By Andrew L. Seidel
The Constitution is often deliberately vague, but in the case of the presidential oath it is explicit. The president-elect “shall take the following oath or affirmation: ‘I do solemnly swear (or affirm) 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.’”
Period. That’s it. The popular addition “so help me God” is not there. It never was.
In other contexts, adding words to the Constitution is considered an amendment. And this is done with help from the chief justice of the Supreme Court. So why, after promising to preserve the Constitution, do presidents immediately add words to the precise oath, as President Biden did on Jan. 20? Where did this presidential tradition come from? In my recent book The Founding Myth, I set out to answer these questions.
Omitting God from the oath was no accident. The Founders deliberated this language at the Constitutional Convention, a deliberation that is mirrored in the first bill Congress passed under the Constitution and the first bill President Washington signed into law. As originally proposed, that law proposed congressional oaths with clauses reading “in the presence of Almighty God” and “So help me GOD.” Both were edited out.
The spoken words have been as deliberate as the written words. We know that Washington didn’t add the words to the oath. Nobody knows Washington’s words better than Edward Lengel, former editor-in-chief of the George Washington papers. Lengel concluded, “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.”
Like so much American mythology, including Rip Van Winkle, Ichabod Crane and the Headless Horseman, we owe this Washingtonian myth to Washington Irving.
Irving recalled as a 6-year-old watching the inauguration “from the corner of New Street and Wall Street.” You can stand on the corner of New and Wall streets today, as I did while writing The Founding Myth. The experiment is not perfect, since the current Federal Hall, with its iconic steps, was built in 1842. Washington took his oath on a balcony with no access from the street. But stand on that corner and peer through the streams of pedestrians to the tourists taking photos on the steps of Federal Hall. Try to hear what they are saying. Now imagine you’re a 6-year-old swamped, waist high, in an “innumerable throng” straining to hear a notoriously soft-spoken man whisper those few words, and accurately recalling those words 50 years later. The claim is not much more believable than The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.
Washington did not say “so help me God” when he took the oath. Nor did any other of the first 26 presidents.
The first reliable, contemporaneous account of any president saying these words along with the oath comes nearly a century after the country’s founding, at Chester A. Arthur’s public inauguration in 1881. Arthur was actually already president. He had taken the oath immediately after learning that President James Garfield had finally succumbed to the assassin’s bullet, after a lingering 10-week-long infection. For the second, public oath, Chief Justice Morrison Waite read the oath and Arthur didn’t repeat it verbatim, instead replying simply, “I will, so help me God.” We wouldn’t hear those words in a presidential oath for another 28 years.
The first time “so help me God” was added to the oath that made a man president was 1909, 130 years after our founding. Chief Justice Melville Fuller added the phrase and William Howard Taft repeated it.
But it’s not until 1917, with the United States on the brink of entering World War I, that the tradition really takes hold. Like Arthur, Woodrow Wilson took two oaths, adding “so help me God” to the second, superfluous oath. He had taken the presidential oath the day before in a somewhat private ceremony and did not add the phrase, though he did add it in the public ceremony the next day. Up through Wilson’s private 1917 oath, the phrase was used twice in 40 oaths. Beginning with Wilson’s public 1917 oath, it has been used in 29 of 30 oaths.
Every subsequent oath has been highly public. Even those sworn privately or without the pomp of a full inauguration ceremony were recorded. Not coincidentally, every oath since, save Herbert Hoover’s in 1929, included the request for divine assistance. The public nature of the supplement suggests a desire to appear pious rather than actual piety.
Wilson was an academic before he was a politician. He authored a poorly regarded biography of Washington in 1896. In that romanticized biography, Wilson wrote that Washington “said ‘So help me God!’ in tones no man could mistake.”
The modern tradition of adding “God” to the godless oath the Constitution mandates traces directly to the 6-year-old Washington Irving standing on the corner of New and Wall streets, through Woodrow Wilson, the president largely responsible for that modern trend.
The explicit language of our Constitution’s presidential oath was good enough for George Washington and Abraham Lincoln — the oath that made every one of the first 26 presidents.
Andrew L. Seidel is FFRF’s director of strategic response and the author of the The Founding Myth: Why Christian Nationalism Is Un-American.