Monday, April 27, 2009

David Barton and His Seven Signs

In the month of January 2009, David Barton posted his reply to critics of government imposed religious observances during Obama's upcoming Presidential Inaugural Ceremony. He named his article: America's Religious Heritage As Demonstrated in Presidential Inaugurations

The end of the article concludes:
The very first inauguration – conducted under the watchful eye of those who had framed our government and written its Constitution – incorporated numerous religious activities and expressions. That first inauguration set the constitutional precedent for all other inaugurations; and the activities from that original inauguration that have been repeated in whole or part in every subsequent inauguration include: (1) the use of the Bible to administer the oath; (2) the religious nature of the oath and including “So help me God”; (3) inaugural prayers by the president; (4) religious content in the inaugural addresses; (5) the president calling the people to pray or acknowledge God; (6) inaugural worship services; and (7) clergy-led inaugural prayers.

Here Barton boldly proclaims his seven signs "set the constitutional precedent for all other inaugurations [my italics]." Even so, Barton allows for some wiggle room, because he carefully says that these activities "have been repeated in whole or part." If you're not one of those skeptical critics like myself, then this statement might pass muster. But if you're a skeptic, then David Barton needs to own up to the fact that when we examine the historical record for George Washington's second inauguration there's not a single piece of historical evidence for any of Barton's "Seven Signs" in either "whole or part."

In David Barton's world, who needs hard evidence? After all didn't Jesus say, "Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe"?

No matter, in all fairness to Barton, let's turn our attention back to George Washington's first inauguration as Barton does. Now, at this point, he delivers a sermon with his version of what occurred on April 30, 1789, and here, then, is his narrative describing Washington first inaugural ceremony:
The preparations for the inauguration had been extensive; everything had been well planned; the event seemed to be proceeding smoothly. The parade carrying Washington by horse-drawn carriage to the swearing-in was nearing Federal Hall when it was realized that no Bible had been obtained for administering the oath. Parade Marshal Jacob Morton hurried to the nearby Masonic Lodge and grabbed its large 1767 King James Bible.

The Bible was laid upon a crimson velvet cushion (held by Samuel Otis, Secretary of the Senate) and, with a huge crowd gathered below watching the ceremony on the balcony, New York Chancellor Robert Livingston was to administer the oath of office. (Robert Livingston had been one of the five Founders who had drafted the Declaration of Independence; however, he was called back to New York to help his State through the Revolution before he could affix his signature to the very document he had helped write. As Chancellor, Livingston was the highest ranking judicial official in New York.) Beside Livingston and Washington stood several distinguished officials, including Vice President John Adams, original Supreme Court Chief Justice John Jay, Generals Henry Knox and Philip Schuyler, and a number of others. The Bible was opened at random to the latter part of Genesis; Washington placed his left hand upon the open Bible, raised his right, and then took the oath of office prescribed by the Constitution. Washington then bent over and kissed the Bible, reverently closed his eyes, and said, “So help me God!” Chancellor Livingston then proclaimed, “It is done!” Turning to the crowd assembled below, he shouted, “Long live George Washington – the first President of the United States!” That shout was echoed and re-echoed by the crowd below.

It's a good story, as stories go. However, there are a few other details that are worth mentioning: 1) for all of the elaborate coordinated planning between the members of the joint congressional committee and George Washington there's no record of a Bible having been planned as a requirement for the administration of the oath (even afterwards, the congressional record doesn't even report that a Bible was used); 2) the Masonic owned 1767 King James Bible, with its picture of King George II just inside the front cover, was surprisingly inconsistent with all the other featured items of American manufacture; 3) the most authentically valued depictions of the inaugural scene has Washington placing his right hand on the Bible (even the picture displayed by Barton's article has Washington with his right hand on the Bible - likewise, the lithograph by the esteemed artist Alonzo Chappel (1828 -1887), the bronze statue on the steps of New York City Federal Hall, and the Mount Vernon life-size inaugural exhibit all show Washington's right hand on the Bible); 4) the image of Washington having "reverently closed his eyes" is pure literary fantasy first invented sixty-five years after the event by Rufus Wilmot Griswold when he published his book, The Republican Court: Or, American Society in the Days of Washington; and, 5) similarly, the debut for the religious codicil, "So help me God," comes from the same literary source.

