J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Thursday, December 29, 2011

Once Again with the Presidential Oath

In an attempt to argue that George Washington added the phrase “So help me God” to his presidential oath in 1789, David Barton wrote at Wallbuilders about the fact that some states included that phrase as part of their oaths for office-holders at the time. In particular:

At that time, New York law required that “the usual mode of administering oaths” be followed (i.e., “So help me God”) and that the person taking the oath place his hand upon the Gospels and then kiss the Gospels at the conclusion of the oath.33 (Like the other states, these provisions remained the legal standard long after the inauguration.34)
The quoted phrase “the usual mode of administering oaths” comes from the first work cited in Barton’s first footnote, the Laws of the State of New-York. (The second work is a 1788 manual for New York justices of the peace. The following footnote points to an 1836 equivalent, based on 1821 law; it has nothing to do with the swearing-in of a federal official thirty years before that law, and seems to have been included just to make the presentation appear more weighty.)

As Ray Soller noted at American Creation, the 1778 law that Barton cites on “the usual mode” is actually about dispensing with that mode for people with conscientious objections to it. So the “usual mode” was not a legal requirement after April.

For the full context, on 5 Mar 1778, the New York state legislature passed laws to govern the swearing-in of state officials; that’s chapter 7, though chapter 3 had already included an oath. Those oaths mention God twice, the second time in closing those oaths with “So help me God.”

However, by 27 March, the legislature had to acknowledge that Quakers don’t swear (chapter 16 and later). And on 1 April it agreed to “dispense with the usual mode” of having all men kiss the Bible because, chapter 25 stated, “many of the inhabitants” had objected.

Those revisions to the 5 March law don’t specify that New York office-holders could decline to say “So help me God.” Barton might argue that that means that provision of the law remained in effect. But the clear pattern is that the legislature moved away from requiring the “usual mode.” There were just too many religious beliefs to demand the same ritual from every office-holder.

Furthermore, whatever New York laws said, they did not govern the swearing-in of a federal official like President Washington. The presidential oath is specified in the Constitution, just as these New York laws stated the oaths for New York officials, word for word. The New York laws included “So help me God”; the Constitution does not. Barton doesn’t see that difference as significant; Soller does, as do I. Washington was, of course, involved in the creation of the Constitution and valued it highly.

Detailed contemporaneous descriptions of Washington’s first inaugural describe him kissing a Bible supplied at the last minute by the local Freemasons and reciting the Constitutional oath as written—without “So help me God.” One might think the use of that Bible would be enough to satisfy Barton’s argument that early American society was infused with religious belief. Claiming that Washington added words that no one heard only weakens that position, turning it into a statement of faith rather than fact.


G. Lovely said...

Curiously, Mr. Barton's copiously footnoted defense of an unprovable "fact" fails to mention a source for his statement that "the law required that a Bible be part of the ceremony."

As far as I know, aside from the 37words of the oath, the Constitution only stipulates (Article VI) "...all executive and judicial Officers... 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."

J. L. Bell said...

True, that's the language of the Constitution. The New York law does require a Bible in the "usual mode," and the exceptions enacted to that mode say that people don't need to swear on or kiss the Bible, but don't remove it from the scene. Barton is arguing that the state laws indicate what the federal ritual would be. But he's the sort of scholar who starts from what he believes in the right answer and then tries to find evidence to justify his belief rather than starting from a question and seeking the best evidence for any answer.

Barton's argument provides just as much evidence that Washington added the words from New York law about being in the presence of God to the start of the presidential oath as the words at the end. But since Barton didn't start with that belief to defend, he doesn't notice that implication.

John L. Smith said...

David McCullough also claims that GW added the ending words to the oath on the spot that day. But to me, since GW was not an overly religious man (and had been criticized from the pulpit for it), it just doesn't seem to be in keeping with his character to add those words, however "nice" it would seem for him to do it. I put it into the same category as GW praying in the snow at Valley Forge.