Peter Henriques is Professor of History, Emeritus, at George Mason University and author of Realistic Visionary: A Portrait of George Washington. Professor Henriques' article was originally prepared with the intent that it would be published as a newspaper Opinion Editorial. As fate would have it, the article found its way into an Amicus Brief filed in conjunction with the Newdow v. Roberts lawsuit.
The following statement, Interest of Amici Curaie, preceded the article:
The Amici have no personal interest in the outcome of this case. The Amici are a collection of historians and scholars who have studied the early history of the United States and who stand up for historical accuracy. The Amici give no opinion to how the Court should decide this case but merely request that the Court use real history of the United States and not perpetuated falsehoods.
Here now with permission of the author is the introductory paragraph and a series of endnotes that accompanied the Amicus Brief but were not included in the HNN article.
One of the most widely held myths about George Washington is that immediately after he took the prescribed oath to become the nation’s first President, he solemnly added the words, “So help me God” and thus began a tradition that has been followed ever since. Unfortunately, this myth, accepted by such fine historians as David McCullough and Kenneth C. Davis, is given further credence in a video released by The Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies maintained by the Senate Rules Committee. Entitled "So Help Me God," it shows president after president uttering the words and authoritatively declares that George Washington first used the phrase. In fact, an examination of the historical evidence demonstrates that such a claim is almost certainly false.
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historians as David McCullough and Kenneth C. Davis ...
McCullough, David, John Adams, Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, New York, 2001, paperback edition January 2008, page 387.
Davis, Kenneth C., Don't Know Much About History: Everything You Need to Know About American History but Never Learned, Harper Collins, New York, 2003, paperback - 2007, page 131.
video released by The Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies ...
Website: Inaugural History - Facts and Firsts - Watch the Video "'So Help Me God'", a historical look at the Inaugural Ceremonies 1789-2005" - spokesperson Beth Hahn, Historical Editor, Senate Historical Office (accessed 1/20/2009).
At about the two-minute and fifty-second mark into the video, the spokesperson tell us, "Everyone [that is, all presidents beginning with Washington's inauguration] has since said 'So help me God' at the end of the oath."
A long letter by the French foreign minister ...
Documentary History First Federal Congress, Vol. 15, pages 404-405
Excerpt from French consul letter - retranslated from the French
After every one had taken his seat, the Vice-President rose to announce to the President that the members of both Houses were ready to escort him to witness the oath he was going to take in conformity with the Constitution. A balcony adjoined the Senate-chamber, permitting all classes of people to witness the ceremony in greater number. Three doors communicating with this balcony were opened. The President passed by the middle one, followed by the Vice-President and the Chancellor of the State of New York, who was to administer the oath. The Senators went out by the right, and the Representatives by the left.
On an embroidered cushion a Bible was brought, upon which the President placed his hand and repeated the following words after the Chancellor: "I solemnly swear to discharge with fidelity the functions of President of the United States, and to do all in my power to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States of America." Thereupon the Chancellor, making a sign with his hat to the people, exclaimed, 'Long live George Washington, President of the United States!" Three hurrahs, the customary acclamation of the people, followed; the President saluted the public profoundly, and re-entered with the Senators and the Representatives.
In his book, The Republican Court, ...
Griswold, Rufus Wilmot, The Republican Court, or American Society in the Days of Washington, First published in 1854 as a subscriber edition in 25 sections, republished 1856, New York: D. Appleton and Company.
(page 141) ... he [Chancellor Livingston] pronounced slowly and distinctly the words of the oath. The Bible was raised, and as the President bowed to kiss its sacred pages, he said audibly, " I swear," and added, with fervor, his eyes closed, that his whole soul might be absorbed in the supplication, "So help me God!" Then the Chancellor said, "It is done," and, turning to the multitude, waved his hand, and with a loud voice exclaimed, "Long live George Washington, President of the United States!"
Griswold, at this point, did not indicate a specific source. Later on, he leads the reader to believe that Washington Irving could have been his source.
(page 142) Few persons are now living who witnessed the induction of the first President of the United States into his office; but walking, not many months ago, near the middle of a night of unusual beauty, through Broadway - at that hour scarcely disturbed by any voices or footfalls except our own - Washington Irving related to Dr. [John Wakefield] Francis [1789 - 1861] and myself his recollections of these scenes, with that graceful conversational eloquence of which he is one of the greatest of living masters. He had watched the procession till the President entered Federal Hall, and from the corner of New street and Wall street [about 200 feet away] had observed the subsequent proceedings in the balcony.
a childhood memory ...
Washington Irving was born on April 3, 1783 in the last weeks of the American Revolution. He had turned six-years old just weeks before Washington's inauguration on April 30, 1789.
when Chester A. Arthur took the oath in 1881
New York Times (1857-Current file); Sep 23, 1881 Proquest Historical Newspapers.
New York Times (1851 - 2005) pg 5; The New Administration President Arthur Formally Inaugurated.
oath that included the words, “So help me God.”
April 6, 1789 the House appointed a committee to prepare a bill "to regulate the taking the oath or affirmation prescribed by the sixth Article of the Constitution." The House then voted for the following wording for their own oath: "I, A B a Representative of the United States in the Congress thereof, do solemnly swear (or affirm, as the case may be) in the presence of Almighty GOD, that I will support the Constitution of the United States. So help me GOD."
Annals of Congress, House of Representatives, 1st Congress, 1st Session, page 101.
excluded the words “So help me God.”
April 27 the House reads and approves the bill, [which specifies "I do solemnly swear that I will support the Constitution of the United States."], and forwards it to the Senate for its consideration.
Annals of Congress, House of Representatives, 1st Congress, 1st Session, page 215.
Senate ... passed the bill
May 5, the Senate reads the bill a third time and passed the Oath Act "with amendments".
Annals of Congress, Senate, 1st Congress, 1st Session, page 31.
May 7, the Senate agreed to bill as amended by the House. Journal of the House Representatives: 1st-13th Congress, page 31.