All in all, the claim that George Washington added a religious tagline to his oath is the most problematic. No matter, Barton is unconcerned about the facts as reported by late-arrival "critics." He even disregards a reputable historian like Peter R. Henriques who disputes Griswold's tardy inaugural narrative of 1854 with his article, “So Help Me God”: A George Washington Myth that Should Be Discarded. Furthermore, according to Barton's scheme of things, one can still have a "constitutional precedent" even if no elected president can conscientiously be recognized as having followed this "constitutional precedent" until the beginning of the twentieth century.
Barton's reasoning boils down to this:
Critics today [who rely on firsthand historical accounts (my inclusion)] claim that George Washington never added “So help me God!” to his oath. [dot - dot - dot] But overlooked by many today is the fact that the Framers of our government considered an oath to be inherently religious – something George Washington affirmed when he appended the phrase “So help me God” to the end of the oath.
In other words, since a sizable number of the Framers considered an oath in its "customary" context as religious, Washington, according to Barton's understanding, inevitably added "So help me God" to his presidential oath. Never mind the fact that the Articles of Confederation didn't even require an oath from members of the Continental Congress; that the certificates for the Oath of Allegiance that were sent out to the officers in the Continental Army did not mention God; that "So help me God" was not added to Washington's certificate when he signed his Oath of Allegiance; that even before the revolutionary war had ended the subject of loyalty oaths had left a bitter aftertaste in the minds of a sizable number of Americans who had been forced to proclaim their respective loyalty; that for eleven of the thirteen states, state mandated religious test oaths had been implemented to prevent designated minorities from equal access to basic civil rights; that delegates attending the Constitutional Convention formed a consensus that oaths had become unfashionable; that any religious test was proscribed by the Constitution; that George Washington signed his name at the head of the list of signatories who subscribed to the principles spelled out in the Constitution; that no one ever reported that they heard Washington add "So help me God" to his presidential oath; that Washington signed into law a godless oath for all federal employees; and, as already indicated, that Washington's second inauguration apparently dispensed with any recognizable religious observance.

So, in spite of these many considerations Barton chooses to overlook, he clamors on with his contention that an oath for a federal employee is fundamentally a religious act, which, in accordance with some well-chosen words from his special list of Founding Framers, should, without question, be concluded with "So help me God." Here Barton produces four illustrious candidates to buttress his contention. They are John Witherspoon (1723 – 1794), Rufus King (1755 – 1827), James Iredell (1751 – 1799), and Daniel Webster (1782 – 1852).

There's no reason to count Daniel Webster as a Founding Framer, but the other three candidates established themselves as outspoken supporters for ratification of the Constitution, and none of them is known to have rejected its apparent non-religious character. In fact, Rufus King actually attended the 1787 Constitutional Convention, and, as a member of the Committee of Style and Arrangement, he helped draft the final version.

What Barton does not want to recognize is that federal oaths administered outside of the courtroom were not saturated with Jon Witherspoon's definition which stated that "An oath is an appeal to God, the Searcher of Hearts, for the truth of what we say and always expresses or supposes an imprecation [a calling down] of His judgment upon us if we prevaricate [lie]."

