Monday, June 30, 2008

So help me, "G W" ---
The Library of Congress, they just don't get it!

In a Baptist Press February 7, 2005, article, Sekulow debates Newdow on church and state relationship, author Michael Foust reported the highlights of a radio program that had taken place three days earlier. One of the featured moments in which Washington's inaugural oath was mentioned follows:
The two men even disagreed as to whether George Washington added the phrase "so help me God" to the oath of office when sworn in.

"It turns out, that ... at least in my research, nobody has been able to verify that George Washington said, 'so help me God,'" Newdow said. "I'm already up to James Monroe, and nobody has ever been able to say that any of those presidents have ever said, 'so help me God.'"

Sekulow countered: "I've got some history books I'll show you that will help."

According to the Library of Congress Sekulow was right. The library's website says that Washington added the phrase "so help me God," and other presidents -- including Bush -- have done so, too.

After the Jay Sekulow and Michael Newdow debate, sideline spectators have been quoting the Library of Congress as if it were the final authority on this issue. Somehow, it seemed like if someone cited the Library of Congress it was just like quoting scripture from the Bible. However, anyone, who at that time would ask the Library of Congress as to what was their primary source for claiming that George Washington had added "So help me God" to his oath, would invariably meet up with either Dr. Marvin Kranz, or Gerry Gawalt. (Marvin Kranz was already on record as saying that Washington had added a religious codicil to his oath - see Jan 20, 2005, CBS article, The Evolution Of The Inauguration by Bill Plante).
As a result of a communication I had with Michael Newdow, I started sending queries to the Library of Congress. In early November 2005 I received my first response from the LOC Digital Reference Team. It explained:
Librarian 1: We apologize for not updating you on the status of your question. We have heard back from the staff in charge of the "'I Do Solemnly Swear . . .': Presidential Inaugurations" collection. They contacted Gerry Gawalt, a specialist in the Library's Manuscript Division, about your question. After speaking with him, they forwarded us the following response:

"[Gerry Gawalt says] that Douglas S. Freeman, Washington's preeminent biographer, cites a Tobis [sp. Tobias] Lear letter of May 3, 1789, to George A. Washington as evidence that Washington added "So Help Me God." While we don't have that letter, Gerry is willing to accept Freeman's work."

If you would like to follow up on this this response, you can contact the Manuscript Division directly, addressing your message to Gerry Gawalt, using the web form at: Ask a Librarian.
Later, as a result of contacting Gawalt, he told me that his information had been passed down from Dr. Marvin Kranz, who had recently retired.

I was soon able to meet up with Freeman's Oath - reference. When actually reading the document, as anyone can see, there's no reference to Washington adding a religious codicil to his oath. I then notified Gerry Gawalt that Freeman's cited reference to the Lear letter did not support LOC's claim that Washington had established a tradition by saying "So help me God."

As a result of this new information, some changes have taken place at the Library of Congress as illustrated by an e-mail exchange between Miss Elementary History Teacher and the Library of Congress. See History Is Elementary blog, May 18, 2006, Myth busting 'So help me God'

My email [from Elementary History Teacher] to the Library of Congress reads as follows:

Our students have been researching various presidents over the last few days. We have found several different Internet sites regarding the inauguration of George Washington and the words "so help me God". Many people have quoted the Library of Congress as their source for stating that GW did add those words to the end of his oath of office. What is the definitive answer to this question? We have
found other Internet postings and sites that report there are no primary sources
that state GW stated "so help me God". Thanks for your help.

Librarian Number 3 of the American Memory Team responded:

I am afraid there is no definitive answer to that question. Some testify that he did, others are silent.

As one student said, “Well, that was a lot of help!”

In contrast, here's a more candid instance where LOC shows some recognition that the notion of having Washington add "so help me God" to his "oath is not supported by any eyewitness accounts." It shows up in a Sept/Oct 2006 e-mail exchange between Barbara Clark Smith (Curator, Politics and Reform, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution), and Jurretta Heckscher (Research Specialist, Digital Reference Team, The Library of Congress). The background story as to just how these parties came in possession of the material they cited is the subject of a future blog.

No matter, even with this new information in hands of personnel at the Library of Congress, it hasn't made a noticeable difference. Whatever the facts, the Library of Congress continues to display the same information at their website, Inaugurals of Presidents of the United States: Some Precedents and Notable Events.

So help me, "G W" --- The Library of Congress, they just don't get it!

1 comment:

Brad Hart said...

This is some very good research on your part. I admire your tenacity (or what you refer to as obsession) to uncover the truth on this issue. I have found it to be extremely educational.