Thursday, January 21, 2010

Two plus Two makes What?

Last week I received an e-mail announcement from Newt Gingrich telling of his latest speech, delivered to the John Locke Foundation in North Carolina. It sounds similar to the speech he delivered three months earlier in Wheeling, Ohio. One of the topics he delved into is what is the sum of two plus two. Here's a pertinent part:
I think the most important symbol ... or political slogan of the next 20 years is very simple: two plus two equals four. I know it's bold. It's out on the edge. But I want you to think about it. ... (Gingrich then told of how the Polish people used this as a sign to post in their communities, as a way to oppose the dictatorship.) What it said to the Polish people was if the government tells you that two plus two equals five, they're lying to you. If they tell you two plus two equals three, they're lying to you.

In the George Orwell novel ''1984,'' Orwell has the state torturer say to the innocent citizen he's torturing that if we tell you that two plus two equals five, you better believe us or we'll continue torturing you. And the citizen eventually gets tired of being tortured and says that yes, two plus two equals whatever you say, but in the back of his head he's thinking what if two plus two equals four? ... And it goes back to a play [or, more likely, a Pierre Sauvage's documentary Weapons of the Spirit] (in which it is said) that you can be executed for saying two plus two equals four because the establishment can't afford to have the truth spoken.
Gingrich goes on to illustrate that the current fiscal crisis resulted from the federal government's "new math" (my term) that essentially spelled out how people could buy homes even if their available resources didn't add up to the necessary cost of owning a home.
Ironically, in contrast to Gingrich illustrating how the federal government fell into the trap of not having the "truth spoken" when it comes to home ownership, he has promulgated the evangelical minded, federal establishment's view regarding the role of the religious codicil, "So help me God," as being part of our presidential inaugural history, which from a fact-based perspective is just another way of saying "two plus two makes five." Gingrich applied his own Orwellian arithmetic to part of his December 2006 and 2007 video broadcast, One Nation Under God: Religion and History in Washington, D.C. - Fox News Specials. Furthermore, as is his practice, when Gingrich gets hold of a good historical whopper he repeats it over and over again. See here and here.

Ultimately, I can dismiss Newt Gingrich as one who frequently prefers the "two plus two makes five" edition of history over the alternative. However, when it comes to members of the Senate Rules Committee, who in bold defiance of historical reality promote a confabulated view of George Washington's first inauguration as if it is totally based on fact, I get concerned. You can see the Rules Committee's recast version of the Gingrich video here, which can also be accessed from the website, Inaugural History - Facts and Firsts. An invitation to view the "So help me God" video - "a historical look at the Inaugural Ceremonies 1789-2005" appears first. A table with the column headings "Inauguration Dates - Presidents - Facts and Firsts" follows, where the first tabulated entry reads:

April 30, 1789 - George Washington - First Inauguration; precedents set include the phrase, "So help me God," and kissing the Bible after taking the oath.

This same table of inaugural Facts and Firsts is presented within A Guide to the Presidential Inauguration - Barack Obama - 44th President of the United States. See Page 9. The cited source is the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies, which is, of course, managed by the Senate Rules Committee.

If one turns to page 20, we see a longer version of George Washington's first inaugural ceremony as it originally appeared in the article, Barack Obama Presidential Inauguration - Reviewing Inaugural History. There the article reads:

The heart of the affair is the inaugural oath, first recited by George Washington on the balcony of New York City's Federal Hall, the original seat of government, on April 30, 1789.
The 35-word oath is prescribed in the Constitution, but Washington added the phrase "So help me God," and placed his left hand on a Bible hastily borrowed from a Masonic Lodge on Wall Street. Most later presidents have followed the founding father's precedent.
The truth of the matter is that "most later presidents" are not known to "have followed the founding father's precedent," It is true, most modern presidents beginning with the twentieth century have added "so help me God" to their oath of office, but the only known indication that this "precedent" can be traced back to George Washington only appears in print after the Eisenhower administration.

So, a person might ask, "What does this all matter? People make mistakes all the time."

