by Ray Soller
Recently, Tom Van Dyke brought to our attention Michael P. Orsi's review of Steven Waldman's book, Founding Faith. In addition, I'd like to draw attention to another review written by John R. Vile. His review can be found here. (And yes, I've read the book.)
I'm sure to no great surprise for those who have tracked my blogs here at American Creation, the part of the review that caught my eye is this particular item:
As the editor of Beliefnet.com and former editor of U.S. NEWS & WORLD REPORT, Waldman writes in a readable style that will engage most readers ... Occasionally Waldman will miss an issue as when he reports (p.160) that Washington said “So Help me God” when taking his oath without indicating that there is a contemporary dispute about the matter, but he is generally aware of nuance. Thus, he correctly reports that the Constitutional Convention did not adopt Franklin’s proposal to begin each day’s proceedings with prayer and reasonably suggests, with reference to an earlier Continental Congress, that delegates may have failed to do so for fear that choosing a chaplain would further divide the group.
Here on page 160 is the snippet to which Professor Vile is referring:
Other points of consensus about God and government were quickly established during Washington's two terms. Washington took office by putting his hand on a Bible and declaring "So help me God," and many presidents since have done the same. The House of Representatives' building was used for worship services during the presidencies of Washington [RS-huh?!], Adams, Jefferson, and Madison. On the other hand, the new government abandoned the practice of the Continental Congress of officially referring to the United States as a "Christian nation."
Like Professor Vile says, Waldman doesn't seem to be aware not only that there is a "contemporary dispute" over whether George Washington added an extra-constitutional codicil to his presidential oath, but there's no reliable indication that any of our first twenty presidents thought of doing so either. In the matter of the Bible, neither Washington at his second inauguration, John Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, or John Quincy Adams are known to have used a Bible to solemnize their oath of office. (I could go on and comment about the practice of allowing worship service in federal buildings, but that would be a diversion.)
Now, all of a sudden, Steven Waldman has had an epiphany. Here's his exclamation, "So Help Me God" Came from Chester Arthur -- Not George Washington?!, and here are the mind-enlightening details:
Beth Hahn, historical editor for the U.S. Senate Historical Office, once made a video ["So Help Me God", a historical look at the Inaugural Ceremonies 1789-2005] describing how George Washington began the tradition of saying "So help me God" during a presidential swearing in. [accessed 1/20/2009]
Then she did some research -- and changed her mind. "When I made the video, it was common wisdom that he said it, and I did not check it," Hahn told Cathy Grossman of USA Today. "After investigating this, I would say there is no eyewitness documentation that he did -- or did not -- say this."
It was common practice to use the phrase back then but, Hahn said, the first actual eye-witness account of a President using the statement came in 1881 at Chester Arthur's swearing in.
I suspect Steven Waldman would agree with Beth Hahn that at the time Waldman composed his thoughts describing George Washington's first inaugural ceremony "it was common wisdom" to envision our first president as having added "So help me God" to his oath, and the whole reason for this is people simply "did not check it out." It had become unquestioned part of our founding faith.