Monday, September 13, 2010

Three minutes on C-Span with Gordon Wood

Listening to What's in the Air and Watching the Waves

September 5, 2010 - In Depth with Gordon Wood - 1:20:15

Host (Peter Slen): One more question about religion and then we're going to move on, but this is from Ray Soller whom you have communicated with in the past, and he has sent us a new e-mail that you and he exchanged. He [on Aug. 31, 2010] had written to [both C-Span and] you:
In your book, Empire of Liberty, you, in a footnote, comment that "[t]here is no contemporary evidence that he [George Washington] also said 'so help me God' at the end of the oath; the matter is very controversial today."
Soller: What was skipped over by the host, Peter Slen, is that I had also cited the entire footnote:
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.
Host: And that's in your footnote in Empire of Liberty.
Soller: Again, what was skipped over by the host is that I had also said:
My basic question is "Did Forrest Church get it right when he wrote the Appendix chapter, Did George Washington Say "So Help Me God"? I mean, in view of the facts that 1) a long letter by the French foreign minister provided a detailed account of Washington's inaugural ceremony that recorded the president's oath of office without including the words "so help me God," and 2) the bulk of Washington Irving's 1857 narrative of the event is known to have been plagiarized from the memoirs of Eliza Susan Morton Quincy, who was a teenager at the time of the inauguration; how can you still favor the notion that Washington had added "so help me God" to his oath?

I also need ask why you feel that the Judiciary Act of [September 24] 1789 seems to have had more of an influence on how Washington recited the presidential oath than the first bill Washington signed into law on June 1st 1789 that contained the standard oath for all federal employees except for the president. Peter Henriques, the author of Realistic Visionary, A Portrait of George Washington, wrote a 1-12-09 History News Network article, "So Help Me God”: A George Washington Myth that Should Be Discarded, came to the opposite conclusion based on his review of the House and Senate deliberations regarding the standard federal oath.
Host: And then you [Gordon Wood, just an hour later,] wrote to Mr. Soller:
I have no idea whether he said that phrase and no one else does either. Everyone is guessing. George Washington was not someone who liked to create waves so that if the phrase was expected he probably would have used it. But I don't know with any certainty. [I find it fascinating that people today care so much. GSW]
Host: Now, Mr. Soller has e-mailed [both C-Span and] you here today [actually, four days earlier], and he said:
Thank you for responding, but I still hope the question, in one form or another, as to whether George Washington added "So help me God" to his oath will come up during the C-Span interview.

You are correct Professor Wood, ultimately, everyone is guessing, though some guesses are more reasonably formulated than others. However, it is not a guess to say that there are no firsthand accounts that support the notion of George Washington adding "So help me God" to his oath.
Soller: I didn't stop there. I also said:
It is unfortunate that the Senate Historical Office under the direct supervision of the Senate Rules Committee does not recognize what is actually known about GW's swearing-in ceremony when it comes to its Facts and Firsts website (accessed 9/13/2010). Here, the website states in the entry for GW's inauguration on April 30, 1789,"First Inauguration; precedents set include the phrase, "So help me God," and kissing the Bible after taking the oath." No correction has been made even though staff members at the Senate Historical Office are currently aware of the inaccurate nature of their assertion, and this is a big reason why I care so much about this question.
Guest (Gordon Wood): That's right, but there is contemporary evidence that he did kiss the Bible – after the oath. So we had somebody who witnessed that. And the question then is did he say "So help me God"? Well, what's interesting is that the Judiciary Act of [Sep. 24,] 1789, which was passed shortly after his inauguration [April 30, 1789] in that same year, did prescribe for judges an oath, which does include "So help me God." So it may have been in the air. People might have expected it, although it is not in the constitution – the oath as prescribed in the constitution does not – does not say anything about God. So there's where we are. You can make up your mind. What I think is fascinating is the interest in this, because the stakes seem high for people. If you can show that he said or did not say that phrase, then certain things follow from that. I'm not sure we want our politics to hinge on that one fact.

Host: Did the news accounts at the time [report it] – nobody reported it?

Guest: No, nobody reported it.

Host: So where does the contemporary evidence come from?

Guest: You mean at the time, there was no contemporary evidence?

Host: No, today.

Guest: It's from what I said before - the fact that he kissed the Bible and that the Judiciary Act which was passed that same year did prescribe for the oath for judges that they say "so help me God." So you can deduce from that that maybe he said it. That's all we have. It seems to me I'm happy to just leave it at that. But others, lots of people want it settled for reasons that have to do with contemporary political life.

Soller: Please note, on 1/25/2009 the Balkinization blog featured Steve Calabresi on the Oath Controversy (recall the footnote shown above), where Calabrisi settled the matter this way:
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.
Soller: Yeah right?! - that's a line from Scot Turow's book, Presumed Innocent.

Special thanks to Pinky, who alerted us all at American Creation to the September 5, 2010 C-Span interview with Gordon Wood; to Todd Andrlik over at for providing the link to the "contemporary evidence that he did kiss the Bible – after the oath"; and myself for providing Gordon Wood with a full transcription of the Lear letter to which he referred at 1:01:40 into the interview.


Pinky said...

I seem to recall that "kissing the Bible" is part of Masonic ritual. G.W. was the Master of his lodge, right?

Ray Soller said...

Pinky, swearing on a Bible, saying "So help me God," and concluding the oath by kissing the Bible are parts of secret Masonic initiatory rituals. So is wearing a blindfold and other ceremonial steps that are entirely incompatible with the public administration of the presidential oath. It appears that Washington's actual attendance at Masonic lodges was limited to the much earlier colonial period in his life. I think the higher positions such as Master of his Lodge were granted as honorary titles. So, it's hard to say whether his earlier Masonic oath-taking experiences would have carried over to when he took the presidential oath. Still, the main question is whether GW would have favored a Masonic-styled oath over the constitutional oath.

The same comment can be made about the ceremonial coronation of British monarchs, which also concludes with So help me God and one's kissing the Bible. Again, we need to ask whether this is the precedent that Washington wanted to set for future presidents.

My thought is that the unplanned introduction of the Masonic Bible was initiated by Chancellor Livingston, because of his responsibility as the chief magistrate of New York State required that he administer an oath according to the legislated statutes of that state. I gave my reasons here.

My perception of what was in the air is that Washington's inaugural ceremony of April 30, 1789 is the first clear example of how the issue of state sovereignty was resolved to overrule the reach of a limited federal government.

Pinky said...

We have to be careful how we make disparaging remarks about such facts that say being blindfolded is a Masonic ritual. It could reflect on our honesty among the informed.
Masonry is symbolic and the blindfolded condition (hoodwinked) bespeaks the ignorance of the unenlightened that we all are at some time in our existence.
The blindfold is removed and the first thing the initiate sees is the Holy Bible.

Ray Soller said...

I was trying to be careful. I'm glad you pointed out the meaning of being hoodwinked.

Brad Hart said...

Fascinating as always, Ray. Thanks.

Pinky said...

I want you to know how great I think it is that your scholarship is recognized by Gordon Wood.
Wood is one of my favorites.