Jul 12

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Who said that? A quick history of the presidential oath



Posted 2 years, 9 months ago.

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You’d think that with its mere 36 words, the official presidential oath of office would be pretty straightforward. Here it is, as set out in Article II of the Constitution:

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.

Barack Obama, TIME cover, Feb. 2, 2009. Flickr photo from cliff1066

The difficulty comes, however, from what the Constitution doesn’t say: “So help me God.” So where did those words come from, anyway? Here are five milestones in the contested history of those four words.

1789: Washington’s Inauguration

George Washington has long been credited with instituting the tradition of concluding the oath of office with “So help me God,” at his inauguration in 1789. The most commonly cited account is this one in Washington Irving’s George Washington, A Biography:

The oath was read slowly and distinctly, Washington at the same time laying his hand on the open Bible. When it was concluded, he replied solemnly, “I swear—so help me God!” Mr. Otis would have raised the Bible to his lips, but he bowed down reverently and kissed it.

For more details about this and similar accounts, see this book excerpt.

1853: Pierce’s Inauguration

Although Franklin Pierce didn’t do much to shake up the “So help me God” tradition, it’s worth noting that he is the only president to have chosen to affirm, rather than swear, the oath of office. For a brief explanation of what the difference is and why it matters, see this NPR piece.

1881: Arthur’s Inauguration

In a USA Today article casting doubt on the idea that Washington included “So help me God” in his oath, an editor at the U.S. Senate Historical Office stated that the first eyewitness documentation of a president saying “So help me God” was not of Washington’s, but of Chester A. Arthur’s 1881 inauguration, recorded in the New York Times. One writer noted that the Washington story “may be as apocryphal as the one about the cherry tree.” Although Irving was, in fact, an eyewitness of Washington’s inauguration, he was six years old at the time, which is why some scholars have given his account less weight in the whole did-Washington-say-it-first debate.

1901: Roosevelt’s Inauguration

When Theodore Roosevelt took the oath of office following the death of William McKinley, he omitted “So help me God.” According to Theodore Roosevelt: His Life and Work, after he repeated the oath, he concluded simply, “And thus I swear.”

2009: Obama’s Inauguration

Prior to the inauguration of Barack Obama, the famously litigious atheist Michael Newdow filed a lawsuit seeking to prevent Chief Justice John Roberts from reciting “So help me God” while administering the oath to Obama. (Obama had requested that Roberts include the phrase in the oath.) The Supreme Court rejected hearing his case, stating that he lacked the necessary legal standing. Ultimately, Obama did include “So help me God” in his oath.

Among our more recent presidents, the inclusion of “So help me God” has been the norm. But because the late 1700s were decidedly C-SPAN-free, we’ll never know for sure whether George Washington actually started the tradition of adding the words ”So help me God” to the end of the constitutional oath of office.

In the National Constitution Center’s newest exhibit, Discover the Real George Washington: New Views from Mount Vernon, visitors can witness a recreation of Washington’s inauguration day, with a lifelike figure of Washington placing his hand over the Bible. Also in the exhibit, with a replica Bible and pre-recorded oath, you can take the oath office yourself–and choose to include “So help me God” or not.



Comments:

Comments

  1. Rufus W. Griswold scooped Washington Irving by three years when he published his book, Republican Court, or American Society in the Days of George Washington (1854), pgs 140-141. Later when Irving wrote his description of George Washington’s inaugural ceremony he stole the bulk of his inaugural mateial, except for the “So help me God” part, from the Memoir of Eliza S. M. Quincy That’s a fact (see footnote bottom of page 52). As for the “So help me God” codicil, Irving may have first told that story to Griswold, or Griswold may have come up with it by himself. We can’t tell, because neither Griswold nor Irving let the reader know.

