Thursday, October 29, 2009

So Help Me God, Knock on Wood, Did Forrest Church Get It Right?

A short while ago, co-blogger Mark in Spokane posted an article in which he praised Gordon S. Wood's new book, Empire of Liberty, A History of the Republic, 1789-1815, with these words, "each page is packed with detail and interpretation, and it is simply a joy to mull over Wood's insights." I've only read one page in the entire book, but that page includes a footnote that appears to fall short of possessing any noticeable insight. Here's the specific footnote from page 64 that I'm talking about:
35. There is no contemporary [or subsequent firsthand] evidence that he [George Washington] also said "so help me God" at the end of the oath; the matter is very controversial today. See Forrest Church, So help me God: The Founding Fathers and the Great Battle over Church and State, (New York, 2007), 445-49. Since the Judiciary Act of 1789 declared that the oath to be sworn by the justices of the Supreme Court and the other federal judges included the phrase "So help me God," it is likely that Washington may have also used the phrase (1 Cong. Ch. 20, 1 Stat. 73, Sec. 8). I owe this information to Steven G. Calabresi.
A single footnote can not affect the overall merit of a scholarly book filled with more than seven hundred pages, but, by itself, it shows that there is no substitute for a firsthand analysis of an important issue. Footnote 35 refers to an Appendix (pgs. 445-49), where Reverend Forrest Church defends the notion that George Washington added a sacred codicil to his presidential oath. Unfortunately, his presentation wanders off beyond the limits of reasonable credibility, and the second item, a reference to the secondary oath for federal judges contained in the Judiciary Act of September 24, 1789, completely overlooks the basic oath taken by all federal employees except for the president as specified in "An act to regulate the time and manner of administering certain oaths." This act was signed into law by George Washington nearly three months earlier on June 1, 1789, and it is this generic federal oath that is most similar to the presidential oath.

If a person takes a serious look at the Church's Appendix, then several glaring deficiencies become apparent. First off, Washington Irving was not the first person to describe George Washington as having added the "so help me God" codicil to his presidential oath. This so-called honor belongs to Rufus W. Griswold, who preceded Washington Irving's 1857 account by three years when he published his book, The Republican Court; or American Society in the Days of George Washington, pgs. 138-42. It turns out, neither author ever specified a source for their rendition of Washington's oath. Griswold may have used Washington Irving as his source, since he mentioned listening to a retelling of the inaugural ceremony by the master storyteller of his day. But, whatever Griswold learned from Irving no one can say just what that was. In contrast, it is absolutely clear that Griswold did use the widely circulated anonymous account, which originally appeared in Philadelphia's Federal Gazette of May 8th, as cited by Reverend Church.

The fundamental problem with Irving's account is that it does not come from what can be called a personal recollection. Instead, it is a fact that Washington Irving plagiarized the bulk of his inaugural narrative from the Memoir of Eliza Susan [Morton] Quincy (see footnote, bottom page 52). Another telling point is that, elsewhere in Irving's biography of George Washington (Vol 5, pg 21), Irving states that Washington's inaugural coach "was drawn by a single pair of horses" "on the panels of which were emblazoned the arms of the United States." (Forrest Church, unlike Washington Irving, chose six horses.) This assertion is contradicted by several contemporary newspaper reports (e.g. New York Packet, May 1, 1789) that describe Washington as riding alone in an elegant state coach, which was the only one pulled by four horses. The elegant coach with its gilded trim was loaned out for the inaugural parade by the wealthy Beekman family, and, in contrast to what Irving described, bore the Beekman family coat of arms. Furthermore, according to Griswold's placement of young Irving's viewing position, Irving was located at the "corner of Wall Street and New Streets," one block (about 200 feet) west of Federal Hall, where he was not even in a position to see any part of the inaugural parade. (It would also have been an absolute marvel if Washington Irving could have heard the inaugural oath, since Eliza, who was directly across the street, "so near," she "could almost hear him [George Washington] speak" when he took his oath.)

Next, Reverend Church tries to support his case by a May 9th Pennsylvania Mercury article. This turns out to be a real bummer, because David Humphreys, "Washington's principal aide," had absolutely nothing to do with the cited article. When I investigated this matter, I found out that Church's reference actually came from Philadelphia's Federal Gazette of May 9th, where the introduction to the article stated, "Extract from an essay published by Mr. Humphreys, in the Pennsylvania Mercury, this morning." Further examination conclusively shows that the "Mr. Humphreys" identified here is Daniel Humphreys, the publisher and editor of the Pennsylvania Mercury, and not "David Humphreys, Washington's principal aide." The truth of the matter is that the editor, Daniel Humphreys, had published a rambling and very long-winded month-long serialized essay that had been submitted by a pseudononymous Apocalypsophilos from which the Federal Gazette had selected a snippet.