What matters is that:

1) judicial opinions appear to have been corroborated even when based on an inadequate reconstruction of our historical past, such as the one offered by Associate Justice Antonin Scalia in McCreary v.ACLU:
That [the European secular model] is one model of the relationship between church and state–a model spread across Europe by the armies of Napoleon, and reflected in the Constitution of France, which begins “France is [a] . . . secular . . . Republic.” France Const., Art. 1, in 7 Constitutions of the Countries of the World, p. 1 (G. Flanz ed. 2000). Religion is to be strictly excluded from the public forum. This is not, and never was, the model adopted by America. George Washington added to the form of Presidential oath prescribed by Art. II, §1, cl. 8, of the Constitution, the concluding words “so help me God.” See Blomquist, The Presidential Oath, the American National Interest and a Call for Presiprudence, 73 UMKC L. Rev. 1, 34 (2004);
2) scholars, researchers, and students take statements that appear on federally sponsored websites as based on fact, even when that may not be true. Here's a recent example taken from a 2009 Cardoza Law Review article, What Oaths Meant to the Framers' Generation: A Preliminary Sketch, De Novo 280, by Steve Sheppard:
[I]t is a mistake to think that the Founding generation saw the oath as a thoroughly religious commitment. Indeed, Blackstone saw the Oath as a way of bringing religion to bear in enforcing an independent obligation, arising from the acceptance of office, not from the oath itself.

In many instances, the nature of the oath, and the obligations of it, were seen as effectively secular, and whatever religious trappings the oath brought were simply overlooked. Thus, when the oath of allegiance was taken by the executive and legislative officers, no reference to God was expected (in part, no doubt, owing to respect for the Religious Tests Clause). Whatever implied notion of religious significance in the oath is there was seen generally as an option, like the presidential oath, in which “So help me God” was added by the president-elect to the constitutionally required text, a practice that became a common custom. [24]

[24] President Washington chose to add the phrase in taking his own oath, and the custom has been continued as a matter of the choice of many, but not, all Presidents. See Inauguration of the President: George Washington. (RSUpdate: see 12/14/2010 AC blog.)

3) Ashville Daily Planet, Oct. 17, 2009 - Newt Gingrich spoke to an audience at Montreat College’s Anderson Auditorium:
Gingrich then asked, “Where do our rights come from? Not from the state.” To that end, he cited a passage in George Orwell’s “1984,” when there is an assertion by the state that if it says 2 + 2 = 5, then citizens must accept that as fact, articulating the belief that “power can redefine truth.” (no source found)


CybrgnX said...

'revisionist History', 'mythic history' or 'popular history' are a big problem when making any decision. And if you try looking thru the various histories to find a grain of truth you find 'experts' contradicting each other or flat out lying. You wind up similar to the buybull in that ask any question 'should I do XXXX' and thru out history or the buybull you can justify any answer because you find various stories support any answer. It gets to the point you will finally say 'I like this answer so that's the truth.' And most of the time it is not.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Outstanding work as usual Ray.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Washington still swore on a Bible, which is the same thing as saying "so help me God." 2 + 2 still equals 4.

bpabbott said...


I don't think is fair or proper to say they are the same thing.

fwiw, if those who assert that GW did appended "so help me God" were of the opinion that swearing the Presidential oath with a hand on the Bible was the same thing as ending it with the phrased "so help me God", then there would no need to assert the claim.

But, more importantly, this is a blog whose focus is on history. I'd like to think such unsubstantiated claims (revisions) would have no support here.

p.s. I've missed you this week. When there are other activities that demand your attention this blog becomes rather sedate.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Aw, shucks, Bex, thx.

As a historical factoid, fine. But the SHMG thing is being used in this post as a device to discredit Scalia and Gingrich's larger point, which is borne out by any number of other facts including Washington's use of the Bible, not to mention his inaugural address or the whole of Congress immediately going over to St. Paul's Chapel to pray, three factoids that happened the very same day.

The Gingrich and Scalia arguments do not rise or fall on SHMG alone.

Ray Soller said...


The object of my criticism is the mentality by which Newt Gingrich and the Senate Rules Committee continue to promote what at this point in time is a recognizable falsehood.