    There’s no disputing. Griswold and Irving were two peas in a pod. Here’s what Irving wrote of himself, “I am always at a loss to know how much to believe of my own stories.” (from Tales of a Traveler, by Washington Irving, 1824)

    As for “Reverend” Griswold, “Even his friends knew him as a consummate liar and had a saying:
    ‘Is that a Griswold or a fact?’” – Perry G Miller, The Raven and the Whale (1957), pg 204
    Miller cites Rufus Wilmot Griswold: Poe’s literary executor (1943) pg 134, Joy Bayless.

  2. Explicit Atheist says:

    You wrote that “Although Irving was, in fact, an eyewitness of Washington’s inauguration, he was six years old at the time, which is why some scholars have given his account less weight in the whole did-Washington-say-it-first debate.”

    That is not the only reason his assertion in his book is not considered to be viable evidence for what happened. The real reason that it is not at all clear that Washington Irving was an eyewitness in any meaningful sense. Everyone who attended the event did not hear the words that were spoken (there were no amplifiers). Washington Irving himself never claimed to have heard of the oath recitation, nor did he identify a person who claimed to hear it. Eliza Morton Quincy, in her memoir, places herself immediately across the street from the balcony, said she was “so near,” that she “could almost hear him [George Washington] speak” when he took his oath. But Washington Irving was at the corner of New Street and Wall Street, which is about 200 feet west from Federal Hall. From that distance and sideway viewing angle it is unlikely anyone would have a clear view of the activities or be able to hear what was said. Just as importantly, we do have a single eyewitness account that quotes the oath recitation, that was written immediately after the event by an adult who stood on the balcony with George Washington, that identifies in detail what happened before and after the oath recitation, and that makes no mention of George Washington, or anyone else, adding any monotheistic codicil to the oath. That person is the French counsel, Comte de Moustier, whose letter was written in French to the Foreign Minister of France. In contrast, Washington Irving’s book, published over six decades after the event when all of the adult eyewitnesses were dead, is considered to be mostly based on the previously published biography of George Washington by Mr. Sparks, from George Washington’s manuscripts in the Department of State, and apparently copied (without acknowledgement or permission) from Memoir of the life of Eliza S. M. Quincy.

  3. JimBendat says:

    Here’s what we do know: beginning with Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933, every president has added the words “so help me God” at the conclusion of the oath. Herbert Hoover, in 1929, did not add those four words, and there is little evidence to support the notion that most presidents before Hoover, other than Arthur in 1881, said those words either.

    What is startling to me, as a lawyer and historian, is the fact that the chief justice now also says those four words. It is one thing to suggest that a president adds those words on his or her own. A president certainly has the right to do so. But it is another matter entirely for the chief justice to also add those four words, as a prompt to the president, as if those words are a part of the oath itself.

    Much of this is discussed in my book on presidential inauguration history. A new edition, “Democracy’s Big Day: The Inauguration of our President 1789-2013″ will be realeased next year. A chapter on this subject will be called “So Help Me, So Help Me Not.”

  4. Holly, I thought you’d like to know that back on February 6, 2007, my husband, a friend, and I visited the National Constitution Center and attended a program with the title, Washington: Devout or Deist. Peter R. Henriques, author of Realistic Visionary: A Portrait of George Washington was one of the participants along with Pastor Peter A. Lillback, and Jana Novak. John J. DiIulio served as the program moderator. We attended the event, because we expected Professor Henriques would say something about the legendary notion that Washington had inflated the standard 35-word presidential oath by adding “So help me God.” We were not disappointed, A podcast with the progran audio is available here. The interesting part begins at 28 mintes into the discussion. Listen for the line that starts off with “There is a tradition that most all of us probably think is accurate … ”

    Professor Henriques also published a 1-11-2009 History New Network article,
    “So Help Me God”: A George Washington Myth that Should Be Discarded. A companion version with footnotes is available here. It’s good reading.

