Wednesday, June 18, 2008

2001 - Thundering on the Metroliner with Washington's Inaugural Bible

In the morning, a day before Inauguration Day 2001, a small contingent of travelers assembled at New York City Penn Station and boarded the Metroliner bound for Washington D.C. Paul Magnotta, a Mason, two fellow Masons, and Phil McCombs, a Washington Post reporter, were among the group headed to D.C. The Amtrak Metroliner left Penn Station promptly at noon. Paul Magnotta, the master of Saint John's Lodge in Manhattan carried in his possession the Bible that was first used at George Washington's Inaugural Ceremony on April 30, 1789. (Ironically, sitting inside, just a few pages from the front cover is a full page portrait of King George II.) At the time of Washington's first inauguration, Jacob Morton, the then master of St. John's Lodge, is credited as having retrieved the Bible from the "the old Coffee House" on Wall Street so it could be used during the ceremony.

The next President to use the Masonic Bible was a Mason, Warren Gamaliel Harding, in 1921. (Harding's Inaugural Ceremony was the first to use a loudspeaker system.) Dwight D. Eisenhower followed in 1953, and Jimmy Carter in 1977. In 1989 George Herbert Walker Bush was the last President who made use of the Bible. This time in 2001 the Masonic Bible was planned to be part of the swearing-in ceremony for President-elect George Walker Bush as the 43rd President of the United States. (It so happened, ominous weather prevented its use.)

Washington Post reporter, Phil McCombs, while Thundering on the Metroliner, described the occasion as follows:
The Bible itself, published in London in 1767, is complete with the Old and New Testaments and Apocrypha, supplemented with historical, astronomical and legal data from the period, plus 103 steel engravings and two foldout maps.

When it arrived on the balcony, Washington -- with one hand upon it and the other over his heart, as a later famous painting [1889] may or may not have correctly portrayed the scene* -- repeated the oath of office in a loud, firm voice," according to one noncontemporaneous account [my emphasis]. "He then added, 'So help me God,' and bent forward to kiss the Bible."

Livingston shouted, "Long live George Washington, president of the United States!" and everyone went nuts.

(Whether Washington actually added "So help me God" to the oath is not supported by any eyewitness accounts, according to Philander D. Chase, editor of the Papers of George Washington project at the University of Virginia. "He may have said those words," Chase said.)

[The Washington Post, Testament to History; Washington's Inaugural Bible Travels from New York to Do the Honors Again; Phil McCombs.Washington D.C. Jan 20, 2001. pg. C.1] 
On the next day, no one that I know picked up their copy of the Washington Post and shouted, "Holy smoke screen! Stop the press!" Someone should have, because the newsflash Philander D. Chase had passed on to Phil McCombs was the first public announcement that flat out challenged what historians and pundits ever since Washington Irving's 1857 publication of Life of Washington, vol. iv, had come to treat as an unchallenged matter of fact. No matter, despite Irving's inaugural narrative, there is no known contemporaneous account or subsequent written recollection reporting that George Washington added "so help me God" to his presidential oath.

Later on, in the course of my ongoing research, I contacted Philander Chase regarding, what appeared to be, his somewhat equivocating comment: "He [Washington] may have said those words ['so help me God']," and in a November 17, 2005 e-mail , he further explained, "... Washington as president was a remarkably strict constructionist of the Constitution, and it seems to me very unlikely that he would have altered or amended the constitutional oath regardless of whatever views he may have had on the subject, and his personal views as far as they are known seem to have been pretty comfortable with the oath as it appears in the Constitution."

*In contrast the Inauguration of Washingtonengraving published by Johnson, Fry & Co., after painting by Alonzo Chappel, 1859, has been considered the most authentic rendition of the inaugural scene.

1 comment:

raySoller said...

Being as curious as I am, I sent Philander Chase an e-mail to see if I could find out just how he came by his information regarding Washington's inaugural oath. Phil Chase promptly responded with the following message:

The prime source of my information about the first inauguration is Dorothy Twohig, one of the founding editors of the Washington Papers with whom I worked closely for twenty-five years before she retired eight years ago. One of her principal dictums was that if you cannot prove something, leave it out. She edited the early volumes in our Presidential Series, and in writing notes about the 1789 inauguration in volume 2 of that series (pp. 152-58), she left out SHMG ["So help me God"] because she could not document it. (Would that other historians be as careful in such things).

See pertinent part of the "1789 inauguration" at The Papers of George Washington - Documents: First Inaugural Address, April 30, 1789, New York, Introduction, as told by eyewitnesses, and edited by Dortothy Twohig.

Now, as far as I can tell, this is the first instance where the phrase, "So help me God," has been excluded from a scholarly text, because its occurrence could not be authenticated.