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.)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).
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.
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.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."
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.
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Saying those words, Washington spoke for all of us.
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.