Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Another Look at Steven Waldman's "Founding Faith"

And his 13 January 2009 Journal Entry at Beliefnet.com
by Ray Soller

Recently, Tom Van Dyke brought to our attention Michael P. Orsi's review of Steven Waldman's book, Founding Faith. In addition, I'd like to draw attention to another review written by John R. Vile. His review can be found here. (And yes, I've read the book.)

I'm sure to no great surprise for those who have tracked my blogs here at American Creation, the part of the review that caught my eye is this particular item:
As the editor of Beliefnet.com and former editor of U.S. NEWS & WORLD REPORT, Waldman writes in a readable style that will engage most readers ... Occasionally Waldman will miss an issue as when he reports (p.160) that Washington said “So Help me God” when taking his oath without indicating that there is a contemporary dispute about the matter, but he is generally aware of nuance. Thus, he correctly reports that the Constitutional Convention did not adopt Franklin’s proposal to begin each day’s proceedings with prayer and reasonably suggests, with reference to an earlier Continental Congress, that delegates may have failed to do so for fear that choosing a chaplain would further divide the group.

Here on page 160 is the snippet to which Professor Vile is referring:
Other points of consensus about God and government were quickly established during Washington's two terms. Washington took office by putting his hand on a Bible and declaring "So help me God," and many presidents since have done the same. The House of Representatives' building was used for worship services during the presidencies of Washington [RS-huh?!], Adams, Jefferson, and Madison. On the other hand, the new government abandoned the practice of the Continental Congress of officially referring to the United States as a "Christian nation."

Like Professor Vile says, Waldman doesn't seem to be aware not only that there is a "contemporary dispute" over whether George Washington added an extra-constitutional codicil to his presidential oath, but there's no reliable indication that any of our first twenty presidents thought of doing so either. In the matter of the Bible, neither Washington at his second inauguration, John Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, or John Quincy Adams are known to have used a Bible to solemnize their oath of office. (I could go on and comment about the practice of allowing worship service in federal buildings, but that would be a diversion.)

Now, all of a sudden, Steven Waldman has had an epiphany. Here's his exclamation, "So Help Me God" Came from Chester Arthur -- Not George Washington?!, and here are the mind-enlightening details:
Beth Hahn, historical editor for the U.S. Senate Historical Office, once made a video ["So Help Me God", a historical look at the Inaugural Ceremonies 1789-2005] describing how George Washington began the tradition of saying "So help me God" during a presidential swearing in. [accessed 1/20/2009]

Then she did some research -- and changed her mind. "When I made the video, it was common wisdom that he said it, and I did not check it," Hahn told Cathy Grossman of USA Today. "After investigating this, I would say there is no eyewitness documentation that he did -- or did not -- say this."

It was common practice to use the phrase back then but, Hahn said, the first actual eye-witness account of a President using the statement came in 1881 at Chester Arthur's swearing in.

I suspect Steven Waldman would agree with Beth Hahn that at the time Waldman composed his thoughts describing George Washington's first inaugural ceremony "it was common wisdom" to envision our first president as having added "So help me God" to his oath, and the whole reason for this is people simply "did not check it out." It had become unquestioned part of our founding faith.

13 comments:

bpabbott said...

Ray, nice post.

Regarding: "I could go on and comment about the practice of allowing worship service in federal buildings, but that would be a diversion."

This is an interesting topic regarding establishment and accommodation. I do hope you'll get around to it.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Well done, Ray. Contrary to popular belief, George Washington almost certainly didn't say "So help me God," although by all accounts, he did drag in a Bible to take his oath.

As I previously wrote in praise of you, you've done yeoman's work on sussing out this truth---many months of it as I recall---and "yeoman's work" is a phrase that I saw Jonathan Rowe use just the other day in regard to your efforts on this.

Accuracy is important in these things.

As I understand it, Barack Obama will use Lincoln's Bible to take his oath of office.

Also, Michael Newdow is suing on the grounds that although President Obama might be free to choose to add "So help me God" to his oath of office, it would be improper for Chief Justice Roberts in administering the oath (or affirmation) of office to add "So help me God" for Obama to repeat after him.

Newdow has served papers Chief Justice Roberts at his home with the complaint. [Pls forgive me if I don't do the customary dance of proper links. You could look it up. I think I'm accurate here.]

As for what is wrong and what is right, what is constitutional and what is not: I think Newdow has a strong technical point of law.

And frankly, my dear, I don't give a

Cheers.

Jim Sweeney said...

I've endured numerous depositions, mostly in patent cases. One small kindness is that, at least in California, witnesses aren't asked to swear "so help me God".

Ray Soller said...

Tom, you commented, "by all accounts, he [GW] did drag in a Bible to take his oath." Actually there isn't a single historical account even suggesting that Washington or any member of the congressional planning committee planned for a Bible. Livingston is the likely do-gooder who wanted to see a Bible included during the ceremony. That and a few other blunders, it appears, denied Livingston the chance of receiving an appointment to a federal position under the Washington administration.

