"I am always at a loss to know how much to believe of my own stories." (from Tales of a Traveler, by Washington Irving, 1824)
In a recent e-mail exchange I was asked if I knew of "the Parson Weems moment," where the first mention of the story for George Washington adding "so help me God" had occurred.
I responded with the following material that is selected from So help me God in presidential oaths. The article is written by Mathew Goldstein and it contains a summary of the research carried out by Matt, myself, and others. A pertinent selection from the article follows:
The earliest known published claim that George Washington added that phrase to his oath appears in a book that was initially published in 1854 - The Republican Court; or, American Society in the Days of Washington, by Rufus Wilmot Griswold, 1854-1857, New York, page 141. Griswold says that he pieced together his account after having a conversation with Dr. [John Wakefield] Francis and Washington Irving during which time Irving had related "his recollections of the scene." Griswold then recalled Irving’s presence during the ceremony by saying, "He [Washington Irving] had watched the procession till the President entered Federal Hall, and from the corner of New street and Wall street had observed the subsequent proceedings in the balcony." [RS - The truth is that Irving was not located where he could see the procession as it moved up Broad Street.] Washington Irving was six years old at the time of George Washington's inauguration. The corner of New Street and Wall Street, ... is about 200 feet west from Federal Hall. From that distance and sideways viewing angle it is unlikely anyone would have a clear view of the activities or be able to hear what was said. Liza [Susan Morton (Quincy)] was watching from a balcony just across the street and she said she was "so near," that she "could almost hear him [George Washington] speak" when he took his oath. Yet somehow, Griswold claims to know that George Washington recited the "so help me God" phrase "with eyes closed". ... The [Dr.] "Reverend" R. W. Griswold was born in 1815 so he could not have been an eyewitness. Dr. Francis was born in 1789 and so he couldn't have been Griswold's source either.
Published three years afterwards was Life of George Washington, by Washington Irving, 1857, New York, volume 4, page 514. According to Pierre M. Irving and Washington Irving: A Collaboration in Life and Letters, by Wayne R. Kime, 1977, University Press, page 133, Irving had the idea for a Washington biography in 1825, started research by the early 1840s, and was writing by the early 1850s. Furthermore, it's clear that Washington's first inauguration was important to Irving's conception of that biography. Up until May 1855, he planned to end with that scene. Even after Irving decided to cover Washington's presidential terms, he wanted the first inauguration to be the climax of volume 4 (see pages 260, 297, and 326 of Pierre M. Irving and Washington Irving). That means Irving was mulling over the inauguration scene, possibly even drafting it, well before he published.
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The editor of the Memoir of the life of Eliza S. M. Quincy, ed. E S Quincy, Boston [Printed by J. Wilson] 1861, complains in a footnote at the bottom of page 52 that
The previous pages, which describe the entrance and inauguration of Washington, were sent to Mr. Irving, in 1856, at his request, by the Editor, and are inserted in his "Life of Washington," vol iv. pp. 510, 513, 514, but without reference to their source.Eliza Morton Quincy was the younger sister to Jacob Morton, the person who it is said hastily retrieved the Masonic Bible for use during the inauguration. An excerpt of an earlier version of the same manuscript, published in 1856, which does not claim that George Washington appended "so help me God," can be found in the Century Magazine, volume 37, issue 6, April 1889, page 827, The Inauguration of Washington, by Clarence Winthrop Bowen. Two other accounts of the inauguration claiming George Washington appended "so help me God" were also published that year. Life and Times of Washington, John Frederick Schroeder, (Completed by Ben Lossing & R.W. Griswold), 1857 [published posthumously], Johnson, Fry, and Company, New York, pg 308 and Memoirs of Washington, by Caroline Matilda Kirkland, 1857, New York: D. Appleton, p. 438.
Schroeder and Kirkland mingled with Griswold and Irving in the same New York city literary circles. Nowhere, among these four authors, does anyone specify just how they came by their claim that George Washington included the words "So help me God." Schroeder, an Episcopalian minister, died on Feb. 26, 1857 before he completed his book. Griswold [who died on August 27th of that same year] had a hand in completing Schroeder's book. Kirkland mimicked Griswold and wrote, "..., he [Washington] was observed to say audibly, 'I swear!' adding, with closed eyes, as if to collect all his being into the momentous act - 'So help me God!'" It thus appears possible that the "Reverend" Griswold originated the assertion that George Washington appended "so help me God" and also had a hand in getting the other three authors to assert the same. [RS - It should be noted that the preface in Kirkland's book is dated "October,1856," which indicates that she was the next person to reproduce Griswold's version of Washington's oath. This could have left Irving in the awkward position of obligingly adding "so help me God" to Washington's oath of office, even if he hadn't been Griswold's original source.]
