Thursday, April 30, 2015

"Go To Guy" Fumbles Continental Army Military Oath

What follows are two segments taken from the 1/18/2013 C-Span  video transcript  that was recorded at the Washington Center for Internships & Academic Seminars.  It starts off with the host,  Ross K. Baker, introducing the featured speaker for that day, Donald A. Ritchie, whom he presents as the best example of a “go to guy.”

All right, now, there is a phrase that journalists use a lot. It’s called a “go to guy,” and I think you know what that means. It means somebody who knows a lot about something that a journalist can go to, and get from that person reliable information. There are not that many “go to guys” around. There are a lot of people in this town of opinions, and a lot of people in this town who are incredibly glib. There are not that many people who are so fundamentally immersed in a subject and an important subject that journalists and others - academics are attracted to that person. 

In my mind, the best example of a “go to guy” is our next speaker, Don Ritchie. I’ve gone to him and more than that. I’ve received ideas even a little bit of inspiration in terms of my own work. He is the historian of the United States Senate and as such he is the keeper of the Family Jewels of the history of the United States Senate. It’s glorious, interesting, fractious cooperative history. I’ve known Don for many years as I’ve known his predecessor [Richard A. Baker] and I’m so pleased to have him here to talk about the Senate today so much as about Inaugurations which after all is the reason why we’re all here. So it’s my great pleasure to present Historian of the United States Senate.

When, during the course of Don Ritchie’s presentation on Past Inaugurations, he came to the part about explaining how the traditional use of the extra-constitutional phrase, “So help me God,” has become a topic of such paramount importance, he had this to say:

Now one of the strange things about the inaugurations and one that leads to controversy is that as I mentioned that the Constitution writes out the oath of office. And one thing the Constitution does not say is concluding the inaugural oath with “So help me God.” And yet most presidents [beginning with Chester A. Arthur] say “So help me God.”  And part of that is because there was a tradition; there was sort of a folklore that developed that Washington said “So help me God.” And we historians have been looking for whether Washington said  or didn’t say “So help me God.” We’re not sure about this one. One of the accounts [first told by Rufus Griswold was seemingly] given by Washington Irving, who was five-year-old at the time of Washington’s inauguration, [...]   But [sixty-five] years later he gave his remembrance that Washington said “So help me God.” We just don’t know.

It’s up to the President of the United States to say whatever he wants. [It’s been suggested that according to a common practice,] [m]ost  presidents in the 19th Century did not repeat the oath, they just said, ”I do.”  Starting about the 1880’s presidents began to say “So help me God.”  It’s interesting to me that the Chief Justice who swears them in says “So help me God.” If you’re going to be a strict interpreter of the constitution, it’s not there. The President can say it. You wonder why the Chief Justice puts this in. It’s become tradition, and tradition is even more important that constitutional structure in this process. But it’s become a point of controversy.

I should say that Chief justices of the United States have been known to fumble the oath of office. It’s different than all the others, and one reason why they do fumble is they are used to giving the oath, but it’s not the same oath. The oath we take as staff of the Senate, or the  military offices, or the judges take is the oath written by Congress, and that oath does end with “So help me God.” And in fact, the military oath that Washington’s troops [took] during the Revolution ended with So help me God . So it was natural for Washington to have said it at that occasion, although not required [my italics].

As for the actual “military oath that Washington’s troops took during the Revolution,” Senate Historian Don Ritchie fumbled this one away, because he is totally unaware of the need to piece together the February 7, 1778 act of the Continental Congress with Washington’s subsequent General Orders of May 7, 1778. 

So, now, here’s the real scoop.

At the outset of the Revolutionary War, the Continental Congress established  loyalty oaths for both  men and officers who had enlisted into Continental Army. The first such oath was put into effect on October 21, 1776, but this version with its concluding So help me God was repealed.  A revised oath  took its place on February 3, 1778, but at this time an apparently minor change took place. In contrast to the earlier version the usual So help me God did not occur within a delimiting pair of quotations marks. (Unfortunately, this apparently minor change is frequently unnoticed, i.e. U.S. Army Center of Military History website, Oaths of Enlistment and Oaths of Office.)

You can see a broadside containing the original February 3, 1778 legislation at a website provided by The Library of Congress – American Memory as shown here

Here’s another source, Public Papers of George Clinton, First Governor of New York, 1777-1795, 1801 ..., pgs, 703-707, that shows the same.

If the matter concerning the Continental Army military oath with its trailing So help me God tagline was limited to the placement of a single quotation mark, then this matter would hardly be worth mentioning. What follows, however, is significant.

According to the GENERAL ORDERS -  Head Quarters, V. Forge, Thursday, May 7, 1778, issued by Commanding General George Washington,  So help me God was taken out of the military oath. Consequently, when the printed military oath certificates were distributed to the officers in the field, the printed oath stopped at the final quotation mark, and it did not include the apparently unnecessary So help me God tagline.

It was five days later on May 12th that George Washington’s signed  his oath certificate as specified by the General Orders of May 7, 1778.  As I’ve previously shown (see here, and here) Washington did not append So help me God. 

Now with this particular historical background kept in mind, is it all reasonable for the “go to guy,” Don Ritchie, to peddle the notion that  it was “natural for Washington to have said it [So help me God] at that occasion, although not required ”?


Tom Van Dyke said...

Good spadework, Ray.

"Fumbles" is unfair and contentious, however, since "so help me God" was indeed said by Washington's troops. It was simply deleted a couple years later--and likely because of the prohibition of oaths by certain Christian sects, not out of anything "secular" or strict separation/anti-religion of the Michael Newdow stripe.

All this would need to be part of a proper [not to mention charitable] rebuttal/clarification. Ritchie got a lot right about the presidential oath--a particular cause of yours

so I think your headline is gratuitously hard on him, as well as your expending 3 paragraphs of both your time and the reader's time impugning his credibility as a "go-to guy" for what amounts to not even a substantive error.

Good clarification, though, although I think you should have explained why the "so help me God" was likely deleted. As a "go-to guy" yourself in the current culture wars--such as Michael Newdow's--you owe the reader the same thoroughness that you demand from Ritchie here.

Merely reporting the fact that "so help me God" was deleted does not explain the issue sufficiently to the uninitiated.

Ray Soller said...

Senate Historian Don Ritchie will retire on May 15. He served 40 years in the Senate Historical Office. He held the position of Senate Historian since 2009.

My first contact with Don Ritchie dates back to an email I sent on August 28, 2006 as was reported here (see Comment).

Here's part of his response back then:
"As a Senate historian, I have not made any survey of how presidents have taken the oath, although Washington’s biographers have indicated that on his own he added 'So help me God.' You’ll need to check their footnotes to find their sources."

It's, at least, good to know that since my first email the Senate Historical Office has looked more into the matter of how presidents have taken their oath.

The part, however, where Ritchie said, "Most presidents in the 19th Century did not repeat the oath, they just said, 'I do,'" is not supported by the facts. His speculation about "I do" comes only from a Wikipedia entry.