Monday, October 26, 2009

How to identify a history book not written for accuracy.

Why is it that professors with Phd's are still publishing academic books asserting as a historical fact that George Washington and "all of his successors" appended the phrase "so help me God" to their oath of office? In a brief recent correspondance with one such history book author I heard several of the common defenses. Here are the defenses and my reaction to them.

One response is that there are a number of eyewitness accounts. This is simply incorrect. There is insufficient reason to assume that Washington Irving's claim that GW appended that phrase was based on his hearing that phrase being appended as a six year old. The others who first made this claim in the mid to late 1850's, 65 years after the event, were either not born, illiterate infants, and/or not in the vicinity of the inaugural at that time, and were as a group in social contact with each other. We have one eyewitness account from the French minister that quotes the oath. I explain this in more detail below.

Another, more common response is that the presidents used religious themes and that this lends credence to accounts that they finished with SHMG. This is OK as an argument in defense of the opinion that all of the presidents appended SHMG, although as a defense of a such a sweeping opinion it is weak, especially since we have a audio recording proving that least one president did not append SHMG and eyewitness accounts of some presidents not appending SHMG. But putting the contrary evidence aside, that still does not even come close to justifying claiming that GW, let alone all presidents, appended SHMG as a historical fact. The bottom line is that there is no evidence that our presidents appended that phrase to the presidential oath of office prior to Confederate president Jefferson Davis doing so. It is my opinion, for example, that Jefferson Davis wanted to confer upon the Confederacy a sense of moral superiority by appending that phrase as a contrast with the United States presidential inaugurals which up to that time apparently did not include that phrase. I think the evidence supports my opinion much better than it supports the contrary opinion that all presidents appended SHMG. But professors with Doctorates of Philosophy who falsely publish that it is a historical fact that all presidents appended that phrase in serious acadamic reference books and textbooks for history and political science students are in effect suppressing the legitimacy of such justified opinions that are consistent with the evidence. This is a foul thing for such professors to be doing, they are in effect abusing their professional titles for the purpose of misleading propagandizing.

Another common response is to simply ignore the fact that there is no evidence that any other president, let alone that all of the other presidents, appended that phrase prior to the Civil War. Instead, the professor tries to change the subject and question the motives of the person protesting that there is no evidence at all, and/or emphasizes the catch all "you can't prove they didn't all say it" defense as if that is sufficient justification for claiming they did say it. The motives of the people criticizing the professors who make this assertion of historical fact, for which there is literally no evidence whatsoever, is to challenge the falsification of history by monotheists for sectarian political purposes. It is the professors responsibility to show that there is sufficient evidence to qualify this 'they all appended "SHMG"' assertion as a historical fact, not the critics responsibility to show that they are religious monotheists who support establishment of monotheism and have proof it was not said in order to have credibility as a critic.

Because I consider all email exchanges to be private unless both parties agree to publish them, I will not reveal the name of the professor or the academic reference book he authored that falsely claims it is a historical fact that all presidents appended this phrase. I will display the emails below with identifying information removed:

My initial email:

The following is from your book [removed]: [removed]

I am not aware of any contemporaneous eyewitness evidence that any president appended "SHMG" to their oath office prior to the Civil War. The confederate president, Jefferson Davis, appears to be the first who we can say with any confidence appended that phrase to a presidential oath of office. If you are aware of evidence that "all" presidents appended that phrase to their oath of office, or for that matter to anything else that they said during their inauguration, then please tell us know about that evidence. Otherwise, please refrain from publishing such a sweeping statement in a textbook as if it is a historical statement when it clearly is not.

The notion that George Washington added "So help me God" to his presidential oath made its debut in the mid-nineteenth century and was first promoted in a published format by Rufus W. Griswold (February 13, 1815 – August 27, 1857) in his book, Republican Court, or American Society in the Days of George Washington, pgs 140-141 (1854). A website maintained by the Edgar Allen Poe Society identifies Griswold as "a failed Baptist minister turned editor" who slandered Poe after Poe died, claiming that "he forged letters by Poe and made changes in the texts of Poe's work to support his lies, portraying Poe as a fiend and a drug addict."

