SAN JOSE: Two-hundred and twenty-nine years ago, on April 30, 1789, George Washington stood on the second balcony of Federal Hall in New York City. In a plain brown suit and before approximately 10,000 spectators, the General swore the first presidential oath of office. In those simple words, he promised to
“…uphold the duties as the new President of the United States.”
That very first swearing-in ceremony established traditions future inaugurations have upheld.
The First Inauguration
One of the most interesting factoids about the first inaugural is that Washington served as President from New York City. Though Washington oversaw the construction, it was not until 1800 that President John Adams and his wife, Abigail, moved into 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
Despite the extensive preparations for the inauguration of a president to lead a new America, that first ceremony had its glitches. One of the most often cited is that, as Mr. Washington approached Federal Hall, someone realized that there was no Bible on which Washington could swear this first oath.
Reports are that parade marshal, Jacob Morton, a Mason and the Master of nearby St. John’s Lodge, retrieved the altar Bible at St. John’s. Once the inauguration was over, the Bible went back to St. John’s Lodge No. 1 where it still resides.
Witnesses to History
Robert Livingston, one of the original five members of the committee drafting the Declaration of Independence, was chosen to administer the oath because he was the highest-ranking judicial official in New York.
Several distinguished officials, among them Vice President John Adams and Supreme Court Chief Justice John Jay, appeared on the balcony with Washington. Washington placed his left hand upon the King James Bible, raised his right hand, and repeated the words of the oath of office. Words he had a hand in creating:
“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.”
Some reports are that after the official oath, Washington also said “so help me God,” and bent down and kissed the open Bible.
Legally removing God from America’s most important ceremonies
There are those in America today who 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 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. Newdow’s lawsuit to prevent references to God and religion from being part of President Obama’s inauguration failed.
Newdow also filed and lost a lawsuit to stop the invocation prayer at President George 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.”
Many like Newdow, who strongly advocates the separation of church and state, run in direct opposition to what George Washington and many of the other Founding Fathers believed. It runs counter to the religious freedoms for which many American’s died.
Newdow is not alone in attempting to instigate the absolute separation of church and state in work and ceremony. However, like many of Americans at the time, 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.
Washington’s public expressions of faith
Washington’s inaugural address that he delivered right after reciting the oath was a public expression of his faith.
As Washington concluded the ceremony, Robert Livingston proclaimed, “It is done!” Some reports are that Livingston then began shouting, “Long live George Washington – the first president of the United States!”
This cry of fidelity is mostly to honor Royal Kings and Queens. Washington did not want to be regarded as a member of royalty, but as a servant to the people of America.
The crowd on hand responded by repeating the cheer again and again.
President George Washington and his inaugural address
After that first oath, the group on the balcony went inside to the Senate Chamber where the new president delivered the first inaugural address to dignitaries and others in attendance.
As he delivered his address, some records portray that Washington spoke in a low voice, which was sometimes inaudible in the chamber.
Washington’s words include a gratitude to God.
“…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.”
If one follows their course of logic, Newdow and others, would not have appreciated Washington for bringing God 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 among the original delegates to the Constitutional Convention. They were the framers of 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.”
Are Americans losing touch with their heritage?
The nation has changed since the days of Washington. Unfortunately far too many are conveniently ignoring the founding father’s thoughts on freedom of religion.
The concept of the absolute separation of church and state, in fact, was not an original intent of the Founding Fathers. 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 First Amendment to the Constitution says:
“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.
Washington brought his inaugural address to an end saying:
“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 or limit the freedom of others of faith in pursuit of religious practices.
These men had a private relationship with God, felt it was a personal issue and not a problem the government had any right to restrict.
Self-serving prophets of atheism have seized the initiative and manipulated the contemporary perception of the intent of the Framers. Today, maybe just to survive, religious factions should cease fighting amongst themselves, and start fighting the loss of religious liberty,
and especially the loss of Christian values across the nation.
A concern to Washington as well.
Turning America over to President John Adams
Washington’s “Farewell Address” to the American people is one of the “world’s most remarkable documents.” It is remarkable because it is a humble recitation from a man who was turning control of a fledgling nation over to the first Vice President, and second President, John Adams.
It offers 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 that lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable. 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.”
The parallel between religion and morality
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.
Washington’s words reflect how deeply he held religious values. Something America, politicians and people alike, would do well to remember.