It was Thursday, April 30, 1789 in New York City, the nation’s capital, when President-elect George Washington took the oath of office at Federal Hall. This was made possible by the recent ratification by the States of the U.S. Constitution. Article 2, Section 1 provides the presidential oath of office:
“Before he enter on the Execution of his Office, he shall take the following Oath or Affirmation:
‘I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.’ ”
No mention of a Bible on which to place one’s hand. No “So help me God” phrase.
Bearing in mind that the recording of history in the 18th century was not the hard science that we know today, with its fact-checked data, referenced citations, peer-reviewed research, academically credentialed experts, and media technologies, here is an account of the inaugural events that unfolded at the corner of Wall and Nassau streets in Manhattan:
Finally, the time set for the inaugural ceremony arrived and about half-past twelve o’clock, all things being in readiness, the procession moved from the President’s house, preceded by the troops and a numerous escort, to Federal Hall where the Senate and House of Representatives in joint session were in waiting to receive him. At the moment appointed to take the oath of office required by the Constitution, accompanied by the Vice-President, numerous functionaries and a large number of the Senate and House of Representatives, Washington appeared on the balcony fronting Broad Street. There in the presence of a vast concourse of citizens, surrounded by intimate friends, including several former comrades in arms – among whom were Alexander Hamilton, Roger Sherman, Generals Knox and St. Clair, Baron Steuben and others – he took the following oath, prescribed by law, which was administered by the Chancellor of the State of New York, Robert Livingston: ‘I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States; and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.’
When Mr. Livingston (at left, with Bible) had finished reading the oath, Washington replied solemnly: ‘I swear, so help me God,’ and bowing low, he reverently kissed the Bible. (“Washington: the Man and the Mason,” by Charles H. Callahan, National Capital Press, 1913, pp. 158-59.)
The standard accepted backstory of how a Bible was added to the proceedings is as follows and appears on the website and promotional literature (below, left) of St. John’s Lodge No. 1, Ancient York Masons, the very lodge that furnished the holy text:
“Everything was ready for the administration of the oath of office to the president of the new government, when it was found that there had not been provided a Holy Bible on which the President-elect could swear allegiance to the Constitution. Jacob Morton, who was Marshal of the parade and, at that time, Master of St. John’s Lodge, was standing close by, and, seeing the dilemma they were in, remarked that he could get the altar Bible of St. John’s Lodge, which met at the ‘Old Coffee House,’ at the corner of Water and Wall streets. Chancellor Livingston begged him to do so. The Bible was brought, and the ceremony proceeded. When the stately Washington had finished repeating the oath, with his right hand resting on the open Book and his head bowed in reverential manner, he said, in a clear and distinct voice, ‘I swear, so help me God!’ Then bowing over this magnificent Bible, he reverently kissed it. Whereupon Chancellor Livingston in a ringing voice exclaimed, ‘Long live George Washington, President of the United States!’ ”
“The Bible was “Printed by Mark Baskett, Printer to the King’s Most Excellent Majesty, London 1767.” The deep gold lettering, distinctly clear on both covers, displays this inscription: “God shall establish; St. John’s Lodge constituted 5757; Burnt down 8th March, 5770; Rebuilt and opened November 28, 5770. Officers then presiding: Jonathan Hampton, Master; William Butler, Senior Warden; Isaac Heron, Junior Warden.”
“The first page is an artistic steel engraved portrait of King George II, but, that which is so dear to the heart of every Mason is the inserted second page, beautifully engrossed and remarkably legible even at this date are the lines: ‘On this sacred volume, on the 30th day of April, A. L. 5789, in the City of New York, was administered to George Washington, the first president of the United States of America, the oath to support the Constitution of the United States.’ This important ceremony was performed by the Most Worshipful Grand Master of Free and Accepted Masons of the State of New York, the Honorable Robert R. Livingston, Chancellor of the State.”
Above: Genesis Chapters 49 and 50, where Washington placed his right hand during his presidential oath of office. Below: The original portrait of King George II, left, and the portrait of Washington added subsequently. Photos by The Magpie Mason, 2003.