According to The Religious Beliefs of Our Presidents, by Franklin Steiner, 1936, most of Washington Irving's biography of George Washington is copied from the biography written by historian [Jared] Sparks, Irving did little if any original research for his popular biography of George Washington. Similarly, in his article on Washington in the Dictionary of American Biography (1936), J C Fitzpatrick wrote, "Washington Irving, Life of GW (5 vols., 1855-1859) is satisfactory from most viewpoints, though its reliance on [Jared] Sparks lessens the confidence it would otherwise command." Sparks biography, although well researched, was written in a biased manner that exaggerates and promotes Washington's status as Hero. The following description of the bias of Jared Spark's biography of George Washington is from The Americans: The National Experience by Daniel J Boorstin "Part Seven - SEARCH FOR SYMBOLS Ch. 39 - The Mythologizing of George Washington":
Sparks followed the style of his day. His biography, which prefaced the writings, was pious, pallid, and reverential. The Hero was of commanding figure, symmetrical features, indomitable courage, pure character, and perfect judgment; "his moral qualities were in perfect harmony with those of his intellect." Sparks' appendix, "Religious Opinions and Habits", was an ingenious whitewash in which Washington's failure to attend communion became an argument for his religiosity. "He may have believed it improper publicly to partake of an ordinance, which, according to the ideas he entertained of it, imposed severe restrictions on outward conduct, and a sacred pledge to perform duties impracticable in his situation. Such an impression would be natural to a serious mind . . . a man of a delicate conscience and habitual reverence for religion." There was no passage in Washington's writings, Sparks noted, which expressed doubt of the Christian revelation. In a man of such Christian demeanor, what more conclusive proof that he was a true and tolerant Christian?
The writings were edited in a similar spirit. In selecting a mere eleven [volumes] from what might have filled four times that many volumes, Sparks had ample freedom to ennoble his subject. While Sparks did not actually add passages of his own, he omitted passages at will without warning the reader and he improved the language when it seemed unworthy of the Hero. He explained all this in his introduction: "It would be an act of unpardonable injustice to any author, after his death, to bring forth compositions, and particularly letters, written with no design for their publication, and commit them to press without previously subjecting them to careful revision." Challenged later on his editorial methods, Sparks argued with charming naivete that he was really being true to his subject because Washington himself in his old age revised his early letters. Wherever Sparks had a choice he preferred Washington's own latter revision (again without warning the reader) in place of what had actually been written in the heat of the events. And Sparks made changes of his own. Where, for example, Washington had written of the "rascally crews" of New England privateersmen, Sparks emended the text to read simply the "crews." Washington's reference to the "dirty mercenary spirit" of the Connecticut troops became the "mercenary spirit," and their "scandalous conduct" was softened to their "conduct." "Old Put." became the more dignified "General Putnam." When Washington referred contemptuously to a small sum of money as "but a fleabite at present," Sparks improved it to read "Totally inadequate to our demands at this time." Sparks again and again and again changed the words to make them worthy of his Hero.
For those SHMG proponents who suggest Irving could have had a source of his own, yes, that's always a conjectural possibility. However, please consider that Washington Irving, by his own admission, relied heavily upon the works of Jared Sparks. Sparks did not claim Washington had modified the presidential oath. In addition, Irving was acquainted with his contemporaries, such as James Kirke Paulding, William Alexander Duer, and Eliza Susan Morton, all of whom, earlier than Irving, had each published their version of Washington's first inauguration. None of these writers reported anything about Washington including "so help me God" as being part of the inaugural ceremony. Consequently, we can surmise that when Washington Irving wrote his description of Washington's inauguration it is evident that he took most of his narrative from Eliza Susan Morton Quincy and recirculated the Griswold's undocumented religious tagline.
If Irving had been responsible for priming Griswold with the story that Washington had added "so help me God" to his oath, it wasn't the first time he had planted those words on the lips of one of his literary heroes at a dramatic moment (see Tales of the Alhambra: to which are added Legends of the conquest of Spain, pg 262). One way or another, Irving probably wanted to plant his story with Griswold, because he felt that would boost his credibility in spite of his employing an unidentifiable source when he published Volume 4 of his biography of George Washington. It did stick, and has stuck around just as well as his Santa Claus myth, and his flat earth myth.
That's right, there's no smoking gun. Just a few dead people. It turns out, Griswold died of Tuberculosis in New York City on August 27, 1857. A friend, Charles Godfrey Leland, found in Griswold's desk several documents attacking a number of authors which Griswold was preparing for publication. Leland decided to burn them (see Arthur Hobson Quinn's book, Edgar Allen Poe: a critical biography, pg162).