Thursday, January 28, 2010

The Parson Weems Moment - 1854

"I am always at a loss to know how much to believe of my own stories." (from Tales of a Traveler, by Washington Irving, 1824)

In a recent e-mail exchange I was asked if I knew of "the Parson Weems moment," where the first mention of the story for George Washington adding "so help me God" had occurred.

I responded with the following material that is selected from So help me God in presidential oaths. The article is written by Mathew Goldstein and it contains a summary of the research carried out by Matt, myself, and others. A pertinent selection from the article follows:

The earliest known published claim that George Washington added that phrase to his oath appears in a book that was initially published in 1854 - The Republican Court; or, American Society in the Days of Washington, by Rufus Wilmot Griswold, 1854-1857, New York, page 141. Griswold says that he pieced together his account after having a conversation with Dr. [John Wakefield] Francis and Washington Irving during which time Irving had related "his recollections of the scene." Griswold then recalled Irving’s presence during the ceremony by saying, "He [Washington Irving] had watched the procession till the President entered Federal Hall, and from the corner of New street and Wall street had observed the subsequent proceedings in the balcony." [RS - The truth is that Irving was not located where he could see the procession as it moved up Broad Street.] Washington Irving was six years old at the time of George Washington's inauguration. The corner of New Street and Wall Street, ... is about 200 feet west from Federal Hall. From that distance and sideways viewing angle it is unlikely anyone would have a clear view of the activities or be able to hear what was said. Liza [Susan Morton (Quincy)] was watching from a balcony just across the street and she said she was "so near," that she "could almost hear him [George Washington] speak" when he took his oath. Yet somehow, Griswold claims to know that George Washington recited the "so help me God" phrase "with eyes closed". ... The [Dr.] "Reverend" R. W. Griswold was born in 1815 so he could not have been an eyewitness. Dr. Francis was born in 1789 and so he couldn't have been Griswold's source either.

Published three years afterwards was Life of George Washington, by Washington Irving, 1857, New York, volume 4, page 514. According to Pierre M. Irving and Washington Irving: A Collaboration in Life and Letters, by Wayne R. Kime, 1977, University Press, page 133, Irving had the idea for a Washington biography in 1825, started research by the early 1840s, and was writing by the early 1850s. Furthermore, it's clear that Washington's first inauguration was important to Irving's conception of that biography. Up until May 1855, he planned to end with that scene. Even after Irving decided to cover Washington's presidential terms, he wanted the first inauguration to be the climax of volume 4 (see pages 260, 297, and 326 of Pierre M. Irving and Washington Irving). That means Irving was mulling over the inauguration scene, possibly even drafting it, well before he published.

dot - dot - dot

The editor of the Memoir of the life of Eliza S. M. Quincy, ed. E S Quincy, Boston [Printed by J. Wilson] 1861, complains in a footnote at the bottom of page 52 that
The previous pages, which describe the entrance and inauguration of Washington, were sent to Mr. Irving, in 1856, at his request, by the Editor, and are inserted in his "Life of Washington," vol iv. pp. 510, 513, 514, but without reference to their source.
Eliza Morton Quincy was the younger sister to Jacob Morton, the person who it is said hastily retrieved the Masonic Bible for use during the inauguration. An excerpt of an earlier version of the same manuscript, published in 1856, which does not claim that George Washington appended "so help me God," can be found in the Century Magazine, volume 37, issue 6, April 1889, page 827, The Inauguration of Washington, by Clarence Winthrop Bowen. Two other accounts of the inauguration claiming George Washington appended "so help me God" were also published that year. Life and Times of Washington, John Frederick Schroeder, (Completed by Ben Lossing & R.W. Griswold), 1857 [published posthumously], Johnson, Fry, and Company, New York, pg 308 and Memoirs of Washington, by Caroline Matilda Kirkland, 1857, New York: D. Appleton, p. 438.

Schroeder and Kirkland mingled with Griswold and Irving in the same New York city literary circles. Nowhere, among these four authors, does anyone specify just how they came by their claim that George Washington included the words "So help me God." Schroeder, an Episcopalian minister, died on Feb. 26, 1857 before he completed his book. Griswold [who died on August 27th of that same year] had a hand in completing Schroeder's book. Kirkland mimicked Griswold and wrote, "..., he [Washington] was observed to say audibly, 'I swear!' adding, with closed eyes, as if to collect all his being into the momentous act - 'So help me God!'" It thus appears possible that the "Reverend" Griswold originated the assertion that George Washington appended "so help me God" and also had a hand in getting the other three authors to assert the same. [RS - It should be noted that the preface in Kirkland's book is dated "October,1856," which indicates that she was the next person to reproduce Griswold's version of Washington's oath. This could have left Irving in the awkward position of obligingly adding "so help me God" to Washington's oath of office, even if he hadn't been Griswold's original source.]

