Saturday, June 21, 2008

1789 - "So help me God" Goes AWOL & the Bickford E-mail

In my previous post, 2001 - Thundering on the Metroliner with Washington's Inaugural Bible, June 18, 2008, I noted how Philander Chase responded to WP reporter, Phil McCombs, by saying, "Whether Washington actually added 'So help me God' to the oath is not supported by any eyewitness accounts." Unfortunately, over the next few years Chase’s "newsflash" just slipped away without gaining any suitable recognition.

However, in June 2004, Charles P. Riley, the Director of Education at the White House Historical Association, sent an e-mail with an inquiry to Charlene B. Bickford, Director of the Documentary History of the First Federal Congress Project at George Washington University. (Riley was gathering background information for the planned exhibit at the White House Visitor Center, as part of the upcoming 2005 Presidential Inauguration.) The e-mail asked, “What is the source for the ‘fact’ that Washington added ‘So help me God’ to the end of the Constitutionally required oath at his inauguration?”

Bickford then consulted with several colleagues, one of whom turned out to be Philander D. Chase. Bickford and Chase both conducted a thorough review through all of the available firsthand historical material, and found no evidence to support the claim that George Washington had added "So help me God" to his presidential oath. In addition, the editors of other presidential papers (John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison) were consulted, and they, likewise, could find no proof that these early founders had said “So help me God” at their respective inaugural ceremonies. In particular, Barbara Oberg of the Papers of Thomas Jefferson responded with an emphatic, “TJ, no way Jose!”

As a result, Bickford replied to the Riley e-mail by explaining how they were unable to locate any contemporary account that could substantiate whether George Washington had concluded his oath of office with those words. (The impact of Bickford's reply can be seen at WHHA Online Shows - I Do Solemnly Swear. Please notice how the unsubstantiated "So help me God" is missing.)

In November, 2004, Michael Newdow, the legal and research-minded egalitarian, while poring through the Annals of the First Congressional Congress to find additional material for his Pledge of Allegiance lawsuit, discovered that the ad hoc oath administered to the House members present on April 8, 1789, concluded with the words, "So help me God." Suprisingly, though, Newdow also learned while examining the very first bill passed by Congress, An Act to regulate the Time and Manner of administering certain Oaths, that "So help me God" had apparently gone absent without leave. This prompted him to send an e-mail to the Director of the First Federal Congress Project at George Washington University to see whether he could find anything more about what had happened.

Consequently, near the end of November, Charlene Bickford received an inquiry from Michael Newdow concerning what was known about the congressional oath of office for the House members of the First Congressional Congress. A copy of the reply appears in Appendix G of the legal brief “Newdow v. Bush - The Inaugural Case (See U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia; Bush Inaugural Prayer Lawsuit #1 (2005); EXHIBIT B - H, 2005-01-16 and scroll down to Appendix G). An edited transcription of Bickford's actual reply follows [text inserted within brackets is for the sake of clarity]:

Appendix G
[George Washington University]
Subj: Re: God and First Congress
Date: 11/29/04 12:47:57 PM Pacific Standard Time
From: Charlene Bickford
To: Michael Newdow
Dear Mike,
Interestingly this issue of oaths has come up in another context recently. The [Education] director of the White House Historical Society [Charles P. Riley] asked what was the source for the "fact" that Washington added "So help me God" to the end of the Constitutionally required oath at his inauguration. After much back and forth with the editors of the "Papers of George Washington" [namely, Senior Editor Philander D. Chase, University of Virginia] and research in the sources [Documentary History of the First Federal Congress] that we have here, we were unable to locate any contemporary account [among the many eyewitness & newspaper accounts] that reported that he said those words. In fact, the only contemporary account that repeats the oath, a letter of the French consul, Comte de Moustier, states only the constitutional oath [DHFFC," Vol. 15, pages 404-405. (See Comment listed below)]. We now believe that Washington consciously (he rarely did something that wasn't very calculated) repeated only the prescribed oath with no reference to God to show strict adherence to the Constitution. The first report [written 65 years later, The Republican Court: or American Society in the Days of Washington, pg. 141, Rufus W. Griswold, 1854] that we have located that says he concluded with "So help me God" is secondhand from someone [probably Washington Irving] who would have been about eight years old [actually six-years old] when he attended the inauguration.
[end of e-mail]

It is relatively easy to conjure up the notion in which Washington can be seen as having added "So help me God" to his oath of office, but, in contrast, it is abundantly clear from what is documented by the historical record from the time of Washington's Inauguration up until the Civil War that for all oaths (except for oaths inside the courtroom) administered to federal civil servants "So help me God" had gone AWOL.

1 comment:

raySoller said...

The following excerpt is from a report describing Washington's inauguration of April 30, 1789 that was forwarded by Comte De Moustier to the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Comte de Montmorin, with the dispatch of June 5, 1789. The report is translated from the original in the French Archives:

The [Inaugural] Procession passed through the main thoroughfares to the street opposite the "palais" of Congress. The troops fell into review formation and everyone descended and progressed slowly into the "palais." The President, hat in hand, bowed to the public to his left and right and though there was an innumerable throng all the people removed their hats, and observed a respectful silence. Upon his entrance to the Senate chamber the Vice President and all the members rose to receive him and the Vice President led him to his designated seat. Once everyone was seated, the Vice-President rose to announce to the President that the members of the two Houses were ready to join in bearing witness to the oath he was going to take in conformity with the constitution. A balcony abutting the Senate chamber had been designated for this purpose in order that all manner of people be able to witness the event in the greatest possible number. Three doors leading to this balcony were opened: The President passed went through the middle one, followed by the Vice-President and the Chancellor of the State of New York [Robert R. Livingston] to whom the oath would be sworn. Senators went out through the door on the right and Representatives through that on the left. A bible was brought out on a cimson pillow on which the President placed his hand and pronounced the following after the Chancellor the following words: "I solemnly swear to faithfully uphold the duties of the President of the United States and to do all that is in my power to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.' Whereupon the Chancellor, making a sign to the crowd with his hat, cried, 'Long live George Washington, President of the United States!' Three hurrahs, the standard acclamation of the people, followed; the President bowed deeply to the people and after having received a second
acclamation he went back in with the Senators and the Representatives.

Documentary History First Federal Congress, Vol. 15, pages 404-405