Claims that every president has appended "so help me God" to his presidential oath office can be found in various publications and on the Internet. One of the earliest such claims appears in The Pittsburgh Press, Jan. 20, 1937 where the one exception is said to be George Washington during his first inauguration. The Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies web site, which is administered by the Senate Rules Committee, features a "so help me God" video which says that all presidents have appended this phrase. The National Conference on Citizenship, chartered by Congress since 1953 (it is one of 94 organizations so chartered), publishes a History of the Oath of Office web page that says "Although the U.S. Constitution does not include the words, “So help me God,” George Washington, upon taking the Oath of Office, added it and every President since has said it". Many more publications, while not saying that all presidents appended this phrase, claim that George Washington did during his first inauguration and that other presidents, following that precedent, have done the same. But is this true?
A film clip from Paramount Sound News that records Herbert Hoover's 1929 inaugural oath recitation demonstrates he did not append this monotheistic phrase and was not prompted to do so by the Chief Justice. So claims that every president did so are not only unsupported, as I will show below, but they are positively disproved.
Prior to 1854 there appears to be no record of any assertions that any president appended the phrase "so help me God" to their inaugural oath of office. None, zip, nil, zero. You heard me right, the evidence that this occurred is an empty void, it doesn't exist.
The earliest published claim that any president added that phrase to his presidential oath which I am currently aware of appears in "The republican court; or, American society in the days of Washington" by Rufus Wilmot Griswold. The Reverend Griswold wrote that George Washington said "with fervor, his eyes closed, that his whole soul might be absorbed in the supplication, "so help me God!". Although Griswold claims to have obtained his information about the inauguration from Washington Irving, who Griswold claims witnessed the inauguration, this "eyes closed" description of George Washington appears to be an entirely fictional embellishment. Washington Irving was 6 years old at the time of the inauguration and Griswold places Irving too far away from the balcony to reliably see such details or even reliably hear what was said. Friends of Griswold knew him as a consummate liar and coined the phrase "Is that a Griswold or a fact?". Washington Irving is not known to have ever claimed that he heard the oath recitation when he was six years old.
This was followed by Life of George Washington, by Washington Irving, Life and Times of Washington, by John Frederick Schroeder (completed by R.W. Griswold), and Memoirs of Washington, by Caroline Matilda Kirkland, all published in 1857. Irving was a lawyer and author, Schroeder was an Episcopalian minister, and Kirkland was a writer, and all four had social ties to each other. None were historians, and none of these authors are known to have done serious research for their books. The editor of the Memoir of the life of Eliza S. M. Quincy, ed. E S Quincy, Boston [Printed by J. Wilson] 1861, complains in a footnote at the bottom of page 52 that "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." Also, 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, and Irving did little if any original research for his popular biography of George Washington. 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."
There is one contemporaneous, first hand, eyewitness account of George Washington's first inauguration that quotes the entire oath recitation and describes what happened immediately thereafter. It is the letter of the French consul, Comte de Moustier, April 30, 1789, written in french to the Minister of Foreign Affairs of France. No shmG. So the overall weight of the overall available evidence favors the conclusion that George Washington did not say shmG. Washington Irving's more than six decades after the fact, and non-sourced, assertion otherwise in his book is counter-evidenced by this letter.
Other books and articles subsequent to 1854 continue to not depict George Washington appending so help me God. Examples include Abridgment of the Debates of Congress from 1789 to 1856, Volume I, by Thomas Hart Benton, and Joseph Gales and William Winston Seaton and John C Rives. Memoir of the life of Eliza S. M. Quincy, ed. E S Quincy 1861. Reminiscences of an Old New Yorker, by William A. Duer, 1867.
