Sunday, September 19, 2010

Historian Gordon Wood versus GW oath history.

C-Span broadcast a three hour interview with United States historian Gordon Wood, Professor Emeritus at Brown University, on its Sept. 5 broadcast of "In-Depth". About one hour and twenty minutes into the interview, the interviewer Peter Slen forwarded a question from Ray Soller to Gordon Wood asking why Gordon Wood thinks it proper to conclude that George Washington appended the words "so help me God" during the first oath recitation. Here is Professor Wood's response:

It's from what I said before - the fact that he kissed the Bible and that the Judiciary Act which was passed that same year did prescribe for the oath for judges that they say "so help me God." So you can deduce from that that maybe he said it. That's all we have. It seems to me I'm happy to just leave it at that. But others, lots of people want it settled for reasons that have to do with contemporary political life.


Professor Wood also said "What I think is fascinating is the interest in this, because the stakes seem high for people. If you can show that he said or did not say that phrase, then certain things follow from that. I'm not sure we want our politics to hinge on that one fact."

Omitted by the interviewer, and not acknowledged by Gordon Wood, was Ray Soller's written explanation for why he is taking an interest in this question:

It is unfortunate that the Senate Historical Office under the direct supervision of the Senate Rules Committee, does not recognize what is actually known about GW's swearing-in ceremony when it comes to its Facts and Firsts website. Here, the website states in the entry for GW's inauguration on April 30, 1789,"First Inauguration; precedents set include the phrase, "So help me God," and kissing the Bible after taking the oath." No correction has been made even though staff members at the Senate Historical Office are currently aware of the inaccurate nature of their assertion, and this is a big reason why I care so much about this question.


So here is the question for Professor Wood: Why are you directing your criticism that "But others, lots of people want it settled for reasons that have to do with contemporary political life." at "others" and "lots of people" instead of at the Senate Historical Office? After all, Ray Soller is just one out of hundred's of million's of ordinary citizens, and he acknowledged "everyone is guessing" in his letter to C-SPAN and Gordon Wood, while the Senate Historical Office is a trusted, official government source for inaugural history that is incorrectly misrepresenting this dubious guess as a historical fact.

Here is why I think Gordon Wood's guess is highly dubious. Gordon Wood cites the fact that GW kissed the bible. An anonymously written letter published in the in the May 13, 1789 issue of The Gazette of the United States, using religious language to describe the event such as "a solemn appeal to Heaven" and "I was under an awful and religious persuasion that the Gracious Ruler of the Universe was looking down at that moment with peculiar complacency" also said "he bowed down and kissed the sacred volume". The anonymity of the letter and the religious mindset of the writer suggest that this isn't a particularly unbiased description of what actually happened. But there is no disputing that George Washington kissed the bible because Samuel Otis said he did.

More significant is that the available evidence suggests that George Washington did not bring the bible to the ceremony, nor did he request the bible for the ceremony, nor did he kiss the bible on his own initiative. The notes in the Journal of the Secretary of the Senate, handwritten by Samuel Otis, who held the bible during the inauguration, reported that GW had placed his hand on the bible and kissed the bible, which Otis had lifted towards Washington's face, when the oath was concluded. In other words, the bible kissing was prompted by Samuel Otis. Nothing related to the presence or use of the bible was initiated by George Washington.

Also of direct relevance is that we have no evidence that a bible was present, or that "so help me god" was appended, at George Washington's second inauguration. In fact, we have no evidence that "So help me God" was appended to any presidential oath until at least after the Civil War started and even then, the evidence for that phrase being uttered is contradictory, very sparse, and of dubious quality, disregarding Jefferson Davis because he was the Confederate president, until we get to the 1881 inauguration of Chester Arthur. If George Washington really did append that phrase at his first inauguration, why didn't he do so at his second inauguration, and why don't we have evidence that anyone else appended that phrase at their inauguration for another 100 hundred years?

Most significant of all, we do have one eyewitness account that quotes the oath recitation, and that account has Chancellor Livingston saying "Long live Washington" when the oath was finished. So if we really are motivated by a desire to follow the tradition set by George Washington, as some people claim, then the Chief Justice should complete our presidential oath recitations with "Long live [name]" and not "so help me God".

Finally, why does the Judicial Act take on so much importance as evidence that GW appended "so help me God"? The Judicial Act was passed more than four months after the inauguration, it specified that the "so help me God" phrase was optional, and George Washington was not inaugurated as a judge. In contrast, the act to regulate the time and manner of administering certain oaths applied to Congress and the executive branch, was debated before, and passed by Congress three weeks after, the inauguration, and made no mention of god. Furthermore, it is the constitution, which George Washington had just recently assisted in drafting, not any congressional bill, that specifies the presidential oath of office, and again no mention of God.

Gordon Wood appears to be intelligent, personable, sensible, thoughtful, honest, and knowledgeable. But he should direct his valid criticism that what GW said after his oath isn't "settled" at the Senate Historical Office, not at Ray Soller or "others" and "lots of people" generally. It is the web site of the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies, which is administered by the Senate Rules Committee, that is claiming that it is settled that George Washington appended shmG to his oath of office, so if lots of people believe its settled then that is why. Gordon Woods knows this, so it is disingenuous for him to attribute this problem to "others" and "lots of people". And his argument that George Washington appended "so help me God" to his first inaugural oath isn't persuasive, its a grasping at straws argument.

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