Saturday, April 30, 2011

Eh, Could Anyone Hear George Washington Say "So Help Me God"?

Back on March 30, 2011, American Creation fellow blogger, Jon Rowe, alerted blog readers to John Fea on CSPAN, which in turn leads the reader to a March 18, 2011 Virginia Festival of Book video, The Founding Fathers and Religion. I recommend it.

As part of the Q and A, John Ragosta, and Barbara Smith-Clark replied to a person in the audience who asked the question, "How did we get to taking the oath of office and in a court of law [by] putting your hand on the Bible?"

Barbara Clark-Smith turned the query into one that asked whether anyone could hear George Washington say "So help me God" at his first inauguration. Her response essentially joined those already offered by the threesome: Donald Ritchie Newsweek interview; the McCullough/HBO-John Adams TV episode; and the Ron Chernow's storyline by implying there were very few persons who "were close enough to hear it." (Chernow claims, "Whether or not Washington actually said it, very few people would have heard him anyway, since his voice was soft and breathy.")

In contrast, John Ragosta declared, "George Washington almost certainly did not say 'So help me God'." He went on to mention an unidentified minister in a awkward attempt to backup his statement. I thought Ragosta might have been referring to the French Foreign Minister Comte de Moustier, but I was wrong. After a few e-mail exchanges and some digging on Ragosta's part, he came up with a minister by the name of Ashbel Green.

As it so happens, Jon Rowe has featured this good minister in his May 27 2009 blog The George Washington/Ashbel Green Affair. This article was some help, because it provides additional insight into Reverend Green's assessment concerning George Washington's personal faith.

By probing further, a Google search led me to The life of Ashbel Green by Ashbel Green, & Joseph Huntington Jones. Pages 165 - 168 follow:
In the present letter [addressed to "My Son" and dated September 10, 1842] I propose to state my reminiscences of what took place on Washington's journey from Mount Vernon, till the time of his entering on his official duties in New York. My labour in doing this will be abridged, which, at my time of life, is a welcome relief, by quotations from the last chapter of [David] Ramsay's History of the American Revolution [Volume II, 1811]. What he states is in substance what I well remember. A few remarks of my own will be interspersed as we proceed, and be subjoined at the close. The quotation from Ramsay is as follows:

[When Washington arrived at the Schuykill bridge] "Upwards of twenty thousand citizens lined the fences, fields and avenues between the Schuykill and Philadelphia. Through these, he was conducted to the city by a numerous and respectable body of the citizens, where he partook of an elegant entertainment provided for him.*

*At this entertainment I was an invited guest, and was formally introduced to the

Later on, at a point describing Washington's first inaugural ceremony, Ramsay continues:
A day [April 30, 1789] was fixed soon after his [New York] arrival, for his taking the oath of office, which was in the following words, "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." On this occasion he was wholly clothed in American manufactures. On the morning of the day appointed for this purpose, the clergy of different denominations assembled in their respective places of worship, and offered up public prayers for the President and people of the United States. About noon, a procession followed by a multitude of citizens, moved from the President's house to Federal Hall. When they came within a short distance of the hall, the troops formed a line on both sides of the way, through which Mr. Washington, accompanied by the Vice President, Mr. John Adams, passed into the Senate chamber. Immediately after, accompanied by both Houses, he went into the gallery fronting Broad street, and before them and an immense concourse of citizens, took the oath prescribed by the constitution, which was administered by R. R. Livingston, the chancellor of the state of New York. An awful silence prevailed among the spectators during this part of the ceremony. It was a minute of the most sublime joy. The chancellor then proclaimed him President of the United States. This was answered by the discharge of thirteen guns, and by the effusion of shouts from near ten thousand grateful and affectionate hearts. The President bowed most respectfully to the people, and the air again resounded with their acclamations. . . .

As can be seen, there's no mention of "So help me God," but then there's no word of the imported 1767 London published KJV Bible with its frontispiece portrait of King George II, either. Now, that by itself is not all that probative, but Reverend Green has more to say. Here is the text taken from pages 263 - 271:
It was the usage under President Washington's administration, that the chaplains of congress should dine with him once in every month, while congress was in session. This brought me often in the presence of the illustrious man whose fame has filled the world. It was among the rare qualities that distinguished Washington, that in common conversation he never expressed his feelings on an event or a subject that affected a foreign nation, and never, while a subject was under debate in congress, let his opinion be publicly known on that subject.

