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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Monday, January 12, 2009

Spreading Skepticism about Presidential Oath Add-On

One facet of the upcoming presidential inauguration is a lawsuit concerning the form of the oath of office. Dr. Michael Newdow, the Appignani Humanist Legal Center, and other secularist organizations have filed suit to stop Chief Justice John Roberts from prompting Barack Obama to say, “So help me God,” after he finishes the oath written in the Constitution.

Prof. Howard M. Friedman links to the documents in the suit. The plaintiffs say that they don’t object to Obama adding “So help me God” as his own expression of faith or promise, but for the Chief Justice to demand them would amount to a government official insisting on an expression of religious belief. Which of course it would be.

Prof. Eugene Volokh has written that the lawsuit is likely to fail because of a precedent from 1983 about legislatures’ prayers. U.S. courts have decided that the founders didn’t really mean all they wrote in the Constitution against mixing religion and government because they mixed those practices themselves. However, while the precedent Volokh cites had direct bearing on Newdow’s 2005 suit about inauguration remarks from clergymen, neither that precedent nor the 2005 case addressed the oath of office.

The historical side of this question is that for many years people have written that George Washington added the words “So help me God” to the end of the constitutional oath at his first inauguration. For example, in a New Yorker article on inaugural addresses (summary here), Prof. Jill Lepore repeated that belief without examination. Government lawyers have defended the custom by claiming the precedent was that old. However, as I’ve described, that tradition actually goes back only to Washington Irving and his circle in the 1850s.

Prof. Peter Henriques is writing an amicus brief on this case, addressing the historical side only. He plans to argue:

  • The Comte de Moustier, a French diplomat, took careful notes on the first inauguration ceremony, and didn’t note down “so help me God.” Neither did any other witness.
  • It would have been out of character for Washington to change the oath from what was in the Constitution—a Constitution he had, after all, helped to write.
  • With the oath for the Vice President and members of Congress under discussion at the time, people would have been especially sensitive to a precedent from the President, yet no one mentioned him adding “So help me God.”
Henriques is author of Realistic Visionary, The Death of George Washington, and a National Park Service biography of Washington. He is a member of the editorial board for the George Washington Papers, and member of the Mount Vernon committee of George Washington Scholars.

One positive outcome of this discussion is wider acknowledgment that there’s no good evidence for the extended oath in 1789. Cathy Lynn Grossman of USA Today interviewed Beth Hahn of the Senate’s Historical Office:
Although the website and video produced by the official committee in charge of the inauguration say Washington set this precedent, experts at the Library of Congress and the first president's home, Mt. Vernon, now say otherwise.

Beth Hahn, historical editor for the U.S. Senate Historical Office, concurs. “The first eyewitness documentation of a president saying ‘So help me God’ is an account of Chester Arthur’s Sept. 22, 1881, inauguration in the New York Times,” she said Wednesday.

Unfortunately for Hahn, she puts the phrase in George Washington’s mouth in the video called So Help Me God, posted on the website of The Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies.

“When I made the video, it was common wisdom that he said it, and I did not check it,” Hahn said. “After investigating this, I would say there is no eyewitness documentation that he did—or did not —say this.[”]
Hahn deserves credit for acknowledging the error.

ADDENDUM: At the American Creation blog, Ray Soller posted a report about a 2007 discussion of Washington’s religious and constitutional beliefs at the National Constitution Center, with Prof. Henriques as one of the panelists. It includes a link to a podcast recording of the event. In addition, Henriques’s article reflecting his brief is available here.


Rob Velella said...

I tend to agree that "So help me God" would be a welcome addition to the oath if offered by the person taking the oath, rather than provoke by the one administering it.

Isn't it fascinating, however, to see the enduring legacy of Washington Irving - the same man who made the world believe Columbus set out to prove the Earth was round? I think it also shows that the generation following the founding fathers so revered them that they were already creating myths about them.

J. L. Bell said...

And I believe Irving also had a hand in shaping perhaps the most powerful American legend of all: Santa Claus.

D said...

There was a story about this on NPR's morning edition today.

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks. In that radio story, the reporter asked a gentleman at the National Archives about whether Washington added “So help me God.“

His answer was something like: “Some people say he did, and some say he didn’t.” Which is true, except that the people who say he didn’t (or, to be absolutely precise, didn’t say he did) include men who were actually there.

Brian Tubbs said...

First of all, I like this blog a lot. I want to make that clear.

Having said that... :-)

I disagree with how so many people are quick to dismiss the "so help me God" tradition. To paraphrase Patrick Henry (who spoke in a different context) -- "I smell a rat." Not that anyone here is a "rat." :-) But there's something else going on in the debate surrounding this oath, and it's more than just wanting to set the record straight.

For one thing....we've become much too cynical about oral tradition. Take that to an extreme, and we lose much of history.

For another...this business about it being "out of character" for GW to add "so help me God" to the oath is, frankly, preposterous. Washington was a man of deep faith. I'm not saying it was a strict, Trinitarian, born-again Christian. THAT is for another discussion. I'm saying he was a man of faith, and THAT is beyond legitimate dispute.

Forgive the shameless plug, but I wrote an article on this over at my blog. You can find it at...


Anyway...I enjoy this blog and all the participants and discussions. I don't mean to offend or upset anyone, but I think we need to put this whole thing in perspective. And not be so quick to overturn what has been accepted historical tradition.

-Brian Tubbs

J. L. Bell said...

Oral tradition can be very useful, especially in filling out individual and private experiences. But it’s far weaker than contemporaneous written accounts, which we have in this case.

The first presidential inauguration was a public event observed by many people. As Prof. Henriques notes, the form of the U.S. of A.’s official oaths was a hot issue. Witnesses noted that Washington swore on a Bible and kissed it afterwards, yet no one quoted him as saying, “so help me God.”

Furthermore, the strongest oral traditions are those which can be traced. In this case, the “so help me God” appears in print for the first time in the 1850s with no hint of how Washington Irving or his colleagues came by that information. They didn’t even claim it was an oral tradition. That should be no more convincing than me describing Eisenhower’s inauguration in 1952 with a detail no one reported at the time and offering no evidence for my statement.

As for George Washington’s own values, I think it’s deeply in character for him to recite the oath exactly as written in the U.S. Constitution. He presided over the convention that wrote that document. He was always concerned about his duty to society and the republic. Again, the record from 1789 shows that he expressed religious reverence in the ceremony. That same record didn’t mention “so help me God.”

This is not a “some primary sources say this, some say that” question. No one in 1789 described the oath ending with “so help me God.” Given that evidence, the burden of proof falls on those people who want to believe in Washington saying, “so help me God.” They have to come up with actual evidence and a stronger argument than, “Well, he could have.”

If Irving and his circle had written evidence, or even an oral tradition, they should have made that known. Obviously, there were different standards in historical writing at the time. But the fact that those 1850s authors described Washington as saying something doesn’t mean that today we’re excused from looking at the evidence to decide if he did.

“Accepted historical tradition” simply means what people in the past chose to believe, and perhaps what some people still choose to believe. It’s not a substitute for evidence, especially when the evidence points another way.