I am sure there is a multutude of scholars who in the past have made an honest mistake about Washington having in fact added SHMG to his oath. Scalia may have been one of these individuals. Steve Sheppard was another such individual, but in Sheppard's case when I sent an e-mail to him, he replied,
"Dear Mr. Soller,
Thanks for your note, and for your suggestion. I may well be prey to the perpetuation of myth. I'm on another deadline this week, but next week I shall look more carefully at the issue and -- well -- do something about it."

In spite of the many e-mails that I have sent to Gingrich and staff members reporting to the Rules Committee, I have yet to receive a reply that acknowledges any need to correct their mistake.

If any discredit has fallen upon anyone's shoulders, it's the product of those individuals who prefer perpetuating a myth as if it is a fact.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Although, I lean to agreement with your research, Ray, it can never be proved that Washington didn't say it. "So help me God" was a common enough formulation [in New York in particular], that if Washington had added it, it would have passed without notice unless someone had a copy of the Constitution in front of them, and noticed it's not there, and the story survived via the oral tradition. Your use of "falsehood" here is unjustified, and seems to be directed only at those you consider your political enemies.

Because the greater truth beyond this pet factoid Washington's use of the Bible to swear upon. Substitute that fact in for "SHMG," and their point holds. Minor errors of fact---especially in this case---do not amount to 2 + 2 = 5, which is your thesis and argument, and it's a flawed and not entirely honest one. It is sophistry, specifically a corollary of the "straw man" argument, which focuses only on the weakest argument at hand, not the strongest.

So point out this minor error of fact as often as you feel the need to, but don't try to build a case around it, because you don't have a case until you begin to address the other 100s of factoids surrounding the Founding, three of which I listed here.

Yes, this is a history blog, and we're concerned with even minor errors of fact. However, not at the expense of losing the greater truths and genuine understanding of the larger picture. That's a mug's game.

Ray Soller said...

Tom, I agree all factoids are not created equal. However, I use a different ranking system than you. Since you've granted your permisson, I repeat that at this point in time what appears on the Facts and Firsts website is a falsehood as to the notion that GW added SHMG to his oath. The statement is not a fact and, secondly, there is no published indication that occurs before the second half of the 20th century claiming that Washington established a precedent by having added SHMG to his presidential oath. I'm not the one who is responsible for asserting that these two items are either a fact or a first. That responsibilty belongs entirely to the members of the Senate Rules Committee.

You identify this particular factual misrepresentation as belonging to the class of "Minor errors of fact." If this is true, then why hasn't anything been done about it, where other "minor errors" have already been corrected?

It is a fact that GW put his hand on a British KJV Bible during his first inauguration, but no one knows who summoned the Bible. In my world of what could "have passed unnoticed" is the multiple mutterings inside Washington's mind as he waited for the Bible's arrival, like "Dam that Livingston, this is the only time he'll ever pull a stunt like that in my presence!" Now, if you look at the historical record and this might be due only to pure chance, Livingston never received an opportunity to participate in any federal position during the 8 yrs of Washington's administration. (See my May 3, 2009 blog.)

Furthermore, if you recall my earlier blog, David Barton and His Seven Signs (or factoids if you prefer), Washington's second inauguration, which he and his staff had planned, had no arrangements for any of Barton's seven signs/factoids. In any event, the repeated custom of using a Bible during an inaugural ceremony does not manifest itself until the inauguration of Andrew Jackson.

As far as the other 100 plus other factoids, the "larger picture," and the "greater truths" I leave those items in your capable hands.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Ray, it's clear your use of "falsehood" is unjustified, and such overblown rhetoric is the vocabulary of the culture wars: indeed, it's quite clear you're directing it in the direction of your partisan enemies.

And yes, there are plenty of "truisms" out there like "the Founders were deists." But rhetoric like "falsehood" is unnecessary on a history blog, or to correct that error in any forum. "Falsehood" belongs to polemic, and I'm sick of history-by-polemic. If you have a case, you can prove it affirmatively without such stuff. And the day you point "falsehood" in the direction of people you agree with, then I'll withdraw my objection.

You wanna go after David Barton again. Sigh. Is that all you got? There's more to the whole truth that seeking out error. We could troll the internet all day for it, on every side.

