Thursday, September 13, 2012

Eleven Years Ago

Here is the Introduction to an engaging law journal article, KISS THE BOOK . . . YOU’RE PRESIDENT . . . : “SO HELP ME GOD” AND KISSING THE BOOK IN THE PRESIDENTIAL OATH OF OFFICE, by Frederick B. Jonassen, Associate Professor of Law, Barry University, Orlando, Florida. The article appears in the William and Mary Bill of Rights Journal , Volume 20, Issus 3. The Introduction takes us back eleven years ago.


On the afternoon of September 13, 2001, an unmarked police cruiser was driving through the empty streets of lower Manhattan on its way to Fraunces Tavern, the historic restaurant where, on December 4, 1783, George Washington bid farewell to his officers about a month after relinquishing command of the Continental Army that won the Revolutionary War. All of lower Manhattan, including Pearl Street where the old tavern still operates, had been closed to the public in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center. The Masons of the oldest Masonic Lodge in New York State, St. John’s Lodge, founded in 1757, were concerned about one of their most prized possessions: a decorative Bible that was printed in 1767 and had been on display in Fraunces Tavern the day the Twin Towers fell. No one had been able to check on the book for two days after the attack. There was a fear that gas leaks in the area could ignite a fire that would damage or destroy the Bible, and thus the Masons asked the Port Authority Police of New York and New Jersey to help them retrieve it, and received a police escort.

As the police cruiser entered lower Manhattan, Thomas Savini, the Director of the Chancellor Robert R. Livingston Masonic Library in New York City, was shocked and unnerved by the absence of life on the usually chaotic streets. “[T]he air was filled with dust and smoke, and it looked like dusk, even though it was mid afternoon . . . .” The Tavern was covered with rubble and debris, but the building itself appeared to be undamaged. Anxiously, Mr. Savini entered and approached the display case where the Bible was housed. He found the precious book unharmed, and carefully wrapped it in the blanket he brought with him to protect the old tome.

Had this Bible been destroyed or lost as a result of the 9/11 attack, Osama Bin Laden might have claimed yet another cause for celebrating the success of the mission, aside from the murder of three thousand civilians on American soil and the destruction of a modern landmark that plausibly represented the American, if not Western, commercial and economic order. This potential source of satisfaction was one that Bin Laden most likely could not have anticipated, but it would have touched the historical essence of American democracy, because the Bible that the Masons retrieved from Fraunces Tavern was the Bible on which George Washington swore the Oath to “preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States” at the first presidential inauguration, April 30, 1789.

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