June 2014 | Rebecca Rego Barry

Inaugural Bibles

sohelpmegod.jpgA new book, ...So Help Me God, relays the history of those printed objects that our elected officials swear oaths upon--an interesting topic, well researched and complemented by choice images. Whether Supreme Court-supplied or a family heirloom, inaugural bibles have been around since George Washington, and author Michael B. Costanzo runs the gamut chronologically, plus an extra section on other notable, non-presidential inaugurals. (On a related note, last week a U.S. ambassador was sworn in on a Kindle.) A book collector as well, Costanzo graciously agreed to answer a few questions about his book.  

Fine Books: How did you get interested in this topic? And how long did it take to research and write?

MC: My interest in the subject was a marriage of books and history. I had always been interested in all things presidential, and out of curiosity had started searching for any information about the Bibles used in inaugurations. Aside from an obscure 1969 exhibition catalog, nothing else was out there. Over the course of four or five years, I had gathered enough information which eventually became my manuscript. Author David McCullough once said that if you can't find the book you want to read, you'll just have to write it yourself, and that's what happened with me. My manuscript was repeatedly rejected until President Obama used Lincoln's 1860 Bible in his 2009 inauguration. After that, I quickly found an interested publisher, so maybe I owe a copy to President Obama.

Fine Books: Did you travel to see some of these inaugural Bibles during your research?

MC: I did not travel to see any of the Bibles mentioned, except the James Polk Bible, which happens to be in Columbia, Tennessee, where I live. I was fortunate to utilize the vast network of presidential libraries as well as state and local historical sites, where most of the Bibles can be found.

Fine Books: Do you have a favorite inaugural Bible (or swearing-in story)?

michael_costanzo.jpgMC: My favorite inaugural Bible is the 1865 Lincoln Bible, which is missing. What possibly happened to it is fascinating, as it could have been either stolen or sold. The complex relationship between Mary Lincoln and son Robert comes into play, as well as Mary's mental state after the assassination. The possibility that it could still be sitting undiscovered in an attic or bank vault is intriguing.

My favorite swearing-in story involves Lyndon B. Johnson aboard Air Force One. Since its 1965 publication, William Manchester's book, Death of A President, has been controversial, and through the use of photographs obtained from the LBJ Library, I was able to contradict issues concerning Johnson's oath-taking.

Fine Books: Are you a book collector, and, if so, tell me about your collection.

MC: I am a bibliophile, and the cornerstone of my collection has always been "books about books." These are sometimes hard to find, but always worth the search. I particularly enjoy anything written from Nicholas Basbanes, and was privileged to get a few pointers from him in the course of writing this book. I also enjoy American history, as well as numismatics (coin collecting). It should interest book collectors that there is an old adage in coin collecting: "Buy the book before you buy the coin." I've always found this to be true.

Images: Courtesy of History Publishing Co.
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