Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Kenneth C. Davis Turns the Corner

There's a new book, Don't Know Much About American Presidents, by Kenneth C. Davis that's available starting today. Here's a selection taken from the question:
Did Washington say "So help me God" when he took the oath of office?
[George Washington] took the oath of office on April 30, 1789, a cool, clear Thursday morning. One similarity of modern inaugurations was the big crowd. A large throng of New Yorkers filled the streets of what is now the city's financial district, them the center of a city that was much smaller than modern Manhattan.
Washington arrived by carriage to what had been previously been New York City Hall, given a "face-lift" by Pierre L'Enfant, future designer of the nation's capital city. The entire government operated out of the single building, renamed Federal Hall. Washington managed more people on his Mount Vernon plantation than worked for the new national government.
For the inauguration he was dressed in a brown suit, white silk stockings, and shoes with silver buckles, and he carried a sword. The suit cloth was made in a mill in Hartford, Connecticut, and Washington had said that he hoped it would be "unfashionable for a gentlemen to appear in any other dress" than one of American manufacture.
Standing on the second-floor balcony, the "Father of Our County" took the oath of office on a Masonic Bible. Legend has it that he kissed the Bible and said "So help me God" --- words not required by the Constitution. But there is no contemporary report of Washington saying those words. On the contrary, one eyewitness account, by the French minister, Comte de Moustier, recounts the full text without mentioning the Bible kiss or the "So help me God" line. Washington's use of the words was not reported until late in the nineteenth century. (The de-mythologizing of this piece of presidential history occasioned a suit by notable atheist Michael Newdow, who sued unsuccessfully in 2009 to keep all mention of God out of the inauguration of Barack Obama.)
What followed was the first Inaugural address, written by James Madison. Here Washington spoke freely of "the propitious smiles of Heaven" --- a divine hand in guiding the nation's fate. These heavenly references raise the perennial question of faith in the early republic. But, as Ron Chernow writes, "Washington refrained from endorsing any particular form of religion."
There is no question that Washington was a Christian who spoke of Providence and called for days of prayer and fasting --- even during the Revolution. But on the other side of the coin is his expressed belief that religion was a personal matter and not to be dictated or even sanctioned by government. It was a sentiment best expressed in a famous letter to America's first synagogue, in Rhode Island, shortly after he took office.
In it, Washington wrote: "All possess alike the liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent national gifts. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support."
Washington's letter is a reminder that while most of the founders and framers were Christians --- Protestants, more accurately --- they were devoted to the ideal of a secular democracy in which matters of conscience could not be dictated by the government.
In contrast to Davis's earlier Don't Know Much books he has now turned the corner, and he has gotten most of his answer right. He, regretfully, misspoke on two counts: 1) there are several eyewitness reports that saw Washington kiss the Bible; 2) Michael Newdow did not sue " to keep all mention of God out of the inauguration of Barack Obama."
1) In New York, at that time, the practice of swearing on a Bible and; kissing it upon completion of the oath was the legislated manner (except for those with religious scruples) in which a religious test oath was administered. So, it's not surprising for those on the scene, more familiar with New York's oath protocol than the French minister, to notice Washington having kissed the Bible.
2) Newdow sought only to restrain Chief Justice John Roberts from prompting Obama with the concluding words, "So help me God." The inclusion of inaugural sponsored religiously based prayers were a second objection. In neither case did Newdow attempt to limit President Obama from personally engaging in religiously based speech.
Despite these two misques, Davis comes out standing tall by reminding us that when describing Washington there are two sides to the coin.


Phil Johnson said...

Thanks. Interesting.

Brian Tubbs said...

Thanks for posting, Ray. Believe it or not, I agree with your corrections to Mr. Davis. I also agree with Newdow in that a Chief Justice should not require a President-elect to say "so help me God" at the end of the oath.

As far as prompting the President-elect, that's one of those things that should be worked out between the C.J. and P.E. ahead of time. The C.J. can simply ask: "Do you plan to say 'so help me God' at the end? Do you want me to prompt you?" It bothers me that Americans are so quick to resort to lawsuits to deal with things that responsible adults ought to be able to handle on their own.

One other thing about the article, I'm surprised no one has jumped on this statement of Davis': "There is no question that Washington was a Christian who spoke of Providence and called for days of prayer and fasting."

That's even further than what I would've gone. I would've said it this way: "Washington was probably a Christian, and there's no question that he spoke of Providence and called for days of prayer and fasting." I think there is a question mark over Washington's Christianity. Some folks may be surprised to read that from me :-). I believe he was, and would confidently say that he "probably" was, but I will concede that it's not something we can know for sure. Thus, I think Davis errs in saying there's "no question that Washington was a Christian."

Phil Johnson said...

I'm reading Gary Nash's book, Class and Society in Early America in which such questions arise.

jimmiraybob said...

Completely Off Topic

I just visited his blog and Warren Throckmorton has had a heart attack and is hospitalized for bypass surgery.