By Mathew Goldstein
The National Archives has a “Founders Online” web site that focuses on “CORRESPONDENCE AND OTHER WRITINGS OF SEVEN MAJOR SHAPERS OF THE UNITED STATES” one of whom is Thomas Jefferson. A section titled “Second Inaugural Address: Editorial Note” cites “The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, vol. 45, 11 November 1804 to 8 March 1805, ed. James P. McClure et al. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2021, pp. 625–638.” The first sentence of the eighth paragraph describes his second inauguration thusly “On finishing the address, Jefferson kissed the Bible, swore the oath of office administered by Chief Justice John Marshall, and bowed.”
In 2010, the National Archives entered into a cooperative agreement with The University of Virginia Press to create the Founders Online site. David Sewell, Manager of Digital Initiatives and the Rotunda Imprint at the University of a Virginia Press, contacted James P. McClure, General Editor, The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, to verify his source for this. It turns out that the source cited for "kissed the Bible" is private correspondence written by British diplomat Augustus Foster in a 1 July 1805 letter to Frederick Foster, his older brother. A. Foster was writing a few months after the event. The contents of the letter imply that he attended the inauguration, but the phrase he uses in his letter is "kissed the book". This claim is not corroborated by any other witness.
McClure acknowledges that Foster wrote “book”, not “Bible”. He explains why he changed “book” to “Bible” as follows: “… but I cannot come up with any other book that would fit the bill. It was established English (and by then American) custom to swear oaths on the Bible in such settings. Jefferson respected those traditions and did not reject the Bible. I assume that the Bible would have been used for the swearing-in by Marshall as a matter of course. As for Jefferson’s kissing of the book, the fact that no one commented on that makes me think that it may have been customary and not out of the ordinary. It is possible too that Jefferson wanted to make a point by demonstrating that he was not in fact an atheist despite opponents’ attacks on him with reference to religion.”
The Bible in American Law and Politics: A Reference Guide, 2020 - Page 389 (https://books.google.com/books/about/The_Bible_in_American_Law_and_Politics.html?id=s-nyDwAAQBAJ) contains a section titled “Presidential Inaugurations” with the following second paragraph: “In 1969, the National Cathedral displayed all known presidential inaugural Bibles. They were unable to locate inaugural Bibles from [GW’s 2nd inauguration, &] Presidents John Adams through John Tyler or from Zachary Taylor, Millard Fillmore, or Franklin Pierce (Presidential Inaugural Bibles 1969, 7). John Quincy Adams noted in his diary that Chief Justice John Marshall had brought a volume on laws on which to take the oath, and Marshall might have done so for the previous presidents as well (Presidential Inaugural Bibles 1969, 7).” The wording “on which to take the oath” above is a little sloppy, the oath was actually read from the book, and there was no other book, thus no Bible. John Marshall, a Federalist, was nominated to be Chief Justice by President John Adams and was confirmed by the Senate in late January 1801. His tenure as Chief Justice lasted 34 years. President John Quincy Adams was John Adams’ son.
A description of J. Q. Adam’s inauguration appears in the March 12, 1825 Niles Weekly Register. John Quincy Adams said that he thought the Bible should be reserved for strictly religious purposes. Four years earlier, he attended James Monroe‘s inauguration with Chief Justice Marshall administering the oath of office. J. Q. Adam’s diary for 6 March 1821 noted that the previous day “At this Ceremony the Chief-Justice merely held the book, the President repeating the Oath in the words prescribed by the Constitution.” The context implies there was only one book (“the book”) and that book was a law book from which the oath of office was read by President Monroe. So J.Q. Adams inauguration subsequently followed the same law book reading protocol, without a Bible, that he had previously witnessed.
A recent search of the Library of Congress newspaper databases found, unsurprisingly, no evidence that there was a Bible at Virginian Thomas Jefferson’s second inauguration. Such a no-Bible-is-evidenced result is par for the course for the first six presidents, with an exception for the first inauguration because it was conducted under New York State law that mandated a Bible. Kissing the Bible persisted among northern states after the revolution as a legal requirement that they inherited from the legal framework set in place by Royal Governor Sir Edmund Andros. Over time those states changed course and followed the lead of Virginia and the federal government in rejecting the authoritarian and discriminatory theocratic Bible mandates. The last president to kiss a Bible at their inauguration was Truman in 1949.
