So Help Me…

An interesting article from David Parker, professor of history at nearby Kennesaw State University and friend to Reinhardt’s history program, on History News Network:

In 2009, Peter Henriques made a startling announcement in an oft-cited piece for History News Network: There is “absolutely no extant contemporary evidence,” he wrote, to support the traditional story that George Washington added the phrase “so help me God” to the presidential oath of office at his first inauguration. In fact, this story did not even exist until 1854, when Rufus Griswold included it in a book titled The Republican Court. (Griswold got the story, Henriques said, from Washington Irving, who as a six-year-old boy had watched the event from two hundred feet away.)

In a recent piece in Common-Place, the online journal of the American Antiquarian Society, I showed how quickly the “so help me God” story caught on after Griswold “reported” it. 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’s fairly easy to show that, before 1854, there are 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. “So help me God” quickly became the traditional story, a part of the American creation myth so accepted that, through the twentieth century, no one, including academic scholars, thought to question it.

When historians use the word “myth,” we don’t mean “a story that isn’t true.” A myth is an explanatory narrative that serves to unify a society, justifying its past and validating its present. The myth of the Lost Cause, for example, is a southern re-writing of history that defended the Old South, justified secession and the waging of war, and explained the Confederacy’s defeat. True or not, the Lost Cause myth became the Truth, the accepted story, and as such it greatly influenced the way white southerners viewed (and still view) their past.

So my interest in the Griswold story was not to discredit it; I don’t really care if Washington said “so help me God” or not. Instead, I wanted to show how quickly this became established in our national memory after 1854—to describe the “so help me God” story as an example of American myth-making.

Read the whole thing. This is what primary sources are for! It’s to be expected that Cold War would have provoked the myth that “every president” said “so help me God” in his oath of office, but I wonder what caused the original Washingtonian myth to catch on so quickly in the 1850s. Dr. Wheeler, any thoughts?

3 thoughts on “So Help Me…

  1. This particular mythic idea is consistent with other efforts to describe the Founders, particularly Washington, as vigorously Christian. They include stories of Washington praying in the snow at Valley Forge for victory (depicted on a painting in Reinhardt’s library, no less), and Washington having seen a divine vision of the eventual independence of the 13 colonies. Invariably, these stories emerged decades after the American Revolution and Washington’s death. Usually, these storytellers are implicitly arguing for Christian origins of America, or even a special relationship of the United States with God.

  2. Of course… but was there anything about the 1850s that wanted to cast America as a Christian nation? One can understand why the Cold War would provoke such a thing, but was the mid-nineteenth century also particularly anxious about the issue?

  3. Thanks for posting this, Jonathan! That’s a good question about the 1850s context. Maybe it’s simply the combination of the evangelical impulse of the Second Awakening and the rise of the popular biography (Weems etc.).

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