According to The Religious Beliefs of Our Presidents, by Franklin Steiner, 1936, most of Washington Irving's biography of George Washington is copied from the biography written by historian [Jared] Sparks, Irving did little if any original research for his popular biography of George Washington. Similarly, in his article on Washington in the Dictionary of American Biography (1936), J C Fitzpatrick wrote, "Washington Irving, Life of GW (5 vols., 1855-1859) is satisfactory from most viewpoints, though its reliance on [Jared] Sparks lessens the confidence it would otherwise command." Sparks biography, although well researched, was written in a biased manner that exaggerates and promotes Washington's status as Hero. The following description of the bias of Jared Spark's biography of George Washington is from The Americans: The National Experience by Daniel J Boorstin "Part Seven - SEARCH FOR SYMBOLS Ch. 39 - The Mythologizing of George Washington":
Sparks followed the style of his day. His biography, which prefaced the writings, was pious, pallid, and reverential. The Hero was of commanding figure, symmetrical features, indomitable courage, pure character, and perfect judgment; "his moral qualities were in perfect harmony with those of his intellect." Sparks' appendix, "Religious Opinions and Habits", was an ingenious whitewash in which Washington's failure to attend communion became an argument for his religiosity. "He may have believed it improper publicly to partake of an ordinance, which, according to the ideas he entertained of it, imposed severe restrictions on outward conduct, and a sacred pledge to perform duties impracticable in his situation. Such an impression would be natural to a serious mind . . . a man of a delicate conscience and habitual reverence for religion." There was no passage in Washington's writings, Sparks noted, which expressed doubt of the Christian revelation. In a man of such Christian demeanor, what more conclusive proof that he was a true and tolerant Christian?
The writings were edited in a similar spirit. In selecting a mere eleven [volumes] from what might have filled four times that many volumes, Sparks had ample freedom to ennoble his subject. While Sparks did not actually add passages of his own, he omitted passages at will without warning the reader and he improved the language when it seemed unworthy of the Hero. He explained all this in his introduction: "It would be an act of unpardonable injustice to any author, after his death, to bring forth compositions, and particularly letters, written with no design for their publication, and commit them to press without previously subjecting them to careful revision." Challenged later on his editorial methods, Sparks argued with charming naivete that he was really being true to his subject because Washington himself in his old age revised his early letters. Wherever Sparks had a choice he preferred Washington's own latter revision (again without warning the reader) in place of what had actually been written in the heat of the events. And Sparks made changes of his own. Where, for example, Washington had written of the "rascally crews" of New England privateersmen, Sparks emended the text to read simply the "crews." Washington's reference to the "dirty mercenary spirit" of the Connecticut troops became the "mercenary spirit," and their "scandalous conduct" was softened to their "conduct." "Old Put." became the more dignified "General Putnam." When Washington referred contemptuously to a small sum of money as "but a fleabite at present," Sparks improved it to read "Totally inadequate to our demands at this time." Sparks again and again and again changed the words to make them worthy of his Hero.
[end article]

For those SHMG proponents who suggest Irving could have had a source of his own, yes, that's always a conjectural possibility. However, please consider that Washington Irving, by his own admission, relied heavily upon the works of Jared Sparks. Sparks did not claim Washington had modified the presidential oath. In addition, Irving was acquainted with his contemporaries, such as James Kirke Paulding, William Alexander Duer, and Eliza Susan Morton, all of whom, earlier than Irving, had each published their version of Washington's first inauguration. None of these writers reported anything about Washington including "so help me God" as being part of the inaugural ceremony. Consequently, we can surmise that when Washington Irving wrote his description of Washington's inauguration it is evident that he took most of his narrative from Eliza Susan Morton Quincy and recirculated the Griswold's undocumented religious tagline.

If Irving had been responsible for priming Griswold with the story that Washington had added "so help me God" to his oath, it wasn't the first time he had planted those words on the lips of one of his literary heroes at a dramatic moment (see Tales of the Alhambra: to which are added Legends of the conquest of Spain, pg 262). One way or another, Irving probably wanted to plant his story with Griswold, because he felt that would boost his credibility in spite of his employing an unidentifiable source when he published Volume 4 of his biography of George Washington. It did stick, and has stuck around just as well as his Santa Claus myth, and his flat earth myth.

That's right, there's no smoking gun. Just a few dead people. It turns out, Griswold died of Tuberculosis in New York City on August 27, 1857. A friend, Charles Godfrey Leland, found in Griswold's desk several documents attacking a number of authors which Griswold was preparing for publication. Leland decided to burn them (see Arthur Hobson Quinn's book, Edgar Allen Poe: a critical biography, pg162).


