Tuesday, April 30, 2013

I Do Solemnly Swear ...

Exactly eleven score and four years ago George Washington recited these words, "I do solemnly swear . . ." Four month ago, Donald Kennon, Chief Historian of the United States Capitol Historical Society, posted an article recapping the events for Washington's first inauguration. The article can be found at the January 8, 2013 entry,  U. S. Capitol Historical Society ~ A Blog for History.

Dr. Kennon notes:
Most scholars now accept that there is no credible evidence that Washington said “so help me God.” That, however, doesn’t mean that the oath itself lacked a religious connotation. It was taken on a Bible and, moreover, the wording of the oath, “I do solemnly swear,” was a clear and forceful reference to the religious sanction given to the oath.


CYFFR said...

I think that the fact that every president continues to swear on The Bible is sufficient evidence!

Tom Van Dyke said...

Well, CYFFR, as Ray has pointed out, many did not, many we don't know one way or the other.

The important thing here is not to get caught up in the trivia of it. Washington DID "solemnly" swear, he did use a Bible. However, although every president since Calvin Coolidge in 1925 has, before that's it's sketchy.

Ray, does this list agree with your own research?


George Washington 1789 Genesis 49:131 (Masonic Bible); opened at random due to haste
George Washington 1793 Not known
John Adams 1797 Not known
Thomas Jefferson 1801, 1805 Not known
James Madison 1809, 1813 Not known
James Monroe 1817, 1821 Not known
John Q. Adams 1825 Not known
Andrew Jackson 1829, 1833 Not known
Martin Van Buren 1837 Proverbs 3:172
William H. Harrison 1841 Not known
John Tyler 1841 Not known
James K. Polk 1845 Not known
Zachary Taylor 1849 Not known
Millard Fillmore 1850 Not known
Franklin Pierce 1853 Affirmed instead of swearing the oath; did not kiss Bible
James Buchanan 1857 Not known
Abraham Lincoln 1861 Opened at random
Abraham Lincoln 1865 Matthew 7:1; 18:7; Revelations 16:73
Andrew Johnson 1865 Proverbs 21
Ulysses S. Grant 1869 Not known
Ulysses S. Grant 1873 Isaiah 11:1-34
Rutherford B. Hayes 1877 Privately, no Bible; publicly, Psalm 118:11-134
James A. Garfield 1881 Proverbs 21:14,5
Chester A. Arthur 1881 Privately, no Bible; Psalm 31:1-34,5
Grover Cleveland 1885 Psalm 112:4-10; Bible opened by Chief Justice and by chance it fell to this Psalm6
Benjamin Harrison 1889 Psalm 121:1-64
Grover Cleveland 1893 Psalm 91:12-164
William McKinley 1897 II Chron. 1:10; Bible given to him by Methodist church congregation7
William McKinley 1901 Proverbs 164
Theodore Roosevelt 1901 No Bible
Theodore Roosevelt 1905 James 1:22-234
William Howard Taft 1909 I Kings 3:9-114
Woodrow Wilson 1913 Psalm 1194
Woodrow Wilson 1917 Privately, not known; publicly, Psalm 468
Warren G. Harding 1921 Micah 6:8 (Washington Bible)4
Calvin Coolidge 1923 Not known
Calvin Coolidge 1925 John 1
Herbert C. Hoover 1929 Proverbs 29:184
Franklin D. Roosevelt 1933, 1937, 1941, 1945 I Corinthians 134
Harry S. Truman 1945 Closed Bible held in left hand; right hand on upper cover9
Harry S. Truman 1949 Matthew 5:3-11 and Exodus 20:3-1710
Dwight D. Eisenhower 1953 Psalm 127:1 (Washington Bible) and II Chronicles 7:14 (West Point Bible)11
Dwight D. Eisenhower 1957 Privately, not known; publicly, Psalm 33:1212 (West Point Bible)
John F. Kennedy 1961 Closed Bible13
Lyndon B. Johnson 1963 Missal14
Lyndon B. Johnson 1965 Closed family Bible15
Richard M. Nixon 1969, 1973 Two family Bibles, both open to Isaiah 2:416
Gerald R. Ford 1974 Proverbs 3:5-617
James E. Carter 1977 Family Bible open to Micah 6:818
Ronald W. Reagan 1981, 1985 Mother's Bible open to II Chronicles 7:1419 (Both privately and publicly in 1985)
George H. W. Bush 1989 Washington's Masonic Bible opened at random in the center; family Bible on top opened to Matthew 5
William J. Clinton 1993 King James Bible, given to him by grandmother, open to Galatians 6:8
William J. Clinton 1997 King James Bible, given to him by grandmother, open to Isaiah 58:1220
George W. Bush 2001 Closed family Bible21
George W. Bush 2005 Open family Bible; same one used in 2001 and 1989
Barack Obama 2009 Closed Bible that belonged to Abraham Lincoln

