Wednesday, December 12, 2012

By Jove! It Looks Like a Syzygy

If one looks now on this rare date of 12/12/12, one can observe that the Library of Congress, Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies, and the Architect of the Capitol websites for Presidential Inaugurations are now all in alignment in having discarded the George Washington myth that he was the first president to have added "So help me God" to his presidential oath.

In contrast, click here, AOC/LOC, and here, JCCIC, to see what was said back on January 20, 2009.


Mark Hall said...

There is no contemporary evidence that Washington said "So help me God" after the oath, but every state in the union except Pennsylvania required office holders to say the phrase after taking their oaths of office. Virtually every oath Washington had taken prior to becoming president included the phrase. So, if he did not say it, it would have been quite unusual. Indeed, I think it would have been so unusual if he did not say it that it would have been recorded.

I don't particularly think it matters whether he did or not, but I thought I would throw in my two cents.

jimmiraybob said...

...I think it would have been so unusual if he did not say it that it would have been recorded.

But, it was not a requirement of the new federal Constitution:

"I do solemnly swear (or affirm) 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."

It seems that in the general atmosphere of the times, that the question of whether or not God should be included in the national oath would have already been considered and debated. Since this did not make the final ratified cut, it seems that it would have been more unusual and note worthy if Washington had ad-libbed "So help me God."

Tom Van Dyke said...

The observers were far more likely to have been aware of the tradition in NY [and elsewhere] of ending with "So Help Me God" than they would have been aware that the Constitution deleted it.

Like if you were watching a courtroom drama and they left it out. THAT you would notice. Mark Hall's objection is reasonable enough that we cannot say with any certainty that GWash did NOT say it.

Besides, he kissed the Bible. It makes the same statement.

bpabbott said...

Re: "Besides, he kissed the Bible. It makes the same statement."

Nonsense. If it made the same statement the assertion he did (not) speak the words wouldn't be defended with so much passion.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Au contraire--the "con-" side--say atheist-activist Michael Newdow-- seems quite obsessed with this footnote to a footnote of history. I'm hard pressed to recall so much controversy about so little.

That Washington swore on a Bible and kissed it carries as much meaning and weight as "so help me God" and obviates whether he said it or not.

Ray Soller said...

Even if "virtually every oath Washington had taken prior to becoming president [during the colonial era]included the phrase," one needs to realize that these oaths were obligatory religious test oaths. During the colonial era nearly every oath administered throughout the thirteen colonies concluded with an obligatory "so help me God." George Washington, 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. IF we imagine that Washington had been a religious dissenter from the Anglican Church he wouldn't have even qualified as being a footnote to footnote.

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. (So much for Pennsylvania being an exception.) The next best example is the mandatory oath certificates distributed among the officers who served in the Continental Army that omitted SHMG.

Tom, please remember that when GW swore to his oath of office in NY it was a NY legislated requirement to submit to a religious test oath either by using the Bible or alternately ending the oath with SHMG. (Quakers, at that time, were still limited to affirming an oath only so they could serve as a poll worker.) You can call it "tradition." I identify it as a religious test oath.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Tom, please remember that when GW swore to his oath of office in NY it was a NY legislated requirement to submit to a religious test oath either by using the Bible or alternately ending the oath with SHMG. (Quakers, at that time, were still limited to affirming an oath only so they could serve as a poll worker.) You can call it "tradition." I identify it as a religious test oath.

I see your point, Ray, and that's indeed probably why the Constitution doesn't demand "so help me God" as part of the oath.

But Washington used the Bible anyway, eh? And so it's not an unthinkable stretch to say that Washington inserted "so help me God" anyway as well, and indeed dissented with that particular provision of leaving it out, per his Farewell Address and the swearing of oaths:

"Let it simply be asked: Where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths which are the instruments of investigation in courts of justice?"

Now I accept there is a distinction made by some people on the swearing of oaths about what one will do--faithfully carry out his office--and what one is doing in a court of law--telling the truth--but frankly I don't find the distinction to be meaningful.

We have the objection of some Christian sects like the Quakers to swearing oaths respected by permitting one to "affirm" instead, but this is in contemplation of religious pluralism, not irreligion.

By statute, the Supreme Court, although excepting for such affirmations, does indeed require an oath:

5 U. S. C. § 3331. This oath is now taken by all federal employees, other than the President:

"I, _________, do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God."

So I perceive your point, but in the end it's a distinction without much of a difference. Yes, if viewed as a religious test, "so help me God" was purposely left out of the oath.

OTOH, Mark Hall is correct in offering that all things being equal, in view of the custom of the time [esp in NY], more people would have found the omission of "so help me God" worthy of remark than its inclusion.

And I do realize that my demurrals here aren't probative: it's entirely possible---if not likely!--that Washington didn't say it. But for Mr. Newdow to claim a certainty that he didn't

--is an overshoot of such reasonable doubt. Dr. Hall's rebuttal per the workings of the oral tradition, that it remembers not the expected as much as the unexpected--is enough to create a reasonable doubt the other way as well.

Depends on who bears the burden of proof. It's fair that the pro- case bears the burden of proof, and the con- case therefore wins, but via doubt, not any certainty of its own.

It's my own core point in many of these trivia points about the Founding that the Constitution [and the subsequent execution of it in custom and practice] allows for a Godly nation or an unGodly one--for Washington to add a Bible or "so help me God" or for Jefferson to do neither. I think we get too either/or about these things: the Constitution was designed to secure our freedoms, not dictate them.

Mark Hall said...

If an oath requirement ending in "So Help Me God" counts as a religious test, Virginia had religious tests well into the nineteenth century as most state offices required officials to take an oath ending with the phrase “So help me God.” This was true for most states.

See, for example, John D. Cushing, First Laws of the State of Virginia (Wilmington: Michael Glazier, 1982), 53, 59, 66-67, 70, 89, 92-93, 123, 127, 177, 178, 192, 195, 202(1982).

Ray Soller said...

It's true that Virginia had oaths ending with SHMG well into the 19th Century. The real question is when did that practice begin. Here's an extract from The Virginia State Constitution: a reference guide, Part 56 by John J. Dinan

Section 7. Oath Or Affirmation

All officers elected or appointed under or pursuant to this Constitution shall, before they enter on the performance of their public duties, severally take and subscribe the following oath or affirmation:

"I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support the Constitution of the United States, and the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Virginia, and I will faithfully and impartially discharge all the duties incumbent upon me as ______________ according to the best of my ability (so help me God)."

Although the current oath has been uncontroversial, previous oaths have generated significant controversy. The 1864 Constitution was the first to require officeholders to take an oath [RS>my italics] and the purpose was to ensure that officeholders were not supporters of the Confederacy.

Then, the 1867-68 Convention approved a "test-oath" that would have prevented a significant number of past supporters of the Confederacy from holding state office. Both of these oaths approved by the 1867-68 Convention provoked significant controversy, whether at the time or in coming years. [end excerpt]

I think Dinan is wrong about the 1864 Virginia Constitution being the first. There appears to be a preceding SHMG oath dating back to the 1851 Constitution upon which the 1864 oath was modeled. Please note, however, that the SHMG appears in parentheses.

It seems though, as was the case in the NY Constitution, that this did not restrict the legislature from passing a SHMG oath. The earliest such occurrence that I've found goes back to Jan 7, 1818.