Friday, June 13, 2008

Freeman's Oath - reference

In my last blog, John Meacham & George Washington's Inaugural Oath, June 12, 2008, co-blogger Brad Hart commented with a question, "Does [Jon] Meacham offer any sources in his book [American Gospel, (2006) where he says on page 14 that "Washington improvised, 'so help me, God']?"

The answer is yes, but it is buried in a footnote in the back of his book. (From looking at the text, the publisher gives no hint that footnotes are available.) Here's Jon Meacham's reference listed on page 287:
14. Washington improvised "so help me, God."
Douglas Southall Freeman, George Washington: A Biography, vol. 6 (New York, 1954), 192.
Continuing on, Freeman's Oath - reference is detailed in Ch. viii, Inauguration Day is Not Without Clouds, (April 24-30, 1789), page 192. From here, one has to examine what appears to be the nearest associated footnote (fn. 50) to Washington having recited his oath of office. The cryptic footnote 50 (Lear's letter; Duke Univ. MSS) refers to a Tobias Lear letter dated May 3, 1789 to George Augustine Washington. The sender is Tobias Lear, Washington's personal secretary. The recipient, George Augustine Washington, is Washington's nephew, who was managing the Mount Vernon estate in Washington's absence. The reference to the Lear letter is described as residing at Duke University. I suspect most researchers stopped here, but I didn't. I e-mailed a request for a copy of the Lear letter to the Duke University Library. The pertinent part of the librarian's reply, dated November 11, 2005, follows:
I quickly browsed the [Tobias Lear] letter [to George Augustine Washington, dated May 3,1789] and found on page 4, "They received the President in the most respectful manner; and the Vice President conducted him to a spacious elevated seat at the head of the Room. ---- A dead and solemn silence prevailed! ---- In a few moments the Vice President arose, and informed the President all things were prepared to administer the OATH, whenever he saw fit to proceed to the Balcony to take it. He immediately descended from his seat and advanced through the middle door of the hall into the Balcony. ---- The Oath was administered in Public by Chancellor Levingston ---- and the moment the Chancellor proclaimed him President of the UNITED STATES of AMERICA! the air was rended by repeated shouts and hurrars ---- God Bless our Washington!"
A full copy of the original letter is posted here: Lear's letter of May 3, 1789 to George A. Washington. It is posted with the permission of Duke University.

As anyone can see, there's no reference to Washington adding a religious codicil to his oath. That hasn't mattered. A number of national institutions like the Library of Congress, and a large number of authors like Jon Meacham, and Michael P. Riccards, author of A Republic If You Can Keep It (1987), have simply trusted Freeman's reference as being reliable.

At this point it's easy to say, "What's so important?" Well, here is what's so important. Take a look at this document posted by the Hall Institute of Public Policy. Here is a brief snippet:
[T]he Supreme Court refused to hear a parent's [Michael Newdow's] appeal that the Pledge of Allegiance violated his daughter's First Amendment at school. The majority on the court side-stepped the issue saying that the father had no standing to litigate.

As part of the court's opinion, Rehnquist cited Riccards' "A Republic If You Can Keep It," which narrated George Washington's inauguration and how he swore on the bible:
"The phrase 'under God' in the Pledge seems, as a historical matter, to sum up the attitude of the Nation's leaders, and to manifest itself in many of our public observances," Rehnquist wrote. "Examples of patriotic invocations of God and official acknowledgements of religion's role in our Nation's history abound.

"At George Washington's first inauguration on April 30, 1789, he:
'stepped toward the iron rail, where he was to receive the oath of office.' ... 'The Chancellor proceeded with the oath: "Do you solemnly swear' ... '[to] protect and defend the Constitution of the United States?" The President responded, "I solemnly swear," and repeated the oath, adding "So help me God." He then bent forward and kissed the Bible before him.'
M. Riccards, A Republic, If You Can Keep It: Foundation of the American Presidency, 1700.1800, pp.73.74 (1987)."
Rehnquist continued with an expanded litany of "analogous" examples, but it is disheartening to realize that a Chief Justice of the United States can fall under the influence of, what is at best, an apocryphal description of Washington's inauguration, or, what is most likely, a glorified American legend without checking for a primary source.


Brad Hart said...

Very interesting post, Ray. This is a topic that I am not very familiar with, so it is very enlightening to hear what you have to say on it.

One question for you that I have is where and why did Douglas Southall Freeman come up with the idea that Washington said "So help me God?" As you point out, it couldn't have come from Tobias Lear.

bpabbott said...

Ray, regarding the words "So help me God?" ... is there a contemporary reference? ... or is the first reference originate in 1954 with "under God" in the pledge and addition "In God We Trust" on the dollar bill?

Ray Soller said...

[second try]

I am planning several other postings that will deal with the authors who first envisioned Washington as saying "So help me God" at his first inauguration. Ultimately, it's Rufus W. Griswold's "Republican Court" (1854), and Washington Irving's "Life of George Washington," vol. iv, (1857) that are most likely responsible for what happened afterwards.

Douglas S. Freeman died before his book was published. It's anybody's guess how that might have effected the final edition of his book. Freeman and his research staff probably relied on the writings of Clarence Winthrop Bowen that had been prepared for the Centennial Celebration of Washington's First Inauguration. You can find an online source in the Cornell University Library - Making of America collection for "The Century Magazine" Vol. xxxvii No. 6, April 1889, - "The Inauguration of Washington." (see