But whatever floats one's boat, I guess. The fact is that Gingrich and Scalia's point holds by substituting Washington's use of the Bible for SHMG, and it's entirely proper to point that out. Rock on.

bpabbott said...


Good to have you back! :-)

FWIW, I didn't get the same vibe from Ray's words. While it may be that he is railing against those whose politics he doesn't agree with, what I inferred was that he was chastising those who were asserting claims for which there is no evidence.

I'd also like to point out that I'm bewildered that if "Gingrich and Scalia's point holds by substituting Washington's use of the Bible for SHMG", why is it they'd assert the myth over the evidence? Have they been duped by the myth, or is it politically motivated?

In any event, there are two points in this discussion. One is the facts of the historical record, and the other is why some feel it necessary to assert claims for which there is no evidence.

I think we can all agree that there is no historical evidence for the claim that GW added SHMG to the Presidential oath.

I'm hopeful we can come to a consensus on that, and avoid our political differences out of it.

Tom Van Dyke said...

I'd also like to point out that I'm bewildered that if "Gingrich and Scalia's point holds by substituting Washington's use of the Bible for SHMG", why is it they'd assert the myth over the evidence? Have they been duped by the myth, or is it politically motivated?

Here's the thing, Ben. Nobody gives a shit about Ray's little "So Help Me God" thing. No argument or thesis fundamentally relies upon it. Washington swearing on the Bible make SHMG irrelevant, and 100 other Founding factoids do, too.

And yes, they have been "duped" by the SHMG myth, I guess, only because it's consistent with 100 other factoids like Washington swearing on the Bible. Which is why Washington and SHMG doesn't mean squat and why they ignore letters from people like Ray.

And there are entire theses built upon "the Founders were deists," which is not factoid, but fundamental proposition. Oh, well. So much ignorance, so little time.

I'm onto Ray, who did research for Michael Newdow and came up with a factoid. Hooray. I tried to be a colleague and even a friend to Ray, but he refused, so when he pollutes this blog with partisanship and polemic, I'm gonna have my fun and righteous indignation and pursuit of historical truth too.

But I'm not gonna let Ray trash Gingrich and especially Scalia with some 2 + 2 = 5 thing and cry an ugliness like "falsehood." I gave Ray his chance. If he's gonna try to play his little factoid into a sophistic attack on his political enemies, I'm gonna kick that shit to the curb.

Because, Ben, I get to have my fun, too.

And more than that, if you remember, I kicked OFT to the curb too, although I tended to agree with him, and OFT has done 100 times more research into religion and the Founding than Ray's lame SHMG thing.

But I appreciate your attempt at moderation and fairness here, Ben. I'd have let Ray slide if he didn't try to slime his political enemies with a weak case.

And if you noticed, as a matter of sophism---the technical evaluation of arguments---my objections to Ray's case were as formal argument, that he didn't [and couldn't] have enough evidence to condemn the other side as proclaiming "falsehoods," an ugly word. And further, that even if Ray is correct about SHMG [which I lean to agreeing he is], his case against his political enemies [Michael Newdow's?] ignores the greater truth of religion and the Founding.

So Ray, unless you got something better to argue about than Washington's SHMG, you gotta come up with something else to get into the game because it's weak and sophistic. I tried with you, man. Even sent several warning shots across your bow previously.

And I'm not really having any fun with this either because I like you. But this garbage cannot be allowed to pass. I'd much rather we seek the truth together. Shooting you down like this isn't fun, it's painful.

bpabbott said...

"Here's the thing, Ben. Nobody gives a shit about Ray's little "So Help Me God" thing."

... and yet what continues to bewilder me is that there remain many who continue to support their (political?) positions by asserting this myth to be true. If the assertion is really unnecessary, and if it is true that nobody gives a shit, then why do Gingrich and Scalia (for example) make the assertion?

Re: "[Ray] pollutes this blog with partisanship and polemic".

Your observation has escaped me ... but I'm open to correct. What did I miss (perhaps something on another blog?).