Here's how the debut took place. Early on in Griswold's inaugural narrative, just after Washington had completed pronouncing the words of the oath, he writes:

The Bible was raised, and as the President bowed to kiss the sacred pages, he said, audibly, 'I swear,' and he added, with fervor, his eyes closed, that his whole soul might be absorbed in supplication, 'So help me God.'

Soon afterwards, when Griswold has finished describing Washington's inaugural ceremony, he then adds this tidbit about Washington Irving:

Few persons are now living who witnessed the induction of the first President of the United States into his office; but walking, not many months ago, near the middle of a night of unusual beauty, through Broadway - at that hour scarcely disturbed by any voices or footfalls except our own - Washington Irving related to Dr. [John Wakefield] Francis [1789 - 1861] 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 [a sideway's location about 200 feet away] had observed the subsequent proceedings in the balcony.

One may want to assume that Griswold had used Washington Irving as his source for asserting that Washington had added the "supplication, 'So help me God'," to his presidential oath, but if that is the case, it is not spelled out by Griswold. Furthermore, could six year old Washington Irving, from a distance of 200 feet in a crowd, have seen George Washington momentarily close his eye and then accurately recalled this sixty years latter? Irving's nephew's long biography of his uncle, The Life and Letters of Washington Irving, by Pierre Monroe Irving, 1869, G.P. Putnam's sons, doesn't mention Washington Irving viewing the first presidential inauguration, even briefly, although it did describe Irving's personal encounter with Washington as a young boy. Irving had discussed his biography project with his nephew since the 1840s, and Pierre was assisting his uncle with writing it in the mid-1850s. So if Irving was recalling the inaugural based on his personally witnessing the events then Pierre would certainly have been privy to this and presumably would have recognized its importance to his project. This lack of confirmation that Irving witnessed the first presidential inauguration thus leaves room for doubt that six year old Irving really was a witness to the inauguration as Griswold claimed.

Three years later, when Washington Irving's narrative describing the inaugural ceremony was published, he, too, left out any reference to a source he might have used. That may not be unusual by itself for historians of that period, but what is extremely problematic for Irving's reliability as a credible historian is that he apparently stole his narrative (with the exception of GW adding SHMG) from the Memoir of Eliza S. M. Quincy. Here is the footnote at bottom of page 52:

The previous pages, which describe the entrance and inauguration of Washington, were sent to Mr. Irving, in 1856, at his request, by the Editor, and are inserted in his "Life of Washington," vol iv. pp. 510, 513, 514, but without reference to their source.

Elsewhere in Irving's GW biography, Irving says that two horses pulled GW's Carriage of State. Newspapers of the day said that the Carriage of State, loaned out by the Beekman family, was pulled by four horses. It was one of the few carriages that had four horses. So much for Irving having "watched the procession" while it moved, out of his sight, along Broad Street. Indeed, Irving apparently did little if any original research for his popular biography of George Washington. According to The Religious Beliefs of Our Presidents, by Franklin Steiner, 1936, most of Washington Irving's biography of George Washington is copied from the biography written by historian Sparks. Similarly, in his article on Washington in the Dictionary of American Biography (1936), J C Fitzpatrick wrote, "Washington Irving, Life of GW (5 vols., 1855-1859) is satisfactory from most viewpoints, though its reliance on [Jared] Sparks lessens the confidence it would otherwise command."

For more information see the January 12, 2009 History News Network article, “So Help Me God”: A George Washington Myth that Should Be Discarded, by Professor Peter Henriques.

