Here's the opening part of Fleming's HNN interview-styled article:
[GW] “I see the historians are at it again.”I can up to this point follow along with Fleming, but I have a different conclusion than his, where he has Washington saying:
[Host] “At what, Mr. President?”
[GW] “Arguing about whether I added ‘So help me God’ at the close of my recitation of the presidential oath of office. This is the third or fourth time.
[Host] I’ve read those words in at least a dozen accounts of the ceremony.”
[GW] “Even you, an historian of some note, don’t know it’s not part of the oath as it appears in the Constitution?”
[Host] “When you put me to the test, I realize it isn’t. Did you add the phrase?”
[GW] “No. For a very good reason. We were determined to create a government in which there were no links to religion. We had seen how divisive religion had become in Europe in the previous two hundred years. Especially troubling to Americans was the way it tore England apart in the civil war of the seventeenth century, which ended with beheading of King Charles I and making Oliver Cromwell a dictator for twenty years.
[GW] “When I took the oath office as president and did not add ‘So help me God’— I spoke those words in my mind and heart.”.My version is:
[GW] "When I completed the obligatory book-oath by kissing the imported 1767 London published KJV Bible with its opening page portrait of King George II, I muttered to myself, 'Damn that Livingston and his New York State legislated religious test. He'll never get a federal appointment while I'm President.'"
It's true that Washington's first inaugural ceremony was loaded with religious overtones, but his second inaugural address was quite different. As part of his second address Washington said, "This [constitutional, non-religious test] oath I am now about to take, and in your presence: That if it shall be found during my administration of the Government I have in any instance violated willingly or knowingly the injunctions thereof, I may (besides incurring constitutional punishment) be subject to the upbraidings of all who are now witnesses of the present solemn ceremony."
It's plain to see GW did not say, as was common among the state constitutions, that his oath was sworn, "In the presence of Almighty God." He also avoided mentioning any prospect of wrathful judgment in the afterlife if he would violate the terms of his oath. The religious codicil, "So help me God," was not meant to be a plea for God's help as modern commentators suggest. It was, instead, meant as a threat of future condemnation for oath breakers. As for Washington, he only acknowledged the possible "upbraidings" of his contemporaries.