When BHO says he wants to use the Lincoln Bible, and then doesn't want to follow Lincoln's example for repeating the presidential oath as prescribed by the Constitution, I scratch my head in puzzlement.

Back on Feb. 27, 2006, presidential hopeful George Romney was interviewed: "Romney, referring to Lincoln's Lyceum address, said on Fox News, "America has a political religion, which is to place the oath of office, an oath to abide by a nation of laws and a constitution, above all others. And there's no question that I make that my primary responsibility."

Good advice, heh.

Brian Tubbs said...

I think the NFL instant replay rules apply here. There needs to be clear and overwhelming evidence to overturn a call on the field. Likewise, with GW (and many other pre-Chester Arthur Presidents), is there clear and incontrovertible evidence to overturn what is generally accepted historical tradition? I think not.

It was fully within Washington's character to add "so help me God" to the presidential oath AND (even if by some remote chance, he didn't) we know GW called on the nation to render prayers and allegiance to God during his Inaugural Address. And THAT is an incontrovertible, absolute FACT that is beyond dispute.

Brad Hart said...

First off, I am certainly no expert on this topic. I am more than confident in the fact that Ray probably knows more on this issue than any of us.

With that said, I think Brian still makes a very important assertion here. Is there any ABSOLUTE or CONCLUSIVE evidence to "overturn the call on the field?"

I honestly don't know, which is why I enjoy hearing Ray's passionate postings on this issue.

Tom, would this be another one of those annoying tidbits that just get in the way? =)

Tom Van Dyke said...

No, Brad, this is fine. The poll on presidents and the partisan opinions that followed were annoying, and an unwarranted provocation. That George W would come in for a flaming was as predictable as the flowers in spring, in my view.

I'd like to see some verification that Livingston lost his chance at a federal gig for giving Washington a Bible to swear on, though. Perhaps Washington should have lost his gig for accepting it.

Brad Hart said...

An unwarranted provocation, eh? So I guess you won't be blessing us with your presence on that one.

Further proof in my opinion that we all need to relax a bit. After all, this is just a blog...right???

Tom Van Dyke said...

I find intelligent discussion very relaxing, Brad, and that wasn't it. Surely you anticipated the mindless partisanship about current events, yes?

Ray Soller said...

Brian, with all due respect, the burden of proof for those who want to have GW adding SHMG to his oath is upon them. It is not vice versa. History is not a NFL football game. If people want to say or believe that GW cut down a cherry tree that's fine, but they have to document their case with a firsthand witness if they want that story to be part of the historical record and accepted as a matter of fact in a court of law.

Ray Soller said...

Tom, Livingston, in Washington's mind, may have been simply too incompetent, and I may be reading more into Livingston's disappointment than warranted. On the other hand, I've read somewhere that Livington's exclamation, "Long live George Washington!" was taken up in the press as being entirely too monarchial. In addition, the Masonic Bible came from the local Masonic lodge. No problem there, but it was the King James Bible - not of Ameican manufacture - which had on the opening page a portrait of King George II. Again, I might be stretching the evidence, but no one bothered to identify the Bible as the Masonic KJV Bible until 1858, just after Griswold and Irving had promoted the notion that it had been ok for Washington to pad the oath with "I swear - so help me God."

Tom Van Dyke said...

Thx, Ray. It seems the KJV was still the version used in the US for quite some time after the revolution.

Further, except for a few early attempts, it seems there was only a single limited run of American-printed Bibles, in 1782, so they'd have been pretty rare. I can't vouch for the below, which I culled from the internet somewheres, but it seems reasonable:

The Robert Aitken Bible, published in Philadelphia in 1782, was the King James Version, and the first English Bible printed in America openly and with an American imprint, is now being the rarest of all the early American Bibles. His New Testaments are also rare. Most of the copies of the Bible are more or less defective from excessive use or abuse.

Mr. Aitken's Bible was not a financial success. After the withdrawal of the British, less expensive imported bibles were again available. In an attempt to recoup his investment, he appealed in 1789 to Congress to grant him a patent giving him the exclusive right to print bibles in American for fourteen years. Congress denied him the patent, opening the door to printers in each of the new States, including, of course, Isaac Collins.

The publication of the King James Version spread very rapidly, twenty editions of the whole Bible. . . .being published before 1800.

The dates of the first printing of the whole Bible by states are as follows: Pennsylvania - 1782 by Robert Aitken; New Jersey - 1791 by Isaac Collins; Massachusetts - 1791 by Isaiah Thomas; New York - 1792 by Hugh Gaine; Connecticut - 1798; Delaware -1812; New Hampshire -1815.

Ray Soller said...

The best book outlining the availablity of Bibles in the post-Revolutionary period is An American Bible, A History of the Good Book in the United States, 1777-1880 by Paul C. Gutjahr. On page 22 he has a picture of an Aitken Bible, 1782 edition, opened to the first page of Genesis. The width is about the width of an normal sized playing card. The height is around an inch taller. There are no margins surrounding the text, because paper was too scarce and consequently too costly.

There's no indication that George Washington ever signed on as a subscriber. If he had Aitken might not have gone broke.