Sunday, May 3, 2009

New York State: The Usual Mode of Administering an Oath

During a number of weeks earlier this year, I had the opportunity of mailing a number of packets to Professor Paul F. Boller, Jr. (author of George Washington and Religion), which contained copies of significant historical documentation regarding George Washington's first inauguration along with other presidential inaugurations.

On March 11, 2009 Professor Boller wrote back to me:
Dear Ray:

Thanks for the additional documents you sent me. There's no doubt in my mind that you and your associates have made it clear that Chester A. Arthur was the first President to add "So help me God" to the Constitutional oath and that until FDR it did not become standard procedure. If I get to revise Presidential Inaugurations, I'll revise what I said about Washington's inauguration and report your findings.

I don't know if you know this: when FDR took his second oath on January 20, 1937, Newsweek [ January 30, 1937, Inaugural: Soaked Dignataries Watch the President 'Take it', see caption and right hand column near bottom of page 11] reported that after taking the Constitutional oath, FDR "Gratuitously and unconstitutionally" added the word, "So help me God" to the oath. [dot - dot - dot]

I have only one last question: was it a Congressional committee that decided to include a Bible at Washington's first inauguration?

Thanks again for all your help.

Sincerely,
Paul F. Boller, Jr.

After seeking out some assistance from Charlene Bickford, Director, First Federal Congress Project, George Washington University, as to whether the Joint Congressional Committee may have played a role in arranging the use of a Bible at George Washington's first inauguration, I answered Boller's question by saying:
[As a result of my e-mail exchange with Ms. Bickford:] We both seem to agree that there is no contemporary evidence indicating that the Joint Committee had anything to do with obtaining a Bible for the swearing in of George Washington. We also agree that among the several possibilities, Chancellor Livingston stands out as being likely involved with obtaining the Bible.

My feeling is that Livingston actually promoted use of the Bible, and that he summoned its retrieval from the coffee house. I don't think we can read too much into Washington's apparent willingness to include the Bible as part of the ceremony. I would say that it was not his preference, because there is no mention of a Bible being used at his second inaugural ceremony. In addition, we should consider that the next time (as far as I can tell) we learn about a Bible being included as part of an inaugural ceremony is forty years later during Andrew Jackson's inauguration.

At this point, I simply had to say to myself, "Oh well, that's the best answer I can give at this time." Even, if as I had supposed, Chancellor Robert Livingston was responsible, then why did Livingston think it so important to administer the oath with a Bible so as to cause an awkward last-minute adjustment in the proceedings before the swearing-in ceremony could continue? Furthermore, in view of George Washington's general reluctance towards expressing his personal religious commitment regarding biblical supremacy, why did he not only place his hand on the "Good Book" but then conclude his oath by kissing it?

Fortunately, circumstance and curiosity helped me come across an unexamined puzzle piece that may provide an answer to both questions.

Intuitively, since several of the extra-constitutional inaugural activities were initiated by representatives of the New York "Chamber of Congress" (i.e. representatives from New York clergy, civic groups, and State government), it naturally follows that local enthusiasm and tradition took center stage. The morning city-wide church services, the inaugural parade, facilitating Washington's use of an elegant coach of state, and evening fireworks were all a New York affair. In addition, it turns out that the manner in which Chancellor Livingston administered Washington's presidential oath conforms exactly to the usual mode as defined by New York State protocol. Here's the significant passage from Laws of the state of New York: passed at the sessions of the Legislature (page 49):
First Session - CHAP. 25.

AN ACT to dispense with the usual mode of administering oaths in favour of persons having conscientious scruples respecting the same.

Passed the 1st of April, 1778.

Whereas many of the inhabitants of this State having conscientious scruples about the present mode of administering oaths by laying the hand on and kissing the gospels for the relief of all such persons,

Be it enacted by the People of the State of New-York represented in Senate and Assembly, and it is hereby enacted by the authority of the same That all and every person or persons impowered to administer oaths within this State, shall be and they hereby are empowered, authorized and required to tender and administer the said oaths to all such person or persons as shall declare they have such conscientious scruples, in the form following, to wit. The said person or persons shall with his her or their hand or hands uplifted swear by the everliving God and shall not be compelled to lay his her or their hand or hands on the Gospels or kiss the same: And that all oaths to be administered agreeable to the mode prescribed by this act shall be and the' same are hereby declared to be as good valid and effectual to all intents and purposes, as if the same had been administered by laying the hand on, and kissing the Gospels. And all persons who being sworn agreeable to the said mode and shall be guilty of false swearing or wilful and corrupt perjury, and be convicted thereof shall incur and suffer the same pains penalties or punishments, as if they had been respectively sworn on the Holy Evangelists.