With the involvement in this historic event of the most senior Masonic authorities of New York, it is time to explain what I believe is the most likely reason for the first president's ad libbed addendum to the Constitutional oath of office and the inclusion of the Bible.
By 1789, George Washington had been a Freemason for 37 years. He was initiated into the fraternity on Nov. 4, 1752; passed to the second degree on March 3, 1753; and raised to the degree of Master Mason on Aug. 4, 1753 at Fredericksburg Lodge in Fredericksburg, Virginia. In each of these three ceremonies, Washington would have taken an oath and an obligation; more than finalize the process of becoming a Mason, this act is what Masons specifically credit for “making” the Mason. It is important to understand that while the oath and the obligation of each degree are presented ritually together, the two declarations distinctly serve two purposes. There is no enigmatic Masonic mystery here. Just grab a dictionary.
Oath – 1. a solemn usually formal calling upon God or a god to witness to the truth of what one says or to witness that one sincerely intends to do what one says 2.a: solemn attestation of the truth or inviolability of one’s words.
b: something (as a promise) corroborated by an oath; an irreverent or careless use of a sacred name; broadly: SWEARWORD.
Obligation – 1. Any act by which a person becomes bound to do something to or for another, or to forbear something; external duties imposed by law, promise, or contract, by the relations of society, or by courtesy, kindness, etc.
2. The act of obligating.
3. A bond with a condition annexed, and a penalty for not fulfilling. In a larger sense, it is an acknowledgment of a duty to pay a certain sum or do a certain things.
4. That which obligates or constrains; the binding power of a promise, contract, oath, or vow, or of law; that which constitutes legal or moral duty.
5. The state of being obligated or bound; the state of being indebted for an act of favor or kindness; as, to place others under obligations to one.
From the day he entered adulthood and its societies at age 17, George Washington no doubt had taken many oaths before April 30, 1789. Washington the public official: surveyor of Culpepper County in 1749, and adjutant of Virginia three years later. The Freemason: a Master Mason (or full member) in a prestigious lodge of local elites at a time when only one in six lodge members attained the rank of Master Mason. The officer in the Virginia militia: a major in 1752, a lieutenant colonel in 1754, and a brigadier general in 1758. The elected government official: a legislator in Virginia’s House of Burgesses in 1758. A married gentleman in 1759. And of course commander-in-chief of the Continental Army in 1775, and president of the Constitutional Convention in 1787. How were all of these oaths phrased? I will have to leave most of that to the aforementioned credentialed academics, but I can provide some insight into the language of the Masonic oaths and obligations.
It would surprise no regular Freemason in the United States (or Great Britain) that George Washington concluded his oath of office by kissing the holy text and beseeching “I swear, so help me God!” A similar act of testimony is performed by every Freemason. A “moment of truth,” if you will.
Thanks to a brief but amazing piece of research published in the current (Vol. 120) edition of “Ars Quatuor Coronatorum,” the annual book of transactions published by Quatuor Coronati Lodge No. 2076 in London, we behold a seminal use of the phrase “So help me God” for public administration purposes. The Magpie Mason is forever indebted to editor Peter Hamilton Currie for squeezing this one but fascinating page into the book. Rather than type the content of this entire page, please indulge me for instead reproducing the page below so you can see it as intended. Click to enlarge. (And RW Bro. Peter, please forgive this transgression against QCCC’s copyright. I have rendered the page blue so that any further reproduction on the web can be traced to, and rightly blamed, on me.)
Left: RW Peter Hamilton Currie, editor of AQC.
Right: King James oath as it appears in Vol. 120.
