George Washington Takes the Oath: “So Help Me God” -- April 30, 1789

April 30, 2014

It remains my favorite portrait of President Obama and the one I hope will be displayed in the National Portrait Gallery. Showing our first black president in the attire of our first president is a mark of greatest respect. The New Yorker Magazine cover -- which was published in 2009 -- even shows our young president wearing the brown American-made suit that George Washington was careful to have made for his Inauguration. He studiously avoided any likeness to a military uniform. On this most auspicious of occasions, our first president took care to emphasize civilian authority over our military.

I took my young family to New York City for the Bicentennial of George Washington’s Inauguration in 1989. There, my wife, our seven-year old son, five-year old daughter, and I witnessed the re-enactment of that first Inaugural ceremony.

We watched as the Washington figure recited the presidential oath, adding the four words “So Help Me God.” Then he bent low to kiss the Bible. No one in 1989 questioned any of this.

President George H.W. Bush came to Lower Manhattan to lend his dignified presence to the observance of two hundred years of constitutional government in America. Ours is now the oldest written constitution in the world.

Only now, twenty-five years later, are there some people confused enough or mendacious enough publicly to express doubt that George Washington actually added those words to the constitutionally prescribed presidential oath. Or, question whether he kissed that Bible.

So great is the acid bath of skepticism today that if I claimed that the sun rose at 6:12 (EDT) this morning over the Washington Monument, there would be doubters yelling “prove it.” (Here’s the U.S. Naval Observatory’s confirmation, adding one hour for Daylight Saving Time.)

It’s also the case that some of our best historians casually inform us that Washington was “not very religious.” So they tend to minimize his life membership in two Episcopal parishes -- Christ Church (Alexandria) and Pohick Church (Lorton). And they must not have taken seriously his frequent references to God in his public statements. When he resigned his Commission to Congress in Annapolis in 1783, he gave an important address. In it, he did not thank his soldiers, his officers, or even the French allies who made our victory in the War of Independence possible. Instead, he thanked “the Supreme Power of the Union and the patronage of Heaven.”

Sen. William Maclay was a sometimes waspish observer of events in the First Congress. The Pennsylvania Jeffersonian did not much like the formal manners and practices of New Yorkers and the “Republican Court” that formed around President and Lady Washington. Maclay thought it all seemed too monarchical.

Even so, Maclay was impressed when Washington took the Oath for the first time.

even the great Washington trembled when he faced the assembled representatives and senators. "This great man was agitated and embarrassed," Maclay added, "more than ever he was by the levelled Cannon or pointed Musket."

Maclay was not the first one to notice that George Washington, who charged into British cannon at Princeton and who had several horses shot out from under him on the Pennsylvania frontier during the French & Indian War, trembled when he stood in a vast public assembly and performed great civic duties.

Perhaps that’s because George Washington feared God and no one else. He believed that Providence -- that eighteenth century expression for God’s Hand among us -- was physically present on these august occasions.

How do we know that? He told us so, repeatedly. In his Inaugural Address, he offered:

my fervent supplications to that Almighty Being who rules over the Universe, who presides in the Councils of Nations, and whose providential aids can supply every human defect, that his benediction may consecrate to the liberties and happiness of the People of the United States, a Government instituted by themselves for these essential purposes: and may enable every instrument employed in its administration to execute with success, the functions allotted to his charge. In tendering this homage to the Great Author of every public and private good I assure myself that it expresses your sentiments not less than my own; nor those of my fellow-citizens at large, less than either. No People can be bound to acknowledge and adore the invisible hand, which conducts the Affairs of men more than the People of the United States. Every step, by which they have advanced to the character of an independent nation, seems to have been distinguished by some token of providential agency. And in the important revolution just accomplished in the system of their United Government, the tranquil deliberations and voluntary consent of so many distinct communities, from which the event has resulted, cannot be compared with the means by which most Governments have been established, without some return of pious gratitude along with an humble anticipation of the future blessings which the past seem to presage. These reflections, arising out of the present crisis, have forced themselves too strongly on my mind to be suppressed. You will join with me I trust in thinking, that there are none under the influence of which, the proceedings of a new and free Government can more auspiciously commence.

George Washington felt the presence of God in this first presidential swearing-in ceremony two hundred twenty-five years ago today. In his habitually dignified language, in his eighteenth century locutions, he says so explicitly. And we all know Washington could not tell a lie.