Did Washington Say "So Help Me God"?
Did George Washington add "so help me God" to the presidential oath? That question has become one of the flashpoints in today's so-called Culture War. And American Creation's Ray Soller continues the debate in a well-researched, articulate response (see "Jerry-Rigging the Presidential Oath With The Wall Builders") to David Barton's claim that Washington indeed said the words (see "Did George Washington Actually Say 'So Help Me God' During His Inauguration?"). (Note: I would link to Mr. Soller's article, but the title link goes to a different post by Mr. Soller than the one I'm trying to reference).
I've blogged about Washington's first inauguration before (see "Facts About George Washington's Inauguration") and have addressed the issue of Washington and SHMG in numerous posts and discussions here at American Creation. There's little value in repeating all that again. I will simply say that I believe Washington said the words, but I acknowledge I can't prove it. No one can prove the issue one way or the other. But, if I may ask your indulgence, let's take a moment and reflect on this question from a different angle.
The Wrong Question?
In my opinion, the issue of whether Washington said "so help me God" is a pointless dispute in the so-called Culture War. Those who want a completely secular presidential oath already have their wish, in that the legal oath, as prescribed in the Constitution, makes no mention of God. What's more, the Constitution expressly forbids any religious test for federal office. It is unconstitutional and improper for the one administering the oath to require or demand (by coercision, intimidation, or manipulation) that the President-elect append "so help me God" to the oath. Those who desire a secular presidential oath already have their wish.
Likewise, for faith-oriented conservatives caught up in the so-called Culture War, this is the wrong battle. So what if George Washington added "so help me God" to the presidential oath? For the first time around, he probably did. The second time around, he probably didn't. Then again, he may not have said "so help me God" at either time. Do social conservatives really want to pin so much on this one dispute?
I mean no disrespect to anyone with strong feelings on this issue. I applaud the desire of anyone to get at the truth, to uncover the facts, and/or to better understand our nation's history. Ray Soller here at American Creation has done a commendable job in pointing out the lack of evidence surrounding the assumption made by many over the years that Washington added "so help me God" to the presidential oath. And Mr. Soller does well in responding to David Barton's latest attempt to argue that the Washington SHMG tradition is accurate. Nevertheless, after reading the arguments of both men, I once again come to the inescapable truth that neither side can provide verifiable proof. We just don't know whether Washington said the words or not.
I personally like how Ron Chernow handles the issue in his biography Washington: A Life. Chernow writes: "Legend has it that [Washington] added 'So help me God,' though this line was first reported sixty-five years later. Whether or not Washington actually said it, very few people would have heard him anyway, since his voice was soft and breathy." Nicely done. I personally would've said "tradition" instead of "legend," but I like how Chernow handles the matter, especially how he only devotes a couple sentences to it, and then moves on.
The debate over Washington and SHMG will likely continue, but I don't think this calls for the kind of emotion that's been devoted to it. If Washington said "so help me God," that doesn't change the fact that the Constitution itself (which supersedes Washington in authority and importance) doesn't call for the words to be added. Even if Washington added "so help me God," everyone present would've understood it to be a personal addition to the legally prescribed oath. Washington's addition (if indeed he said the words) did not alter the official oath, nor did it change the Constitution's prohibition of a religious test. When a President-elect says "so help me God" after the oath, he is simply adding his personal sentiment. He's not writing law. He is asking God to help him fulfill his legal obligations.
On the other hand, if Washington did not say "so help me God," that hardly makes him a secular Deist who wanted to distance God from government. Washington's First Inaugural Address, which contains overt religious themes, puts to rest any possible misunderstanding along those lines. No matter whether Washington said the words "so help me God" or not, the historical fact is that the first President of the United States wove religious imagery and sentiment into his inauguration. No one can dispute this, as the record is abundantly clear.
A Glimpse into Washington's Mind
I believe this is what we are missing when we debate the issue of "so help me God." If Washington indeed said the words, it wasn't to make some kind of political point, and I think he'd be very disappointed if activists today tried to do so. Rather, Washington was genuinely vexed, and he sincerely needed help from Divine Providence. This much is certain when one looks at the Inaugural Address itself.
In his Inaugural Address, the newly sworn-in President confessed that "no event could have filled me with greater anxieties" than being called upon to serve as President. He referred to the "the magnitude and difficulty of the trust to which the voice of my country called me" and cited his own "inferior endowments." He admitted he was "peculiarly conscious of his own deficiencies," and in that context, he moved to the religious portion of his speech, in which he declared:
"Such being the impressions under which I have, in obedience to the public summons, repaired to the present station, it would be peculiarly improper to omit in this first official act my fervent supplications to that Almighty Being who rules over the universe, who presides in the councils of nations, and whose providential aids can supply every human defect, that His benediction may consecrate to the liberties and happiness of the people of the United States a Government instituted by themselves for these essential purposes, and may enable every instrument employed in its administration to execute with success the functions allotted to his charge."
This isn't Washington trying to be a culture warrior. It's Washington confessing his fear and anxiety (albeit in a strained, formal, 18th century manner) and confidently asserting that God can compensate for "every human defect." To the extent that this is a statement in the so-called Culture War today, it's only because the United States has become more culturally and religiously diverse - and more distant from our heritage (the latter not necessarily being a good thing). In the 18th century, no one would've heard these words with offense. They would've welcomed them as an affirmation of Washington's humility and faith, qualities they desired in a leader. If one were to ask the attendees that day if they heard or thought Washington had asked God for help after his inauguration, all of them would have pointed to his Inaugural Address as opposed to what he may or may not have whispered following the legal oath.
Whether Washington said "so help me God" or not after his oath is simply not a relevant issue to the Culture War. For that matter, neither is the debate over the painting of Washington praying at Valley Forge. The painting may very well be apocryphal in how it depicts Washington, but does anyone seriously doubt Washington prayed during the long winter at Valley Forge - at least once or twice!? Washington was a man of prayer, and there were times in his life (such as at Valley Forge and when taking the oath of office as President) that he needed God and turned to prayer. No credible historian disputes this. The evidence is clear.
Once again, I mean no disrespect to anyone engaged in this debate. I commend both Mr. Barton and Mr. Soller for well-written essays. Mr. Soller, in particular, has written extensively on the subject, and I applaud his research. But I do (respectfully) feel we're losing sight of the forest for the trees. When it comes to Washington's inauguration, let's not allow a peripheral debate to obscure what is of much greater interest and importance, that of gaining insight into the mind of George Washington and the extraordinary challenges he faced when becoming our first President.