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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Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Washington’s Inauguration Rewritten

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.]
In short, the story that Washington added “So help me God” to the presidential oath is not supported by any contemporaneous or reliable sources. It looks like a literary concoction of the 1850s, created to add more drama to descriptions of the ceremony.


Larry Cebula said...

Again, great work here!

Anonymous said...

Not to suggest that it may be proof that "so help me God" was added by Washington, but one must not ignore Washington's Masonic affilitation. When oaths are taken by Freemasons, they always end by saying "so help me God" followed by kissing the Bible. Washington was a member of the Masonic fraternity for his entire adult life. I would be more surprised if he did not say "so help me God."

Ray Soller said...

Let me add, no one should count Griswold out of the running for having improvised Washington's peculiar version of the presidential oath as being, "I swear – so help me God." The article, "Edgar Allan Poe and Rufus Wilmot Griswold," maintained by the E. A. Poe Society of Baltimore (http://www.eapoe.org/geninfo/poegrisw.htm), describes Griswold as "a failed Baptist minister turned editor," who, while serving as the executor of Poe's literary estate, engaged in a ruthless campaign of assassinating Poe's personal character, and literary reputation. In just one example, the article explains, "He [Griswold] even forged letters from Poe to exaggerate his own role as Poe's benefactor and to alienate Poe's friends."

So, it certainly seems that Griswold was capable of manipulating the facts when it suited his aggenda.

Once Griswold published his version of Washington's oath, other authors, like Washington Irving, all in the same year, appeared to simply join Griswold's inaugural parade. In "Personal Memoirs of Washington," 1857, Caroline M. Kirkland mimicked Griswold and wrote, "..., he [Washington] was observed to say audibly, 'I swear!' adding, with closed eyes, as if to collect all his being into the momentous act - 'So help me God!'" Another author, John Frederick Schroeder, died on Feb. 26, 1857, and when his book, "Life and Times of Washington," was published later that same year, the author simply described Washington as saying, "I swear, so help me God." Coincidentally, Griswold had a hand in editing the final version of Schroeder's book that went to press.

So, as I said, don't count Griswold out.

Anonymous said...

I definitely buy this analysis, but is there any record of *which* president actually started using that phrase during inauguration?

J. L. Bell said...

The Bible used in Washington’s first inauguration was fetched (at the last minute) from a Masonic lodge, and witnesses at the time said he did kiss it—a Masonic ritual that most oath-takers don’t follow.

However, those same witnesses say nothing about “So help me God,” and there would be no reason for them to leave out that detail while mentioning others.

It’s possible that authors of the 1850s were influenced by their knowledge of Masonic rituals and assumed Washington added (or should have added) the words.

However, I’d also want to be sure that the current Masonic practice dates to the 1780s or the 1850s.

J. L. Bell said...

Magazine journalism of the 1840s and 1850s was clearly rough-and-tumble, and Rufus Griswold was in the middle of it. That meant reviewing your own books, trashing others, and indeed creating documents and details.

Washington Irving, as the grand old man of American letters, tried to stand above all that. He didn’t like controversy. On the other hand, he was a Romantic, with an eye toward drama rather than political history.

It makes sense that other authors followed Griswold’s description of the inauguration in their 1857 books. The Republican Court was widely published, and it cited Irving’s authority. (Griswold could have drawn on himself when editing Schroeder’s work.)

But if Griswold made up the “So help me God” detail on his own, we still have to explain why Washington Irving included it in his biography three years later. Irving had been researching Washington for years. He knew that Griswold had come to him for information about the first inauguration, not the other way around.

If Griswold’s 1854 description had a detail that Irving had never seen before, why would the older author take it as valid and insert it into his own account?

J. L. Bell said...

According to essays I’ve seen by Ray Soller and others, the first clearly documented use of “So help me God” after a Presidential oath came from Chester Alan Arthur.

Herbert Hoover, who was raised as a Quaker, did not append the words to his Presidential oath. All other Presidents whose inaugurations were recorded on film or audio did add the phrase.

Ray Soller said...

Q: If Griswold’s 1854 description had a detail that Irving had never seen before, why would the older author take it as valid and insert it into his own account?

"I am always at a loss to know how much to believe of my own stories." - Washington Irving, Tales of a Traveler, 1824.

Explicit Atheist said...

Since you mentioned Adams, and H.B.O also depicted Adams appending shmG, lets also reiterate that there appears to be no primary source or contemporaneous eyewitness of Adams appending that phrase to his oath of office. If anyone can show otherwise please do.

J. L. Bell said...

True, the situation with Adams’s inauguration is even more tenuous than the situation with Washington’s. I don’t recall any detailed description of Adams’s oath, even from an author writing sixty years afterwards about an event he may or may not have witnessed when he was six.

Then again, no one suggests that Presidents should append “So help me God” to the constitutional oath because John Adams said it. It has to be Washington.