Why these 35 words matter to every American
What do all 45 men who have served as a U.S. president have in common? Each took an oath of office, as required by the U.S. Constitution, before starting his term.
The 35-word oath reads thus: “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.”
Every president, starting with George Washington in 1789, has made the same pledge, a symbol of a peaceful transfer of power. A president-elect typically takes the oath on Inauguration Day before spectators outside of the U.S. Capitol.
“This is the grand theater and the grand spectacle of watching a democracy at work, where an entire government hands over a baton to the next government,” historian Douglas Brinkley told the television news channel CNN. The transfer, he said, “does not happen until the words of the oath are uttered.”
The practice stems from British officials as far back as the 1500s swearing allegiance to the British monarchy and the Church of England, according to Denver Brunsman, a history professor at George Washington University.
The ritual carried over into American Colonial culture. In the late 1780s, after the United States won its independence from England, the Founding Fathers wrote an oath into the U.S. Constitution.
During the swearing-in ceremony, the president-elect typically places the left hand on the Bible, raises the right hand, and recites the oath as directed by the chief justice of the United States. But not every president has used the Bible.
In 1901, when President William McKinley was assassinated, his vice president, Theodore Roosevelt, was hastily sworn in as president with no book. After President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, his vice president, Lyndon Johnson, recited the oath while placing his left hand on Kennedy’s missal, a book containing all that is said or sung at Mass during a year.
There have also been exceptions to the practice of the chief justice swearing in a president. Vermont Justice of the Peace John Calvin Coolidge administered the oath to his son, Calvin Coolidge, in 1923 after President Warren G. Harding died in office. Federal judge Sarah T. Hughes swore Johnson into office after Kennedy’s assassination, making history as the first woman to administer the oath.
Chief Justice William Howard Taft is the only former president to have administered the oath. He swore Coolidge into office in 1925 and Herbert Hoover into office four years later.
The oath underlines the principle that the supreme law of the Constitution is bigger than any individual, Brunsman said.
“The authority of our public officials is not arbitrary. It’s not by birth like it would be in a monarchy or an aristocracy,” Brunsman said. “These people are elected and then their authority rests with the Constitution and law.”