by Ray Soller
and Tom Van Dyke
Ray Soller is a contributor here at the American Creation blog, although we don't hear from him nearly often enough. He's one of the most thorough forensic historians on the internet, and once again, he's scored a coup. More on that in a minute.
Mr. Soller has done definitive work on whether George Washington actually ever uttered "So Help Me God" at his first inauguration. [Washington most probably didn't, and even official government historians have been forced to take notice.]
And Soller took on famous John Adams biographer David McCullough over details of Washington's first inaugural. No myth or assertion about the Founding is safe from our forensic pit bull.
We recently posted an excellent guest essay which repeated what is fast becoming a "truism" about the Founding [and one I've repeated myself], that New York and Virginia were the two states that prohibited religious tests for statewide office at the time the US Constitution was ratified.
Not so, sayeth Ray, and he has the floor:
A minor point: Fea wrote, "[Post-colonial] New York did not place any religious restrictions on officeholders." I'd like to know the particular source for this statement. My source, Laws of the state of New York, Passed in the First Session of the Senate and Assembly of the Said State, Beginning in the Tenth Day of September, 1777, and continued by Adjournments, and ending with the Last Day of June, 1778, Chapter 6, pages 13 and 14, indicates otherwise.
After further research Mr. Soller added:
I found the source for the claim that "New York did not place any religious restrictions on officeholders." It comes from, as you might guess, Kramnick and Moore in their book "The Godless Constitution," page 31. Here is the claim:
The two exceptions among the state constitutions were those of Virginia and New York. In the former, (with Madison's help) Jefferson's "Statute for Religious Freedom," passed in 1786, specified that no religious test could be applied to the holding of public office. Even more interesting was New York's constitution, which in 1777 self-consciously repudiated tests that sought to maintain "any particular denomination of Christians." The absence of religious tests would, the New York constitution claimed, "guard against that spiritual oppression and intolerance wherewith the bigotry and ambition of weak and wicked priests and princes have scourged mankind."
The New York state Constitution did, indeed, endorse "the free exercise and enjoyment of religious profession and worship, without discrimination or preference," but the NYS statute required that a candidate for public office subscribe to a religious test oath in the form:
I, A. B. do solemnly swear and declare in the presence of Almighty God, that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the State of New York as a free and independent State; and that I will in all things to the best of my knowledge and ability, do my duty, as a good subject of the said State ought to do; so help me God.
Consequently, contrary to what [Professors Isaac] Kramnick & [R. Laurence] Moore indicate in their next paragraph, it was only the "principles of Virginia and [not] New York [that] were written into the new federal Constitution, 'without much debate.'"
Since I've known Mr. Soller to be dogged on his facts, I meself pored through his source to look for exceptions to such an oath. All I could find was an exception for Quakers, who for religious reasons were not permitted to "swear," only "affirm."
Ray doesn't tolerate myth-making, no matter which "side" does it, that much I've learned about him. Perhaps the authors of The Godless Constitution: The Case Against Religious Correctness [later retitled: The Godless Constitution: A Moral Case for the Secular State] have other facts to present for their assertion. But if Ray's challenge is correct, it was only one state, Virginia, and not even two, that the others needed to accommodate in making the US Constitution "godless."
Hey, history's only dead if you let it die. Hats off to Ray Soller. This religion-and-the-Founding thing is quite a live wire, if we're willing to dig for ourselves and not take the scholars' word for everything. Scholars are wrong all the time.