However, the assertion that George Washington added this monotheistic codicil to his oath of office is widely repeated. Examples include "Mount Vernon and its associations: by Benson John Lossing, 1859. "The reconstruction of the government of the United States of America: a Democratic empire advocated" by William B. Wedgwood, 1861. "Washington and the American republic ..." by Benson John Lossing, c1870. "Our first century: being a popular descriptive portraiture of the one hundred great and memorable events of perpetual interest in the history of our country" by Richard Miller Devens, 1876. "Our country. A household history for all readers" by Benson John Lossing, With illustrations by Felix O. C. Darley, 1877. "Harper's popular cyclopaedia of United States history from the aboriginal period to 1876" by Benson John Lossing, 1881. Chapter VIII of the Centennial Anniversary of Washington's Inauguration. Proceedings in the First Parish Meeting House at Groton, Massachusetts, titled "Inaugural Ceremonies of President Washington" by the Rev. Frank C Whitney. The Century Magazine, volume 37, issue 6, April 1889, "The Inauguration of Washington", by Clarence Winthrop Bowen. "The story of the city of New York,..." by Charles Burr Todd, 1890. "The History of the Centennial Celebration of the Inauguration of George Washington, by Clarence W. Bowen 1892. The Washington Post, March 4, 1893 says that George Washington "murmured" shmG during his first inauguration. "The American metropolis, from Knickerbocker days to the present time: New York City life in all its various phases" by Frank Moss, 1897.
The Macon Daily Telegraph, February 22, 1861, and various other sources, reveal that the phrase "so help me God" was appended to the Oath of Office by the President of the Confederate States (Jefferson Davis). The eyewitness accounts of Abraham Lincoln's March 1861 inauguration suggest that he did not append this phrase to his oath of office.
"So help me God" was appended in 1862 to a revised federal oath of office. This is a different oath from the presidential oath office that is specified in the constitution. The Civil War-era members of Congress were intent on using this new "Ironclad oath" to keep Confederate loyalists out of the government. This Ironclad oath was replaced in 1884 by Congress.
Noah Brooks, a political confident of Lincoln, author, and a journalist for the Sacramento Daily Union, claimed that Lincoln added shmG at his 2nd Inauguration in an March 4, 1865 article published by the Sacramento Daily Union. However, the Introduction of the book "Lincoln Observed: Civil War Dispatches of Noah Brooks" edited by Michael Burlingame, 1998, has the following commentary: 'When he wrote about Lincoln's religion, Brooks dubiously ascribed his own Christian piety to the sixteenth president. Shortly after the assassination, Brooks told a clergyman: "I am glad now that I never hesitated, when proper occasion offered, to talk with him upon religious matters, for I think that the best evidences of his belief in Christ are those which I derived in free and easy conversations with him. You know I had an intimate acquaintance with him, which was not hampered or embarrassed by any official or business relations, nor did he have the same undefined reluctance which a man in his position would have had in talking upon religious matters, if I had been a clergyman." Brooks's able biographer, however, thinks it "extremely doubtful" that Lincoln "talked openly to anybody about Christ's atonement for man's sins."' In "Christ the King" by Reverend James Mitchell Foster, 1894 we find the following observation about Lincoln's inaugurations:
Every President, after George Washington and before RB Hayes, took the presidential oath without an appeal to God, omitting the very essence of the oath. Rev. A. M. Milligan, D.D., wrote Abraham Lincoln before his inaugural in 1861, and also before his second inaugural in 1865, asking him, in deference to the consciences of the Christian people of the land, to take the presidential oath in the name of God. He replied both times that God's name was not in the Constitution, and he could not depart from the letter of that instrument.The response from Lincoln to the first letter from Rev. A. M. Milligan is quoted in Reformation Principles Stated and Applied, by James Mitchell Foster, 1890, F.H. Revell, Chicago and New York, page 234-5 as follows: 'Rev. A. M. Milligan, D. D., of Pittsburgh, wrote President Lincoln, in 1861, asking if he would not take the Presidential oath in the name of God. He replied: "The relations between the Northern and Southern States are so strained I would not dare violate the letter of the Constitution. The name of God is not in that instrument."' Other newspapers that quoted the oath recitation indicated that Lincoln did not append "so help me God" to his oath during his second inauguration.
