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...