by Ray Soller
On April 24, 2007, my wife and I attended a lecture at Emory University presented by the well-known author, David McCullough. The title of his talk was "Leadership, Ambition, and the History You Don’t Know.” I brought my copy of 1776 with me so I could get it autographed. I also brought a folder full of historical material relating to Washington's first inauguration on April 30, 1789. The folder duplicated my earlier effort where I had already sent a lengthy e-mail with similar material to the Emory program coordinator, Andrew Shahan, hoping that Shahan would pass it on to McCullough.
McCullough's presentation was outstanding. Afterwards, a hundred people gathered in the book signing line. When I arrived at the table Mr. Shahan served as an assistant. He opened each book so it could be autographed. He, likewise, took my book and inspected my folder. He then told McCullough that I was the gentleman who had written the material he had already received. McCullough looked up at me with a penetrating gaze that seemed to say, "So you're the guy." My senior citizen face didn't impress the author. He put my material aside and then signed my book without saying a word. Finally, my wife and I moved on as everyone else had already done.
The material I submitted to David McCullough reviewed Washington's first inauguration as narrated in his book, John Adams. A close examination of his narrative prompts the reader to ask, "Given McCullough's ability to tell a good story, what happens to history?"
Here's McCullough's narrative of Washington's inauguration (page 403):
On the day of his inauguration, Thursday, April 30 1789, Washington rode to Federal Hall in a canary-yellow carriage pulled by six white horses and followed by a long column of New York militia in full dress. The air was sharp, the sun shone brightly, and with all work stopped in the city, the crowds along his route were the largest ever seen. It was as if all New York had turned out and more besides. "Many persons in the crowd," reported the Gazette of the United States "were heard to say they should now die contented – nothing being wanted to complete their happiness … but the sight of the savior of his country."
dot - dot - dot
[When the anticipated moment arrived] Washington, his right hand on the Bible, repeated the oath of office as read by Chancellor Robert R. Livingston of New York, who had also been a member of the Continental Congress.
In a low voice Washington solemnly swore to execute the office of the President of the United States and, to the best of his ability, to "preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States." Then, as not specified in the Constitution, he added, "So help me God," and kissed the Bible, thereby establishing his own first presidential tradition.
Confabulated six white horses: It certainly would have been grand if the inaugural parade had included a "canary-yellow carriage pulled by six white horses," but the record shows there were only four horses. (All of the other carriages were pulled by two horses. See Arriving in Style, page 3: "A Carved and gilded English-made coach drawn by four horses carried Washington from his home on Cherry Street to Federal Hall on Wall Street, escorted by militia, members of Congress, and other eminent citizens. A chorus of cheering crowds observed the procession and followed in carriages and on foot." A detailed newspaper account given in the New York Packet of May 1, 1789, the day after the ceremony, reported that "the President joined the procession in his carriage and four.")
Later in Washington's term, the president toured the southern states in a canary-yellow carriage with six horses, but at the time of the inauguration he rode alone in the gilded carriage of state that was loaned out for Washington's use by the wealthy Beekman family. Washington was so impressed that he ordered one for himself. It was shipped from London and arrived in New York that same year.
Post-dated article from the Gazette: When reading the McCullough's text for Washington's inaugural ceremony one would assume that the author is citing a Gazette article for April 30, 1789, but he wasn't. The article in question is dated April 25th, which was five days too early. It described the events of April 23rd when Washington arrived in New York City, and, indeed, some people in the crowd may have felt thay could "die contented." Others, however, thought that the monarchial trappings were overdone. A very contrasting representation appeared at the same time in the form of a caricature, which portrayed "General [Washington] mounted on an ass, and in the arms of his mulatto man, Billy, --- [David] Humphreys leading the jack, and chanting hosannas and birthday odes. The following couplet makes the motto of this device:
'The glorious time has come to pass,
When David shall conduct an ass'"
Back-dated tradition - So help me God: McCullough, along with an almost countless number of other authors, have taken what is essentially a modern-day inaugural tradition and conjured up the notion that George Washington started this "hoary tradition" by his first adding "So help me God" to the presidential oath. It's simply not true, since no elected-President has been documented as having added "so help me God" until the beginning of the twentieth century. Furthermore, in spite of the widespread notion to the contrary, there is no contemporary or firsthand historical evidence showing that George Washington added anything to his presidential oath of office. The first report claiming that Washington added "So help me God" to his presidential oath came sixty-five years after the event.
So, my fellow readers, If you like your historical narratives confabulated with a super-sized team of six horses mixed in with a post-dated newspaper article and a back-dated inaugural tradition, then McCullough's biography of John Adams and HBO's adaptation are just right for you.