In the United States, the oath of office for the President is specified in the Constitution (Article II, Section 1).
With the right hand up and the left on the open Holy Bible:
“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.”
An oath of office is an oath or affirmation a person takes before undertaking the duties of an office, usually a position in government or within a religious body, although such oaths are sometimes required of officers of other organizations. Such oaths are often required by the laws of the state, religious body, or other organization before the person may actually exercise the powers of the office or any religious body. It may be administered at an inauguration, coronation, enthronement, or other ceremony connected with the taking up of office itself, or it may be administered privately. In some cases it may be administered privately and then repeated during a public ceremony.
Some oaths of office are a statement of loyalty to a constitution or other legal text or to a person or other office-holder (an oath to support the constitution of the state, or of loyalty to the king). Under the laws of a state it may be considered treason or a high crime to betray a sworn oath of office.
The word 'oath' and the phrase 'I swear' refer to a solemn vow. For those who choose not to, the alternative terms 'solemn promise' and 'I promise' are sometimes used.
History of the Oath
While the oath-taking dates back to the First Congress in 1789, the current oath is a product of the 1860s, drafted by Civil War-era members of Congress intent on ensnaring traitors.
The Judiciary Act of 1789 established an additional oath taken by federal judges:
I do solemnly swear (or affirm), that I will administer justice without respect to persons, and do equal right to the poor and to the rich, and that I will faithfully and impartially discharge and perform all the duties incumbent on me, according to the best of my abilities and understanding, agreeably to the Constitution, and laws of the United States. [So help me God.]
The outbreak of the Civil War quickly transformed the routine act of oath-taking into one of enormous significance.
1861, a time of uncertain
and shifting loyalties, President Abraham Lincoln ordered
all federal civilian employees within the executive branch to take an expanded
oath. When Congress convened for a brief emergency session in July, members
echoed the president’s action by enacting legislation requiring employees to
take the expanded oath in support of the Union. This oath is the earliest
direct predecessor of the modern version of the oath.
When Congress returned for its regular session in December 1861, members who believed that the Union had as much to fear from northern traitors as southern soldiers again revised the oath, adding a new first section known as the “Ironclad Test Oath.” The war-inspired Test Oath, signed into law on July 2, 1862, required “every person elected or appointed to any office ... under the Government of the United States ... excepting the President of the United States” to swear or affirm that they had never previously engaged in criminal or disloyal conduct.
Those government employees who failed to take the 1862 Test Oath would not receive a salary; those who swore falsely would be prosecuted for perjury and forever denied federal employment.
The 1862 oath’s second section incorporated a different rendering of the hastily drafted 1861 oath. Although Congress did not extend coverage of the Ironclad Test Oath to its own members, many took it voluntarily. Angered by those who refused this symbolic act during a wartime crisis, and determined to prevent the eventual return of prewar southern leaders to positions of power in the national government, congressional hard-liners eventually succeeded by
1864 in making the Test
Oath mandatory for all members.
The Senate then revised its rules to require that members not only take the Test Oath orally, but also that they “subscribe” to it by signing a printed copy. This condition reflected a wartime practice in which military and civilian authorities required anyone wishing to do business with the federal government to sign a copy of the Test Oath.
The current practice of newly sworn senators signing individual pages in an oath book dates from this period.
As tensions cooled during the decade following the Civil War, Congress enacted private legislation permitting particular former Confederates to take only the second section of the 1862 oath. An 1868 public law prescribed this alternative oath for “any person who has participated in the late rebellion, and from whom all legal disabilities arising therefrom have been removed by act of Congress.” Northerners immediately pointed to the new law’s unfair double standard that required loyal Unionists to take the Test Oath’s harsh first section while permitting ex-Confederates to ignore it. In
1884, a new generation of
lawmakers quietly repealed the first section of the Test Oath, leaving intact
the current affirmation of constitutional allegiance.