Did George Really Say That?

by Derrick G. Jeter

A recent essay of mine, “Preacher-in-Chief or President?” has generated a tiny buzz—if not in posted comments, at least in received e-mail.

A reader, the other day, drew my attention to an historical inaccuracy in my article. Specifically, the gentleman who sent the e-mail said that I misspoke regarding George Washington’s use of “So help me God” after taking the oath of office, and that subsequent presidents followed his example. In essence, the gentleman said I was dead wrong—that the first president to use these words was Chester A. Arthur when he was sworn in on September 20, 1881, following the assassination death of James Garfield.

Never wanting to be anything but meticulous regarding historic facts and willing to admit mistakes, which is a sign of intellectual honesty and maturity, I did a little research. I think it’s safe to say that the question of whether Washington spoke “So help me God” or not is an unsettled issue. Truthfully, I’ve not found primary documentation regarding the statement. But there are many reputable scholars and organizations supporting the traditional claim. William J. Bennett in his history of America, America: The Last Best Hope, states:

Dressed in a homespun American-made brown suit with eagles on the buttons, he placed his hand on the Bible and recited he oath, adding, significantly, four words, repeated by every president since as a matter of tradition if not sincere belief: ‘So help me God.’1

Philip B. Kunhardt Jr. in his history of the American presidency says of George Washington,

On April 30, 1789, the fifty-seven-year-old war hero, dressed in a dark brown suit and wearing a steel-hilted dress sword, stood on the balcony of Federal Hall in New York City. There, before, a great crowd below, he answered the oath the Constitution had mandated, adding, his own prayer at the end, ‘so help me God.’2

The Library of Congress continues to publish the traditional view that Washington uttered “So help me God”; as does the United States Senate’s website, and PBS.

Of the true Washington experts—Richard Brookhiser, Richard Norton Smith, and Joseph Ellis—I could find no evidence pro or con.

Obviously, all of us could be mistaken, and I’m still open to arguments regarding this question. But what particularly struck me about my e-mailer’s comments was his inaccuracy concerning the Constitution, while pointing out my supposed lack of accuracy. He says,

One may say that a President can choose to add these words [‘So help me God’] to the presidential oath, but it is a clear violation of the Constitution, and surely not a good idea for a judicial official to prompt the President to succumb to a religious test of office.3

First, claiming that “So help me God” at the end of the presidential oath “is a clear violation of the Constitution” is a tiresome argument. I presume he is referring to the Establishment Clause in the First Amendment. Anyone who has read the Constitution, and believes that words have meaning, should not be confused. Our Founders, after all, used unambiguous language. The prohibition is on “Congress,” not the president who calls upon the aid of God. The limitation on Congress concerning religion is two fold. They cannot pass a “law”—a bill that has been debated and passed in both Houses and signed by the president (Article I, Section 7)—“establishing” a state religion. Nor can they “prohibit the free exercise” of religious sentiment, even for a president. Exactly how do these four words, uttered by a president, constitute a law establishing a religion? Apparently, the violation is not so clear.

Moreover, a judicial official prompting the president “to succumb to a religious test of office” by ending the oath with “So help you God” misses the point of Article VI. By the time the president-elect arrives for the inauguration his or her qualifications for office are no longer in question—the public and the electoral college have spoken. Ending the oath with “So help me God” therefore cannot be some final test. More importantly, according to the Constitution (Article II, Section 1), the president-elect becomes president at the conclusion of the oath, which doesn’t include the four words in question. If a president chooses to disregard the tradition he or she is free to do so, without fear of losing the presidency.

These are common sense conclusions that shouldn’t be lost on anyone who simply reads the words of the Constitution. But it goes on from there. My e-mailer closes with a hope that “In the future . . . [I] will not perpetuate this Orwellian Legend.” While I certainly don’t want to perpetuate historical inaccuracies, attributing these four words to George Washington as Orwellian stretches credulity. Simply put, such an “argument” is just plain silliness.

1. William J. Bennett, America: The Last Best Hope, Volume I: From the Age of Discovery to a World at War (Nashville: Nelson Current, 2006), 135.

2. Philip B. Kunhardt Jr. and others, The American President (Riverhead Books, 1999), 9.

3. E-mail to the author, Friday, December 28, 2007. Name withheld. All subsequent quotes are from the same e-mail.