By Mathew Goldstein
People sometimes ask me who was behind the false claim that George Washington appended "so help me god" to his first presidential inaugural oath. Was it David Barton? The answer is that there were multiple people who shared responsibility for promoting this fiction into a fact. It happened over time with a number of milestones.
It began with four biographies of George Washington. The first biography to be published was written by the Reverend Rufus Wilmot Griswold. Published in 1854, 65 years after the inauguration, it is titled "The republican court; or, American society in the days of Washington". This book mixes historical fact with apocryphal legend until one is indistinguishable from the other. His friends knew Griswold to be a consummate liar and had a saying: "Is that a Griswold or a fact?" As a literary editor he often pirated entire works even while advocating for international copyright law that would have rendered his own actions illegal. He wrote a short biography of Edgar Allan Poe that included letters which he had forged for the purpose of slandering the deceased poet. If there is a dishonest David Barton like character in this tale then it is Griswold.
If Griswold's book was the only book claiming that George Washington said "so help me God" then it is doubtful that many 20th century historians would be asserting this also. Enter Washington Irving, the first American to earn a living from writing popular books of fiction and a popular biography of Christopher Columbus. His final book was a five volume biography of George Washington published in 1857. There are no citations and it doesn't comply with modern standards of scholarship, but it is still read. Of the four George Washington biographies, this is the one that was most influential in promoting the falsehood about George Washington's inaugural. Washington Irving was also the only one of the four authors who was alive during the inauguration, and he may have been in the crowd outside of Federal Hall during the inaugural ceremony. At that time he was six years old. Griswold places him at the corner of New street and Wall street. Washington Irving never claimed to have heard the oath recitation. For his biography he copied someone else's first hand account of the inaugural ceremony with some modifications. One of those modifications was to depict George Washington saying "so help me God" immediately after the oath recitation.
John Frederick Schroeder was an Episcopalian minister whose biography of George Washington, titled Life and Times of Washington, was also published in 1857. He died before the book was published, and Griswold had a hand in completing Schroeder's book. Memoirs of Washington, by Caroline Matilda Kirkland, was also published in 1857. Kirkland mimicked Griswold and wrote, "..., he [Washington] was observed to say audibly, 'I swear!' adding, with closed eyes, as if to collect all his being into the momentous act - 'So help me God!'. Schroeder and Kirkland mingled with Griswold and Irving in the same New York city literary circles. Afterwards, many books and articles continued to claim that George Washington said SHMG.
The next milestone is the civil war. To distinguish themselves from the Unionists whose federal oath of office was godless, the Confederates advertised that Jefferson Davis included those four words when reciting his oath in 1861. The Unionists, not wanting to be outflanked by the Confederates, included this phrase in their revised federal oath of office in 1862. This phrase remains in the federal oath of office to this day.
The third milestone occurred with the assassination of president James Garfield. Chief Justice Waite led Vice President Chester Arthur in reciting the words of the presidential oath. After the oath recitation was completed, the new president, on his own initiative (without prompting from the Chief Justice), added "I will, so help me God", copying the words from the oath he had taken months earlier when being sworn in as Vice President. This was widely publicized in the newspapers.
The fourth milestone was the loudspeaker and the radio. Loudspeakers were introduced in 1921, radios in 1925. After radio became a home appliance, the inaugural oath could be heard by people across the country, whereas before only a few privileged people standing close to where the president stood could overhear the oath. By now, many people had read one of the many accounts of George Washington's first inauguration claiming that he completed his oath recitation with an appeal for divine help. Every Chief Justice during every presidential inaugural since 1933 has, while leading the oath recitation, prompted the president to say "so help me God". This is odd given that these four words are not part of the oath and the president therefore has no obligation to say them.
What appears to be happening is this: Many Americans, possibly a majority, don't know that the constitutional oath for the president is godless (and that the original federal oath of office was also godless). Some people would be upset to learn that the constitution was written to accommodate an atheist being elected president. Some people would be even more upset if they actually witnessed a president elect not saying those four words upon becoming president. To avoid disabusing these people of their false conviction that the oath is monotheistic, or of their prejudice that an oath must be monotheistic to be fully legitimate, the Chief Justice always prompts for these four words while administering the oath to the president elect.
The fifth milestone was another George Washington biography. George Washington, a Biography, by Douglas Southhall Freeman, was published in multiple volumes from 1948-1957. Volume 6, Ch. Viii, "Inauguration Day is not without Clouds, April 30, 1789", page 192 has a paragraph describing the oath recitation that depicts George Washington completing his oath with the four word appeal for divine help. Unlike the first four biographies, this is a scholarly book written by a highly respected historian. Accordingly, there is a citation to a primary source document, in this case a letter written by Tobias Lear, George Washington's personal secretary, to George Augustine Washington, George Washington's nephew who was at that time managing the affairs of Washington's Mt. Vernon Estate. This letter was in the rare documents vault at Duke University. The first three pages of this letter were published in 1987 in "The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series," vol 2:154-155. But it was page four of this letter that described the oath recitation and apparently no one had previously tried to verify that this letter actually supported the claim that George Washington appended those four words. Here it is, take a look: Lear's letter of May 3, 1789 to George A. Washington
. No SHMG.
More recently, another false historical fact was layered upon the first one. This is the additional claim that every president followed the precedent set by George Washington and likewise appended "so help me God" to their inaugural oath of office. No less than the Senate Historical Office itself, despite our complaints, persisted for years in promoting this whopper falsehood with a video titled "so help me God" on the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Affairs website. David Barton was probably among those endorsing this false "fact".