From: Raymond Soller
Sent: Monday, February 09, 2009 9:35 AM
To: Office of the Historian
Subject: Article II, Section 1 of the U.S. Constitution
In response to the January 22, 2009 question by Mr. A.P. from the Netherlands asking for the reason why the VP's oath is longer than the presidential oath I found the following statement:
When George Washington was inaugurated as the first President of the United States on 30 April 1789 in New York City, he added the phrase, “So help me God” at the end of the oath of office. It has been in place ever since.
The story that Washington added a religious codicil to his oath of office is not supported by any known contemporary or subsequent firsthand account. I don't know exactly what is meant by "It has been in place ever since," but if we skip over the Sept. 22, 1881 swearing-in ceremony for Chester A. Arthur [after the death of President Garfield], then we can safely say that no elected president is known to have departed from the constitutional oath until the early part of the twentieth century. Herbert Hoover was the last president whose oath was administered as prescribed by Article II, Section 1 of the U.S. Constitution. It has only been since FDR that all presidents have been prompted to conclude their oath with "So help me God."
My question is: Does the Office of the Historian have any documented facts to support the notion that George Washington added "So help me God" to the presidential oath?
Is it possible that your office missed out on Dr. Donald Kennon's January 14th briefing, Historical Perspectives on the Inaugural Swearing In Ceremony, at the U. S. Department of State Foreign Press Center?
----- Response -----
From: Beuttler, Fred
To: Raymond Soller
Sent: Tuesday, February 17, 2009 6:10 PM
Subject: RE: Article II, Section 1 of the U.S. Constitution
Dear Mr. Soller,
Thank you for your response to our web post. You are technically correct, and that phrase we used in that answer was overly definitive. It was an oversimplification of a historically complex incident. While it is possible, and indeed probable, that Washington used the phrase, “so help me God,” the record is silent as to whether or not he actually did say it.
Thank you as well for pointing out my friend and colleague Don Kennon’s remarks, although I think he went too far in implying that the absence of a direct source affirms the contrary position. While no direct reference to Washington’s use of the phrase “so help me God” has been found, it is quite possible for him to have added that at the end of the presidential oath. He had no scruples against seeking divine guidance for his administration, as indeed he does in his inaugural address. His “fervent supplications to that Almighty Being …” and his “homage to the Great Author of every public and private good” suggest that he would affirm the sentiment of “so help me God.” Further, the phrase was required of most oaths at the time, a commonplace in English and most American state oaths.
The evidence as to Washington’s use of the phrase is circumstantial, but for most things in the past, that is probably as close as it gets. Washington did bring a Bible to the oath ceremony; he also “repeated” the constitutional oath of office with “devout fervency.” And he also performed this remarkable act, according to at least one [anonymous - RS] eyewitness: “he bowed down and kissed the sacred volume.” (“Extract from a letter from New York, May 3,” in THE FEDERAL GAZETTE, May 8, 1789, p.3) Now, why would he do that? What Washington was most likely doing was following the custom of English monarchs, who in the eighteenth century, and even now, take their oath of office (including the phrase “so help me God”), and then bow down and kiss the Bible. [my italics - RS]
One could look as well to the precedent of the House of Representatives. A little over three weeks before Washington’s inauguration, the House was sworn in, on April 6, 1789 [the date was April 8th - RS], with an [ad hoc - RS] oath to uphold the Constitution, “so help me God.” While the records of the Senate are silent as to their oath of office, it was clear that when Washington said his oath, at least [no, only - RS] the Representatives themselves had recently taken an [ad hoc - RS] oath of office with the phrase, “so help me God.” [The Senate record is not silent. It wasn't until June 3, 1789 that Senate President John Adams administered the official legislated oath to all Senators, which had been signed into law by President Washington on June 1st. - RS]
Did Washington end his oath of office with the phrase “so help me God”? As far as recent historians have been able to discover, the record is silent as to whether he said it or did not say it. The direct evidence for or against is equal on both sides. Given the historical and congressional context, however, along with Washington’s seeming use of the monarchial precedents and his willingness to invoke divine aid at most opportunities, it seems plausible that Washington did say “so help me God,” after the oath of office and before kissing the Bible. Indeed, it seems more plausible to think that no one thought to record such a commonplace as worthy of note, than that Washington purposefully omitted the phrase, and that no one mentioned that omission. Otherwise, why would he kiss the Bible?
So, clearly, it is possible, that Washington said “so help me God,” and with the circumstantial evidence, it is probably likely, although not certain, that he said it.
But you are correct, in saying that the tradition of saying “so help me God,” in presidential oaths (unlike in congressionally mandated oaths), did not begin with Washington, but developed later, unlike the tradition of taking the oath on a Bible, which did originate with our first president.
[end of e-mail exchange]
Two things should be noted about Dr. Beuttler's answer to Mr. A. P. of the Netherlands: first off, Dr. Beuttler never actually answered the question as to why the the Vice-President's oath is much longer than the president's oath, and secondly, after my first e-mail to Dr. Beuttler, he, to his credit, modified his response shown on the internet so that it now reads:
When George Washington was inaugurated as the first President of the United States on 30 April 1789 in New York City, he probably [my italics] added the phrase, “So help me God” at the end of the oath of office. It has been added by most presidents in the past century.
As for Dr. Beuttler's response to me regarding the notion that Washington brought a Bible to his oath ceremony, that is not substantiated by anything in the historical record, and it is this fact that needs to be addressed before anyone can properly understand why Washington placed his hand on the Bible and after the oath was completed bowed down to kiss the Bible.
Even with Dr. Beuttler's bible gaff, he still tries to build his case for Washington having probably concluded his oath with "So help me God" by asking the question, "Now, why would he do that [bow down and kiss the bible]?," and then he continues by answering his own question with the following:
What Washington was most likely doing was following the custom of English monarchs, who in the eighteenth century, and even now, take their oath of office (including the phrase “so help me God”), and then bow down and kiss the Bible.
Dr. Beuttler is not the first one to suggest the possiblility that Washington followed the custom set by the coronation of English kings and queens. In August of 1980, Martin Jay Medhurst stressed this possiblility in his dissertation, ’God Bless the President’: The Rhetoric of Inaugural Prayer (See "A Ceremonial Pattern," pgs 61-62.)
Another possible model, much closer to Washington's personal experiences, is that of the oaths taken during Masonic initiatory rituals. Though rarely considered, this could be a possibility.
A central problem with either of these possibilities is that Washington was known as a festidious planner and was not known to leave any loose ends which would need resolution at the last minute, such as locating a Bible for his swearing-in ceremony. In addition, it's been noted by respectable historians that it would be very unlike Washington to take it upon himself to modify the text for the presidential oath as prescribed by Article II, Section 1.8 of the United States Constitution:
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.