Like clockwork, we hear the presidential oath of office every four years. Thirty-five words that basically give the incoming Chief Executive the keys to the proverbial car. And the nuclear launch codes. The National Museum of American History says that Article 2, Section 1 of the Constitution “requires that before presidents can assume their duties they must take the oath of office.” Once the incoming president completes the oath, the previous president’s term ends and the new term commences.
Marvin Pinkert is the executive director of the National Archives Experience, and he told NPR that the oath is the only sentence in quotes in the entire Constitution. NPR also notes that the oath was created by delegates to the Constitutional Convention in 1787. It was a slow go at first as there weren’t any previous oaths to base this one on.
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.
What are some other ins and outs of this momentous occasion? Let’s take a look.
To swear or not to swear
Notice that the oath says “swear (or affirm).” A president doesn’t have to use the term “swear.” NPR reports that this was due to a belief of the Quakers. They felt quite strongly that you should never, ever swear. President Franklin Pierce used the word “affirm” in his 1853 swearing-in. Our White House also adds that Pierce chose not to kiss the Bible, but to place his hand on it.
So help me God
The Constitution doesn’t mention the phrase “so help me God.” Constitution Daily says it’s thought that President George Washington added that—but we really don’t know for sure (there was an appalling lack of 24/7 satellite news coverage back then). History has it that Washington recited the oath while placing his hand on an open Bible. At the conclusion, he emphatically added “I swear—so help me God!” The first eyewitness account of a president using the words came in 1881 with the inauguration of Chester A. Arthur. Constitution Daily also notes that when Teddy Roosevelt was sworn in (in 1901), he left out “so help me God” and decided to go with “and thus I swear.” And in 2009, a man named Michael Newdow filed a lawsuit to prevent Chief Justice John Roberts from adding “so help me God” while administering the oath to Barack Obama. The Supreme Court declined to hear the case, and Obama did include “so help me God” in his first swearing-in.
Let’s make a date of it
We know what they’re saying, but why are they always saying it on January 20? The National Museum site says that back in the day, the oath was administered on March 4—that seemed like enough time to cross all the electoral t’s and dot all the i’s. But in 1933 the Twentieth Amendment to the Constitution moved inauguration day to its present date of January 20.
Do they have to use a Bible?
The fact that the president rests his hand on the Bible when reciting the oath of office is merely a tradition. There’s no requirement.
What inauguration oath options do you think our next president-elect will choose to say? Just 35 words, or will there be others included? Here’s how it looked in 2013: