Monday, January 19, 2009

A Press Conference with Dr. Donald Kennon

Historical Perspectives on the Inaugural Swearing in Ceremony

U. S. Department of State

Donald Kennon,
Ph.D., Vice President for Scholarship and Education,
U.S. Capitol Historical Society
Foreign Press Center
Washington, DC
January 14, 2009

Moderator: Ladies and gentlemen, it’s my pleasure to introduce to everybody today Dr. Donald Kennon. He is the Chief Historian of the U.S. Capitol Historical Society. He’s also the Vice President of Fellowship and Education for the Society.

Dr. Kennon received his PhD in American History from the University of Maryland and has been involved in several publications dealing with the history of the United States.

Some of his publications include Speaker of the House of Representatives, a bibliography; and the Committee on Ways and Means -- a Bicentennial History.

I’ll turn the time over to Dr. Kennon.

Donald Kennon: Thank you, Matt, for that introduction. Four years ago I did a similar briefing here for the Foreign Press Center. Some of you may have been here at that time. I have changed my remarks somewhat. At that time I gave pretty much a prepared speech and tried to be deep and philosophical about the meaning of America’s presidential inaugurations. Today what I want to do is give you a little bit of that, but mostly to talk about some of the interesting precedents in American history involving presidential inaugurations and how it has evolved to what you will see on January 20th, next Tuesday. Then I’ll be very happy to take any questions you might have.

dot - dot - dot

There is one controversy surrounding the taking of the oath of office, and you probably have seen it in reporting already. That is the use of the phrase “so help me God” at the close of the oath.

Four years ago when I made this presentation I said that that precedent had been established by George Washington. I was wrong, and I’m happy to admit it. In fact when this presentation was placed on the Internet I got an e-mail from someone I’d never heard of before and I want to personally thank him. [italics added] His name is Raymond Soller. He asked me, what’s your source of that? I said well, all of the other writing and research on presidential inaugurations says that George Washington when he finished saying the oath said, “so help me God,” and kissed the Bible. And as far as I knew the primary source of that was the multi-volume definitive biography of Washington by historian Douglas Southall Freeman many years ago. He point[ed] out to me well, have you ever checked Freeman’s source? I said I know what his source was, it was a letter by George Washington’s private secretary Tobias Lear. He said, have you ever looked at that letter? I said, well no, I’ve not been to the [Duke University Library] Archives in North Carolina to look at it. He says, well I have, and it’s not there. So I checked it out and he’s right. There is no primary contemporary source that states that George Washington said, “so help me God.”

Why is this important? It’s important because there are a lot of people who are upset that over the years, and especially in the 20th Century, it’s become commonplace for the Chief Justice to add that phrase, “so help me God,” to the oath of office, and it’s not in the Constitution.

As you may have seen, there’s currently a lawsuit in the Supreme Court seeking to prevent the Chief Justice from adding the phrase. As the lawsuit states, they have no objection whatsoever if President Obama chooses voluntarily to say “so help me God,” and of course President-elect Obama has stated that he will say “so help me God,” so that’s where it is. An interesting, I think, example of how history works and historical fellowship works.

By the way, further research, I don’t want to take too much time on this, further research has been done and we found that the real source that Freeman was using was a book [RS-Republican Court, or American Society in the Days of Washington] that had been written in 1855, [RS-actually 1854] that said Washington added “so help me God,” and it used as its source the memories of Washington Irving, a New York writer. Washington Irving was six years old in 1789, so it’s not terribly likely that his memory was ideal. [RS-Besides, it is known that Washington Irving when he wrote his biography of Washington three years later that he stole the bulk of his inaugural narrative from the Memoir of Eliza Susan Morton Quincy.]

But in the 20th Century [RS-starting with FDR in 1933] it’s been commonplace to add that.

[End of excerpt from Dr. Kennon's January 14, 2009, press briefing.]

Five days later at home in Duluth, Georgia, with Raymond Soller.

Ray Soller:
Thank you, Dr. Kennon for acknowledging that "[t]here is no primary contemporary source that states that George Washington said, 'so help me God.'” Sources at the Mount Vernon Estate and Gardens, Library of Congress, and the Senate Historical Office have finally said just about the same thing. I suspect this information would not have been made public if it weren't for the publicity surrounding the Newdow v. Roberts lawsuit.

I do have one question, though. That "conversation" we had that you referred to, I don't have a record of receiving a reply to any of my e-mails. I know I'm getting on at age sixty-nine, so if you still have a record of just when it was that you replied, I would deeply appreciate it.

I hope to hear from you soon.

Moderator: Thank you everyone for your interest.


Brad Hart said...

Speaking of inaugurations, I enjoyed the little blunder made by Chief Justice Roberts today!!!

Ray Soller said...

On March 4, 1929, the inaugural oath administered to Herbert Hoover had its own blunder. It is described in Jim Bendat's book, Democracy's Big Day - The Inauguration of our President 1789-2009. This sample chapter, Let's hear it for the Girl is available online. It is a charming story.