Saturday, December 13, 2014

David Parker Conducts a Case Study in American Myth-making

The Fall-2014 issue of Common Place, the online journal of the American Antiquarian Society, has posted an interesting piece with the title, In Griswold We Trust, by Kennesaw State University History Professor David Parker.  

Here is how the article starts off:
On April 30, 1789, George Washington was inaugurated as the nation's first president. According to the traditional story, he added "so help me God" to the words of the oath prescribed by the Constitution. However, that "traditional story" goes back only to 1854, when Rufus Griswold included it in a book titled The Republican Court. Griswold's story caught on, and by the 1860s, "so help me God" had appeared in dozens of other biographies of Washington and was well on its way to becoming the accepted account. Until the last decade or so, Washington's "so help me God" was as true as anything else in our history.
 This essay is not another tirade in what sometimes threatens to become a tedious debate over "Did he say it?" Rather, it simply describes how a story first told sixty-five years after the fact became entrenched in America's public memory; it uses "so help me God" as a case study of American myth-making.
Continue reading here.

A 2/15/2016 follow-up article can be seen here.


Tom Van Dyke said...

Well, it's Washington's swearing upon and kissing the Bible [none of which historians dispute] that gives the "so help me God" part currency. It's not so much a myth as an embellishment.

Ray Soller said...

And here is another embellishment."

Tom Van Dyke said...

Yes, ray, I was indeed thinking of apocryphal quotes when I wrote the above.

For instance, Voltaire didn't say, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." Still, it's commonly said that it's an accurate representation of his thought.

So, strictly speaking, saying Voltaire's quote is a "myth" is accurate, but as in Washington's case of swearing upon and kissing the Bible, it's more an embellishment than a falsehood.

Swearing upon and kissing a Bible is tantamount to saying "so help me God," indeed indistinguishable. Whether or not he uttered the phrase isn't really important.

I'd prefer to save "myth" for more egregious violations of the truth, such as the fictional chopping down the cherry tree, which has zero basis in reality.

Or James Madison saying "We have staked the future of all of our political institutions upon the capacity of each and all of us to govern ourselves according to the Ten Commandments of God,” which he didn't say, and isn't compatible with the rest of his canon.

[Indeed, the stronger argument is that he expected mankind to lie, cheat and steal, and devised the separation of powers and the check-and-balance battle of competing interests accordingly.]

Brian Tubbs said...

Agree completely with Tom. Even though Washington may not have uttered the specific words "so help me God" after the oath, it's indisputable that he voluntarily took the oath on the Bible AND (most significantly) explicitly called on God for help during his Inaugural Address. Indisputable. As such, this feels like a very hollow debate - like some people are obsessing over something that's frankly minor.

The ONLY reason such a debate matters would be if we were to somehow cite Washington as a reason to legally require all other Presidents to say "so help me God," but no such requirement exists. (Voters may want a President to call on God for help, but that's not a constitutional violation. Voters can set whatever criteria they deem appropriate).

David Parker said...

Tom and Brian-- My point was not that Washington didn’t say "so help me God" after the oath. Instead, I wanted to show how quickly the story became established in our national memory after 1854.

About the word "myth": When historians use the word, we don’t mean "a story that isn’t true." A myth is a narrative that explains: it identifies and unifies a society, it provides meaning and direction, etc. The myth of the Lost Cause, for example, is a southern re-writing of history that does all this for the former Confederacy. Parts of the myth might be true, others not, but in any case the myth becomes THE TRUTH, the accepted story. The Lost Cause has been terribly influential in shaping the way white southerners viewed the Civil War, and it remains influential today.

Same thing with our current discussion. Within a few years of Griswold's "embellishment" (Tom's excellent word) in 1854, the "so help me God" story was part of the American creation myth.

Whether or not Washington said “so help me God” is, as Brian put it, “frankly minor,” but the larger myth of which it has become a part is hugely important in understanding our past (and present). THAT is what I’m interested in.