  5. Holly, I thought you’d like to know that back on February 6, 2007, my wife, a friend, and I visited the National Constitution Center and attended the program, “Washington: Devout or Deist.” Peter R. Henriques, author of “Realistic Visionary: A Portrait of George Washington,” was one of the participants along with Pastor Peter A. Lillback, and Jana Novak. John J. DiIulio served as the program moderator. We attended the event, because we expected Professor Henriques would say something about the legendary notion that Washington had inflated the standard 35-word presidential oath by adding “So help me God.” We were not disappointed, A podcast with the progran audio is available at http://www.podcastdirectory.com/podshows/2092036. The interesting part begins at 28 mintes into the discussion. Listen for the line that starts off with “There is a tradition that most all of us probably think is accurate … ”.

    Peter Henriques also published a January 11, 2009 History New Network article,
    “’So Help Me God’: A George Washington Myth that Should Be Discarded.” It’s available at http://hnn.us/articles/59548.html. It’s good reading.

  6. Back on January 14, 2009, Donald Kennon, Chief Historian of the U.S. Capitol Historical Society, held a press conference at the Department of State Foreign Press Center. Here’s an excerpt taken from the speech he presented that day:

    Four years ago when I made this presentation I said that that precedent [regarding adding the phrase “so help me God”] at the close of the oath had been established by George Washington. I was wrong, and I’m happy to admit it. In fact when this presentation was placed on the internet I got an e-mail from someone I’d never heard of before and I want to personally thank him. His name is Raymond Soller. He asked me, what’s your source of that? I said well, all of the other writing and research on presidential inaugurations says that George Washington when he finished saying the oath said, “so help me God,” and kissed the Bible. And as far as I knew the primary source of that was the multi-volume definitive biography of Washington by historian Douglas Southall Freeman many years ago [1954]. He point out to me well, have you ever checked Freeman’s source? I said I know what his source was, it was a [May 3, 1789] letter by George Washington’s private secretary Tobias Lear [to George Augustine Washington]. He said, have you ever looked at that letter? I said, well no, I’ve not been to the [Duke University] Archives in North Carolina to look at it. He says, well I have, and it’s not there. So I checked it out and he’s right. There is no primary contemporary source that states that George Washington said, “so help me God.”.

    Why is this important? It’s important because there are a lot of people who are upset that over the years, and especially in the 20th Century [since FDR's 1933 inauguration], it’s become commonplace for the Chief Justice to add that phrase, “so help me God,” to the oath of office, and it’s not in the Constitution.

    As you may have seen, there’s currently a lawsuit in the Supreme Court seeking to prevent the Chief Justice from adding the phrase. As the lawsuit states, they have no objection whatsoever if President Obama chooses voluntarily to say “so help me God,” and of course President-elect Obama has stated that he will say “so help me God,” so that’s where it is. An interesting, I think, example of how history works and historical fellowship works.

    By the way, further research, I don’t want to take too much time on this, further research has been done and we found that the real source that Freeman was using was a book [by Rufus W. Grswold] that had been written in 1854 that said Washington added “so help me God,” and it [presumably] used as its source the memories of Washington Irving, a New York writer. Washington Irving was six years old in 1789, so it’s not terribly likely that his [alleged] memory was ideal.

    But in the 20th Century it’s been commonplace to add that.

    [end of excerpt - my notes within brackets are not part of the original speech].
    Source: Historical Perspectives on the Inaugural Swearing in Ceremony – http://fpc.state.gov/114510.htm.

  7. Rufus W. Griswold scooped Washington Irving by three years when he published his book, Republican Court, or American Society in the Days of George Washington (1854), pgs 140-141. Later when Irving wrote his description of George Washington’s inaugural ceremony he stole the bulk of his inaugural mateial, except for the “So help me God” part, from the Memoir of Eliza S. M. Quincy That’s a fact (see footnote bottom of page 52 | http://tinyurl.com/ESMQ-Memoir-pg52). As for the “So help me God” codicil, Irving may have first told that story to Griswold, or Griswold may have come up with it by himself. We can’t tell, because neither Griswold nor Irving ever said.