I will give an example of each of these traits of character, to which I was an
eye and ear witness.

dot - dot - dot

After I was chaplain [starting in 1791], I believe I was present at all his speeches on the opening of a session of congress; for the custom of sending a message to congress, which was introduced by Mr. Jefferson, was then unknown. Twelve o'clock at noon, was the usual hour agreed on for his opening speech, and in no instance did he fail in a punctual attendance at that hour; indeed, he commonly crossed the threshold of the door where the congress sat, exactly when the clock was striking the hour of twelve. The two houses always assembled to receive him in the senate chamber. When he entered, all the members of both houses rose from their seats, and stood up until he had taken his seat, which he did immediately after bowing to his audience. When he was seated, he looked around on the audience for a minute or two, and then took out his spectacles from a common red morocco case; and laid them on his knee, and then took from his side-pocket his written speech. After putting on his spectacles, he rose and began his address, which he read closely. He read distinctly and audibly [my emphasis], but in no other respect was his reading excellent. Dr. Witherspoon had heard George the Third deliver one of his speeches to the British parliament, which he said was in the very best style of elocution. This could not be said of the speeches of Washington; his elocution had no glaring fault, and no high excellence. In private, as well as in public, his punctuality was observable. He had a well regulated clock in his entry, by which the movements of his whole family, as well as his own were regulated. At his dinner parties he allowed five minutes for the variation of time pieces, and after they were expired he would wait for no one. Some lagging members of congress came in when not only dinner was begun, but considerably advanced. His only apology was, "Sir, or Gentlemen, we are too punctual for you;" or in pleasantry, "Gentlemen, I have a cook, who never asks whether the company has come, but whether the hour has come." Washington sat as a guest at his dinner table, about half way from its head to its foot. The place of the chaplain was directly opposite to the President. The company stood while the blessing was asked, and on a certain occasion, the President's mind was probably occupied with some interesting concern, and on going to the table he began to ask a blessing himself. He uttered but a word or two, when bowing to me, he requested me to proceed, which I accordingly did. I mention this because it shows that President Washington always asked a blessing himself, when a chaplain was not present.

On the 4th of March, 1797, the presidentship of Washington terminated, and on this occasion the clergy of the city and vicinity presented to him a written address, drawn up by myself, to which he returned a very courteous answer. In my review of Jefferson's papers, in the 8th volume of the Christian Advocate, the whole circumstances of this transaction are explained; and the address, with the names of those who signed it, and the President's answer, may there be seen.

Nearly all the usages which Washington had established, were adopted by Mr. Adams on his accession to the presidentship [my emphasis]. There was one, however, that was new. Washington had several times called his fellow citizens to the duty of either fasting or of thanksgiving; and the proclamations which he issued for the purpose were probably written by himself. But Mr. Adams requested the chaplains of congress to furnish him with draughts of two proclamations which he issued for the fasts to which he called the public during his administration. . . . The commendation bestowed on this [the second] proclamation by the pious people of our country was ardent and general. It was of course supposed that the President [John Adams] had written it himself, and I said and did nothing to undeceive them. Indeed the sanction given it by the President made it virtually his own act.
Now, if Reverend Green is correct about Washington's enduring practices, then the practice of adding "so help me God" to the presidential oath was not known as one of the "usages which Washington had established." This conclusion can be drawn from the historical record since it shows no indication that either John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, or John Quincy Adams added "So help me God" at their inaugural ceremonies. In fact adding "So help me God" to the presidential oath did not become an established custom until the 1933 inauguration of Franklin D. Roosevelt.

By the way, to answer the original question, the primary responsibility for instituting the practice of "putting your hand on the Bible" traces back, most prominently, to colonial Royal Governor Sir Edmund Andros, 1637-1714. It was during his heavy-handed administration that Andros introduced and strictly enforced what "[t]o the scrupulous Puritans, the idolatrous custom of laying the hand on the Bible, in taking an oath, operated as a widely disenfranchising test. " (See History of the colonization of the United States (1817), pg.55, by George Bancroft.) Increase Mather, called it the "book-oath."


Brian Tubbs said...

We've covered this ground before, of course, but for the sake of those new to American Creation...

1) Ray Soller, through his research, has established pretty clearly that there's no contemporary evidence to definitively establish that Washington added "so help me God" to the oath.

2) If one takes all the contemporary evidence together and interprets that evidence literally (without regard to any oral traditions), then it would appear GW did NOT say "so help me God" to the oath.

3) The preceding facts, however, do not completely negate the possibility that GW said the words. We simply don't know if he did or did not.

4) What we DO know is that GW appealed to God in his inaugural address. And did so very emphatically.

5) If the official administering the oath of office requires the President-Elect to say the words "so help me God" (which are NOT in the constitutional wording), then a constitutional breach will have occurred. The Constitution clearly forbids any religious test.

6) HOWEVER...if the President-Elect decides, on his own, to ask the official to prompt him or her with the words at the end of the oath OR chooses to add the words himself herself, that is perfectly acceptable. No constitutional breach has taken place and no harm has been done.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Great stuff Ray as usual.

bpabbott said...

Ray, thanks for the update and summary!

