Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Two Notable Events Regarding Presidential Oaths

First Notable Event - on December 10, 2010 the Library of Congress updated their website entitled Inaugurals of Presidents of the United States: Some Precedents and Notable Events. Where it had previously credited George Washington with having first added "So help me God" to the presidential oath of office, it no longer does. If the reader scans down to the entry for Chester A. Arthur, the following modification appears:
September 20, 1881, and September 22, 1881 -- Chester A. Arthur
  • First time the oath of office has been taken in the Vice President's Room of the Capitol.
  • Two ex-presidents (Grant and Hayes) were present at this ceremony.
  • Pronounced the words "So help me, God" after taking the oath; other presidents have followed this example.
This is pretty big news for a historical, detail-minded, forensic specialist like myself, but the Library of Congress staff members still have room for improvement. In the case of Theodore Roosevelt and his swearing-in ceremony of September 14,1901 the entry reads, "The only President not sworn in on a Bible." Ahem! TR was certainly not the only president who did not to place a hand on a Bible. The first instance goes back to George Washington's second inaugural ceremony where there were no plans for the inclusion of a Bible, and no one, unlike his first inauguration, ever reported a bible-sighting even at the last minute.

There are at least two other well-documented instances where a president-elect did not touch a Bible. A notable exception occurred at the inauguration of John Quincy Adams' inauguration where:
A March 4, 1825 diary entry by John Q. Adams says "... and pronounced from a Volume of the Laws held up to me by John Marshall, Chief Justice of the United States, the Oath faithfully to execute the office of President of the United States and to the best of my ability, to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States."
The Washington National Intelligencer reported: "The President-elect [John Q. Adams] then descended from the chair and, placing himself on the right hand of the judges' table, received from the Chief Justice [John Marshall] a volume of the laws of the United States, from which he read, in a loud and clear voice, the oath of office."
- a hat tip goes to Mathew Goldstein. See So help me God in presidential oaths.
Another quite visible instance occurred at John Fitzgerald Kennedy's January 20, 1961 swearing-in ceremony. See the Critical Past video, John Kennedy takes the oath of Office, and notice JFK's left arm is simply resting at his side and his family Douay-Rheims version of the Bible, which, while hidden from view, is being held by James R. Browning, clerk of the Supreme Court.

According to Paul Boller, in his book Presidential Inaugurations, "some people questioned the validity of the [Kennedy] oath. But the White House [spokesperson, maybe Ted Sorensen] patiently explained that the Constitution didn't prescribe the use of the Bible at the inaugural ceremony and that it was simply a tradition that had begun with George Washington."

Second Notable Event - I recently came across a forthcoming book with the title, Inventing George Washington: America's Founder, in Myth and Memory, by Edward G. Lengel . This title will be released January 18, 2011.

Lengel is chief editor of The Papers of George Washington, and a professor at the University of Virginia. The book should prove interesting.

In an early November 30, 2010 Amazon.com Customer Review (from the Amazon Vine Program), entitled When the legend becomes fact, print the legend, the author, Phelps Gates comments:
One chapter is a fascinating exercise in historical detective work about the presidential oath: during the Obama inauguration, commentators, including historians, often remarked that it was Washington who added "So help me God" to the oath. Is this true? Lengel gives a thorough and convincing answer (which I won't give away here).
If, on the outside chance, there's someone who is too impatient to wait for next year's release date to see the results of Lengel's "historical detective work," here's my recommended sneak peek reading list:
January 15, 2009 - "So help me God": A George Washington Myth that Should be Discarded - A January 12, 2009 History News Network article by Peter R. Henriques - posted by Ray Soller, an American Creation contributor.

January 18, 2009 - In the Beginning - The Oath Is a President's First Act, But Everyone's Not on the Same Page by Dan Zak, Washington Post Staff Writer.

August 27, 2010 - Grisold's Only Eyewitness Account of George Washington's 1789 Inauguration posted by Raglinen.

November 4th, 2010 - Five Reasons Washington Irving is Still Important Today - posted by a contributor at myfivebest dot com.

November 16, 2010 (retrieved as of) - Rufus Wilmot Griwold Summary - Dictionary of Literary Biography - posted by BookRags dot com.
- and that's a wrap.


Jonathan Rowe said...

Great stuff as usual Ray.

Ray Soller said...

In a letter dated Dec. 9, 2010 Paula Boller wrote:

Dear Ray,

Thanks so much for sending me information about Edward Lengel's new book on George Washington in myth and memory, and I'm certainly looking forward to reading it. My guess is that he will include Washington's "So help me God" in the myths he discusses.

In Presidential Inaugurations (2001), I included the myth in discussing Washington's first inauguration, but I'm now working on a new edition of the book and I'm eliminating "So help me God" in my chapter on Washington's first inauguration, More than that: I'm discussing the myth in more detail, utilizing some of the material you sent me.

I think the myth which you and the historians have punctured is slowly dying. In January 2009, a few days before Barack Obama took his oath, Cathy Lynn Grossman published an article, with the title, "No Proof Washington said, "So help me God' -- will Obama?" Well Obama did use the words, but some future President may simply repeat the Constitutional oath.

Best wishes,
Paul F. Boller, Jr.
Emeritus Professor, History
TCU, Fort Worth, TX

Jim said...

If Ray Soller worked for the Library of Congress, this issue would be cleared up and fixed immediately!

Jim Bendat
author, Democracy's Big Day: The Inauguration of our President