What 'So Help Me God' Meant to George Washington

The history of the first president's oath is murky, but the purpose is not.

A Founding Father swears.

Source: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Did George Washington add the words “so help me God” to the constitutionally prescribed oath of office when he was sworn in as president on April 30, 1789? I’ve always thought so, and when discussing Kentucky clerk Kim Davis’s misinterpretation of her oath of office last week, I wrote that the U.S. Constitution doesn't include the words but that Washington “famously added them.” Immediately I received an e-mail citing an essay that claims this widely held view was in fact a myth, unsubstantiated by contemporary historical evidence and derived from a doubtful childhood memory by Washington Irving. I read the essay, and then found counterarguments on the web and in a good old-fashioned book.

So what's the truth? And why should we care, other than historical accuracy, which is always desirable and never perfectly attainable? I've done some research, so let me try to offer a measured answer -- and then suggest the lesson for today's debates about religion and government, often in the context of gay marriage.

The key to the “Washington never said it” argument is that contemporary reports of the inauguration don’t say that he did. On the centennial of the first inauguration, a man called Clarence Winthrop Bowen, otherwise known (if known at all) for his book on the historical origins of Woodstock, Connecticut, collected contemporary accounts of the inauguration into a book. Those accounts indeed don’t mention the words “so help me God.”

But they do describe “the devout fervency with which he repeated the oath,” as well as “the reverential manner in which he bowed down and kissed the sacred volume,” namely the Bible. Other reports also mention that Washington bent down to kiss the Bible that was held by Chancellor Robert Livingston of New York, the man who administered the oath. (There was no chief justice of the U.S. yet.) Such a kiss was a ritual that at the time generally accompanied the saying of “so help me God.”

Of course, there are two possible explanations of why no report from that time has been found to mention Washington saying the words: either it never happened or adding the words “so help me God” to an oath was so commonplace that it didn't seem worth mentioning.

To resolve the dispute from silence, we need to know more about the context of oaths in 1789 -- and why the Framers omitted the words from the constitutional version.

The words “so help me God” were constantly and customarily used in oaths of office and juror’s oaths in the late 18th century, and indeed before. Contemporary laws from Maryland, Virginia and New Jersey, to name just three sources easily available online, include the words at the end of the oaths of office for their governors and other officials.

As sources such as the 1797 Encyclopaedia Britannica clarify, the meaning of the phrase was that God should punish the oath-taker if he failed to uphold the oath. “The energy of the sentence resides in the particle ‘so,’” explained the author of the entry on the oath, with grammatical precision. “Upon condition of my speaking the truth, or performing this promise, may God help me, and not otherwise.”

So why was this ubiquitous phrase omitted from the Constitution? The answer is the Framers’ consideration for Quakers, who rejected the phrase. William Penn put it this way in his Treatise of Oaths: “It is vain and insolent, to think that a man, when he pleaseth, can make the great God of heaven a witness or judge in any matter … to help or forsake him, as the truth or falseness of his oath requires, when he saith ‘So help me God.’” A good and humble Christian, according to the Quaker view, shouldn’t believe that he could personally invoke God and get him involved in judging his own veracity.

We know the Framers were concerned about Quakers because, in the constitutional form of the oath, they specifically allowed the office-taker to “affirm” rather than swear. It seems highly probable that they omitted the words “so help me God” for the same reason -- so as not to offend Pennsylvania Quakers, whose votes would be needed to ratify the Constitution. In so doing, the Framers were reiterating the constitutional guarantee that no religious test would be required to hold office.

Proof of this concern comes from the Judiciary Act of 1789, one of the first pieces of legislation passed by the new Congress. The act includes the words in the oath of office for judges; then adds, “which Words, so help me God, shall be omitted in all cases where an affirmation is admitted instead of an oath.”

Given this context, it seems more likely than not both that Washington, who was no Quaker, and swore rather than affirming, would have added the words in his oath, and that the fact wouldn't have been especially noteworthy. Conceivably, however, he didn’t say them -- although given the 18th century context, you’d think that the omission would have been noteworthy as well.

What's certain is that the oath was both a civic act under the Constitution and also a conventional religious act. That's hardly surprising, because 18th century Americans, including Washington, thought that religious belief in the possibility of divine punishment was necessary to ensure that anyone ever kept a serious promise. As Washington put it in his farewell address, “Where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths”?

What this means for today is not that religion trumps the Constitution, as Davis argued. To the contrary: The religious obligation of the oath was intended by the Framers to make sure that officeholders followed the law contained in the Constitution. If they didn't follow the law, they were asking God to strike them down.

The use of the oath shows that the Framers’ were products of their time, and believed in using a familiar civic-religious form to ensure obedience to the rule of law. But in so doing, they weren't enshrining religion. They were providing divine sanction to the rule of the Constitution.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.