Even if Ray is politically prejudiced, that doesn't mean his is incorrect in this instance. Meaning you could be right that Ray's view isn't balanced, and his condemnations aren't applied in a uniform manner, but he can still be spot on regarding Gingrich and Scalia.

Re: "Because, Ben, I get to have my fun, too."

Fair enough, but if you disagree with how someone else behaves, setting a contrasting example is likely more constructive than joining in.

In any event, I think you're on thin ice regarding the falsehood thing. Its up to those asserting the claim to defend it. If an individual asserts a claim as a matter of fact, when it is not, then they are stating a falsehood.

In this case, the falsehood is not necessarily that GW appended SHMG to the Presidential oath. The falsehood is that there is historical evidence that GW appended SHMG to the Presidential oath.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Ray may have, like many others, improperly used his research for political ends.

Yet, he does outstandingly meticulous research and Tom has previously written statements that belie his assertion that no one cares about Ray and his SHMG, correct the historical record, enterprise.

No. Ray HAS made a difference.

Explicit Atheist said...

Two points regarding the defense that GW appending is plausible and therefore cannot be a considered a "Falsehood":

1) Ray and others, including myself, are asserting that the falsehood here is the assertion that GW did append shmG when we have insufficient evidence that he did. This is a legitimate usage of the word "falsehood". If people want to claim shmG was appended then at a minimum they should accompany that claim with an acknowledgement that it is speculation on their part. Otherwise we can justifiably call it a falsehood.

2) There is some merit to "it was a a tradition" defense of historical speculations but that is a particularly weak defense in this context because we have no evidence that there was any tradition to append shmG to the presidential oath of office. Look at the presidents contemporaneous with GW as an older man and we have not a single eyewitness account that any of them appended shmG. Continue this into the lifetimes of next presidents and the result is the same. Its not we don't have eyewitness accounts, we do, some quote the oath recitation, some go into details about what happened immediately after the oath recitation, and there is no shmG. We have to go more than 90 years later to find the first strong evidence that shmG was appended to any presidential oath of office. Furthermore, even then it wasn't a "tradition" in the presidential oath context but an exception that was related to a Civil War era change to the federal oath of office known as the "Iron Clad test oath" (that was arguably itself unconstitutional but was never challenged).

Tom Van Dyke said...

"Falsehood" is fightin' words. "Error" will do.

But by your logic and argument, EA, since we cannot prove God exists, to say he does is a "falsehood." Even if not nonsense [which it clearly is], them's fightin' words, and indeed would rather been seen as designed to pick a fight.

So if anyone wants to pick partisan fights around here---which I wish they wouldn't---then they ought to be prepared for one.

bpabbott said...

Tom, I think EA's point is that, and to use your example, to assert God's existence is a falsehood.

To state a belief is not.

However, I don't think equating the historic record, which relies on hard evidence, with religious belief is fair.

It is not expected that we accept the historic record based upon faith.

We expect historic assertions to be backed by direct and compelling evidence.

At the same time, if someone asserts the existence of God, none (few?) of us would infer that the individual has direct and hard evidence for his claim.

I *do* think it fair to frame those who knowingly promote speculations/myths as being part of the historic record as promoting falsehoods.

As you recall from our interactions with OFT, I actually prefer stronger language for those who know their assertions are false.

Tom Van Dyke said...

“power can redefine truth.”

What a honkin' bunch of BS, Ben, all about one obscure fact that can easily be replaced by Washington's use of the Bible to swear on. Gimme a break.

bpabbott said...

Tom, I think it fair to say power often does attempt to redefine truth ... And that too many of us swallow the BS :-(

Tom Van Dyke said...

Geez, Ben, if I used "falsehood" every time somebody makes an error around here, it would be World War III. Making great hay and comparisons to 1984 out of minor errors is totally out of proportion.

For all those Crusaders for Truth, there's plenty of falsehoods in Geoffrey Stone's piece, and Calhoun nails him to the wall for it. But somehow, few seem to care. Why is that, doyathink?

Ray Soller said...

Tom, you write:
For all those Crusaders for Truth, there's plenty of falsehoods in Geoffrey Stone's piece, and Calhoun nails him to the wall for it. But somehow, few seem to care. Why is that, doyathink?

