A Presidents' Day Special
On Jan 3, 2014 Ray Soller [that's me] sent a Contact Us message to NPS [National Park Service] - [New York City] Federal Hall National Memorial. It said:
I can't believe it. The NPS website, Washington to Obama: Inaugural Traditions, says: Upon speaking those words [prescribed by the Constitution], the newly sworn-in President Washington added 'So help me, God,' a tradition that continues today.The notion that George Washington added SHMG [So help me God] to the presidential oath is a myth, and, consequently, George Washington can not be said to have initiated any such "tradition that continues today."Please consult: “'So Help Me God'”: A George Washington Myth that Should Be Discarded", "No proof Washington said 'so help me God' will Obama ?" , and “'I Do Solemnly Swear . . .' George Washington Takes the First Oath of Office, 1789".I hope the necessary corrections will take place.
This is how NPS Chief of Cultural Resources Steve Laise responded:
----- Original Message -----From: Laise, SteveTo: Ray SollerSent: Friday, January 17, 2014Subject: Statement on Federal Hall Web SiteDear Mr. Soller,Thank you for your comments about the statement on the Federal Hall web site regarding the phrase "So Help Me God" in connection with George Washington's inaugural oath. After consulting the references you provided, as well as several others on this topic, the statement will be deleted. Instead, the following three sentences will be inserted:"There is some question whether Washington added "So Help Me God" to the inaugural oath prescribed in the Constitution. The few written eyewitness accounts do not mention it. However the phrase "So Help Me God" was included when swearing (or affirming) oaths required in the courts, the military, and other public offices and was an accepted part of such solemn commitments at the time."Given that President Washington also is known to have taken the oath with his had upon a Bible and kissed it afterward, I believe that the statement above fairly represents our present knowledge of the event.I appreciate your interest in the National Park Service and Federal Hall National Memorial.Sincerely,
Chief of Cultural Resources
The NPS website, From Washington to Obama: Inaugural Traditions, has been updated as just shown.
Needles to say, I take issue with the blanket response that says "So Help me God" was included when swearing (or affirming) oaths required in the courts, the military, and other public offices and was an accepted part of such solemn commitments at the time."
1) Except for the some twenty years following the outbreak of the Civil War, adding SHMG was never a required (legislated) part of taking a federal oath for public office, or military service The special oath required for federal judges does include the SHMG codicil, but the judicial appointee can either chose to swear or affirm their oath.
2) Saying that "SHMG was included when ...affirming" is absolutely false.
3) Saying that "The few eyewitness accounts do not mention it" is a gross distortion of what is actually known. The fact is that among many firsthand reports, there are no contemporaneous accounts in which GW is described as having added SHMG. Significantly, we do have three close-up accounts of the swearing-in ceremony. They were recorded by Samuel A. Otis, Senate Secretary (see Otis endnote); Tobias Lear, George Washington's personal secretary; and Comte de Moustier, the French Minister to the U.S. who, at the time, gave a detailed account of the inaugural ceremony in a report he sent back to France. His account repeated the constitutional oath word for word. None of these reports made any mention of SHMG.4) Saying that Oaths ending with the non-biblical SHMG "was an accepted part of such solemn commitments at the time," was not true for members of dissident churches, who held conscientious scruples against such oaths based mainly on Matthew 5:34-37--e.g., "Swear not at all".
After I explained myself to NPS Steve Laise he responded again with an email of 1/24/2013 which included the following:
Thank you for your most recent message on the topic of the addition of the phrase "So Help Me God" to Washington's inaugural oath. I think at this point that we are in agreement that the question cannot be definitively answered given our present knowledge of the event. We are therefore evaluating probabilities, based on other usages that may (or may not) be relevant. I would therefore respectfully ask that I be allowed to step aside, and allow those with greater knowledge to carry on.
I don't agree that making either false, exaggerated, or unsubstantiated historical claims, as Masonic literature and the NPS Federal Hall website has done, boils down to a simple matter of "evaluating probabilities." It's a matter of performing a comprehensive examination of the available historical material instead of relying on confabulated historical claims. If one checks with a notable scholar like Ed Lengel, editor-in-chief of The Papers of George Washington, who wrote the book, Inventing George Washington, page 105, you'll find his conclusion:
In sum, any attempt to prove Washington added 'So help me God' requires mental gymnastics of the sort that would do credit to the finest artist of the flying trapeze.
Otis endnote: Journal of the Secretary of the Senate, Samuel A. Otis, April 30, 1789
The original Otis journal is in the official records of the U.S. Senate in the National Archives.
Senate Secretary Samuel A. Otis recorded:
"The Secretary of the Senate whose seat was inclined to the right of the Vice-President carrying a bible on a cushion. The President laying his hand on the bible and repeating the oath--after which the President of the United States kissed the book, and the Chancellor proclaimed him President of the United States."