Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Historians Are At It Again

There's an interesting and imaginative article by Thomas Fleming that recently appeared over at the History News Network website. It's titled, Channelling George Washington: "So Help Me God."  If  I am counting right, it's his ninth such HNN article. Thomas Fleming is a prolific author, who has now written fifty books. His 1997 book, Liberty! The American Revolution, was written as companion volume to the PBS television series of the same name, Liberty! His latest book is The Intimate Lives of the Founding Fathers.

Here's the opening part of Fleming's HNN interview-styled article:
[GW] “I see the historians are at it again.”
[Host] “At what, Mr. President?”
[GW] “Arguing about whether I added ‘So help me God’ at the close of my recitation of the presidential oath of office. This is the third or fourth time.
[Host] I’ve read those words in at least a dozen accounts of the ceremony.”
[GW] “Even you, an historian of some note, don’t know it’s not part of the oath as it appears in the Constitution?”
[Host] “When you put me to the test, I realize it isn’t. Did you add the phrase?”
[GW] “No. For a very good reason. We were determined to create a government in which there were no links to religion. We had seen how divisive religion had become in Europe in the previous two hundred years. Especially troubling to Americans was the way it tore England apart in the civil war of the seventeenth century, which ended with beheading of King Charles I and making Oliver Cromwell a dictator for twenty years.
I can up to this point follow along with Fleming, but I have a different conclusion than his, where he has Washington saying:
[GW] “When I took the oath office as president and did not add ‘So help me God’— I spoke those words in my mind and heart.”.
My version is:
[GW] "When I completed the obligatory book-oath by kissing the imported 1767 London published KJV Bible with its opening page portrait of King George II, I muttered to myself, 'Damn that Livingston and his New York State legislated religious test. He'll never get a federal appointment while I'm President.'"

It's true that Washington's first inaugural ceremony was loaded with religious overtones, but his second inaugural address was quite different. As part of his second address Washington said, "This [constitutional, non-religious test] oath I am now about to take, and in your presence: That if it shall be found during my administration of the Government I have in any instance violated willingly or knowingly the injunctions thereof, I may (besides incurring constitutional punishment) be subject to the upbraidings of all who are now witnesses of the present solemn ceremony."
It's plain to see GW did not say, as was common among the state constitutions, that his oath was sworn, "In the presence of Almighty God." He also avoided mentioning any prospect of wrathful judgment in the afterlife if he would violate the terms of his oath. The religious codicil, "So help me God," was not meant to be a plea for God's help as modern commentators suggest. It was, instead, meant as a threat of future condemnation for oath breakers. As for Washington, he only acknowledged the possible "upbraidings" of his contemporaries.


Angie Van De Merwe said...

Hi Ray,...
People in public office have a duty to perform service to their country by upholding the Constitution, period. That means that the nation's welfare, which is really the people's welfare is at stake in such an oath/duty. They are to not only protect the nation, but also uphold their responsibility to protect the rights of the citizens. These are "public servants" that saw their duty as one of/by "God". They acted on "God's behalf", whether they believe in "God" or were acting as "God"....America was to be a Representative Republic..

Ray Soller said...

Angie, you left out the part that says, "Our rights come from God." Agreeing with this proposition would mean that President Washington saw himself as the Chief Pontiff of the nation and as one of the "they" you have in mind.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Language games, Ray? the "Christian Nation" premise? Is the Restoration movement a litle like what happened in the 70's in Iran? Was the overthrow of the Shah and establishment of Khomenini "better" because it affirmed Islamic revival? No, as it radicalized Islamic theology or Iran's self-understanding. Our nation understood that theology was NOT the place for creating a policial climate, the indivdiual not political power was the appropriate means to liberty of religious conscience. And to a free society!!!

Tom Van Dyke said...

...endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness; that, to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men...

Rights come from God, governments are instituted by men to secure those rights. No need for pontiffs.

What Ray's saying here is that the use of oaths was only for truth-telling, not that they were accepting a divine commission from God as a public official.

Governments are instituted by men, not God.

L.Long said...

Rights are made my men,
maintained by men,
violated by men,
taken away by men,
g0d has nothing to do with it.
And if men do not use law and diligence to maintain those 'rights' someone will take them away, as many in government are now trying to do.
And by MEN I mean generic men & women.

bpabbott said...


If you decide to stay and participate, please be aware that the promotion of religious views is improper here.

This blog focused on religion's effect on the founding period of the United States. In short those here study history and the part theology played in it.

Jonathan Rowe said...


Great stuff as usual.

Jason Pappas said...

Washington continues to intrigue and impress. It’s been awhile since I read a good Washington bio. If I were to pick one book on Washington, what would people here recommend?

By the way, the Borders at 33 St and 2nd Ave in NYC has all their books at 70% off, as they will be closing their doors in 4 days. I found one last week on the Tories during the Revolution. At this point they seem to left with books by Republicans! It is NYC!

Jonathan Rowe said...


Yes a shame. My favorite Borders in Langhorne, PA near where I live is going out of business. Online/IT is driving this. That's one area where WE as blogs are "in" the game.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Correction, I mean has GONE out of business.

Though it is hard to tell the difference between what IT is changing and what the recession is changing. Some Borders/Blockbuster are going. But so did Circuit City and some supermarket chains.

L.Long said...

Sorry bpabbott But I guess I left the comment sparce.
My first sentence should be...
After reading many entries in this blog and my own searches into history I believe (as they are not here to ask) that Jefferson and Co saw the actions of the church and realized that on a high level there may be some rights given by g0d but...
then the comment read above.
Then that vigilance, common to all law, and wise governing without the religion is what they strove to put together as the USA.

I did not mean to make it sound as a anti-religious statement.

jimmiraybob said...

I found one last week on the Tories

There are some Border's being closed in the St. Louis and Louisville areas, yes, I reside in the sacred heartland, sometimes referred to as flyover land. I went to one 50-70% off sale and didn't find anything - very picked over by the time I got there.

My regular Borders has escaped the cut. Speaking of Tories, I just bought Liberty's Exiles by Maya Jasanoff and put on the bookshelf with books to read at sometime in the future. Looking forward to reading this - tentatively scheduled for 2013. Sigh.

Online/IT is driving this. That's one area where WE as blogs are "in" the game.

I'm driven to buy a fairly large number of books, way more than I would otherwise, based on pursuing interesting topics on line - I buy mostly at Borders. American Creation recommendations or references alone have probably subsidized the religion and history sections of my regular haunt.

Jason Pappas said...

Jon, JimmyRay, I used to buy more books from online retailers before I moved to the 'burbs. Now I like going to the many Borders and B&Ns here in NJ. I miss the NYC bookstores because I used them as meeting places and, yes, often I would buy the book. Like jimmyRay I have books for years to come. The poor Tories always get pushed back as I pile on more books.