Brian, nice overview of the historic, and political implications.

Explicit Atheist said...

Brian Tubbs comments are all correct, but it omits a significant detail, so I will add it here:

7) The reason why we will, and we should, continue to revisit this historical question is that the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies website continues to assert that George Washington began the precedent of appending shmG to the presidential oath office.

Ray Soller said...

Here, also, for the sake of those new to American Creation and in the spirit of the Equal Fairness Doctrine is Brian Tubbs in his June 30, 2008 blog, In Defense of "So Help me God".

Brian likes saying, "We simply don't know if he did or did not [add SHMG presidential oath of office]". Ultimately that may be true, but the preponderance of the available evidence weighs in favor of Washington having not done so.

If one is going to rely on "oral tradition," then the probablilty of there being a reliable source which can be used "In Defense of SHMG" only decreases when the assertion is made that there were very few persons who "were close enough to hear it." This approach is counter-productive, because neither Rufus Griswold, Washington Irving, or their associates ever circulated in the same social circles as Reverend Ashbel Green or even "Parson" Weems where they could have heard of GW saying SHMG from someone who was originally close enough to hear it. So, for whatever it's worth, there doesn't appear to be any record of Ashbel Green or Parson Weems claiming that GW adding anything to his constitutional oath.

Brian Tubbs said...

I put this debate in the same category as whether Davey Crockett went down fighting at the Alamo or whether he was captured and then killed.

The "tradition" is that Crockett went down fighting. (And that's what John Wayne did, after all! So that should settle it, right? :-) ). Seriously, the tradition is that he died fighting, and what we know about the man seems to support that tradition. The same could be said of Washington adding "so help me God."

However, contemporary evidence seems to suggest that Crockett was among those who initially survived and were captured. Whether Crockett surrendered or whether he was simply overpowered is not something any of us can know.

Either way, the end result is that Davey Crockett died. And no one (even those who believe that he was captured and then killed) would suggest he was a coward. He valiantly served at the Alamo, and he courageously sacrificed his life in doing so. The chronological details change none of that.

Likewise, with GW, I concede that there is sufficient evidence to call the "tradition" of GW saying SHMG into very serious question. So much so that the official government publications should, at the least, put some kind of qualifier or disclaimer on any such assertion that GW said SHMG.

But, at the end of the debate, the facts remain that GW believed in God and prayed to God -- and used his inauguration (via his speech at least) to call on the American people to do the same.

Ray Soller said...

Brian, you lost me with your reference to Davey Crockett. What does Crockett to do with oath-taking or prayer?

Nothing you've written suggests that you've read my post or examined the links that are provided.

Prayer was a part of GW's life. Ashbel Green said as much: "The place of the chaplain was directly opposite to the President. The company stood while the blessing was asked, and on a certain occasion, the President's mind was probably occupied with some interesting concern, and on going to the table he began to ask a blessing himself. He uttered but a word or two, when bowing to me, he requested me to proceed, which I accordingly did. I mention this because it shows that President Washington always asked a blessing himself, when a chaplain was not present."

Magpie Mason said...

It's that time of year again.

Rather than repeat myself, I offer the link to my answer to the question:

I remind our readers that nearly everything we think we know about history before, say, the mid 19th century, is based on accounts of single individuals who had no recording devices more sophisticated than than their writing implements. Plutarch was not a peer-reviewed historian or credentialed journalist, yet we take his histories seriously as glimpses into the ancient world.

Have we ever talked about why Washington Irving might have put this particular phrase into the first president's mouth? It would be an unlikely choice of words if it is in fact impossible Washington could have said it.


Ray Soller said...

First off, Washington Irving was not the first person to have GW say SHMG. Rufus W. Griswold is the responsible party. He scooped Washington Irving by three years. Griswold also said that GW closed his eyes when he said SHMG. That's a nice touch. Griswold could have dreamed it up, learned of the SHMG tidbit from Irving from some other unknown source, reliable or not.

We do know that Washington Irving, except for Griswold's SHMG contribution, plagiarized his inaugural narrative from Eliza Susan Morton Quincy. At another point, Irving happens to get it wrong when he described only two horses pulling Washington's Coach of State, when in fact there were four horses. All other coaches had two. That's an odd oversight.

Now, if anyone is honestly interested in knowing "Why Washington Irving might have put this particular phrase [SHMG] into the first president's mouth?" I'd suggest reading another "historical" account written by Irving with the title, Chronicles of the Conquest of Granada, 1829, page 463.

Washingston Irving said...

"I am always at a loss to know how much to believe of my own stories." - from Tales of a Traveler, 1824

Magpie Mason said...

Thank for that reference, Mr. Soller. It seems SHMG keeps appearing here and there as a common affirmation of conviction, such as one might want to say upon taking an oath.