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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Saturday, October 14, 2006

Swearing into Office "So Help Me God"

This week, the H-OIEAHC email list had a discussion, prompted by a query from historians at the Smithsonian Institution, about when and how presidents started to end their oath of office with the phrase "so help me God." This weighty question is, of course, a stalking-horse in the U.S. of A.'s ongoing debate about protecting church from state and vice versa.

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.
A tradition has grown up that George Washington added "So help me God" after he took the oath. The Library of Congress's website on presidential inaugurations says so, but without a source. And as of yesterday no one on the email list had found contemporaneous evidence to back up that statement.

Instead, the Smithsonian folks shared the detailed eyewitnesses account of the ceremony from the Comte de Moustier, which says in part:
A bible was brought out on a crimson pillow on which the President placed his hand and pronounced after the Chancellor [Robert R. Livingston] the following words: “I solemnly swear to faithfully uphold the duties of the President of the United States and to do all that is in my power to preserve, protect and defend the constitution of the United States.” Whereupon the Chancellor, making a sign to the crowd with his hat, cried “Long live George Washington, President of the United States.”
The count wrote in French, which explains the variation in wording from the Constitution's language.

EyewitnesstoHistory.com quotes Sen. William Maclay's description of that first inauguration, which has its own amusements:
The Vice-President rose and addressed a short sentence to him. The import of it was that he should now take the oath of office as President. He seemed to have forgot half what he was to say, for he made a dead pause and stood for some time, to appearance, in a vacant mood. . . . [Washington] was agitated and embarrassed more than ever he was by the leveled cannon or pointed musket. He trembled, and several times could scarce make out to read, though it must be supposed he had often read it before.

He put part of the fingers of his left hand into the side of what I think the tailors call the fall of the breeches, changing the paper into his left hand. After some time he then did the same with some of the fingers of his right hand.

When he came to the words all the world, he made a flourish with his right hand, which left rather an ungainly impression.
Maclay was either too distracted by the president's hands to record his oath (or keep the hands straight), or he didn't think the recitation of the oath was worth recording. The same webpage says Livingston hadn't thought to bring a bible, so someone had to run to the nearby Masonic lodge to fetch one—a detail that doesn't indicate officials had the religious aspects of the ceremony uppermost on their mind.

The Constitution says nothing about the oaths of lower officials, so one of the first pieces of business the new Congress members had addressed when they met earlier in 1789 was how they and other officials would be sworn in. On 6 April, the House of Representatives came up with this:
That the form of the oath to be taken by the members of this Houses, as required by the third clause of the sixth article of the Constitution of Government of the United States, be as followeth, to wit: "I, A B a Representative of the United States in the Congress thereof, do solemnly swear (or affirm, as the case may be) in the presence of Almighty GOD, that I will support the Constitution of the United States. So help me GOD."
However, by the time that law became the first statute of the first Congress under the new federal system on 1 June, the oath had been cut down considerably. Its final form was:
I, A. B. do solemnly swear or affirm (as the case may be) that I will support the Constitution of the United States.
On 3 June, Vice President Adams and members of the Senate took time to administer this oath to each other.

The Government Printing Office says, "The oath was revised during the Civil War, when members of Congress were concerned about traitors." The current Vice-Presidential oath, says the Senate's website, made its appearance in 1884. It now officially ends with "So help me God"—but of course that wasn't the full Congress's "original intent" in 1789.

ADDENDUM: Ongoing research has found the earliest statements that Washington added "So help me God" after taking his presidential oath of office date from the late 1850s, almost seventy years after the event. Oddly enough, that's also decades before Chester A. Arthur was first noted as doing so by a contemporary. (It might be noteworthy that he did not have a formal inauguration, but succeeded to office after James A. Garfield's death.)

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