FFRF corrects Washingtonian inaccuracy

An obligation to the truth forces the Freedom From Religion Foundation to rectify a Trump cabinet member’s grossly inaccurate remark about our first president.

During the U.S. Coast Guard commencement ceremony on May 17, Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly stated that George Washington added “so help me God” to the Constitution’s oath. He did not.

“The words ‘so help me God’ do not appear in the oath prescribed in the Constitution,” FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel writes to Kelly. “Any president that adds those words is effectively amending the Constitution in the very act of promising to uphold it.” 

There is no evidence that Washington said the words, nor is such an addition in keeping with his character. The story appears to originate with that master of American mythology, Washington Irving, who also wrote “Rip Van Winkle.”

No contemporary accounts of Washington’s inauguration mention the phrase. Most serious historians now agree that the addition of “so help me God” did not occur with Washington. “Any attempt to prove that Washington added the words ‘so help me God’ requires mental gymnastics of the sort that would do credit to the finest artist of the flying trapeze,” Edward Lengel, one of the country’s foremost experts on Washington, has written.

On the contrary, there is evidence to suggest that Washington would not have used the phrase.

First, when Washington spoke of a god, he did not use that word. His inauguration speech, given just after his oath, used phrases like “benign parent” and “invisible hand.”

Second, Washington scrupulously followed etiquette, including at his inauguration. He presided over the debates at Constitutional Convention for four long months and followed the ratification debate in Virginia closely from Mount Vernon. He knew perfectly well the precise wording of the oath laid out in Article 2, §7 and that the Constitution prohibited religious tests for public office in Article 6 §3. It’s impossible to think that in the very act of promising to uphold the document, he would violate its terms by amending the carefully chosen language in the oath.

Third, secular oaths were very much in the news at that time. Three days before Washington’s inauguration, on April 27, 1789, the House of Representatives passed its first bill, which would later be the first Washington signed. The bill specified the language in their oath of office, omitting God: “I … do solemnly swear or affirm (as the case may be) that I will support the Constitution of the United States.”

And long after Washington, there is no proof that any of the early presidents used the words in the oath. The first reliable, contemporaneous account of any president adding the phrase is with Chester Alan Arthur in 1881. The first verifiable use was by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt on March 4, 1933.

There are some who would claim that we don’t know that Washington didn’t say the words. But Occam’s razor makes quick work of such claims. What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence. The claim that Washington said “so help me God” must be dismissed.

“Kelly’s statement seems to be part of an insidious project to claim the Founding Fathers in the service of Christianity,” notes FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “But these were secular statesmen.”

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a nonprofit organization that protects the constitutional separation between state and church, representing more 29,000 nonreligious members across the country.

Freedom From Religion Foundation

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