Inauguration Day 2017: What is the Oath of Office?
Like our country itself, the presidential inauguration has a strange and sometimes unintentionally comedic history:
- In 1829, Andrew Jackson decided to celebrate by inviting more than 20,000 common folk to the White House after the inauguration. It quickly went from inaugural ball to “inaugural brawl,” forcing the new president to flee to a nearby hotel
- Andrew Johnson, the vice president for Abraham Lincoln, drank a little too much whiskey in hopes of curing a malaria-related sickness. He slurred his way through a speech at the 1865 inauguration
- Ulysses S. Grant thought beautiful canaries would be a pretty sight at his inauguration in 1873. Unfortunately, all the birds froze to death on the frigid Washington, D.C. day
- During John F. Kennedy’s inauguration in 1961, an electrical wiring issue caused the lectern to catch on fire
- In 2009, Chief Justice John Roberts put a word in the wrong place while reading the oath at Barack Obama’s inauguration, forcing them to redo it later that day
- And of course, we can’t forget 1841 and William Henry Harrison, whose long inauguration speech in freezing weather might have actually killed him
Despite these blips and mishaps, the inauguration is an incredibly important ceremony. It marks the peaceful transition from one leader to another, and highlights the hope and opportunity that arises with each new president. While the day is filled with fanfare, luncheons, and elegant dances, the swearing-in ceremony is the most important part of the day. This is when the president takes the Oath of Office, which pledges their support to the country and Constitution.
What is the Oath of Office?
An oath is a solemn promise, usually invoking God or another divine witness. Oaths are generally a sworn commitment to tell the truth, which is why they are used in court before a witnesses’ testimony. Others, like the Hippocratic Oath taken by doctors, involve promising to uphold a certain standard.
For the president, the oath of office is relatively simple. It states “I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the office of the President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.” They may choose to add “so help me God” at the end of the oath, though it is not required.
Swear vs. Affirm
Legally, there is no difference between swearing or affirming. Both are a form of attesting to the oath, so it has the same affect either way. Generally, swearing is associated with invoking God. This is why most Christians choose to swear, while non-Christian groups may be more comfortable with an affirmation. However, people who practice certain branches of Christianity, like Jehovah’s Witnesses or Quakers, are opposed to swearing. Since every president so far has been of the Christian faith, most presidents have sworn rather than affirmed. Franklin Pierce, the president from 1853 to 1857, is the only president who has affirmed the Oath of Office.
What is the significance of the Bible?
When taking an oath, most people lay their hand on a holy book, or another significant text. Since all former presidents have been practicing members of some branch of Christianity, the Bible has been the preferred text for the swearing-in ceremony. Oftentimes, presidents take the oath on a Bible that belonged to a former president or public figure. Obama, for example, used Abraham Lincoln’s Bible and a Bible that belonged to Dr. Martin Luther King. Some past presidents have opened the Bible to a meaningful passage, while others have just picked a random page.
Like the choice between swearing or affirming, there is no requirement on using a Bible during the ceremony. In fact, Theodore Roosevelt did not use a Bible during his ceremony. Similarly, John Quincy Adams and Franklin Pierce both used a law book.
Who administers the oath?
The Constitution does not specify who reads the oath. However, it is generally given by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. George Washington, Milliard Fillmore, Calvin Coolidge, and Lyndon Johnson are the exception. In the cases of Fillmore, Coolidge and Johnson, the circumstances involved the death of the president. Johnson, after the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963, famously took the oath of office aboard Air Force One. At Johnson’s sudden inauguration, Sarah Hughes, a federal judge, became the first woman to administer the oath.
Does the vice president take an Oath of Office?
The role of the vice president is incredibly important. If anything happens to the president, the vice president must immediately step up and lead the country. To show that they are willing to accept this responsibility, the vice president also takes an Oath of Office. This oath is actually longer than the ones the president recites. It states: “I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose or evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter.”
The length of the oath was apparently too much for Lyndon Johnson, who accidentally said “without any mental reservation whatever” during his swearing-in as vice president to Kennedy.
While it’s very to focus on the drama and excitement of the inauguration, the Oath of Office will always remain the most important part. It’s a reminder than our president, though he holds the highest office, still has a solemn duty to respect and protect the United States.
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