January 15, 2021

Where Did the Oath of Office Come From?

Our nation’s leaders have been sworn in since the early days of the republic. Here’s how it became part of the American tradition.

Since the dawn of the United States — in fact, even before that — American officials have begun their tenures by performing a sacred rite called the oath of office. This swearing-in ceremony occurs before the leader takes office, be it a senator, a representative, a judge, or president of the United States.

“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,” recites the president-elect to the chief justice of the Supreme Court.

This is the oath that will be recited by Joe Biden as he assumes the presidency on Jan. 20. But what are the origins of this practice? Back in colonial times, officials in America swore allegiance to the British king. But whether to continue the oath of office was a hotly contested matter among the delegates to the Constitutional Convention of 1787, where state representatives gathered to devise a new American government. 

Some delegates thought it an important display of loyalty, while others said it was a backward symbol. In 1787, writer (and future dictionary author) Noah Webster wrote that oaths were “a badge of folly, borrowed from the dark ages of bigotry.” James Wilson, a delegate from Pennsylvania, said that “a good government did not need them and a bad one could not or ought not to be supported.”

Despite the dissent, the delegates decided to include a 35-word presidential oath in the U.S.  Constitution (Article 2, Section 1), mandating that the president-elect take “the following Oath or Affirmation” before assuming his duties. Since then, every president has taken the same oath that our first president, George Washington, did on April 30, 1789.

While the Constitution mandates that all government officials “be bound by Oath” (Article 6), it only details the actual text of the oath for presidents. As a result, the oath used for other officials has changed a few times throughout history.

For example, at the beginning of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln expanded the oath as a strategy to root out dissent and potential spies for the South. Congress approved the so-called Ironclad Test Oath in 1862, requiring most government officials to affirm that they had never “voluntarily borne arms against the United States" or other treasonous acts. If they refused, they’d be denied their salary; if they lied, they could be prosecuted for perjury and removed from office. 

In 1884, with the war long past, lawmakers removed the harsher terms of the oath. The result is the oath still used today: “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 of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter: So help me God.”

On Jan. 3, 2021, this oath was heard in both chambers of the U.S. Capitol, as 471 members of Congress were sworn in and assumed their duties as public servants. And the presidential oath will be spoken on Jan. 20 when the new president is sworn in. Together, they’ll continue a tradition that binds officials across hundreds of years of American history in service to the U.S. Constitution, and therefore the American people.

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