Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Thomas Kidd Likes Rhodehamel's New Book, But . . .

In Thomas Kidd’s recent book review, A Secular Biography of George Washington, the author expresses a liking for John Rhodehamel’s new book, George Washington: The Wonder of the Age.”   He says it's a "model biography in many ways, but “[m]y primary complaint with Rhodehamel is that he gives short shrift to Washington and religion.”

Here’s a sample objection:
In some cases, Rhodehamel is determined to downplay or obfuscate religion in Washington’s life. For example, he spends considerable time dismissing (again, probably rightly) the idea that Washington ended his presidential oath with “So help me God.” Washington was too much a constitutional “literalist” to have done so. But Rhodehamel fails to mention that Washington placed his hand on a Bible (on loan from a Masonic Lodge!) when he swore the oath. That’s not prescribed by the Constitution, either, but it was probably of more significance than whether he said “so help me God.” At least Rhodehamel concedes that church bells rang once the oath was taken, and quotes (again without comment) Washington’s invocation of the “sacred fire of liberty” in his inaugural address.
Here, Kidd admits that Rhodehamel’s dismissive notion that Washington ended his presidential oath with “So help me God,” is “probably right.” However, then Kidd continues with “[b]ut Rhodehamel fails to mention that Washington placed his hand on a Bible,” which he feels “was probably of more significance than whether he said “so help me God.” But, the problem here is that no knows exactly why a Bible was included as part of the inaugural ceremony as conducted by New York Chancellor Robert R. Livingston. Using the Bible is definitely not prescribed by the United States Constitution, but including a Bible in a sworn oath as administered by Livingston was definitely in keeping with New York State legislation as spelled out by the “usual mode of administering oaths.” 

Furthermore, when it came to Washington’s second inauguration, and for all of the following presidential inaugurations, with the exception of Andrew Jackson, up to James Polk the significance of the Bible doesn’t show itself. But Kidd gives short shrift to that part of our inaugural history.


Tom Van Dyke said...

But did Washington kiss the Bible? If so, it makes a lot of this nitpicky, and indeed scholarly malpractice if Rhodehamel omitted this point.

Many first-hand accounts say he did [see page 885].


Jonathan Rowe said...

Great job Ray. Thanks for posting this. I was going to, but now I don't have to.

Ray Soller said...

Tom, your link to Frederick B. Jonassen's journal article, Kiss the Book...You're President...: SHMG is most appreciated. If you look at footnotes <77> & <79>, you'll see the source Jonassen frequently relied upon. Sadly, the link to which he refers has stopped working. Matt Goldstein is working on finding another webservice to host the article.

But, as early as Elizabethan time, kissing the Bible was said to resemble “smacking the calf-skin.” This was a backhanded reference to Hosea 13.2, where it mentions pagan worship of the golden calf.