War.

With the war effort costing the Federal Government nearly $3 million per day (in 1864 money), the challenge of keeping silver and gold coins in circulation proved daunting for the Treasury Department. Even copper coins had all but disappeared from circulation within the first two years of fighting. Among the solutions was to issue paper money in various forms and to introduce base metal coins in two-, three-, and five-cent denominations. It wasn’t until the late 1870s that Congress would pass legislation authorizing the resumption of specie (i.e., precious metal) payments.

The Birth of a National Motto

The first time IN GOD WE TRUST appeared on a United States coin. Image: CoinWeek.
The 1864 Two-Cent Piece marked the first time IN GOD WE TRUST appeared on a United States coin. Image: CoinWeek.

While the two-cent piece didn’t catch on as a circulating coin, it is significant in that it the very first United States coin to carry the motto IN GOD WE TRUST. The motto was placed there on the order of Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase, who got the idea from the Reverend M.R. Watkinson, a Baptist preacher from Ridleyville, Pennsylvania, who recommended that the nation recognize God on its coins.

In a letter to Chase dated November 13, 1861, Watkinson wrote:

You are probably a Christian. What if our Republic were not 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 the 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.

From 1861 to ’64, the Mint’s engraving department tested different mottoes before landing on the version that Chase ultimately approved.

Public sentiment was strongly in favor of the motto, and on March 3, 1865, Congress passed legislation that authorized but did not demand the use of IN GOD WE TRUST on “gold, silver, and other coins.” As a result, many other denominations were slightly revised so as to allow for the addition of the new national motto.

The Two-Cent Piece Shield Design

Two-Cent Piece and Shield Nickel. Image: CoinWeek.
Two-Cent Piece and Shield Nickel. Image: CoinWeek.

The two-cent piece was designed by United States Mint Chief Engraver James B. Longacre. The coin’s obverse (so designated because it bears the date) has a federal shield with a ribbon over it bearing the national motto IN GOD WE TRUST. Behind the shield are two arrows and a branch with leaves (most likely an olive branch). Although the standalone shield was novel at the time of its production, similar shields have appeared on United States coins since the adoption of the Heraldic Eagle design debuted on the reverse of the 1795 $5 half eagle gold coin.

The two-cent piece’s reverse features a vegetal wreath that surrounds the denomination, which is displayed as a large 2 over a downwardly arched CENTS. The legend UNITED STATES OF AMERICA surrounds the wreath.

This design is similar to the Shield nickel of the same period, which was also designed by Longacre.

Two-Cent Piece Annual Mintage Figures

Two-cent pieces were struck in both Proof and regular circulating finishes. Although the Proof mintages were normally smaller than the regular-issue mintages, more Proofs of high quality survive today since they were treated as special collector coins at the time of release.

While all two-cent pieces are of the same type, many die varieties exist. The most significant of these are the Small Motto and Large Motto varieties of 1864. The Small Motto is much rarer and therefore more valuable. In addition, several doubled dies, coins with prominent die cracks, and various other mint errors are often encountered in this series.

  • 1864 – 19,847,500
  • 1865 – 13,640,000 – Updated December 2023!
  • 1866 – 3,177,000
  • 1867 – 2,938,750
  • 1868 – 2,803,750
  • 1869 – 1,546,500
  • 1870 – 861,250
  • 1871 – 721,250
  • 1872 – 65,000
  • 1873 (Proof Only) – approx. 1,100 struck

Two-Cent Piece Values

Like most coins, the value of a two-cent piece depends on the date and condition. The 1864 and 1865 two-cent pieces are most frequently encountered in circulated grades ranging from Good to Extra Fine and sell for $20 to $50 USD.

Only the 1872 and the Proof-only 1873 are truly scarce. These dates will routinely sell for $1,000 or more, depending on grade.

Uncirculated examples, even examples will full original red color, survive in every date issued in the two-cent series. When such pieces appear at auction, they often go for $400 or more, depending on eye appeal and the vibrancy of the red color.

More In-Depth Two-Cent Piece Analysis by CoinWeek

Two-Cent Pieces. Image: CoinWeek.
Two-Cent Pieces. Image: CoinWeek.

In this article, former CoinWeek contributor Greg Reynolds discusses the history of the denomination and offers his opinion on where the value-buying opportunities lie. Greg also gets the perspective of prominent numismatists John Albanese and Matt Kleinsteuber on this short-lived copper coin series.


Two-Cent Piece
Years Of Issue:  1864-73
Mintage (Circulation):  High – 19,847,500 (1864); Low – 65,000 (1872)
Alloy:  95% copper, 5% tin and zinc
Weight:  6.20 g
Diameter:  23.00 mm
Edge:  Plain
OBV Designer  James Barton Longacre
REV Designer James Barton Longacre


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CoinWeek Notes
CoinWeek Notes
CoinWeek Notes presents expert analysis and insights from Charles Morgan and Hubert Walker, the award-winning editors of CoinWeek.com.

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