“So,” you’re thinking, still unimpressed, “who cares about King James?” The prayerful conclusion of public oaths in England is found even earlier, during the reign of Elizabeth I, in what is called the Oath of Supremacy:
“I, A. B., do utterly testify and declare in my conscience that the queen’s highness is the only supreme governor of this realm and of all other her highness’s dominions and countries, as well in all spiritual or ecclesiastical things or causes as temporal, and that no foreign prince, person, prelate, state, or potentate hath or ought to have any jurisdiction, power, superiority, pre-eminence, or authority, ecclesiastical or spiritual, within this realm; and therefore I do utterly renounce and forsake all foreign jurisdictions, powers, superiorities, and authorities, and do promise that from henceforth I shall bear faith and true allegiance to the queen’s highness, her heirs, and lawful successors, and to my power shall assist and defend all jurisdictions, pre-eminences, privileges, and authorities granted or belonging to the queen’s highness, her heirs, and successors, or united or annexed to the imperial crown of this realm: so help me God and by the contents of this Book.”
It is possible this oath originated even earlier, during the reign of Henry VIII. And our phrase of the day persists after the Elizabethan-Jacobean era. In the reign of Charles I was promulgated the Oath of Allegiance, a pledge of loyalty to the Crown:
(Pinky, this one’s for you.)
“I A. B. doe truely and sincercly acknowledge, professe, testifie and declare in my conscience before God and the world, That our Soveraigne Lord King CHARLES, is lawfull King of this Realme…. And all these things I doe plainely and sincerely acknowledge and sweare, according to these expresse words by me spoken, and according to the plaine and common sence and understanding of the same words, without any Equivocation, or mentall evasion or secret reservasion whatsoever. And I doe make this Recognition and acknowledgement heartily, willingly, and truely, upon the true Faith of a Christian. So helpe me GOD.”
“Still,” you may be thinking, “what do English monarchs have to do with American republicanism?” Fair question. I offer the above quotations to demonstrate how our phrase “So help me God” was instrumental to stable civil government and peaceable citizenry. As further evidence, I cite early Masonic rituals. There is an enormous corpus of literature in Freemasonry known as the Old Charges, consisting of dozens of manuscripts describing Masonic proto-rituals starting with the Regius poem (c. 1390) and culminating with 18th century documents easily recognizable to today’s Freemason. There are too many to address here (and frankly this post has gone long enough!), but I give a few examples that display commonalities with the oaths to our 16th and 17th century monarchs (and I hereby modernize the spelling):
“These Charges that you have received you shall well and truly keep, not disclosing the secrecy of our lodge to man, woman, nor child… so god you help. Amen.” (Buchanan MS, c. 1670)
“I, AB, do in the presence of Almighty God and my fellows and brethren here present, promise and declare that I will not at any time hereafter… make known any of the secrets… of the fraternity… so help me god and the holy contents of this book.” (Harleian MS, c. 1675)
“…you shall not reveal any part of what you shall hear or see at this time… so help you god.” (Edinburgh Register House MS, 1696)
“The signs and tokens that I shall declare unto you, you shall not write… and you shall not tell… to man, woman, nor child… so help you God.” (Drinkwater No. 1 MS, c. 1700)
There is a lot of anxiety in certain circles caused by “So help me God.” Marxists, atheists, lonely busybodies, and revisionists of all stripes labor to diminish or erase the historical record of Washington’s rhetorical flourish, insisting there is no journalistic evidence he said it. I have no use for that argument, or for those who cling to it. Professional (sic) journalists and historians in 1789 were unscientific and brazenly biased, as judged against our modern expectations. (They didn’t have the objectivity and accuracy of blogs back then!) Furthermore, Washington the president was exploring new ground, truly going where no man had gone before. The Constitution didn’t prohibit the use of a Bible in the oath nor proscribed invoking deity. A good public servant – and a good Freemason – knows what his constitution says and what it does not say, and governs himself accordingly.
With this understanding of the history of “So help me God,” maybe we can agree that George Washington indeed did speak the phrase following his presidential oath of office, as reported, and perhaps also safely surmise that he added this language, not as an improvised coda, but as an established tradition in government oaths per longstanding custom. It is fact that the birth of the American republic was unprecedented in history, but it cannot be denied that the men who gave it law and politics were creatures of English habit, schooled in the mother country’s history, common law, politics, religions and traditions.