This is the anniversary of George Washington’s inauguration as President of the United States in 1789. One often-repeated detail of that event was that Washington added the words “So help me God” to the oath of office prescribed by the Constitution. The recent John Adams miniseries on H.B.O. depicted the moment that way.
However, as I wrote back here, no contemporary description of Washington’s inauguration says anything of the sort. Because this was a new and potentially momentous event, a lot of people were paying attention (such as William Maclay, quoted at Eyewitness to History). All his life Washington was concerned with following genteel protocol, but not religious rituals. He had presided over the convention that wrote the Constitution and the presidential oath it contains, and I believe he would have been scrupulous about reciting that oath as it was written.
The first statement that Washington finished his oath with “So help me God” appears in The Republican Court, or, American Society in the Days of Washington, by Rufus Wilmot Griswold (1815-1857), first published in 1854. Did it really take two-thirds of a century for a significant detail of a well-attended public ceremony to be described in print?
And not only described, but described in intimate detail:
The Bible was raised, and as the President bowed to kiss its sacred pages, he said audibly, “I swear,” and added, with fervor, his eyes closed, that his whole soul might be absorbed in the supplication, “So help me God!”Who was Griswold’s source for that action? He didn’t say, but on the next page he wrote:
Few persons are now living who witnessed the induction of the first President of the United States into his office; but...not many months ago...Washington Irving related to Dr. [John Wakefield] Francis and myself his recollections of these scenes, with that graceful conversational eloquence of which he is one of the greatest of living masters. He had watched the procession till the President entered Federal Hall, and from the corner of New street and Wall street had observed the subsequent proceedings in the balcony.I suspect Griswold mentioned Irving to signal readers that that venerable American author was the source for the details preceding that paragraph. Some of Griswold’s earliest reviewers thought so, too.
Washington Irving was then working on a multi-volume biography of George Washington, for whom he had been named, with the assistance of his nephew, Pierre M. Irving. Wayne R. Kime has described their collaboration. The older author had had the idea for this biography in 1825, started research by the early 1840s, and was writing by the early 1850s.
Irving had therefore been thinking about how to narrate Washington’s first inauguration for a long time before his talk with Griswold, and might have even drafted the scene. Until May 1855, Irving had planned to end the whole biography with that moment. Once he decided to cover Washington’s presidential terms, he made the first inauguration into the climax of volume 4. The passage in Griswold’s book seems like a sneak preview of what Irving himself would publish three years later.
Griswold obviously believed that Irving himself had witnessed Washington’s inauguration, and was therefore a reliable authority on its details. However, there are good reasons for doubting that:
- Washington Irving was only six years old when George Washington was inaugurated.
- In his long biography of his uncle and collaborator, Pierre Irving wrote nothing about young Washington Irving witnessing the inauguration. He described how the boy had met the President in a shop. He described his uncle saying that he’d drawn on childhood memories for his description of Genet’s arrival in New York in 1793, when he was ten. But Washington’s first inauguration goes unmentioned.
- Raymond Soller has pointed out that even if young Irving had watched the inauguration or parade from “the corner of New street and Wall street,” as Griswold stated, that would have been 200 feet from the balcony where the oath took place—too far away to hear, and too far away to see that Washington had “his eyes closed, that his whole soul might be absorbed in the supplication.” [ADDENDUM: Soller writes to credit Michael Newdow for the idea and some of the work of checking how far that corner was from the inaugural balcony.]