Mark D. said...

When is the first unambiguously attested use of the "So help me God" phrase in the presidential oath?

Tom Van Dyke said...

here's Lincoln in 1865


Page 8, column 6

Ray Soller said...

Tom, Library of Congress, under the direction of the Senate Rules Committee, isn't the most informative source for presidents who swore on a Bible. The list doesn't mention those presidents who swore on a Bible not of their own choosing, but provided by the judicial figure who administered the oath. This was the case for most inaugural ceremonies throughout the second half of the 19th century where the Supreme Court Chief Justice administered the oath. The Oxford University Press, 1853 edition, became the standard issue Bible for most of these presidential inaugural ceremonies. There are two other similar cases where a judicial figure, other than a federal judge, provided the Bible as was the case for GW's first inauguration, and Chester A Arthur's 1881 NYC private swearing-in ceremony. (LOC is wrong where they say "no Bile,")

There's also the fact that JFK did not place his hand on his family Douay Bible as the oath was recited. (Later on, when Kennedy referred to the incident, he implied that he had forgot.)

Ray Soller said...

The April 10, 1865 Sacramento Daily Union article by Noah Brooks does not provide the first unambiguously attested use of the "So help me God" [tagline]. It can be called a contemporaneous report if one chooses, but Noah Brooks does not qualify as providing us with a reliable first hand account. Brooks did witness Andrew Johnson in the Senate chamber take his vice-presidential newly legislated standard federal oath which ended with SHMG, but newspaper reporters were not invited to sit on the inaugural stand where they might be close enough to hear the actual words Lincoln had used. (It was a security issue.)

If one takes the time to examine Noah Brooks as to his possibly providing a reliable first hand account he comes off no better than Washington Irving or former New York Times reporter, Jayson Blair.

For a picture of Lincoln's first inaugural ceremony look here. Can you pick out reporter Noah Brooks?

Tom Van Dyke said...

Well, Noah Brooks was writing in 1965 of Lincoln's Second Inauguration. The objection to Brooks not actually hearing Lincoln seems valid, but again, the common use of Bibles so amounts to the same thing--and Lincoln did use a Bible--that we're squabbling over trivia at this point.

Ray Soller said...

Tom, you slipped up by a century for dating the the time when Noah Brooks was writing. The answer to Mark's question is not Lincoln. The answer is Chester A. Arthur. He is the first president who is reliably known to have added SHMG to his presidential oath when he was sworn into office on September 20, 1881 after the death of President Garfield.

As for the common use of Bibles at a presidential inauguration that appears to be an obligatory practice dating back to the colonial era (recall the mechinations of Sir Edmund Andros), and carried on by high-ranking persons, like the federal Supreme Court Chief Justices, who administered the presidential oath.

As for the act of swearing on a Bible or adding SHMG to a solemn oath both amounting to the same thing that's a very controversial sectarian issue, where some consider such acts, at the very least, as being against biblical precepts.

Tom Van Dyke said...

