Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Over at the Addicting Info blog

Over at the Addicting Info blog you can find a 10/5/2011 article, The Christianization of Early American History and the Perpetrating Fraud, David Barton by Jay R. Adams.  For all that David Barton has had to say, even the most unsuspecting author can parrot fraudulent history. The following snippet from the Adams article is a case in point:
Even the executive oath, explicitly prescribed in Article II is devoid of any religious litmus. “So help me God” was first affirmed verbally by George Washington and since repeated as customary tribute to our first President.
It's commonplace to see the myth about Washington's presidential oath repeated without question, but the myth has no basis in fact. One should realize, there's a serious problem here on two counts:
There is no firsthand account describing George Washington as having inflated the presidential oath of office by adding "So help me God." (See 1/7/2009, USA Today - No proof Washington said 'so help me God' ;1/11/2009 - "So Help Me God": A George Washington Myth That Should be Discarded - Prof. Peter Henriques.)

Currently, as far as one can determine, the practice of adding a religious codicil, "since repeated as customary tribute to our first President," never became an infused part of our national consciousness until January 20, 1961.
Competent researchers at the Papers of George Washington (Ed Lengel), the Documentary History of the First Federal Congress Project (Charlene Bickford), and the Library of Congress are on record as saying that there is no contemporaneous evidence showing that George Washington added "So help me God" to his oath of office. This unsubstantiated notion that Washington added "so help me God" made its debut sixty-five years after the event (1854) with the assistance of "Reverend" Rufus Wilmot Griswold. It is possible, Griswold may have picked up parts of his inaugural narrative from a prior conversation he had with Washington Irving. And, as expected, three years later (1857), when Irving wrote his five volume biography of George Washington he repeated the "So help me God" tidbit without citing a personal recollection or identifying a possible source. For those who still rely on Washington Irving's six-year old so-called "recollection" of the event, they ignore the fact that Irving shows absolutely no credibility because the bulk of his inaugural narrative was plagiarized from the Memoir of the Life of Eliza S[usan] M[orton] Quincy (see footnote at bottom of page 52).

The fact is that most presidents are not known to have added "So help me God" to their oath, and according to the historical record there are very few instances where there's any cause for doubt. The first president who is known to have included a religious tagline as part of his inaugural ceremony is Chester A. Arthur who on 22 September 1881 was sworn in as president after the death of President Garfield. We have to wait until the first part of the twentieth century before we can find an example where an elected president took up this extra-constitutional practice. In 1929 President Hoover was the last president who stayed true to the presidential oath as prescribed by the Constitution. In 1933 FDR started the unbroken practice of adding "So help me God" to the presidential oath. Still, for all of this time, there's no known record of anyone trying to say that adding a religious codicil to the oath was a practice that started with George Washington.

Regretfully, regardless of what the facts may be, come Sunday, January 20, 1957, on the eve of President Eisenhower's official inaugural ceremony we have Pulitzer-prize, Civil War author, Bruce Catton issuing a Los Angeles Times article, " ... So help me God," where he said:
The words George Washington added were for all of us, in all times George Washington was a man inspired -- and his inspiration has come down to all of us, coloring the environment in which we live.

When he became the first President of the United States, he was called on to recite a formal oath of office. It obliged him to repeat these words: "I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States."

Washington stood on a covered portico looking out over downtown New York, one hand resting on a Bible, and the other raised in the air. Dutifully he repeated these words, which over the years would become hackneyed, almost meaningless, with much repetition. Then he added words not in the script. After reciting the formal oath, he put in a short sentence of his own:""So help me God."

Every President since has added those words. They have now become part of the ritual; and it is a good part, an essential part, pledging more than was originally intended when the oath was written. For Washington, taking on himself the immeasurable responsibility of guiding and leading the American people, looked into his own heart and found a need which he expressed in four words: "So help me God." He spoke not only for all future Presidents, but for the rest of us too.

