Sunday, May 3, 2009

Did Washington say "So Help Me God?"

Misinformation, disinformation,
a lot of certainty about the uncertain,
and does it really matter if he did anyway?

by Tom Van Dyke

Our colleague Ray Soller presents an airtight case that there's no direct proof that George Washington added "so help me God" [SHMG] when he took the first presidential oath in 1789. After all, the earliest references to Washington's SHMG are from the 1800s! And Mr. Soller has offered circumstantial arguments as well, that

---SHMG was used mostly in the sphere of jurisprudence, oaths being an invocation of God and calling him as a witness to the truth of testimony [the oath for Supreme Court justices and clerks includes SHMG]

---It would have been out of character for a conscientious man like George Washington to add anything like SHMG to his oath, which was strictly spelled out in the US Constitution without SHMG

Our new colleague Magpie Mason admits that there's no direct eyewitness evidence for SHMG, but presents his own circumstantial case that it's quite plausible that it was in custom and in character that he did:

---Oaths in that era, specifically political ones like oaths to the English crown, routinely added SHMG

---Washington was a Freemason, and Masons routinely added SHMG to their oaths

---That adding SHMG was so routine for that era that the eyewitnesses might not even have made direct note of it---and come to think of it, how many of the eyewitnesses would have read that brand-new constitution and even have known SHMG wasn't part of the explicit wording? As it was in keeping with the custom of the time, to hear SHMG would have been not even worthy of noting. They didn't note any of the other words of the oath, either.

For as a letter Mr. Soller received from a government historian notes

---Members of congress in the Founding era, without a constitutionally [or statutory] formulated oath to use, sometimes added SHMG on an ad hoc basis [until SHMG was formally added in 1862].

What we can say for sure is that we don't know for sure. There is a lack of direct evidence, and there's valid circumstantial evidence on both sides.

Which brings us to a semi-famous fellow name of Michael Newdow, who has sued the spit out of the federal government on occasions when the word [name of] God is mentioned, in the Pledge of Allegiance, and most recently, over SHMG in Barack Obama's oath of office.

Now, Mr. Newdow is a culture warrior [not that that's a bad thing], and says he's trying to protect his daughter from coerced religiosity, arguably a constitutional, First Amendment sentiment. This is from his children's "show":

Let's be clear: When it comes to whether George Washington added "so help me God" when he was inaugurated, Michael Newdow flatly proclaims "He Didn't Say It," and his cartoons and animations say it's a "hoax" along the lines of alien abductions.

I'll withhold comment on the aesthetics and propriety of the video itself, except to say that that Newdow plays OK guitar, but anyone who claims certainty about Washington and SHMG, well, they shouldn't.

Now, my own argument about this whole hubbub is that it ignores a greater truth: Putting one's hand on the Bible and saying "I swear"---and nobody denies as a historical fact that Washington did---is "so help me God" in action and deed, if not word.

The rest is details. The culture wars go on...


J. L. Bell said...

Not only is there no reliable contemporaneous evidence that Washington said “So help me God,” but there are detailed, contemporaneous, eyewitness descriptions of the ceremony that do not include that detail among the others.

Therefore, the weight of the evidence leans towards Newdow’s position. He is not, of course, the first person to declare himself certain on this historical question. But unlike many others, he has the weight of historical evidence on his side.

Ray Soller said...

As J.L Bell has said, "[Newdow] is not of course, the first person to declare himself certain on this historical question." The blogs dealing with this subject as posted by Bell have already indicated his position. You can add Peter Henriques, Charlene Bickford, Philander Chase, and now, in addition, Paul Boller to this same category.

I have read and discussed the alternative possibility as presented by Brian Tubbs, Peter Lillback, Forrest Church, David Barton, Fred Beuttler, and most recently by Magpie Mason. Each time, after I have have investigated these alternative viewpoints, I have come to the same conclusion that I am virtually certain that GW did not say SHMG.

Tom, as far as the "greater truth" is concerned, I don't know what that means in reality and I wouldn't ever try to contemplate whether Washington saw the "greater truth" in any other terms than to envision how his reputation would survive after his death.

Pinky said...

ad nauseam

Brad Hart said...

Yep...this is just another arrow in the quiver of the ongoing culture wars that will be debated until the apocalypse when the Mayan calendar comes to an end. Or it's like debating whether or not the U.S.S. Enterprise is superior to the Millenium Falcon or not. Oops...that’s a separate culture war issue…my bad.

I am convinced that even if we had a time machine (hopefully a DeLorean like in "Back to the Future”) and could go see Washington's oath, that it STILL wouldn't end the debate. The Mike Newdow's of the world would simply try to sue Washington for adding SHMG (assuming that he uttered such a phrase), while the religious crowd would condemn Washington from omitting such a phrase (assuming that he did) and would simply move on to the next person in line to exalt as a national religious hero.

In this sense, Washington is damned if he did, damned if he didn’t.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Yes, Brad, the issue is definitely a Rorschach test.

However, since the rules of logic dictate that you can't prove a negative, "certainty" here is subjective---opinion---and to call SHMG a "hoax" is a bridge way too far.

The circumstantial side for the affirmative has validity, especially that the eyewitnesses likely wouldn't have read the new constitution in its entirety and known that SHMG wasn't written into the oath. So hearing SHMG would be unremarkable, as it was the prevailing custom of the time, and would explain why they didn't make note of it.

Perhaps Mr. Soller and Mr. Newdow are "certain," but I doubt the other scholars named would claim they are, even if they lean against it.

Mr. Soller, as for the possible greater truth, that saying "I swear" and putting your hand on the Bible---and it's historical fact that Washington did---is for all practical purposes saying "so help me God," you simply blotted out my argument and substituted your own.

The greater truth is not in narrowing it to Washington's subjective intention, but broadening it to the meaning of "I swear" and the use of a Bible to the wider scope of the people of the Founding generation. And those that followed.

Me, I think it's 50-50 he said it. Mebbe 90-10 that he did not. But certainty on this is not possible, and I think that was a pretty creepy video. [There, I said it.]

Kristo Miettinen said...


Tom's concluding point is the key (Tom, you should have put it up front): regardless of what GW *said*, "so help me God" is consistent with everything we know about (1) GW's opinion about God and how he works and what we should hope for from him; (2) the contemporary general understanding among Americans of what was going on in an oath of office.