As for the act of swearing on a Bible or adding SHMG to a solemn oath both amounting to the same thing that's a very controversial sectarian issue

Oh, I suppose, Ray, but not to us civilians---certainly not to historians unpolluted by their sectarianism.

Further, I think a lot of people see the constitutional language of the various options to "swear [or affirm]" as a religious objection to oaths, not as an irreligious rejection of them.

And yes, I didn't go back and correct what any reasonable person would clearly read as a typo--1965 instead of 1865 in reference to Lincoln. I didn't think it was possible that anyone here would be that stupid or uncharitable a reader.


I'm fine with your rejection of the 1865 account however, and nominating Chester A. Arthur. I think the use of the bible obviates the whole "controversy" anyway.

I hate to use the Wiki for anything besides who played Toody in "Car 54 Where Are You," but the article


brings up up point I don't recall you ever mentioning, that it was the early custom to phrase the presidential oath as a question, and the president-elect responded, "I do."

There have been two forms of administering, and taking, the oath of office.
Under the first form, now in disuse, the administrator articulated the constitutional oath in the form of a question, and modifying the wording from the first to the second person, as in, "Do you George Washington solemnly swear . . ." and then requested an affirmation. At that point a response of "I do" or "I swear" completed the oath.[citation needed]
It is believed that this was the common procedure at least until the early 20th century. In 1881, the New York Times article covering the swearing in of Chester A. Arthur, reported that he responded to the question of accepting the oath with the words, "I will, so help me God."[6] In 1929, Time magazine reported that the Chief Justice began the oath uttering, "You, Herbert Hoover, do you solemnly swear...",[7] Hoover replied with a simple "I do".
Under the second, and current form, the administrator articulates the oath in the affirmative, and in the first person, so that the President takes the oath by repeating it verbatim.[citation needed]

I have never known you to be inaccurate on this So Help Me God stuff, Ray. You're like a major national expert*. Do you have an opinion on this?

* See for instance


JMS said...

Ray - I'd just like to say that I really admire your exactitude diligence. and scholarship on this issue, especially the 1789 Tobias Lear account. No matter what Washington said or did not say, Lear stated that the crowd responded, "God bless our Washington."

Here are a few general questions I have.

1) Did all of the English/British monarch oaths in the 17th and 18th centuries end with , SHMG?

2) What kinds of oaths could Washington have taken earlier in his life, such as:

a) vestryman in local Anglican parish
b) member of House of Burgesses
c) officer in Virginia's militia
d) member of Continental Congress

And now, two general comments.

1)Not all Christians believe that swearing oaths - solemn or SHMG - are really Christian. Hence the "affirm" proviso, which I think was included to recognize the Quaker practice of not swearing oaths (based on their interpretation of the biblical books of James and Matthew).

2) Every American should know:
a) The Constitution specifies the oath of office that the President must recite on taking office:
I do solemnly swear (or affirm) 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.

b) Article. VI. Paragraph 3
The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.

Ray Soller said...

Tom, I apologize for being an uncharitable reader. In exchange feel free to take three cracks at calling me an idiot.

As to the "two forms" excerpt from Wikipedia, that, I believe, is the workmanship of Al Rodbell. Please note the author gives no source for his rendition of how Chancellor Livingston administered the oath. William Duer, who witnessed the event from a position directly across the street from Federal Hall, wrote: "The words of the oath were audibly, distinctly repeated by Washington after the Chancellor, in a solemn and impressive manner, and after he had reverently kissed the book ... ."

You can consult a more thoroughgoing examination of other inaugurations here. The statement that the I do "form was the common procedure at least until the early 20th century" is stretch the available evidence.

jimmiraybob said...

...three cracks at calling me an idiot.

Hey, wait a minute. I thought that was mine and Tom's special thang.

RXS said...

JMS - I once came across this piece of wisdom: If you're smart enough to ask the the question, then you should be smart enough to find the answer. I suggest you start by looking here, and here.

If you'd like, you can contact me directly by sending an email to rxs at alum dot mit dot edu for additional reading material.