Monday, May 16, 2016

"Great Author" yes, "God" no

By Mathew Goldstein

The article George Washington: Recognizing God’s hand in America by Dennis Jamison argues that "Washington inserted the words, "So help me God" into his oath of office; there's a movement to yank them out, history and tradition be damned with the Almighty." Mr. Jamison identifies himself as an adjunct faculty member of a community college.  However, the college's web site identifies him as a community instructor with no academic credentials and no expertise in American history.  He is determined to convey his strong conviction on this topic but he is allowing his convictions to substitute for the historical facts, which is the mistake that academics and historians are trained to avoid.  Mr. Jamison confidently makes several firm factual assertions, but he offers no evidence to back them up because there is none.

One such assertion that fails to be supported by historical evidence is "This first inauguration set the tradition, and subsequent inaugurations have change little since Washington’s day."  Since his article is arguing that his presidential oath of office was theistic, this implies all of the subsequent inaugurations included kissing a bible.  Yet there is no evidence that George Washington's second oath of office featured a bible. There are no known inauguration Bibles for presidents John Adams through John Tyler; in fact, there's no concrete evidence that those early presidents used a Bible at all for the oath. Theodore Roosevelt did not use a Bible when taking the oath in 1901. John Quincy Adams swore on a book of law.  Nor is their any evidence that any president appended "so help me God" to his oath office until maybe Lincoln at the earliest. But the evidence that Lincoln did this is weak and contradicted.  Chester Arthur was the first president widely reported to have appended that phrase. So if president George Washington did this, as Mr. Jamison claims, then that did not set a precedent that the other presidents followed.  Nor was the Chief Justice prompting for this theistic codicil, as has been the case since the 1930's.  That is a substantial change, and a relatively recent change. Originally the Chief Justice recited the oath and asked the president elect to affirm, now the Chief Justice recites the oath one sentence at a time and asks the president elect to repeat each sentence.

Another such factual assertion that lacks supporting evidence is 'It is reported that after the official oath, Washington said “so help me God,” and bent down to kiss the open Bible."'  Now, if by "it is reported" Mr. Jamison means that there are people who have asserted that Washington said that then technically he is correct.  But then so what? Many people throughout history have thusly reported many false claims, it merely takes one person to falsely assert something and other people to repeat the same false assertion, which demonstrates nothing at all about what actually happened.  That is exactly the situation here.  There is one, and only one, eyewitness account from someone standing on the balcony that quotes the oath recitation and that account does not include a theistic codicil. Sixty five years later several biographies were published that claimed for the first time that George Washington spatchcocked that phrase to his oath of office, but they are not eyewitness accounts and thus lack credibility.

He then makes the following misleading statement "Those final words have raised controversy among some Americans. Some claim that Washington never said them, as they are recorded nowhere in the official records of the ceremony."  This is false. I have never heard anyone argue that because the words are not in "the official records of the ceremony" they were not spoken.  The actual argument is that there are no contemporaneous eyewitness accounts that George Washington appended that phrase.  None.  Zero.  Neither in "official" records nor in "unofficial" records.  Nor is there such evidence for any other president until Chester Arthur, with weak and contradictory evidence for Lincoln's second oath.  Therefore we lack proper justification to claim that George Washington, or any other president until Chester Arthur, appended that phrase to his oath office.

Mr. Jamison also wrote: "He tended to make references to God in his speeches."  Now it is true, as the two examples in his article show, that George Washington employed multiple different euphemisms for divinity such as the "Almighty Being", "Great Author", "benign parent of human race", etc. He is not known to have utilized the word "God" more than once or twice in his entire life, and then it was while reading a document out loud that was written by someone else.  This is a fact about George Washington that disfavors the conclusion that he said "so help me God" after is oath of office.

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