Brian Tubbs said...

Whether Washington said "so help me God" after the presidential oath is debatable. Enough question has been raised to warrant that historians acknowledge the uncertainty.

That having been said, there is NO question that Washington took the oath on the Bible, called on God's help during his inaugural address, and then went to church afterwards.

So, if atheists, agnostics, and secularists wish to quibble over whether Washington may or may not have said "so help me God" after taking the oath on the Bible, they're welcome to knock themselves out.

Ray Soller said...

Thank you for your permission to have people like "atheists, agnostics, and secularists" "knock themselves out."

Yes, presidents from the time of Washington (not counting his second inauguration) have acknowledged God as part of their inaugural addreess. But as I have already blogged, none of Barton's "Seven Signs" appear at Washington's second inauguration. I have also pointed out that the New York Constitution did not guarantee that an oath would be administered by a NYS official without the proper acknowledgements to God. It appears that neither House members nor Washington were granted an exemption. Furthermore, we have to wait to Jackson's inauguration to see a Bible included for a second time in the presidential oath. But that is an aside as far as my current post is concerned.

I'd appreciate it if you would stay somewheres close to the subject matter that I've presented. Otherwise, I suggest that you post your own blog if want to editorialize.

bpabbott said...


I'm not inclined to be polite when slandered. However, as Tom has inspired me today, I'm eager and willing to resist the temptation to respond to your slander, in kind.

There is no debate regarding the evidence that GW appended the words SHMG to the end the Presidential oath of office.

The suggestion that "atheists, agnostics, and secularists" shouldn't be so uppity is insulting. It is not an issue of theism ... further all that "secularists" insist upon is that reason trumps dogma/doctrine when governing the affairs of men.

History is an objective discipline. Interpretation of history introduces a subjective perspective.

Any presentation of the subjective that subjugates the objective is deserving of condemnation.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Knock yourself out, sez Brian. Because SHMG is a molehill, and "there is NO question that Washington took the oath on the Bible, called on God's help during his inaugural address, and then went to church afterwards" is the mountain.

Brad Hart said...

Yeah, I agree. This whole SHMG thing is interesting stuff and yes, there is sufficient evidence to prove that Washington never said it. But what does this prove? It certainly doesn't prove that Washington was one religion or another. It doesn't insinuate that nobody should ever add SHMG just because he didn't. It doesn't mean that America is a Christian nation, a secular nation or any other kind of nation.

Ok, so a few books, historians, movies, etc. are wrong on this one singular issue. Kudos to Mr. Soller and the others who have put in the time to disprove this apparent myth. But the controversy stops there. It goes no further simply because there is nothing left to prove. To say that Washington never added SHMG and therefore any current or future attempt to do so is wrong is just silly. Washington didn't throw out a ceremonial first pitch at a baseball game, pardon a turkey at Thanksgiving or have a cool Secret Service code name (yes, I know, baseball, Thanksgiving and the Sec. Serv. weren't around then but still).

I think you have dismissed Brian's points too quickly, Ray. The fact that Washington did swear on the Bible, attend church, etc. are every bit as compelling (if not more so) as your pursuit of the elusive SHMG truth.

bpabbott said...

I agree.

From a partisan / religious perspective the SHMG thing is a mole hill. However, with regards to what does and does not qualify as evidence or fact, and more importantly history, it is not. There is a substantial principle at its center.

That being the difference between objectivity and subjectivity, what the facts are as opposed to what some would prefer them to be.

... or as Brian's hero said, "facts are stubborn things". To which I'd add, it is what it is.

What remains confusing to me is why the mole hill is being so strenuously defended.

Ray Soller said...

Brad wrote, "To say that Washington never added SHMG and therefore any current or future attempt to do so is wrong is just silly." Please tell me where I've said that, and why you want to skip over the fact that Washington rarely invoked an explicit reference to God's name.

Washington signed the Judiciary Act of 1789 that legislated the obligation for members of the federal judiciary to swear a SHMG appended oath, or otherwise affirm. This was a secondary oath designed to remind judges to "administer justice without respect to persons, and do equal right to the poor and to the rich." I count this as the only piece of legislation signed by Washington that due to its exceptional nature promulgated the federal incorporation of a repeated use of a god-slogan.

The general question is whether GW can be used as a poster-child for federally legislated acts of ceremonial deism, or even if that is a proper role in which the federal government should be engaged. What is there to dismiss about Washington placing his hand on the Bible? (The NYS Constitutional protocol appears to have made the hand on and kiss the Bible a requirement.) What is important, I don't know of any federal legislation that requires inclusion of a Bible during the presidential inaugural ceremony. President Obama, at least, made that point clear when he took his oath the second time.

Brad Hart said...