[ . . . ]

Saying those words, Washington spoke for all of us.
Four years later (1961/1962), Philip B. Kurland synthesized the following gem: "There is hoary tradition for this: George Washington added the words 'so help me God' to his presidential oath and every successor has done the same."

After that the "So help me God" myth became even more popular. Some commentators realized that there were some notable exceptions to the "every president" storyline (i.e. Franklin Pierce, Theodore Roosevelt, and Herbert Hoover) so they modified the "every president" claim to say "virtually every president," "almost every president," or "most presidents." Now, even if one chooses to say, "[succeeding presidents] repeated [So help me God] as customary tribute to our first President," that's still incorrect, because there's simply no way to show that Washington actually added those four words to his presidential oath.


Jonathan Rowe said...

Very perceptive Ray and great work as usual!

Phil Johnson said...

I wonder about the use of the phrase in American culture if it ever WAS used in the eighteenth century. Was it just a tag to let the audience know that the comment or oath had come to an end?
Kinda like a president ending his public speeches with, God Bless the United States.

So help me God.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Yes, the phrase was used often.

According to Title 28, Chapter I, Part 453 of the United States Code, each Supreme Court Justice takes the following oath:
"I, [NAME], do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will administer justice without respect to persons, and do equal right to the poor and to the rich, and that I will faithfully and impartially discharge and perform all the duties incumbent upon me as [TITLE] under the Constitution and laws of the United States. So help me God."

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Thanks for the link, Ray!

Angie Van De Merwe said...

I did share this reference on my FB page. I'm hoping that Thomas Jefferson's quote about "the Anti-Christ" won't be useful to affirm the fundamentalist's eschatological view! Nor, do I hope that those given to Marxist ideology use it to frame the argument against capitalism!

Angie Van De Merwe said...

And I also hope that humanist won't frame "jesus simple life" as a means to affirm the reality of "faith".

Ray Soller said...

For the colonial period nearly all oaths administered throughout the thirteen colonies concluded with an obligatory "so help me God." George Washington, for instance, routinely repeated that phrase when he became a surveyor, a Virginia militiaman, vestryman, godfather, judge, member of the Virginia House of Burgesses, and even during his marriage ceremony. Had Washington been a religious dissenter from the Anglican Church he would never have been able to ascend the Virginia social and political career ladder as well as he did.

The practice of concluding an oath with SHMG began to gradually shift with the outset of the Revolution. The very exceptional 1776 Virginia Constitution did not even require an oath for political office. (That situation changed only during the Civil War.) Other examples include: the mandatory oath certificates distributed among the officers who served in the Continental Army that omitted the SHMG tagline; the presidential oath as prescribed by the U. S. Constitution that left out any specific reference to God (according to a reflection by Luther Marton, a Maryland delegate to the Constitutional Convention, "there were some members [RS>unlike some members of the Virginia delegation] so unfashionable as to think that a belief in the existence of a Deity and of a state of future rewards and punishments would be some security for the good conduct of our rulers, and that in a Christian country it would be at least decent to hold some distinction between the professors of Christianity and downright infidelity or paganism."); and the first Continental Congress in their first legislated act that passed the standard oath for all federal employees other than the president without SHMG. But as TVD has noted, when it came to the judicial oath Congress passed that oath by including SHMG while still allowing the oath-taker to affirm.

So, at least at the federal level for oaths outside of the courtroom, the obligatory SHMG did not carry forward. That situation changed dramatically with the outbreak of the Civil War when Congress reintroduced SHMG as the standard codicil for federal employees other than the president.

But when it came to the presidntial oath, FDR proved to be the real game changer. Still, it took another twenty-four years before Bruce Catton was moved to single out George Washington as having initiated the practice of adding SHMG to the presidential oath.

Jason Pappas said...

Fascinating story. It's interesting how myth is made and how it sticks.

One wonders. Will the internet increase myth or bust myths?

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