In contrast to Witherspoon's definition of an oath, George Washington, during the planning stage for his second inaugural ceremony on March 4, 1793, simply called his presidential oath an"oath of qualification," and during his ever so short inaugural address that preceded the swearing-in ceremony he explicitly explained his perspective regarding the oath:
Previous to the execution of any official act of the President the Constitution requires an oath of office. This oath I am now about to take, and in your presence: That if it shall be found during my administration of the Government I have in any instance violated willingly or knowingly the injunctions thereof, I may (besides incurring constitutional punishment) be subject to the upbraidings of all who are now witnesses of the present solemn ceremony.
It's very simple to see, as far as George Washington was concerned, his oath was a pledge to the people he served, and he meant for the people to hold him responsible for the conduct of his administration. Barton, on the other hand, misconstrues Washington's farewell address to say quite the opposite "that an oath was religious when he pointedly queried:
[W]here is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths . . . ?"
The deception is clear. The "dot - dot - dot" part Barton removed, clarifies what Washington wanted to ask regarding, "the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths," "which are the instruments of investigation in courts of justice?"

It is true that the next line in Washington's Farewell Address goes on to say, "And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion." But for those, like Barton with "His Seven Signs," who want to arbitrarily empower the government with the authority to regulate our national morality, Washington, I believe, would have had this to say, "But let there be no change by usurpation; for though this in one instance may be the instrument of good, it is the customary weapon by which free governments are destroyed. The precedent must always greatly overbalance in permanent evil any partial or transient benefit which the use can at any time yield."

16 comments:

Pinky said...

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Having taken several Masonic oaths, it seems to me that, "So help me, God", is a fairly common way to end any oath.
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Ray Soller said...

Pinky, true enough, saying "So help me God" had been common enough, but as I attempted to show it was neither common practice or inevitable to have it added to a federal oath outside of the courtroom. That practice did not change until the outbreak of the Civil War.

Tom Van Dyke said...

"I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States."

I believe every president except Franklin Pierce [who "affirmed"] "swore" that they would faithfully execute, etc., etc.

"Swore" does mean promise before God. The language "so help me God" is therefore redundant and so the issue of the phrase itself seems not to be fundamental.

Ray, don't the other officers of the executive branch [secretary of state, etc.] DO say "so help me God?," meaning that the phrase isn't just restricted to courtrooms?

I'm not sure about this, just some sideways references on the internet, but it does seem relevant to your argument.

Ray Soller said...

Tom, you can say that, in some sense, adding "So help me God" to an oath is redundant, but that was not the actual case during the time of the "Founding Framers." It certainly was not what Barton wants to imply, that it was a prayerful promise asking for God's assistance. It definitely was much more than that. It was a public acknowledgement that God is the Supreme Judge of the world who will administer punishment for all those who violate the terms of an oath taken in God's name by adding "So help me God." There really were no excuses. (You can imagine how all those who had supported the revolutionary cause rationalized having violated their respective loyalty oaths to King George.)

In terms of the oaths legislated by the First Federal Congress the only oath that was originally prescribed as having added "So help me God" is included as part of The Judiciary Act of 1789. Please note that a federal judicial oath is a secondary oath taken only after the candidate has first taken the generic Oath of Office that is the same for all federal employees other than for the President.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Thx for the clarification on the oaths of office, Ray. I didn't trust the references I saw here & there on the internet.

That "so help me God" was indeed in the Judiciary Act of 1789 only for judicial offices does support your claim that the phrase was directly correlated to judicial-type proceedings.

I'm not sure your counterargument about redundancy holds. In fairness, neither do I insist my does either. But it seems to me an oath is an oath, regardless of the wording.

Ray Soller said...

Tom, it would take a book length explication to explore the etymology for the word "oath." Saying, "I swear by God ..." or "I swear ... So help me God" specifically invokes God as the guarantor to the terms of the oath.

I'm not sure what's behind your position on redundancy. If you're implying that a federal judge should be able to prompt a president to say "So help me God" because it's already understood as being an integral part of the presidential oath of office as prescribed by the Constitution, then I certainly disagree.

Tom Van Dyke said...

you're implying that a federal judge should be able to prompt a president to say "So help me God"...

Huh? I made my thoughts clear on this post, Ray. You must have read it because you commented on it.