There's no conclusive proof as to whether New York State Chancellor Robert Livingston was responsible for implementing the use of a Bible during Washington's inaugural ceremony, but if he saw himself, above all else, acting in an official capacity as defined by his office, then he certainly would have administered the oath according to the "Usual Mode." Consequently, it is likely that the Chancellor summoned a Bible for the swearing-in ceremony, and Washington would have had little choice but to place his right hand on the Bible and conclude his oath by kissing the Bible.

Now, for those who want proceed under the impression that George Washington added a "gratuitous and unconstitutional" "So help me God," despite the fact that no one has ever found a firsthand account to that effect, they can do so as they please. However, if one continues to focus on the historical record and examines the plan for Washington's second inauguration, then the facts speak for themselves (see The Works of Alexander Hamilton, page 342).
CABINET OPINION.
March 1, 1793. It is our opinion,

1. That the President ought to take the oath in public.

2. That the time be on Monday next, at twelve o'clock in the forenoon.

3. That the place be the Senate chamber.

4. That the Marshal of the district inform the Vice-President, that the Senate chamber, being the usual place of the President's public acts, is supposed to be the best place for taking the oath, and that it is wished that the chamber be open.

5. That it may be informally notified to the Vice-President, Governor, and Foreign Ministers, that the oath is to be taken at the time and place above mentioned.

6. That Mr. Gushing be requested to attend, and administer the oath.

7. That the President go without form, attended by such gentlemen as he may choose, and return without form, except that he be preceded by the Marshal.

H. Knox.
Edit. Randolph.

Subsequently, on March 4, 1793 Washington's second inauguration was carried out exactly as planned by the President and his Cabinet. Newspaper reports for March 5th confirmed that the inaugural ceremony, with the addition of Washington's Inaugural address, was carried out exactly as planned, and no one has ever reported that it contained a single reference to the Almighty.

2 comments:

Tom Van Dyke said...

the present mode of administering oaths by laying the hand on and kissing the gospels for the relief of all such persons...

Obviously, it was the custom in that era, then, Ray. That was Magpie Mason's argument. Your new evidence actually supports his case.

Whereas many of the inhabitants of this State having conscientious scruples about the present mode of administering oaths by laying the hand on and kissing the gospels for the relief of all such persons,This would be that those "conscientious scruples" were religious, that the Bible was TOO sacred to swear politics on. John Quincy Adams reputedly passed up the Bible for similar reasons and swore on the Constitution instead.

[Which he crossed in the anti-slavery Amistad case. I'm sure you've seen the movie.]

Consequently, it is likely that the Chancellor summoned a Bible for the swearing-in ceremony, and Washington would have had little choice but to place his right hand on the Bible and conclude his oath by kissing the Bible.But your legal citation is:

First Session - CHAP. 25.

AN ACT to dispense with the usual mode of administering oaths in favour of persons having conscientious scruples respecting the same.

Passed the 1st of April, 1778
.

George Washington was inaugurated as America's first president in 1789.

I was postponing my already-written post on this stuff to give some air to the discussion, and also Jonathan Rowe's more crucial discussion of Washington and also of the philosophical origin of natural rights and liberty leading up to the Founding era.

But I'll post it now, Ray, before it becomes obsolete.

I did my best to state your position in this controversy fairly and fully. If I missed anything, please correct me.

Ray Soller said...

Tom, the "custom" I am referring to is specifically what was prescribed by New York State statute. The historical record shows that the usual custom itself was not actually "dispensed" with, but it was made subject to "conscientious scruples." If you think that in this instance the "usual mode" for administering an oath customarily included the addition of SHMG, then document your case.

Alternately, oaths administered to New York State officials and, I suppose, most oaths administered by notaries did not include use of a Holy Book, but did by law end with SHMG. This was the same manner the NY Supreme Court Chief Justice, Richard Morris, administered the ad hoc oath of April 8, 1789 to the attending members of the House of Representatives. I suspect that some House members (someone like William Maclay) had thought an oath taken on a British Bible was inappropriate.

I have no idea why you bring up JQA. He was not the elected President in 1789 who took his oath as administered by a New York State judicial officer in contrast to a federal justice located in Washington D.C., and even if we can assume some relevance you still seem to be extremely casual when documenting what you've stated. As already indicated, I can think that there were those who didn't want to swear on a British Bible, and if this had been the case with GW, then that would have put him in a very awkward position if he didn't want to include a British Bible.

As for Magpie's case, there is no documented indication that however Washington swore to an oath during the colonial era that this pattern carried over into the post-colonial era. Washington definitely did not add SHMG to his Continental Army loyalty oath, no firsthand report describing its inclusion at his first inauguration, and never, as far as I can tell, did anyone distinctly suggest that GW had added SHMG during his second inauguration.