Thursday, January 15, 2009

"So Help Me God": A George Washington Myth that Should Be Discarded

A January 12, 2009 History News Network article by Peter R. Henriques.

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.
[Continue reading here]


ENDNOTES

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 1/12/2009).
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)&nbsp ... he [George Washington] 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 The 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 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.

11 comments:

Ray Soller said...

Griswold, in all of his inaugural narrative, only identfied a single firsthand source where he provided a description of the scene "as coming from 'one who was present' and wrote 'to his correspondent in Philadelphia.'" The actual source was a letter written by an unidentified person, which appears originally in the GAZETTE OF THE UNITED STATES; Saturday May 9 to Wednesday May 13, 1789; Philadelphia May 8; Extract of a letter from New York, May 3 -

"I was extremely anxious to arrive here, in order to be present at the meeting of the President and the two Houses. That event, however, did not take till Thursday last, when The President was qualified in the open gallery of the Congress House, in the sight of many thousand people. The scene was solemn and awful beyond description. It would seem extraordinary that the administration of an oath, a ceremony so very common and familiar, should in so great a degree excite the public curiosity; but the circumstances of his election ‑‑ the impression of his past services ‑‑ the concourse of spectators ‑‑ the devout fervency with which he repeated the oath ‑‑ and the reverential manner in which he bowed down and kissed the sacred volume ‑‑ all these conspired to render it one of the most august and interesting spectacles ever exhibited on this globe. It seemed, from the number of witnesses, to be a solemn appeal to Heaven and earth at once. Upon the subject of this great and good man I may, perhaps, be an enthusiast; but I confess that I was under an awful and religious persuasion, that the gracious Ruler of the Universe was looking down at that moment with peculiar complacency on an act which to a part of his creatures was so very important. Under this impression, when the Chancellor pronounced, in a very feeling manner, 'Long live GEORGE WASHINGTON,' my sensibility was wound up to such a pitch, that I could do no more than wave my hat with the rest, without the power of joining in the repeated acclamations which rent the air."

Tom Van Dyke said...

I don't have any problem with this literalist strictness with history. Accuracy is a good thing.

But I don't think it's unfair to say that in spirit, Washington saying "I solemnly swear" with his hand on the Bible is the equivalent of "so help me God."

And then he kissed the Bible [!], a fact that is little-known, or at least seldom mentioned by the Michael Newdows of the world. To me, it's a wash, and in fact, the act of kissing the Bible says more about Washington than if he had simply said the words.

But congratulations on the good research, Ray.

Ray Soller said...

Tom, None of the "Michael Newdows of this world" that I know of are concerned with whether the President-elect places his hand on a Bible, kisses the Bible, or acknowledges God in their inaugural address as long as a representative of the federal government is not first asking the President to do so.

As far as whether Washington actually kissed the Bible that matter is not totally resolved in my mind. (I suspect that I may be too much of a skeptic on this point.) By way of comparison, let me ask, did JFK swear his oath on a Bible?

In the case of the anonymous letter writer mentioned above, who was situated at ground level, what is it that Mr. Anonymous Letter- writer actually saw?

Now, even if Washington did kiss the Bible did it mean anything more than a perfunctory reflex spawned by Otis raising the Bible unexpectedly towards his face?

Whatever the case, we're each entitled to form our own impression of what happened on that day when Washington, our First President, was inaugurated.

My first concern has been to present the historical record as it has been handed down to us.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Yeah, I thought I acknowledged that, Ray. And yes, I'm aware of the narrow scope of Mr. Newdow's objection, although again, it's quite literalist---"so help me God" appears as an option for the Supreme Court oath of office. I believe in no harm, no foul if a president wants to add it, since he's already "solemnly swear"-ing, not "affirming," which is an option for SC justices.

A difference that makes no difference is no difference.

Obviously some people cry foul even on technical violations, but I believe the spirit of the law is the way to run a country, and the letter of the law is a lousy way to do it. Mind you, I don't dispute you on a single fact or argument here.

I understand [and share] your skepticism about Washington kissing the Bible, even if it's based on an eyewitness account. But my "first concern" is not to strip all color away from our Founding, and to surrender all understanding to unsatisfiable skepticism. There were no videocams back then. But an eyewitness said he kissed it, and so he did.

Pinky said...

.
It would be great to hear President Barack Obama end his inauguration oath of office with, So, help me, America!
.

PlacitasRoy said...

"But I don't think it's unfair to say that in spirit, Washington saying "I solemnly swear" with his hand on the Bible is the equivalent of "so help me God."" Perhaps not 'unfair' but totally projecting your attitude. My interpretation would be, 'If they want a bible we'll give them a bible."

"But an eyewitness said he kissed it, and so he did." So the 'unidentified person' whoadmitted they were stoned & having delusions is to be believed? "...but I confess that I was under an awful and religious persuasion, that the gracious Ruler of the Universe was looking down at that moment with peculiar complacency on an act which to a part of his creatures was so very important."

bpabbott said...

Tom: But I don't think it's unfair to say that in spirit, Washington saying "I solemnly swear" with his hand on the Bible is the equivalent of "so help me God."

No offense intended, but I don't see who a lie is equivalent to the truth.

Tom Van Dyke said...

With all due respect, Ben, sophists are concerned only with winning the narrow argument and are unconcerned with the larger truth.

bpabbott said...

Tom: "Ben, sophists are concerned only with winning the narrow argument and are unconcerned with the larger truth."

0k, thanks for the explanation ;-)

Tom Van Dyke said...

I got it from Strauss. ;-D

Explicit Atheist said...

Samuel Otis, who held the bible, wrote that GW kissed the bible and that is sufficient to establish that he did. Now, Samuel Otis also says that he lifted the bible to GW's face. So that presented GW with a choice, he could either kiss the bible or ignore the bible, but ignoring the bible would have been a risky choice politically with all of the eyewitnesses.

To summarize, all of the religious references and actions at the inauguration were initiated by other people. GW didn't bring or request the bible (contrary to what some people claim), the bible was lifted to his face to prompt to him to kiss it, the church service was decided by Congress, his inaugural speech was written by Madison (although presuemably GW approved it in advance). That is why GW's second inauguration which was arranged by GW according to his own wishes, and which had no bible, no church service, no religious language in the inaugural speech, becomes more significant as an indicator of his actual preference.