To business, then:


Both the etymology of "oath" and its common meaning everywhere on the internet says that it invokes the deity, which the Founders understood as "God."

http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1O27-oath.html

An oath is an oath. "So help me God" is a redundancy.

Further, I think your deconstruction of "so help me God," that there were no contemporary witnesses of GWashington adding it to his oath, although probably technically accurate, omits a number of other factors that may leave a wrong, overly secular impression.

---That one could "affirm" instead of "swear" was actually religious, not non-religious, in intent: some folks were so religious they refused to swear, so an accommodation was made for them.

---Your argument that "so help me God" was a judicial convention seems supportable; it was part of the original Supreme Court oath of 1798, and---for the record---the phrase was added to all executive branch oaths in 1884. [Including the vice-president!]

I'm not sure what's behind your position on redundancy.

Since this is my core point, let's make sure you're sure, Ray. Adding "So help me God" is redundant, and neither adds nor detracts. It is merely a poetic formality, because an oath is an oath with or without the phrase, a promise invoking God.

Pinky said...

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So, help me, God, I can't see what's so important about the clincher at the end of the oath.

I have the idea that when ever anyone does anything they consider to be solemn or super important, they almost automatically say, "So, help me, God."

King of Ireland said...

It is surely perfunctory tradition now and in my opinion anything that is perfunctory is by definition not from the heart. Thus, Christians that push this crap are actually asking people to perform religious tasks that are not heart felt and in my reading of the Bible make God sick.

He more than once asked the Israelites to stop worshipping in the ritualistic way that they were because it made him sick. I am too tired to look up the verse but I think it is in the minor prophets. Thanks Barton for making a difference in the world by inundating the world with more boring rituals that God even hates?

I think there is another verse about the Gentiles cursing God's name because of His people!

bpabbott said...

Tom: "Adding "So help me God" is redundant, and neither adds nor detracts."

It does add a sectarian context.

Given King's comment (which I agree with), the inclusion of the phrase appears (to me) to be a test of sorts ... perhaps/apparently a test whose motive is to determine who does and does not favor a sectarian government, and/or religious perspective.

Ray Soller said...

Tom, thanks for the clarification, and the reminder concerning your earlier post.

Your insistance that "So help me God" is a redundancy is a new one to me. Please excuse me for wondering why you were putting forth this proposition.

You state that: I think your deconstruction of SHMG, ... , although probably technically accurate, omits a number of other factors that may leave a wrong, overly secular impression.Please help me out - what have I omitted "that may leave a wrong overly secular impression"?

Is this an example of something that I've omitted?: That one could "affirm" instead of "swear" was actually religious, not non-religious, in intent: some folks were so religious they refused to swear, so an accommodation was made for them.Barton hadn't made this point, so I failed to mention it. The acommodation was made at the federal level for Quakers, Moravians, Menonites, and other like-minded religious groups and individuals. The result turned their affirmation into a completely areligious declaration. Here's a sample that dates to 1778 of the injustices endured by some Mennonites because of their refusal to submit to a "Test Oath."

Is this supposed to be an another example?: [SHMG] was part of the original Supreme Court oath of 1798[you mean 1789], and---for the record---the phrase was added to all executive branch oaths in 1884. [Including the vice-president!]

As far as I know, when one excludes the President, there has never been a different oath for the members of the executive branch than for the members of congress. In 1865 Vice-President Andrew Johnson took the identical oath as all newly elected members of Congress, which is clearly reported by an on-the-scene reporter, Noah Brooks, as ending with SHMG. [I don't understand the reason for your 1884 exclamation mark.]

Tom Van Dyke said...

An oath is an oath. That's my central argument, and I believe that I've borne it out, including its etymology. This is the core of what was happening at the Founding. George Washington swore an oath.

But to the objections, which I consider tangential to the core truth, but still are valid:

Ray, I didn't mean you intentionally omitted anything. I realize I might have given that impression, and I apologize.

I was speaking only of the narrow scope of your argument, and within that narrow scope, we have no real disagreement except on the core point of oaths.

