SAN JOSE, April 30, 2014 — On April 30, 1789, George Washington, dressed in a plain brown broadcloth suit, stood on the second balcony of Federal Hall in New York City before approximately 10,000 spectators, and swore the oath of office to affirm his determination to fulfill the duties of the new President of the United States. Today, some Americans have realize forgotten that New York City was the nation’s first capitol in that period of time, and ironically, George Washington did not serve as the nation’s president in the city named after him. This very first swearing in ceremony established tradition, and subsequent presidential inaugurations have not changed much over the history of nation’s government since the time of George Washington.
Nevertheless, despite the extensive preparations and detailed planning for the ceremony, as he presidential parade carrying Mr. Washington by horse-drawn carriage approached Federal Hall, someone realized that no one had secured a Holy Bible, which was required by law, for the actual swearing-in part of the ceremony. It is reported that the parade marshal, Jacob Morton, rushed off and brought back a King James Bible that was laid upon a crimson velvet cushion held by Samuel Otis, Secretary of the Senate. Robert Livingston, who had been one of the original committee of five that drafted the Declaration of Independence, had been chosen to administer the oath because he was the highest ranking judicial official in New York.
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As several other distinguished officials, among them Vice President John Adams and Supreme Court Chief Justice John Jay, appeared on the balcony with Washington, they directly witnessed the ceremony. The King James Bible was opened, and Washington placed his left hand upon it, raised his right hand, and repeated the words of the oath of office, which he had helped to write. It is also reported that after the official oath, Washington said “so help me God,” and bent down and kissed the open Bible. However, the words at the end have recently raised controversy in the non-religious sectors of Americans. Some claim that Washington did not utter such words since it has not been recorded anywhere in the historical records of the ceremony.
There are those in America today who specifically seek to eliminate the phrase of “So help me God,” which has become entrenched in the tradition of the public recitation of the presidential oath since this day of Washington’s first inauguration. Some want the elimination of inaugural prayers by members of the clergy as well. One of the more known of such atheists is Michael Newdow, a U.S. born attorney, who recently filed a lawsuit to prevent references to God and religion from being part of President Obama’s inauguration. He also He also filed and lost a lawsuit to stop the invocation prayer at President Bush’s second inauguration, and has sought to have recitations of the current version of the Pledge of Allegiance in public schools declared unconstitutional due to the phrase “under God.”
Actually many like Newdow, who strongly advocate the concept of separation of church and state, run in direct opposition to what George Washington and many of the other Founding Fathers believed, and for which many died. Today there are many like Newdow, who are seriously litigating to fully instigate the absolute separation of church and state in many aspects of the more traditional governmental ceremonies or simple daily governmental activities in several parts of the United States. However, like many of the generation of founders, George Washington firmly believed in a divine entity that they recognized for assistance in helping to establish the miraculous experiment that became known as the United States of America.
In reality, Washington’s inaugural address that he delivered right after reciting the oath was quite an expression of faith. As Washington concluded the ceremony, Robert Livingston proclaimed, “It is done!” He is reported to have turned to the spectators in the street and shouted, “Long live George Washington – the first president of the United States!” It is said that the crowd on hand responded by repeating the cheer again and again. Then, the group on the balcony went inside to the Senate Chamber where the new president delivered the first inaugural address to those dignitaries and others in attendance. As he delivered his address, some record portrayed Washington as a bit fidgety, as he spoke in a low voice, which was sometimes inaudible. But his words included his personal gratitude to God. He said:
…it would be peculiarly improper to omit in this first official Act, 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.
Granted, such words are probably more than Newdow or his compatriots could handle in any one sitting. And if one follows their course of logic, they would have sued Washington for bringing God so fully into the proceedings. However, in attendance at that inaugural address was not only the President of the Constitutional Convention (Washington), but also as many as a quarter of the Congress that set in motion the inaugural proceedings. And, many of the members of Congress that were in attendance at this first inauguration were also original delegates to the Constitutional Convention, which created the U.S. Constitution. One can wonder why no one raised a voice of opposition to such a public display of faith if there was a violation of the “separation clause.”
Unfortunately, the nation has changed since the days of Washington and many of the founding generation, and as Americans lost touch with their heritage, they forgot a second part of the clause on freedom of religion was written. The concept of the absolute separation of church and state in fact was not an original intent of the Founding Fathers, and it is only a recent interpretation of the First Amendment to the Constitution. Indeed, Congress was intent on not establishing a state or official government church. However, the clause states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise of religion.” Washington and the Framers of the Constitution had faith in an “Almighty Being” and did not want to limit worship.
In ending his inaugural address Washington concluded with these words:
I shall take my present leave; but not without resorting once more to the benign parent of the human race, in humble supplication that since he has been pleased to favour the American people, with opportunities for deliberating in perfect tranquility, and dispositions for deciding with unparalleled unanimity on a form of Government, for the security of their Union, and the advancement of their happiness; so his divine blessing may be equally conspicuous in the enlarged views, the temperate consultations, and the wise measures on which the success of this Government must depend.
Washington, like Adams, Franklin, and Jefferson, and other Framers of the Constitution had faith in an “Almighty Being” and did not want to limit worship of the Almighty, or God, nor to limit the freedom of others of faith in pursuit of religious practices. These men had their own relationship with God, felt it was a personal issue, and not an issue the government had any right to restrict. Yet, self-serving prophets of atheism have seized the initiative and manipulated contemporary perception of what the Framers intended. This is an outrageous injustice, and anyone in the U.S. government who has permitted this to continue should be suspect in what their true motivation is in serving the people. In addition, religious factions should cease fighting amongst themselves, and start fighting the loss of religious values or the loss of religious liberty.
This was a concern to Washington as well. His “Farewell Address” to the American people has been regarded as one of the “world’s most remarkable documents” because it served as a humble notification from a man who was turning control of the nation over to others, and it offered a set of values that Washington hoped would assure the survival of a fledgling America. In the midst of this shared wisdom, he highlighted his regard for religion as being important to the political success of the nation.
Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens? The mere politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and to cherish them. A volume could not trace all their connections with private and public felicity.
Let it simply be asked: Where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation deserts the oaths which are the instruments of investigation in courts of justice?
And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.
For Americans who treasure religious freedom, these words reveal that Washington viewed religion and morality as dual pillars of support for political stability and success and “props of the duties of men and citizens.” But of the two, he cautioned that based upon reason and experience, the nation’s morality could not survive without adherence to religious principle. This is a powerful statement and reflects how deeply Washington regarded religious values.
Washington’s gratitude to God not only pervades his speeches, it shows who he really was deep inside, and he hoped America would have the same sense of gratitude, and would never lose it. Certainly, the pious ones and mere politicians would do well to revisit who Washington really was.