Shortly after the "Mr. Humphreys" fiasco, Reverend Church refers to the ad hoc House oath of April 6th, but he fails to present any evidence that this oath was ever considered in any other context. It's simply wrong to say that this House initiated, God-laced oath was either a "competing" oath or was overturned "two months later" during the legislative process. The first piece of legislation that passed by Congress was named, "An act to regulate the time and manner of administering certain oaths." Washington signed this bill into law on June 1, 1789. From the time just preceding Washington's inaugural ceremony through to the time when Congress submitted the bill for the President's signature, the bill contained the exact same wording for the proposed federal oath. This oath, which was taken by all federal employees other than by the president, simply reads, “I, A. B. do solemnly swear or affirm (as the case may be) that I will support the Constitution of the United States.” (No reference to God.) One should note that this oath is the precursor of our current day federal oath, which is also the first oath taken by all federal judges.

The last item presented by Reverend Church comes from a responding letter written by Chief Justice John (not "George") Marshall and addressed to President-elect Thomas Jefferson. Here, Church claims, "I can conceive of no other reason for this exchange apart from Jefferson wishing assurance from Marshall that he would not be required to add the words 'So help me God' to the oath as spelled out in the Constitution." Now, that's a stretch. It is much more reasonable to view Jefferson's March 2, 1801 letter as asking Chief Justice Marshall whether he had not only to swear to the presidential oath, but to also first swear to the same basic oath applicable to all other federal employees. This was just another way of asking that since the Chief Justice had to swear to two different oaths, did the president need to follow a similar protocol? As indicated by Church, "Marshall replied, 'That [oath] prescribed in the Constitution seems to me to be the only one which is to be administered.'"

I can only speak for myself, but, in summary, I do not see how Reverend Forrest Church came close to making a persuasive argument to support the proposition that George Washington had likely added "so help me God" to his oath.

The second part of footnote 35 refers to the Judiciary Act of 1789. In this instance, the attempt to invoke some sense of proleptic rationale so one can be persuaded that "it is likely that [Washington] may have also used the [So help me God] phrase" just doesn't pass muster. As I have already indicated, judges appointed to the judicial branch must submit to two different oaths. The first oath, with no reference to God, was the standard oath until the Civil War for all federal employees to "support the Constitution," whereas the second oath exclusively commits the justices of the Supreme Court and the other federal judges to "administer justice" ... "agreeably to the constitution, and laws of the United States. So help me God"

The president and members of the congressional branch do not have a charter to administer justice. Washington understood the distinctly unique nature of the Judiciary Act when he stated in his farewell address, "A volume could not trace all their connections with private and public felicity. Let it simply be asked: Where is 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?"[my italics] In contrast, had Washington ever intimated that obligatory oaths for federal office specified a declaration of religious commitment, then there would be a case for considering whether Washington had added a sacred codicil to his oath of office. In reality, the opposite is most evident. When Washington signed his May 12, 1778 Continental Army oath of allegiance as legislated by the Continental Congress, he did not add the words "so help me God." (For more on this subject, see Historic Oath of Allegiance Comes Home.) Again, when on September 17, 1787, Washington's signature headed the list of delegates who endorsed the proposed godless Constitution, he was fully aware that "no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States." Finally and most notably, at the time of President Washington's second inauguration he planned that inaugural ceremony without a single indication of religious acknowledgement. (See American Creation: David Barton and His Seven Signs.)

What is most surprising about footnote 35 is that Professor Wood credits Professor Steven G. Calabresi as the source for his information about Washington's presidential oath, while completely ignoring the 1-12-09 History News Network article, So Help Me God”: A George Washington Myth that Should Be Discarded, by Peter R. Henriques. You can find the associated endnotes to Henriques' article at my earlier American Creation blog (see


Further examination conclusively shows - I wasn't surprised, but when Reverend Church was presented with my research on the identity"Mr. Humphreys, he replied:

----- Message sent August 29, 2007 -----

Dear Ray,

Just got back from vacation to receive your research on Daniel Humphreys. I was hasty in my identification and will change the attribution in my appendix on line. [No change has ever been made.] I needn't have included that piece to begin with, and it doesn't change my sense that Washington is more likely than not to have said "So help me God" when he was inaugurated, though you will note that I nowhere claim that we can be certain about this. It is secondary to the argument of my book—that after a fierce, pitched battle between the forces of liberty and order (pluribus and unum), strict church-state separation was not firmly established until following the War of 1812 during the Monroe administration. There can be no doubt, however, that Washington's first inauguration (unlike his second) was a religious as well as a secular rite.

Best, Forrest

Professor Wood credits Professor Steven G Calabrisi - This is the same Steven G. Calabrisi who posted a January 25, 2009 Balkanization Guest Blog entitled, Steve Calabrisi on the Oath Controversy. In the concluding sentence of Calabrisi's guest blog he parades his outdated picture of the first "two centuries" of inaugural history by saying:
The addition of the words including the President’s name (in this case “Barack Hussein Obama”) and “so help me God” are permissible both because they do not take away any of the words the Constitution mandates and because two centuries of practice starting with George Washington himself have established that the addition of these words is permissible.


Anonymous said...