The Bible kiss seals the promises just made and as such occurs after the oath recitation, whereas Foster says the book was kissed before the oath recitation. One of the purposes of the British legal mandate to kiss a King James Bible was to publicly demonstrate fealty to the same British monarchy that was militarily defeated by the recent armed rebellion against its rule. The failure to repeat that British legal mandate in U.S. federal law implies somewhat less than full respect for that particular British tradition. Similarly, Thomas Jefferson’s redactions to the Bible imply a less than full acceptance of the Bible on his part. And relevant to the governmental business context of a presidential inauguration, Thomas Jefferson endorsed the phrase “separation of church and state” which links individual freedom of conscience to secular government. One of his projects was creating the University of a Virginia, the first public university in the country. He fought to retain a ban on teaching religion there against the lobbying of evangelical churches and the Federalists.
Foster was clearly aware of the nationalist perspective that favored a religion attached monarchy. In an April 19, 1802 letter to his mother, discussing “… the great ceremony celebrating the peace and establishment of Religion” in Paris the day before, Foster wrote: “Mounier, Camille Jourdan [a French writer], and most of that set consider it a deathblow to the hopes of Louis 18, who is now called Le Pretedant, as he went till now hand in hand with religion, and as religion was the principle link which linked his interests to the interests of the Honettes Gens [honest people] of France, because Atheism was encouraged and Piety laughed at. Now that the government proclaims Liberty of Conscience, … and that they see they may pray without the aid of Louis, it will weaken his interest very much in the country.”
Foster’s letter is not only silent about the type book, it is also silent about whose book it was, where the book was located, the size of the book, who was holding the book, etc. The simplest explanation for why Foster said “book” is that he did not know what type of book it was. People who are honest tend to refrain from unnecessarily adding assertions that are beyond their knowledge. The law book likely provided to the president elects by Chief Justice Marshall for them to read their oath of office from was characterized as “small” by a witness at Jackson’s second inauguration [THE SALEM GAZETTE (Mass.), Mar. 12, 1833: “ John Marshall rose, ascended the steps, was received by General Jackson standing, to whom he presented a small book with his right hand, containing the oath, and with his left, the Bible. The General took hold of each, and having read the oath, kissed the book and Mr. Van Buren did the same. Here the ceremony ended.”]. During the 1800 election campaign Thomas Jefferson was characterized by some of his opponents as a radical Jacobin who, if elected president, would unleash a lawless reign of terror on the nation similar to what recently transpired in France. Maybe Jefferson kissed a small law book, provided to him by Chief Justice Marshall, that contained a copy of the constitution, sometime prior to reading the oath from that same book, to emphasize his respect for those laws?
A conclusion regarding what type of book he kissed at his inauguration can go either way when it is based on nothing more substantial than biased cherry picking of conjectures regarding the possible motivations of the president elect and the Chief Justice with assumptions to fill in the gaps. Furthermore, people are not always self-consistent. Jefferson was critical of slavery, which fundamentally conflicted with some of his expressed values, yet he relied on slave labor. Accordingly, unless some heretofore unknown eyewitness account that there was a Bible at that inauguration is found, notwithstanding the editorial note published on the National Archives web site and The Jefferson Papers claiming he kissed a Bible, there is room for doubt that there was a Bible. The only reliable way for us to know is for someone who witnessed the event to tell us. We lack sufficient justification to declare there was a Bible as an established historical fact without a witness from the past telling us there was a Bible. Anyone, regardless of their credentials or authority, who claims otherwise is overstepping, and should be called out for doing so.
Founders Online is funded, in part, by the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, a statutory body affiliated with the National Archives and Records Administration whose mission is encouraging the use of documentary sources relating to the history of the United States. The Papers of Thomas Jefferson is also partially government funded by the NHPRC and by the National Endowment for the Humanities. James Sewell averred that the “opinions and interpretations in the notes to documents in Founders Online are those of the editorial projects that created the original editions, and do not represent official views of the NHPRC or National Archives.” However, such a disclaimer does not appear on Founders Online.