The difference is clear. Geoffrey Stone is not part of a federal agency who is collectively stonewalling the need for any remedial action and in the process perpetuating an Orwellian-type falsehood.

I do like your suggestion where you say "one obscure fact [like GW not known to have said SHMG] ... can easily be replaced by Washington's use of the Bible to swear on." Have you written one of your State Senators about that?

Magpie Mason said...

Good grief. We're back to Mr. Soller's SHMG beef? Does American Creation have a limit on how many times the same topic can be revisited without new information being added to the discussion?

Mr. Soller, if you are going to harp on this, then I think your next assignment ought to be exposing the persons responsible for adding this questionable footnote to the American story, AND their motives.

If I recall correctly, you have explained it was Washington Irving who first put it into print, so you have the who, the what, the when, and the where. Do you ask yourself WHY he wrote it? I am interested in why you think he wrote it. You cannot accuse him of the sort of Bible-thumping we see today, nor can you say he was out to revise a history that was in question. Nor can you say he was not there, because he WAS, and in the many years between the event and his telling of it, he undoubtedly discussed it a million times with those who were with him at Wall Street on April 30, 1789.

I stand behind my explanation of SHMG:

If American Creation will be used to state there is no proof George Washington said "So help me God," then it also is obliged to say there is no proof he did NOT say it, and it should be further explained that journalism and history of that era were not recorded for perfect accuracy the way modern Americans expect today. There were no professional journalists. There were no professional historians. There were no fact-checkers, photographers, etc.

In fact, practically EVERYTHING man thought he knew about history in 1789 was based on stories, myths, and legends written down by those who were not necessarily eyewitnesses, or were otherwise imperfect messengers. (Plutarch, Josephus, Suetonius, Tacitus, Bede, et al., ad infinitum, including the Bible itself.)

Enough already. It's tedious.

bpabbott said...


No one is claiming "he did not say it". What has been objected to are the assertions that he did.

I don't think anyone supports the suggesting that the historic record is a speculations ... but your words infer to me that you're happy including the SHMG myth/speculation in the the historic record. Do I infer correctly, or do you imply differently?

Regarding a lack of evidence for what he did *not* say, if we were to start a list, we'd soon find the list to be longer than any history text. Including such in the historic record would be less than productive, imo.

bpabbott said...


From my rather thin exposure to Stone vs Calhoun, my impression is that there a parellel to the Christian Nation thesis ... we could call it the Deist Nation thesis ;-)

As I have time, I hope to study these two positions a bit more.

Ray Soller said...

Magpie, good to hear from you again.

To answer your question as to why Washington Irving wrote it, here's the short answer:
A while ago, June 27, 2006 to be exact, when I met Jon Meacham at an Atlanta speaking engagement for his book "American Gospel," I told him abt Washington Irving being the person who, most likely, was responsible for the SHMG story. He offered this candid reply to the effect, "Well, that's what you get when an author of fiction tries to write history." (If you don't trust my memory you can ask Meacham.)

I also explained how it was Rufus W. Griswold who in 1854 was the first person to tell the story.

I could come up with a longer answer, but it won't be able to undo your assertion that Washington Irving "undoubtedly discussed it a million times with those who were with him at Wall Street on April 30, 1789" That's a real smoking gun. Can the Senate Rules Committee quote you on that as a fact?

Jonathan Rowe said...


There is no policy on what you ask, and that's in part because blogs tend to be redundant for the sake of new readers.

What you are permitted to do is recycle your old posts, post them to the front page to counteract or otherwise put things in the perspective that you think needed.

For the sake of debate and fairness, I encourage you to so do.

Tom Van Dyke said...

If Ray wants to flog and reflog his SHMG, fine. Parlaying it into partisan attacks is a bridge way too far and it's entirely proper to object.

Ben, I went through Calhoun's rebuttal of Stone and it's simply devastating in substance and historical fact, covering many subjects we've examined on this blog in depth. Coincidentally [or not], Stone's eventual thesis was in defense of his own partisan politics, or more precisely, an attack on those of his opponents.

Feh. I just don't have the time or inclination to hunt down these miscreants against the truth except to note when they try to pull a fast one.