Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Tara Strauch Gets on Base after a Strike Out

Tara Thompson Strauch  wrote an ambitious dissertation with the title, “So Help Me God”: The Constitution, Freedom of Conscience and the American Oath Ritual  (January 1, 2013). A critical part of the dissertation, is also available in the book, Religion and the State: Europe and North America in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries, See here (Ch. 8 – Oaths and Christian Beliefs in the New Nation: 1776 – 1789; pgs. 127 – 142).

In the Introduction (page 3) of her dissertation, Strauch whiffs at the ball with this swoosh:

When the same president [Barack Obama] stood to recite his first oath of office in 2009, it was a symbolic and important event, if a routine one. Forty-four different men had taken this oath of office; some kneeling, some standing, and some on airplanes.

The breeze you can feel blowing by is that no president, including George Washington, has factually been described as “kneeling” during the administration of the presidential oath. 

Fortunately for Strauch, one swoosh still gives the batter a chance (like when there's a strike three and the ball gets past the catcher) to get on base, and here’s a sample of where Strauch gets on base, big time (editorial note: In each of the following cases, where it is called for, I have signaled the strike out for "kneeling" and substituted "touching" which is shown within brackets) :

New Jersey’s liberal constitution still did not remove all religious concerns about oaths. Shortly after the Constitution was approved, Governor William Livingston received a petition similar to the [March 21] 1772 Pennsylvania act concerning the ritual actions of oaths. The General Assembly responded by writing an act titled “An Act for the ease and relief of such persons as are scrupulous of taking an oath with the ceremony of touching and kissing the Book of the Gospels, by allowing that of holding up the hand in lieu thereof” [passed Oct. 1, 1778].<81>  The Act noted that until this time “no other [manner] was deemed and admitted legal” which indicates that the colonial government had only allowed the kneeling [kissing] ritual for oath taking rather than raising the right hand.<10> By restricting oath-takers to kneeling [touching] and kissing the gospels, the New Jersey government kept scrupulous Congregationalists, Baptists, Mennonites, Quakers and others [like Dutch Reformers] from political participation without requiring a religious test. The fact that such a petition was sent to the governor indicates that some individuals did choose religious piety at the expense of political action and also underscores the religious nature of oaths for eighteenth-century Americans. By requiring the English oath ceremony, New Jersey had a de facto religious test regardless of its liberal constitution.
Governor Livingston had encouraged the assembly to pass this act. He noted that it was not the wording but the “English Ceremony of kissing the Book” which the petitioners found objectionable and that these citizens should be released from their concern, asking “can it be consistent with sound Policy, or the generous Spirit of our Constitution, to debar an honest Man, and that these citizens should be released from their concern, asking “can it be consistent with sound Policy, or the generous Spirit of our Constitution, to debar an honest Man, for a religious Scruple, from the Privileges of Society, which the most profligate and abandoned are permitted to enjoy in the fullest Latitude?”<83> Livingston recognized that the religious requirement for active citizenship was too high; it kept out those pious individuals who were likely virtuous and moral while allowing “profligate” and morally questionable individuals full access to the political system. Livingston argued that such an arbitrary law made little sense and did not restrict the electorate in a profitable way. After all, Livingston concluded, this change in ritual was “beyond Question altogether formal, and in no Respect essential to its Nature or Solemnity” because an oath ceremony was still required; the options for New Jerseyans were either kneeling [touching] and kissing the Gospels or raising their right hand towards God. Affirmations were restricted to those who could demonstrate that they belonged to a scrupulous sect. Yet, the change did demonstrate that citizens took their oaths and their oath rituals seriously. The need for new state governments allowed Americans the chance to evaluate the relationship between church and state as well as the judiciousness of their religious rituals. As the petitioners in New Jersey demonstrate, when citizens found this relationship lacking they sought solutions. 
Often, scholars have assumed that the only objections to oath-taking came from the Quakers or smaller religious sects.<84>  In this case, however, the concern was less about the oath than about its ritual. Those who had petitioned the General Assembly appeared not to have been adherents of an obscure religious sect, but rather the Congregationalists and Presbyterians affiliated with Princeton who had moved into the state in increasing numbers in the mid-eighteenth century. Unlike the requests made in other states to allow an affirmation rather than an oath, or to relieve the scrupulous sects,  there is no mention made of a specific religious denomination which was oppressed by this ritual. Typically, those requests mentioned the Quakers, Mennonites or Dunkers, who were adamantly against oaths. The act in New Jersey mentioned only that “certain well-disposed persons” were jeopardized by the law. In other words, the strict requirement about the form of the oath punished not only those citizens whose religious beliefs fell outside the bounds of typical English Protestantism, but even impacted citizens from mainstream denominations who were expected to be an active part of this new nation. While Livingston championed allowing all religiously scrupulous citizens access to the political system, the act indicated that the assembly was particularly concerned that Congregationalists and Baptists not be barred from the government. The effect of the act was to allow any number of religiously conscientious individuals full citizenship even if the intention of some (or many) politicians was to open political participation for a few.

