At noon on January 20, Donald J. Trump will take the oath of office as President of the United States: “I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” And then he will add the phrase “so help me God.”
Those four little words are not in the Constitution, but for most Americans, they might as well be. “So help me God” has been as much a part of the oath as the other 35 words, ever since George Washington first said them 228 years ago.
But did Washington really say “so help me God”? Actually, there is no evidence that he did. That story did not exist until 1854, sixty-five years after Washington’s inauguration. If it were not for Rufus Griswold, we would not have that story at all.
Rufus Wilmot Griswold was a mid-nineteenth-century literary critic and editor. In 1854, he published The Republican Court: or, American Society in the Days of Washington. The book contained this account of the first president’s inauguration: “A gesture of the Chancellor [Robert Livingston, New York’s highest judicial officer] arrested the attention of the immense assembly, and he pronounced slowly and distinctly the words of the oath. The Bible was raised, and as the President bowed to kiss its sacred pages, he said audibly, ‘I swear,’ and added, with fervor, his eyes closed, that his whole soul might be absorbed in the supplication, ‘So help me God!’”
There it is — the first time anyone ever put those words in Washington’s mouth.
Where did Griswold get this story? He was born in 1815, a quarter century after Washington’s inauguration, so it is certainly not a first-hand account. Maybe he got it from Washington Irving (author of “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”), who claimed to have been there for the inauguration. We know that Irving (who was working on his own biography of Washington at the time) and Griswold talked while Griswold was gathering material for his book. Irving was only six years old in 1789, and by his own account he was standing over 200 feet away from the balcony on New York’s old Federal Hall (the first U.S. capitol and the location of the inauguration), and we know that Washington spoke very softly when taking the oath, so if Irving was the source — well, it is not very reliable testimony.
Wherever Griswold got the story — perhaps he just made it up himself — he was the first to put into print that Washington added “so help me God” to the oath of office. In an article published a couple years ago in Common-Place, the journal of the American Antiquarian Society, I showed how quickly this became the accepted story, part of America’s creation myth. The article had the clever title “In Griswold We Trust.” My methodology was simple: I used various online databases (Google Books, Internet Archive, American Periodicals Series, Newspapers.com, and others) to search for the phrase. It is fairly easy to show that, before 1854, there are absolutely no accounts of Washington saying “so help me God” at the end of the oath (at least in the millions of print records covered by these databases). Then Griswold told the story. By the end of the 1850s, almost a dozen books and magazine articles had repeated it, and the numbers grew over the next few decades.
As Steven K. Green noted in Inventing a Christian America (2015), the Second Great Awakening in the first half of the nineteenth century “brought about a rise in public piety and . . . a desire to see religious values reflected in the nation’s culture and institutions.” In this context, “so help me God” quickly became the traditional story, so accepted that no one in the twentieth century, not even academic scholars with PhDs, thought to question it. Douglas Southall Freeman, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his biography of Washington (1954), wrote that after the taking the oath of office, the first president “reverently . . . added, ‘So help me God.’”
Nearly a half-century later, David McCullough’s John Adams (2001), another Pulitzer-winning biography, repeated the story: “In a low voice Washington solemnly swore to execute the office of the President of the United States and, to the best of his ability, to ‘preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.’ Then, as not specified in the Constitution, he added, ‘So help me God,’ and kissed the Bible, thereby establishing his own first presidential tradition.” It was Griswold, not Washington, who started the tradition, but McCullough continued it. When HBO based a miniseries on John Adams (in 2008, with Paul Giamatti in the title role), viewers could see the inauguration and actually hear George Washington (actor David Morse) say “so help me God.”
In 2001, the same year as McCollough’s book, Philander Chase, editor of The Papers of George Washington, announced that the “so help me God” story “is not supported by any eyewitness accounts.” Chase was the first scholar to publicly question the tradition. Since then, others have added their voice in opposition to the “so help me God” myth. Newdow v Roberts, a lawsuit aimed at prohibiting Chief Justice John Roberts from prompting Barack Obama to add the non-Constitutional phrase at the end of the oath in 2009, raised awareness of the issue. But most Americans are still sure that Washington said it.
Recently, we have seen another version of the “so help me God” story: not just that Washington said it in 1789, but that every president added it to the oath of office. The claim for Washington is problematic, and as it turns out, we have no convincing evidence that any president said “so help me God” until September 1881, when Chester A. Arthur was sworn in after the death of James Garfield. Franklin Roosevelt said it in 1933, as has every president since. But before 1933, we have good evidence for only four: Arthur, Taft, Harding, and Coolidge. On YouTube, you can hear Herbert Hoover not say it when he was sworn in in 1929.
One of the earliest examples of the “every president” tradition is from 1948. Frank C. Waldrop, editor of the Washington Times-Herald (and the answer to the trivia question, “Who was the first American newspaper editor to publish an ‘extra’ edition after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor?”), wrote a response to the Supreme Court’s decision in McCollum v. Board of Education, in which the Court ruled that it was unconstitutional for public schools to aid in purely religious instruction. “Every President from Washington down to Harry Truman has always taken [the] oath with his hand on the Bible, a religious book,” Waldrop wrote, “and more than that, every President so far as this writer can learn, has also added the undeniably religious phrase, ‘So help me, God,’ as an unofficial element of his promise.”
There were other examples from the late 1940s and early 1950s of the new “every president” tradition; as with Griswold almost a century earlier, once Waldrop said it, it quickly became the accepted story. Bruce Catton, the famous Civil War historian, solidified this new myth in January 1957, just in time for Dwight Eisenhower’s second inauguration. “George Washington was a man inspired,” Catton wrote, “and his inspiration has come down to all of us, coloring the environment in which we live. . . . After reciting the formal oath, he put in a short sentence of his own: ‘So help me God.’ Every President since has added those words. They have now become part of the ritual; and it is a good part, an essential part, pledging more than was originally intended when the oath was written. . . . [Washington] spoke not only for all future Presidents, but for the rest of us too.”
Why did this new “so help me God” story appear in 1948? This was a time of increased tensions between the United States and the “godless communists” of the Soviet Union. Religion became an important weapon in the Cold War. Senator Joe McCarthy said that “the fate of the world rests with the clash between the atheism of Moscow and the Christian spirit throughout other parts of the world.” To shore up our Godly credentials, we added “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance and made “In God we trust” our national motto. And it was during this time that the American myth grew to include the story that all presidents, not just Washington, invoked God as part of their oath.
Since 1948, the story has appeared in textbooks and newspaper editorials; in the Congressional Record and in Supreme Court decisions; in Prologue: The Journal of the National Archives; in books by Eleanor Clift, William Bennett, William Safire, Kenneth C. Davis, Leonard Williams Levy, and dozens of others. For years, on the eve of presidential inaugurations, UPI sent to its thousands of media subscribers the words of the presidential oath followed by a sentence such as the following: “George Washington on his own initiative added the words, ‘So help me God,’ and every subsequent president has followed that tradition.”
So when Donald Trump says “so help me God,” it will not be unpresidented (as Trump might say), but it will be unpresidential, at least in terms of how many presidents have participated in this relatively new tradition.