I found the ad hominem disparagement of Forrest Church unfortunate. Reputable scholars are known to have differing opinions and I can only assume the author chose not to acknowledge that Church was the holder of a PhD from Harvard as a way of diminishing Church's credibility. The author also attacks Church's neglect in not posting a correction to the online edition of his book, as he said he planned to do. Surely he knows that Church discovered he had terminal cancer sometime before February 2008, and died in September of this year. Is it not possible he had other things on his mind?

All of this took away from the very interesting discussion which is too important to be diluted with such wasteful exercises.

Tom Van Dyke said...

All of this took away from the very interesting discussion which is too important to be diluted with such wasteful exercises.

What discussion did you find interesting, Anonymous? Not that I expect a reply since I make it this was someone trolling the internet googling "Forrest Church."

As for Washington saying So Help Me God, let's say he probably didn't. The historical evidence is nil.

But swearing his oath of office on a Bible says "so help me God" in every arguable way.

And since "So help me God" was customarily part of most every oath taken in those days, including New York state where he was inaugurated, if Washington has added it, it would have been unremarkable, which would explain why nobody there remarked on it.

Previously asked and answered on this blog, Ray, but since you're recapping your original argument from way back, the original demurral should be printed here as well.

Me, I think GWash probably didn't say "so help me God," but there's a plausibility he did, and his agreeing to the last-minute offer of a Bible to swear upon still makes it an oath, and says "so help me God" stronger than words ever could.

[Nice to see you back at the blog again, Ray. I hope you'll participate in the discussions. I learn something here every day in the comments sections, let alone our main page.]

Magpie Mason said...

Submitted again for your approval, my own "pro" argument.

- Jay

Ray Soller said...

Anonymous, Forrest sent me five e-mails after the August 29th date up to January 1, 2008. During those intervening five months, he gave me no indication that he was slacking off due to his illness. Three of these e-mails are listed here:

--- Message sent Oct. 08, 2007 ---

Dear Ray,

I'm seeking, for my new book, to uncover any hints of AL's [Abraham Lincoln's] response to the National Reform Association efforts (along with anything I can find about his role in putting "So Help Me God" onto the coinage). Your lead is a promising one. If I find anything beyond it, I'll be sure to let you know. I won't be writing this up until summer; anything more you may discover in the meantime I'll welcome (so long as you don't mind being cited in my acknowledgments!).

Lv, Forrest [end 10/08/07 message]

--- Message sent Oct. 08, 2007 ---

tour ended yesterday, Ray, though I have a number of speaking events in Jan and Feb, which I may employ to extend the promotion for the book. thanks for the Hoover info. I couldn't open attachments on the road because I was using my phone to keep, if barely, in touch! lv, F. [end 11/14/07 message]

--- Message sent Jan. 1, 2008 ---

Dear Ray,

A hearty and happy new year!

Fyi I attach my thoughts on Huckabee's candidacy [Should Preachers Like Mike Huckabee Run for Public Office?] in light of America's (appropriately) ambivalent attitude toward reverend politicians.

lv, Forrest [end 01/01/08 message]

Needless to say, if Forrest had been able to continue working on his proposed book, I would have been glad to assist.

Ray Soller said...

Magpie, I hope we agree that all explications based on primary source material need no approval. Your "So help me God"argument and all others stand on their own merit.

There's one area that needs further research, and that's how do we know the particular biblical verse to which Washington opened the Masonic Bible? I have no reason to question the proposition that Washington opened the Bible to Genesis Chapters 49 and 50. But, in Jerry Bowyer's 1/22/09 article, Presidents And The Constitution, What Obama, Roosevelt and Madison really said, the author reported:

The Wall Street Journal said this week that Washington took his oath on a Bible opened at random that fell upon an obscure passage in the minor prophets. I don't think so. First of all, Washington did nothing at random. Second of all, there's at least one account that says that he opened his Bible to Deuteronomy chapter 28, Moses' farewell address, which is composed of a long list of national blessings and curses which would fall alternatively on just and unjust nations. Than, he gave an inaugural address that said that private virtue was the foundation of public prosperity.[end snippet]

Do you have any idea as to what Bowyer's "at least one account" is referring, or how the reference to Dt. 28 got started?

Jonathan Rowe said...

Great post as usual Ray.

Thanks for posting this.

Explicit Atheist said...

While pointing out that Washington Irving's account of the inauguration does not appear to qualify as a personal recollection, you omitted mentioning that we do have such a personal recollection from the French counsel. The French counsel provides the only eyewitness account that quotes the oath recitation along with relating the other details of this first swearing in cermony and there is no "SHMG".

While mentioning that The Judiciary Act of 1789 oaths end in "SHMG", you omitted mentioning that it always specifies either and oath or an affirmation, and that it asserts that the the ending "SHMG" is omitted from the affirmations.

Magpie Mason said...

>There's one area that needs
>further research, and that's how
>do we know the particular
>biblical verse to which
>Washington opened the Masonic

Dear Mr. Soller,

The owner of this Bible, St. John's Lodge No. 1 in New York City, has maintained for 220 years that President Washington placed his hand at Genesis 49-50, and in fact had modified the book to record that historical note.

With all due respect to these other researchers, I do not know where they are finding information. The Bible is on display at Federal Hall, and its owner can be reached via the web.