So what's so "big time"?  Well, here's what. The New York and New Jersey legislatures both passed a 1778 statute for the purpose of alleviating The Usual Mode of Administering an Oath for those with conscientious scruples (see here for the NYS statute). The similarity between the two state statutes indicates that both states  "had a de facto religious test, " which strongly indicates that when on April 30, 1789, New York State Chancellor Robert R. Livingston administered the presidential oath to the Anglican/Episcopalian churchgoer George Washington according to The Usual Mode of Administering an Oath. Washington touched the holy book with his hand and kissed it when the oath was completed. There was no reported kneeling.


Tom Van Dyke said...

Forty-four different men had taken this oath of office

43, actually.

Tom Van Dyke said...

When the same president [Barack Obama] stood to recite his first oath of office in 2009, it was a symbolic and important event, if a routine one. Forty-four different men had taken this oath of office

Strictly speaking, 42, since as written, Obama had yet to take the oath.

Ray Soller said...

Strauch seems to have irrevocably latched onto the notion that Washington "clearly knelt and kissed the Gospels" at the time of his inauguration. In footnote 149 on the bottom of page 123 she writes:
"Many scholars have inferred much from the fact that no source in the days after the event includes this phrase. Some have concluded that Washington would not change the Constitutional oath in any way, but he clearly knelt and kissed the Gospels, which was
not included in Constitution. Others have argued that the whole idea of the president adding such a phrase is merely a nineteenth-century addition to make the Revolutionary generation more religious. However, many oaths, especially in royal colonies, did
include this phrase and Washington would have said it many times. Thus, even if he did not use the phrase in his presidential oath, it was not out of character for a Virginia Anglican like Washington."

Again, on page 89 she writes:
"There were no religious tests embedded within the oath’s wording. Nor did he have any religious role in this new nation. Yet, Washington knelt and kissed the Bible along with attending worship service before the inauguration and invoking God in his inaugural address."

So what proof does Strauch offer for her claim that GW knelt when he swore to his oath of office? Back on page 123, footnote 148 she says:
"Some descriptions indicate that he knelt and kissed the book, while others indicate that he stood. ‘Extract of a Letter from New York, May 8; Massachusetts Centinel, May
23rd, 1789." But when one reads the specified letter it only refers to "the reverential manner in which he [GW] bowed down and kissed the sacred volume."

Ray Soller said...

Tom, you're right. This 1/21/2009, NYT article,Counting the Number of Presidents by Clyde Haberman offers some clarification.

Ray Soller said...

On page 123 Strauch writes:
Washington chose to kiss the Gospels upon the conclusion of his oath. Samuel Otis, the secretary of state, held the Bible and raised it
to Washington’s lips ...

At the time of GW's inauguration Samuel Allyne Otis was the Senate Secretary. Thomas Jefferson was our nation's first Secretary of State.

You would know that this same mistake occurs elsewhere. See Library of Cnongress website, Religion and the Founding of the American Republic, in the frame with the heading, The Bill of Rights, where it says:
This copy on vellum was signed by Speaker of the House Frederick Muhlenberg, Vice President [Senate President] John Adams, and Secretary of State Samuel Otis.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Blogger Ray Soller said...
Tom, you're right. This 1/21/2009, NYT article,Counting the Number of Presidents by Clyde Haberman offers some clarification.

June 24, 2014 at 1:51 PM

Heckuva a gimme to make a mistake on, esp a professional historian. Seems like she's missed quite a few details. Even I'd never heard GWash knelt, only bowed.

[IIRC, it was said GWash didn't even kneel in church.]


David Parker said...

Again on page 3: “Perhaps the most unusual aspect of the oath is that Americans today see nothing extraordinary in the fact that the vast majority of presidents have chosen to add that extra phrase to the end of their oaths.” Her basic point is right, but she’s off a bit on the number. “The vast majority of presidents” is vague, but it certainly means more than half. Actually, there is convincing contemporary evidence for fewer than twenty presidents adding the phrase.