It's not my style to accuse the other fellow of intellectual dishonesty. [I have accused the other fellow of sophistry, of ignoring the spirit of the discussion in favor of legalisms and splitting semantic hairs. But I'm trying to move past sophistries---hair-splittings---of all sorts. They are unconcerned with discerning truth, only with winning arguments.]

Neither do I like defending David Barton, chapter or verse. I merely point out that out of 100 quotes, or 100 arguments, a substantial percentage of them withstand even the most skeptical scrutiny.

I don't read Barton except to crosscheck claims made against him; my arguments are my own, arrived at independently. If I agree with Barton on issue X, it's because he has stumbled across a legitimate argument, perhaps even a truth.

As for the comments from His Highness the King of Ireland, and our great friend Ben Abbott, perhaps the reformulations of 1884 that include "so help me God" [hope I got the date right, and yes, Ray, I did mean 1789 for the Judicial Act] need to be examined. Perhaps they were clever insertions of "religious tests."

But I believe I'm correct in stating that the oaths for the executive branch were reformulated in 1884. This isn't an area of great interest to me, so I've just passed on what I read here & there because I think it's crucial to all your comments, and to Ray's major thesis.

In fact, Ray, if I'm correct, the presidential oath was never screwed with, as it was the only one explicitly spelled out by the Founders.

If I'm correct, your friend/pal/acquaintance Michael Newdow should take aim at the vice-presidential oath.

Just trying to be honest & helpful here.

;-)

My response would be that a VP or a cabinet member could still choose to affirm rather than swear, so "So help me God" [SHMG]would be inappropriate. But still, I think SHMG is part of the statute.

I think this is all sophistic garbage, but our legalistic and sophistic age is concerned with such things. Just wanted to let everybody know that I'm hip to it.

And if I'm wrong about 1884, pls let me know. I heard Justice Stevens administer the SHMG part of their oaths quite forcefully to Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton. Justice Roberts seemed a lot more circumspect.

Me, I'm just sittin' here watchin' the wheels go 'round and round. I'm all verklempt.

Discuss among yourselves...

Magpie Mason said...

Pinky is on the right track. Freemason Washington would have been familiar with kissing the Bible and beseeching "So help me God" to conclude his oath.

As I'll demonstrate in my post here Thursday, the 220th anniversary of this event, the phrase "So help me God" had been part of oath-taking since Jacobean times.

See you tomorrow.

Ray Soller said...

Ray Soller said...
Tom, as far as the federal government is concerned, the Vice-President has always taken the identical oath as the one legislated for the members of Congress and all other federal employees. I repeat, with the exception of the President, there is nothing distinctive about the oath taken by members of the executive branch.

The only significant change that I am aware of regarding the VP's oath took place on January 20, 1937, when FDR decided to include administration of the VP's oath as part of the presidential inaugural ceremony. Theretofore, the VP had traditionally taken his oath in the Senate chamber at the same time that the newly elected Senators were sworn in.

The FDR initiated innovation does cause a noticeable inconscistency in the sense that the legislated oath as administered to the VP is longer than the constitutional oath administered to the President and, of course, where the VP's oath ends with SHMG and the constitutional oath for the President does not.

It so happens that the difference in length between the two oaths prompted a question dated January 22, 2009 from Mr. A.P. from the Netherlands, who asked, “Historians [of the House of Representatives]: Can you explain to me why the text of the Vice President's oath of office for the inauguration was much longer than the text of the President? Why not the same text for both? Thank you.” See ResponseRegarding Michael Newdow, I have never been privy to his planned legal strategy, but I believe that the only way for a citizen to challenge the VP's oath would possibly be to be a candidate for that office (or for any other congressional office).

My personal opinion is that the congressional oath should follow the presidential oath as a definitive standard and not vice versa.

Ray Soller said...

Magpie, I look forward to your post.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Geez, Ray, are you sure?

http://americanhistory.about.com/od/uspresidents/ss/inauguration_4.htm