Thursday, June 12, 2008

Jon Meacham & George Washington's Inaugural Oath

I met Jon Meacham, author of American Gospel (see : June 9, 2008), at a speaking event in Atlanta. He spoke at the Margaret Mitchell House back on June 27, 2006. I made a point of attending because the author had written on page 14 of his book:
Human Beings are what scholars refer to as homo religiosus; we are by nature inclined to look outside of ourselves and beyond time and space to a divine power (or, as in antiquity, powers) that creates, directs, and judges the world and our individual lives. "All men," said Homer, "need the gods."

The God who is spoken of and called on and prayed to in the public sphere is an essential character in the American drama. Washington improvised "so help me, God" at the conclusion of the first presidential oath and kissed the Bible on which he had sworn it. [Here, Meacham continues with a litany of significant historical events to illustrate his point.]
I waited until the end of the talk so I could inform Jon Meacham that despite what is written in his book there is no known contemporary record or subsequent written recollection of Washington having added anything to his presidential oath. When the presentation was through I wandered over to the book-signing line. I was last so I had a chance to exchange a few words with the author. I told him how the notion of George Washington saying "so help me God" probably started with Washington Irving some sixty-five years after the event (see J.L. Bell's Boston1775 blog for April 30, 2008: Washington’s Inauguration Rewritten). Meacham replied something to the effect: Well, that's what you get when you have an author of fiction write history. I finally gave Meacham a folder filled with primary sources that described Washington's first inaugural ceremony in great detail.

It made less of an impact than I hoped. Later, on Dec 24, 2006, in a Meet the Press program with Rick Warren, Jon Meacham, Tim Russert, they discussed "History, Christianity, and the United States." A full transcript is available at Rick Warren, Jon Meacham and Tim Russert: History, Christianity ... , a City on a Hill blog (4/18/2007).

During the interview, Tim Russert led with the query:
MR. RUSSERT: The original oath of office for the president did not contain the words “So help me God,” correct, Jon?
MR. MEACHAM: That’s right. George Washington is reported [my emphasis] to have improvised them at Federal Hall in April of 1789 right before he went to St. Paul’s Chapel and went to services after the service — [rather] after the inauguration. The intertwining of, of religion and politics in ceremonial occasions is, is fascinating, I think. I think it’s best described by a phrase of Benjamin Franklin’s, as is so much, he used a phrase called “public religion” when he was laying out his syllabus with the — what became the University of Pennsylvania in 1749, and he said that “history had shown the utility of a public religion in maintaining the morality of a people.”
Meacham must have been nervous, because he stammered and skipped over mentioning the divine references Washington spoke of in his Inaugural Address. It is true that Washington is reported to have "improvised" adding "So help me God" to his oath, but the biggest problem here is that authors like Jon Meacham and Washington Irving are the ones who have "improvised" what Washington said when he was sworn in as President, and not George Washington. It is also true that nearly all presidents up to FDR, with only a handful of exceptions, are reported as having repeated the presidential oath exactly as prescribed by the United States Constitution. They, apparently, chose not to intertwine a religious codicil with their sworn oath of office during the Inaugural Ceremony.


Brad Hart said...

Does Meacham offer any sources in his book? Interesting post by the way!

bpabbott said...

Interesting post!

I'm often suspicious that many make claims of Washington and others being religious ... often followed by claims that we are a Nation founded on Christian principles ... and if you don't like it you can leave :-(

Personally, I've always been a skeptic that the principle founders were so devout to Christian doctrine. After all such was the doctrine of the Nation they went to war with so that they might take a shot at self-determination.

I welcome your efforts in presenting facts as facts and speculation as speculation.

Ray Soller said...

Jon Meacham cited "Douglas Southall Freeman, George Washington: A Biography, vol. 6(New York, 1954), 192. If you follow the link "nearly all presidents up to FDR" and scroll down to the paragraph starting with "Inquiring with the Library of Congress" you'll see why citing Freeman proves to be a dead end. Everybody trusted Freeman. That was a mistake.