The next mention of any president adding these four words to the oath is Chester Arthur in 1881. Chester Arthur would have appended shmG to his oath of office as Vice President that same year (President Garfield was shot and died the year he was elected) as a result of the Civil War modification to the federal oath for executive office holders 19 years earlier.
In 1885, one newspaper, Boston Investigator, March 25, 1885, published commentary accusing Grover Cleveland of "violating the constitution" by adding the words "So help me God" (note: Contrary to this commentary, the real constitutional issue is arguably what the Chief Justice says when leading the oath recitation, not what the president says after the official oath recitation is completed). But other newspapers did not report that he had, in fact, appended those four words. Nor is Cleveland quoted appending those four words eight years later in 1893 during his second inauguration.
There are some reports that Theodore Roosevelt appended this phrase in 1905, but other reports indicate that he did not. There are similarly contradictory reports about Taft in 1909 and Harding in 1921. Calvin Coolidge appended shmG in 1923. Chief Justice Taft prompted for this four word phrase during Calvin Coolidge's 1925 inauguration, but there are contradictory reports about whether Coolidge responded by repeating that phrase or just responded "I do".
Starting in 1933, all presidents have included this monotheistic codicil to their oath of office, almost always, if not always, at the prompting of the Chief Justice, even though these four words do not appear in the legal oath as it was inscribed in the U.S. constitution. This raises a question: Is it legal for government officials who are leading oath recitations to simply add, on their own initiative, a religious codicil of their own choice to governmental oath recitations? Generally speaking, the answer to this question clearly must be no, but apparently there has been a double-standard exception here for the Chief Justice. A federal Court of Appeals denied Michael Newdow standing to challenge the legality of the Chief Justice doing this when leading presidential inauguration oath recitations and the Supreme Court refused to consider the complaint against this extra-legal modification of the presidential oath of office in May of this year.
Could some judges be influenced by this distorted "history" that claims all presidents have appended 'so help me God' to their oath office? Chief Justice Rehnquist, writing for the majority in ELK GROVE UNIFIED SCHOOL DIST. V. NEWDOW, and Justice Scalia's dissent in McCREARY COUNTY, KENTUCKY, et al., PETITIONERS v. AMERICAN CIVIL LIBERTIES UNION OF KENTUCKY et al., both mistakenly endorsed as a historical fact this counter-evidenced legend that George Washington appended "so help me God' during the first presidential oath of office.
If you are interested in challenging purveyors of this inaccurate history regarding George Washington and every subsequent president then you can write to the National Council of Citizenship (NCoC) and ask them to drop these non-evidenced, so called "historical" and "factual", assertions. You can write to David B. Smith, Executive Director, and Kristen Cambell, Director, Programs and Media on Citizenship with a carbon copy to the Office Manager, Ian H Dubin. The corresponding email addresses are firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, and firstname.lastname@example.org. For physical address and telephone number visit their NCoC web site. Tell them to either cite contemporaneous eyewitness accounts for George Washington and all the other presidents or stop asserting this happened given that there is no such evidence.
Follow up: The NCoC Office Manager sent me an email citing the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies (JCCIC) as claiming that George Washington added these four words and "this added phrase has been repeated since". However, the JCCIC also has no evidence that every president, or George Washington, said those four words, so NCoC citing JCCIC is irrelevant, circular finger pointing, that fails to deliver any evidence to support these assertions. In your emails, letters, and/or telephone calls to NCoC, please insist that the NCoC ask the JCCIC for the evidence. Also, provide NCoC with this link to the Jan. 9, 2009 USA Today article by C.L. Grossman that quotes the historical editor for the U.S. Senate Historical Office acknowledging that there is insufficient evidence that any 18th century or early 19th century president included this monotheistic codicil: No proof Washington said 'so help me God' -- will Obama? If you receive a noteworthy response from the NCoC then please share it with us.
For more details see: So help me God in presidential oaths.