Furthermore, the notion that George Washington initiated a precedent, tradition, or custom by adding SHMG to his oath that other presidents have followed appears to have first materialized in the middle of the 1900's during the height of the Cold War! The earliest document we have found that explicitly characterizes appending shmG to the presidential oath as an inaugural tradition is from an article in the Herald Press, January 20, 1953 . This particular notion appears to be a twentieth century invention. A book The Soul of George Washington by Joseph Buffington, (1936) page 144 says 'When he took it in that form and he then bowed his head and kissed the Sacred Book and, with the deepest feeling, uttered the words "so help me God." These latter words, now accompanying the foregoing one in official oaths we owe to George Washington.' In other words, he is claiming that the post-Civil War legal oaths that "now" included that phrase were following a GW precedent, but he did not claim it set an earlier precedent for presidential oaths. As far as we have been able to determine it appears nowhere in anything published in the 1800's.

Mathew Goldstein

The professors first response:

Aside from the considerable number of eyewitness accounts (you mention several, although you have decided they are not credible), you also might take a look at Washington's first inaugural address, which goes on and on at great length about the Deity. Even if you are correct (I don't see how you could prove it, but that's a question about the logic of social science and historical inquiry) on the particular SHMG issue, the fact that Washington and other presidents used religious themes at their inaugural is simply a matter of historical fact, easily developed through a simple reading of their addresses. This lends credence to accounts that they finished up with SHMG.

So I wonder what point you are trying to make. If it is some point about separation of church and state at the time, the historical record indicates that such separation, while existing under the Constitution ("No religious test...") for certain purposes, did not generally prevent people from swearing oaths to God at judicial and political ceremonies.

My second attempt to get the professor to address the issue of the evidence for his assertion:

Thank you for your quick response.

The 1850's publications claiming GW said "SHMG" are not eyewitness accounts, only one of the authors was alive, old enough to be fluent in English, and in the vicinity. That one author, Washington Irving, did not self-claim to be recalling an oath recitation he heard as a six year old. Again, Irving's published account of the event was copied without attribution from an eyewitness, Eliza Susan Morton Quincy, who, like all of the other known eyewitnesses, didn't claim that GW appended that phrase (someone else later added the "SHMG" to her original account about a decade after she had died, a copy of which, without the SHMG, can be found in The Inauguration of Washington, by Clarence Winthrop Bowen). The best eyewitness account we have of the oath recitation, the only one that actually quotes the oath recitation, was written by a French minister who stood on the stage near GW. That account does not mention GW appending "SHMG".

Donald Ritchie, co-author of the Oxford Guide to the US Gov't, made this statement to Lisa Miller in a Jan 20, 2009 newsweek article titled God and the Oath of Office
Did Washington swear to God? That legend may be as apocryphal as the one about the cherry tree
: "The fact is, according to Donald Ritchie, a historian at the Senate Historical Office, we have no idea what most 19th-century presidents have said about God as they were sworn in because for most of American history there were no microphones and no recording devices." Maybe you had a secret "recording device" hidden away somewhere to support your claim about "all his successors"?

If Donald Ritchie can publically make this modest statement then so can you. Of course we shouldn't hide or disguise the fact that most presidents, including GW, utilized religious themes at their inaugurations, just please confine yourself to the evidence when doing so. We have no evidence, for example, that GW made any reference to deity during his second inaugural, which, unlike his first inaugural, was conducted according to GW's direction. In the first inaugural the presence of a bible, the lifting of the bible to his face, the church service, even the writing of the inaugural speech, were actions initiated by or carried out by others on short notice, which is why the absence of any religious references during his second inauguration is significant. Regardless of any other history, the significance of the oath history stands on its own and shouldn't be modified to match the religious preferences of the textbook's author(s) or the potential readership or purchasers.

Given that it is your textbook that asserts GW appending "SHMG" set a precedent that was followed by all other presidents, it seems to me kind of hypocritical for you to accuse me of making too big a deal about this. Are you going to continue to spout this so-called history as real or are you going to fess up to the fact that there are no, zero, known eyewitness accounts that GW ever said "SHMG" during either of his inaugurations?

The professors refusal to engage the issue of the evidence is final:

Please don't e-mail me or contact me again. I am not interested in exchanges with people who are obnoxious. Go write your own reference book if you don't like ours.

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