I'm not wanting to "skip over" anything. I'd go back and read what I have said about Washington's religion. I make it clear that I believe Washington was more a Unitarian than a Christian and I stand by that opinion.

The problem with this whole SHMG thing is that it is of such small significance to the overall argument regarding Washington's religion or the requirement to have SHMG in official oaths. I think it's cool that you have amassed so much evidence to support your view. I was always under the assumption that Washington did say SHMG but thanks to you, I now believe he probably did not. With that said, I don't think this small point can be taken any further. It has gone as far as it can and has now (at least for me) reached a comfortable conclusion. Whether or not a person says SHMG to whatever oath they want is of such small significance. Hell, I remember that during my swearing in as a peace officer I was "required" to say SHMG at the end. A couple of atheist officers were with me at that swearing in. Whether or not they said SHMG doesn't really matter.

I agree with Brian and Tom. This is such a small mole hill that has such a small impact on the bigger questions at hand. Personally, I file it under the "who gives a shit" title (not that I don't appreciate you work on this matter, Ray. Like I said before, you have single-handedly changed my understanding of Washington's oath of office).

Brian Tubbs said...

With respect to Ray, I have every right to offer my opinions in the discussions of blog posts as anyone else does. I can't even believe you wrote what you did about my keeping my opinions to my own blog. Last I checked, this was a group blog and I was a part of it. Besides, anyone is willing to offer comments in the discussion area. Good grief!

Brian Tubbs said...

With respect to Ben, I slandered no one. For crying out loud, there was nothing malicious or defamatory about my remarks. All I did was suggest that atheists, agnostics, and secularists are majoring in the minors on this issue (or as Tom put it so well, making a "mountain out of a molehill"). That is not slandering anyone. It's engaging in debate.

Jonathan Rowe said...

My own opinion on Ray's work is that, yes, it is a footnote. And that GW's warm attitude towards "religion" and the conventionally religious does put the footnote into some much needed context.

However, it is an interesting footnote, and Ray has done some of the most meticulous, groundbreaking scholarship uncovering this dynamic.

Like Barton, Ray is not an "official" historian by training. But Ray's work has impacted top GW scholars. Most notably Peter Henriques.

Pinky said...

Sometimes it helps not to take seriously what is poked at us in fun.

bpabbott said...

Re: "there was nothing malicious or defamatory about my remarks."

I was referring to the comment, "[…] if atheists, agnostics, and secularists wish to quibble over whether Washington [..]. This is not a quibble that divides theists/atheists/secularlists. It is a principle that divides those who wish to elevate subjective desires over objective facts.

There are ample examples of atheists and theists who are motivated by their desires and eagerly advertise their condemnation for those of opposing theology to any who will lend an ear.

Shame on all of them.

Shame on *Brian* for implying that "atheists, agnostics, and secularists" are quibbling when objecting to an assertion of truth, lacking supporting evidence, while those asserting the "truth" are not.

I think the principles determining what qualifies as a truth are, or should be, valued by all.

I am an atheist. I have no interest in the theological conversion of others to my perspective (what works for me, may not work for others). I do not paint those with opposing theological positions as my enemy. My passions are not raised by those who embrace their individual religious liberty.

My passions are raised when an individual implies that those who do no accept his beliefs are less worthy for it.

Brian, you have aroused my passions.

In my opinion, given that the speculative claim that GW appended the words SHMG to his oath of office is no more than a mole hill ... the assertion should be purged from the historic record without objection.

Brian Tubbs said...

Ben and Ray,

Here's the bottom line....

My comments were not meant to offend. If they were taken that way, I regret that.

I genuinely feel, though, that we (in this forum) should be free to vigorously critique (even attack) actions, positions, perspectives, and viewpoints.

But we should try hard NOT to attack people personally.

That's how I TRY to operate myself.

To the extent I may have stepped out of those lines, I apologize.

I'm not trying to hedge my apology. It's just that I genuinely and truly didn't mean to attack Ray or Ben or anyone personally. I was simply criticizing the FOCUS on the GW / SHMG debate - a subject I honestly feel has been exhausted here at AC. And a debate that I feel is so focused on one aspect of GW's inaugural that it ignores other, equally relevant and important aspects.

I don't offer that to be mean-spirited. That is my true take on the situation. Is it somehow inappropriate for me to say that?

Again, though, I admire your passion and scholarship on these and other matters. No personal slight or attack was intended.

bpabbott said...


Thanks for the explanation. I didn't take your remarks as intentionally insulting.

Had I not allowed my passions to elevate so, I could have responded in a more respectful way and not elevated yours. I owe you and others following our exchange an apology as well.

In any event, I think I have a grasp of your position (even if I don't grasp you passions), and am confident you grasp mine.